Edition 30 August 2018, by Phoebe Potter
With all due pomp and celebration for a metro line that has taken more years and more billions of euros than any Amsterdammer ever imagined it would take to build, a new heart to the Amsterdam transport system finally arrived in July. Envisioned by the GVB in a so-called ‘herringbone’ model, the new North-South line becomes the lifeline of public transport in the city. All other lines connect to it, rapidly cutting down journey times and providing a crucial connection for travellers from Northern Amsterdam to the centre of the city.
The fact that customers can now travel from North to South in under fifteen minutes may not be much of a comfort to those who have watched the construction of the 9.7 km line eventually costing 3.1 billion euros and having its opening date shifted back eight times. It wasn’t until this April that the Amsterdam alderman for Traffic and Transport, Pieter Litjens, finally announced that the line would be officially opened on the 22nd July. Though the line opened on Sunday the 22nd, in typical Amsterdam fashion the new development was welcomed with a party on Saturday. Comedian Martijn Koning and the new mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, were there to welcome the new line, along with a lucky few hundred guests who took the first official trip to station Noord. In the afternoon, some 50.000 interested travellers took a free test drive on the line. For most Amsterdammers, rather than excited anticipation, the celebratory atmosphere for the opening likely stemmed from a significant sense of relief that the route had finally been built. With the first plans for a North-South line raised as early 1968, to say the realisation of the project has been a long and bumpy ride from start to finish would be an understatement.
Plans for the new line in the 1960s were shelved when difficulties in the construction of the East line arose, leading the municipality to decide not to go ahead with another new line at the same time. But the idea for a metro line from North to South stayed in the minds of officials, who came up with the first plans for it at the end of the 1980s. Somewhat suggestive of the delays to come, it was not until ten years later that the municipality presented its first official plan for the line. The North-South line was planned to open in 2005 and cost close to 700 million euros. From the start, this plan was met with resistance from Amsterdam locals. A referendum was held in 1997, asking Amsterdammers whether the plan should go ahead; nearly twice as many people voted against the construction as for it. The vote turned out to be meaningless when officials declared that the turnout for the referendum was too small and they were going ahead with plans despite the result. In 1999 the Dutch Parliament agreed to the construction, but it wasn’t until the green light was given in 2002 by the city council that construction was able to start, officially beginning in April 2003. By this time, the opening date had already been pushed back to 2007 – a deadline that came and went without the construction even being close to ready.
It was in 2008, however, that disaster truly struck the project. In June of that year, four buildings above the construction site on the Vijzelgracht had to be quickly evacuated after they suddenly sank almost fifteen centimetres. An investigation showed that this was due to a leak in a deep wall, caused by poor quality concrete, that allowed water to flow into the tunnel and flush away the ground beneath the houses. Four days later work was stopped to protect the buildings above. After hearty assurances from the municipality and the developer who had undertaken research on the site, that everything was under control, work once again resumed in early September. The reassurance lasted only a single day before, in the early of evening, buildings started to sag once again. Six buildings subsided this time, down, once again to a leak in a deep wall. No one was hurt in either incident, but residents were unable to return to their homes for some tomehe immediate future.
In January of 2009, controversy arose when a driver, who had delivered concrete for the station at Vijzelgracht, told the press that, far from a freak accident, the concrete itself had been faulty. The whistle-blower told reporters that the concrete they had been working with was old, resulting in poor quality concrete that made the walls brittle. A following report by Deltares research agency found 114 weak points and a hole in the concrete sheet pilings used in the Vijzelgracht station. According to the firm, these weak spots were, for the most part, caused by the “use of bad and contaminated concrete and poor reinforcement.” Though structurally the worst problem the construction faced, it was by no means the last. Another worrying moment came in the summer of 2015, when the Amsterdam alderman of transport, Pieter Litjens, was faced with a new delay to the project. Installation company Imtech applied for a moratorium due to major financial losses in the company. Responsible for the construction of escalators and lifts, lighting and other technical installations, its request to temporarily cease activity caused another major headache for those in charge of the project.
Despite the ordeals Amsterdammers and officials have had to endure over the last twenty years as the progress of the metro line continued – at times – painstakingly slowly, the quality of the final project will go some way to making up for this. Truly a 21st-century construction, hundreds of antenna installations and 11.5 km of electrical cables installed within the tunnels mean that customers will enjoy 4G connection throughout. The equivalent in weight of 16 Eiffel Towers of steel was used to build the system, which is expected to carry around 120,000 travellers every day. The total length of the line now is 9.1 km.
The seven new stations, built to service the North-South line – notably in the centre, with ‘Rokin’ and ‘Vijzelgracht’ – will mean that travellers will mainly travel underground, providing greatly needed relief to the the traffic pressure on the streets. Tram services will be reduced as the new line provides an alternative to their routes, resulting in more space for pedestrians and cyclists in Amsterdam’s busy centre. The biggest changes will come for residents and commuters from Noord, as many buses that previously connected the area to the Central station will now stay on the city centre side of the IJ and connect with the North-South line there.
The course of the construction has been long, and as such it is perhaps no surprise that the archaeological excavation on the course of the line yielded more than 700,000 objects. Since the first day of construction on 22nd April 2003, it took 5569 days before the project was completed. However difficult the project was for Amsterdammers and officials, it now seems that the metro can form the heart of a growing city. Resident Kees Winkel gave an optimistic view of the future for the North- South line, stating that ‘the solution has been chosen. The North-South line will be the first step towards a new dimension of the city. You cannot stop that. That is how it must be.’