Four-day party marks grand opening of Antwerp’s mammoth new lock


The Kieldrecht lock is a feat of engineering on an enormous scale that will mean faster routes for ships and a huge rise in freight handling at the Port of Antwerp. The public are invited to discover the new channel during four days of festivities this month

World’s largest lock

Charts have yet to show Flanders’ latest manipulation of geography. It will take time before we see maps featuring the Kieldrecht lock, the newly hacked channel linking Antwerp’s left bank harbour with the river Scheldt.

Indeed, when you click on Google Maps to see the Kieldrechtsluis – or Kieldrecht lock – all you see is an aerial view of a muddy building site between two bodies of water. However, a click on the Deurganckdoksluis marker leads you to one of those clever Google Street View indoor maps with a 360-degree image of workers inside the empty lock.  

King Filip will officially open this new waterway on 10 June, kicking off four days of festivities to celebrate the opening of the lock, one of the largest Flemish infrastructure projects in recent years. A 60-metre Ferris wheel, the much-travelled Roue de Paris, will give visitors a spectacular view of the biggest lock in the world.

“We want the open day to show the world how big the construction really is,” says Freddy Aerts, who heads the Flemish government’s maritime access division. “When you’re actually there, you can see how much work has been done.”

Better, faster

Aerts was the driving force behind the project, which he says will mean shorter waiting times for ships, more shipping traffic and greater added value, and faster routes for ships and for hinterland transport. The volume of freight handled in the area behind the locks is expected to rise to more than 25 million tonnes by 2020, a 56% rise on 2011 figures.

The new lock is named after the village of Kieldrecht, which is part of the Waasland region’s municipality of Beveren, adjacent to Antwerp in East Flanders. The lock is 500m long, 68m wide, and 17.8m deep, eclipsing those in the Panama and Suez canals, or anything built in Dubai or China.

It is the size of a 19-lane highway, with each lane able to park 28 articulated buses. Until now, the biggest lock has been Antwerp’s Berendrecht lock, built in 1989, on the right bank of the Scheldt. It’s the same length as Kieldrecht but only 13.5m deep.

We want the open day to show how big the construction really is. When you’re actually there, you can see how much work has been done

- Freddy Aerts

From the top floor of the lock’s five-storey command and control tower – which stands between the lock gates, on the eastern side – the significance of the new link becomes clearer. The lock is the connection that brings the two sides of the horizon together.

To the north, there is the 2.5km-long Deurganck dock, where shipping giant MSC is currently unloading giant container ships almost 400m long. This links directly to the Scheldt, and to the oceans, taking in and sending out trade to almost every corner of the globe.

On the other side of the lock, to the south, is the Waasland port, which includes the Doel, Verrebroek and Vrasene docks, where huge quantities of freight are already loaded and unloaded. Because stable water levels are needed in this area, the locks shield it from the rising and falling tides of the Scheldt. 

Advantages of scale

Until now, this harbour has only been accessible by the smaller Kallo lock further down the Scheldt, which has a draught of 12m, but the Kieldrecht lock is a much larger gate. “It means we can accommodate bigger ships. It offers more advantages of scale,” Aerts says.

Further afield, Aerts points to the port of Antwerp’s vast range of facilities: the world’s second biggest chemical cluster after Houston, Texas, a gas terminal, the cement processing plant that produced the mix used to build the Kieldrecht lock, solid and liquid bulk terminals and thousands of new and second-hand cars lined up on the quayside.

The port needed 22,000 tonnes of structural steel – nearly three times the amount used for the Eiffel Tower – to build the lock, bridges and accessories. The amount of concrete used for its construction could have made a building 35 floors high and covering an area the size of a football field.

Even so, it used less material than the Deurganck dock, which used 1.1 million cubic metres of concrete and 55,000 tonnes of steel.

The four gates of the lock were built in the Chinese city of Changxing by steel constructor ZPMC, along with the trolleys on which the gates will ride, two combined road and rail bridges, the caisson and other items.

Despite its massive size, the project required precision work described as a “delicate manoeuvring” construction approach. The lock gates, for example, needed a perfect, millimetre-accurate seal to ensure the rail tracks embedded into the bridge connect properly after each lifting and lowering of a gate bridge.

Tricky logistics

“We have a complete road system alongside the lock – with drawbridges above the two lock doors – so that if one lock door is open, road and rail traffic can pass on the other side,” explains Aerts.

And a €30 million tender will be launched shortly for two extra road bridges for two lanes of traffic. “If you have 11 million containers a year coming in, you need to be sure the road system is open,” he says.

If you have 11 million containers a year coming in, you need to be sure the road system is open

- Freddy Aerts

Construction on the Kieldrecht lock started in 2011, with a 5km dry slurry wall erected around the entire area. “Only then could we could start excavating,” Aerts says. “If you have a five-year construction project, it’s easier to have a water-tight belt around it. Then you can pump it empty and do all the work dry.”

On an average day, around 300 people worked on the site – although it was so vast, it wasn’t always easy to spot them. During construction, the builders even uncovered the fossilised bones of a 3.5-million-year-old whale.

While the view from on high shows the situational significance of the lock, the technical challenges are still hidden. Aerts points out that the floor of the lock is a 5m-thick layer of reinforced concrete. The walls are 4m thick, bolstered by a further 15m support.

“We were pouring 3,000 cubic metres of concrete in there every day, for five years.” Aerts says. “The logistics are quite important: each mixer has 10 cubic metres, so that means each day 300 truck loads are poured in there. They were coming in and out, over and over again.”

Wall art

Every last detail has been thought out thoroughly. The wheels in the lock gates are powered by special cables, which themselves need huge machinery to wind up. There is even a special device to clean the silt from the lock: With hydraulic jets, they can open vents to flush it out from the harbour basin to the Deurganck dock.

And there is art. On the western wall of the lock, facing the control tower, is an extraordinary mural (pictured above) by local graffiti artist Cazn: Last year he spent 10 weeks painting on a canvas 300m wide and 9m high. The full picture begins with a desert landscape, then morphs into a nature reserve with birds, followed by colourful fish, sharks, a mermaid, Roman sea god Neptune and ships in port. Parts of it will be hidden under water depending on the tide.

Last year, 208 million tonnes of maritime freight was loaded and unloaded in Antwerp, up 4.7% on 2014, making it Europe’s second-largest freight port after Rotterdam. Some 9.6 million TEU (20-foot equivalent units, or standard containers) were handled, up 7.5% on 2014, and 14,417 seagoing ships called at the port.

Although the Kieldrecht lock cost €340 million – half financed by the European Investment Bank, with the remaining amount put up by the government of Flanders and the Port Authority – it is part of the €1.6 billion that the two local authorities are investing in new and more sustainable infrastructure in the 15 years to 2025.

“The Kieldrecht lock is a huge construction project and a major achievement, but it is just part of Antwerp port’s development over the past few decades,” Aerts says, pointing to the sprawling port zone between the city and the border with the Netherlands, some 25km further north. 

A happy man

Aerts has a background in civil engineering, coming from the Royal Military Academy, and spent 10 years in the Royal Engineers before he joined the public administration.

During his time at the maritime division, he has overseen the construction of a second container tunnel under the Scheldt, the Deurganck dock and half of the entire port container handling capacity. Today, he is also in charge of the ports of Ghent, Ostend and Zeebrugge; Antwerp accounts for two-thirds of his work. His next project is a similar lock in the Dutch city of Terneuzen.

But for the moment, he is enjoying a job well done with the Kieldrecht lock. “We only build a lock once every 30 years – the last one was the Berendrecht,” he says. “Today I am a proud and happy man.”

Photos courtesy Port of Antwerp 

Port of Antwerp

The port of Antwerp is Europe’s second-largest port and one of the world’s most important ports for container traffic.
Going green - The port’s first-ever sustainability report won it the Award for Best Belgian Sustainability Report.
Size - The port takes up more space than the actual city of Antwerp.
Roots - Historians have found evidence for the port’s existence dating back to the 12th century.

barges entering the port daily


companies in the greater port area


tonnes of freight handled in 2012