Bonded by a Bastion

November 27, 2019

Sharing is Caring

One of the largest cities in Belgium, Antwerp is the second busiest port in Europe and the 17th busiest port worldwide by cargo tonnage. It is connected to the North Sea by the Westerschelde Estuary, and its rivers and canals have made it a vital trade center for centuries. 

New construction and renovation can be a challenge in Antwerp. Its history, fortune and rulers have woven a rich tapestry of infrastructure, historic buildings, bastions, port facilities, road and rail throughout the city. One of the problems contractors face is how to design in and around these structures.

Adding new, preserving the old

Like many major cities, Antwerp has a long-term initiative to reduce vehicular traffic and move existing traffic around and under the city center. The goal is to get more people to use bicycles, trams, rail and buses. One of the phases of this initiative is the new Noorderlijn tram line or “North Line,” a vital link to the revitalized Eilandje (“Island”) district, an area of docks and industrial tracts north of the city center which has been undergoing a renaissance of new residences, businesses and public spaces.

When it’s complete, Noorderlijn will extend the tram by about 6 kilometers (4 miles) north, across the island to a park-and-ride at the interchange of a major expressway. BAM Contractors, the Belgian subsidiary of Royal BAM Group engineering and construction firm, is part of the tram consortium for Noorderlijn and will execute the project in a consistent digital environment. They’ve already built the tram line, two bridges and several tunnels. “Noorderlijn has a little bit of everything,” said BAM land surveyor Niels Balens.

As with many construction projects in old cities, there can be surprises. In this case the surveyors discovered a segment of Noorderlaan followed a main road and under the road is a Spanish wall. Excavation revealed this section of the well-preserved bastion was one of nine built around the city’s historic center during Spanish rule. The wall, completed in 1552, lies just below the surface, but preservationists said it must remain exposed, with an observation walkway overhead. The Spanish wall was to be incorporated into the tram project, Balens said. It was added to the survey so the engineers could complete a design that would not negatively impact it.

But this was not the only structure that BAM Contractors had to incorporate into the design. The new tram line begins at Antwerp’s Opera Tram Station, which was constructed in the 1970’s and has three levels, built to accommodate expansion of road traffic and tram lines. All new design and construction must interface with the existing elements of the building. The surveying of these complex elements was where the Trimble SX10, a new class of surveying instrument, was put to the test. 

The SX10 is a robotic total station and a fully functioning scanner released in October 2016. BAM was an early adopter and recognized the instrument’s potential to solve engineering problems encountered in multi-disciplined projects; scanning sections of the Opera Station was one of the SX10’s first tasks. 

 They started with old paper plans, which was very difficult, Balens said. ” We measured before the design and during construction. There were scans done by another team, and this was a bit of a problem, so we took new measurements and scans with the SX10. The problem with the original scans was that they were not properly registered and were very large and difficult to work with.” The SX10 is also a total station, resolving the project registration on the same instrument as the scans and images – no need for additional registration steps. In addition, as Balens explained, the scans from the SX10 are at density more suitable for the engineers’ needs. He notes that in working with scans from the large dedicated scanners, they must decimate such scans to a lower resolution to be useable. This solved the problems encountered with the unwieldy legacy scans and supported the engineers with new 3D data.

“We had to do a lot of small scans for different parts of the station” said fellow BAM Contractor surveyor Johan Egerickx. “Opera Station has existing car tunnels to connect with parking, and there will be five new car tunnels for parking and to pass traffic through the area. The second level is an existing tram line, and Noorderlaan is on the 3rd level. We built a tunnel from the third tunnel to the surface – about 400 meters (1,300 ft.). The engineers could not use the older scans, so they asked for new measurements in different parts of the station. We would set up the SX10 to perform a scan that was completely registered in resection. Because the scans and images were already registered, and at the resolution the engineer’s desire, we were able to deliver this immediately.” The team will also use the SX10 on the Spanish Wall and car tunnels. 

A project of firsts

There were concerns about using the SX10. “There was no eyepiece, no active tracking, and we had never worked on a tablet with our total stations,” Egerickx said. But operating the SX10 is similar to operating our Trimble total stations. Finding yourself and the prism on the tablet view is very fast and after a while we did not miss the active tracking.” 

BAM Contractors’ surveyors had already been using Trimble Access field software with their total stations and GNSS rovers so adapting the SX10 into the workflow also was not difficult. In the office, they use Trimble Business Center (TBC), which has modules for handling the panoramic images and scans from the SX10 and integrating them with other survey data. This tight coupling of precise instrumentation and software has been integrated into many of BAM Contractors design-build projects, and especially on Noorderlijn.

“We started with GNSS survey control using the Belgian VRS network [FLEPOS],” said Egerickx “We used to set up a base, but now we just use the network. We even use it on machine control. Then we do a control traverse and digital level loops with our Trimble total stations and DiNi levels.

“This project had another first for us,” Egerickx added. “We did no staking for earthworks. Instead, our subcontractor, Aertssen, used machine control and Trimble equipment along with a digital 3D model of the design. This equipment was mainly GNSS, except around buildings where there isn’t much sky where we used total stations. The digital model made things go much faster.”

Egerickx performs weekly monitoring of the London Bridge, a replacement for an older bridge, in addition to design and construction surveying. “We put a permanent bolt on a stable rock outcrop near the bridge. There are six prisms on the bridge. Each week I mount the total station on the bolt and the monitoring module in Trimble Access on the TSC3 does the monitoring --automatically.” 

Noorderlijn is the latest project in the Antwerp road and rail initiative and has brought BAM Contractors closer to a complete digital environment, especially with its first total adoption of machine control for earthworks and integration of the SX10 into their workflows. For BAM Contractors, the project helped them preserve an historic bastion while provide a new and powerful link between conventional surveying and 3D field data collection.


Sharing is Caring

Geospatial Newsletters

Keep up to date with the latest geospatial trends!

Sign up

Search DM

Get Directions Magazine delivered to you
Please enter a valid email address
Please let us know that you're not a robot by using reCAPTCHA.
Sorry, there was a problem submitting your sign up request. Please try again or email

Thank You! We'll email you to verify your address.

In order to complete the subscription process, simply check your inbox and click on the link in the email we have just sent you. If it is not there, please check your junk mail folder.

Thank you!

It looks like you're already subscribed.

If you still experience difficulties subscribing to our newsletters, please contact us at