AFTER many delays, the Liège - Maastricht - Aachen Express (Limax) regional service began carrying fare-paying passengers on June 30. The first train left Aachen main station in Germany at 07.17.

The official inauguration of the extended RE18 Three Nations service took place on June 26, with ceremonies at Aachen, Maastricht in the Netherlands and Liège Guillemins station in Belgium, where Belgian transport minister, Mr Georges Gilkinet, joined railway officials and regional politicians from the three countries.

End-to-end journey time is 1h 35min for a distance of 78km with 12 intermediate stops. The Limax service runs hourly at regular times, extending into Belgum the RE18 Aachen - Maastricht service first launched in 2019.

In Germany Limax is operated by German Rail (DB) subsidiary DB Regio under a contract with Aachen regional public transport authority AVV. In the Netherlands, the extended service falls within the operating concession awarded to Arriva Netherlands by the province of Limburg.

Between Maastricht and the Belgian border, Limax forms part of the Main Line Network (HRN) concession held by Netherlands Railways (NS). As Arriva Netherlands does not hold a Belgian operating licence, Belgian National Railways (SNCB) staff crew the train in Belgium.

Arriva Netherlands also supplies the rolling stock, a fleet of eight Stadler Flirt 3 EMUs equipped to take traction current at 1.5kV dc in the Netherlands, 3kV dc in Belgium and 15kV 16.7Hz ac in Germany. The tri-voltage trains form part of the fleet of 36 Flirt 3 EMUs ordered by Arriva for its Limburg concession, which are maintained by Stadler Rail at Blerick near Venlo.

ETCS retrofitted

The trains were delivered without onboard ETCS, but have been retrofitted with Guardia equipment supplied by Stadler Rail. ETCS was required by Belgian national railway safety authority DVIS, delaying the extension of RE18 to Liège that was originally scheduled for December 2018.

The aim was to complete the ETCS retrofit programme in time for operation into Belgium to start in December 2023, but the authorisation process for the ETCS-equipped Flirt 3 EMUs took longer than expected and the launch of the Three Nations service was postponed once more.

In March this year the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) granted the authorisation for the retrofitted Flirt 3 EMUs to enter service, including on the Belgian network, and through service from Aachen to Liège was due to start on June 9. However, the line between Maastricht and Liège was damaged by heavy rainfall, pushing back the official inauguration to June 26.

One issue remaining to be resolved is the introduction of a unified ticketing system. The Dutch national public transport smartcard is valid for travel over the border to Aachen main station, but card readers have not yet been installed at stations in Belgium.

Negotiations to install them are still in progress between Arriva, SNCB and the Belgian transport ministry. Meanwhile, passengers must purchase an SNCB ticket when travelling in Belgium or use a standard international through ticket.