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Notes on the Geography of Belgium: Ascenseur de Strépy

The Strepy Elevator (L'ascenseur funiculaire de Strépy-Thieu) was completed in 2002 at a cost exceeding 160 million euros. It replaced a series of four smaller boat lifts that had operated since 1919. Following the completion of the new system, traffic on the Canal du Centre, which connects the Meuse and Scheldt, rose tenfold, from about 250,000 tons to over 2,300,000 tons annually.

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Belgium: Ascenseur de Strépy picture 1

The old canal, with a drawbridge. The old system, bypassed by the new one, is now restricted to recreational boats.

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Lift No. 4, the Thieu Lift, had been under construction for many years when it finally opened after World War I. The technology was proposed as early as 1879, and the first of the four locks in the system opened about a decade later. The three others took much longer to build. The designer was a British engineer, Edwin Clark.

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The lift consists of a pair of hydraulically linked caissons, one usually rising while the other falls. "Usually" because, at this moment both caissons are lowered.

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A road passes under the end of the canal, blocked by vertical gates opened when a caisson is at the top.

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The view from the other side of the gates. The works are unusual enough to have landed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

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A bit of the much wider new canal. It's only about 10 miles long, approximately connecting the Scheldt at Tournai with the Meuse at Charleroi. The rebuilding of the canal began in 1963, prompted by passage of the Act of 1,350 Tons, a 1954 law standardizing maximum barge weights in Europe at 1,350 tons.

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And here, neatly housed, is L'ascenseur funiculaire de Strépy-Thieu, its left or north caisson in the "up" position.

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Barges approach it.

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One enters the caisson. The water is four meters deep, and the caisson can handle barges of up to 112 meters in length and 12 meters in breadth. When the caisson rises, in other words, it weighs about 8,000 tons.

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The caisson begins rising. The 73-meter journey takes 7 minutes. A small fraction of the 112 suspension cables are clearly seen.

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The journey is almost finished, with background humming and groaning. Slow but sure.

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Clunk! Journey complete.


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