Infrastructure problems: Germany is slowing down Europe’s railways


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Status: 19.11.2022 08:00 a.m

Fast train connections between European metropolises and night trains could replace flights in the future. But the infrastructure of Deutsche Bahn stands in the way of “Bahn für Alle”.

By Marcel Kolvenbach, SWR

From Stockholm via Malmö and Hamburg to Berlin. Connections between Zurich via Cologne to Amsterdam. Via Austria to Milan, Florence or Rome are already on offer today. Night and long-distance trains could be a central building block for climate protection. The expansion of high-speed trains between European metropolises and international holiday trains could replace air travel in the future.

For Deutsche Bahn, night trains have been a loss-making business in the past, and they stopped the unprofitable niche business in 2016. Since then, private providers and foreign railway companies have followed suit. Cross-border long-distance traffic depends on the harmonization of the European rail networks.

But this is exactly where Germany is slowing down – this is evident from previously unpublished interim results of a project that SWR available exclusively. At the European level, Germany has also blocked uniform certification procedures for passenger transport.

Tail light Germany

The background to the criticism is a concept paper by the “Bahn für Alle” alliance, an action alliance of environmental organizations and trade unions sponsored by the Federal Environment Agency. Recommendations for action on climate protection with night and long-distance trains are to be developed by 2023, and public discussions will follow.

But just a few months after the start of the project, Ludwig Lindner, who headed the study, realized that the infrastructure of Deutsche Bahn in particular is standing in the way of harmonization of European rail traffic. In the evaluation of the harmonization progress of European rail systems, Germany ranks third to last in a comparison of 23 EU countries plus Switzerland, together with Sweden and Portugal. Only Estonia and Latvia fare worse. Denmark and Luxembourg are in first place.

“The insufficient adaptation of the German railway infrastructure to international standards is slowing down long-distance travel and night train traffic throughout Europe,” commented Ludwig Lindner, author of the study and spokesman for “Bahn für Alle” on the results of his research SWR. “One thing is clear: In order to protect the climate in the transport sector, flights and road traffic must be shifted to trains. But this will only succeed if Germany – as the largest European economy and geographically located in the middle – leads the way in standardization and does not lag behind.”

Several technical differences

According to the results of “Bahn für Alle”, Germany has so far deviated from the European standard in three core areas of the required harmonization. The different platform heights make barrier-free long-distance traffic more difficult.

The 55 cm standard has become established in many EU countries. In Germany, that only applied to the GDR. In Germany, a height of 76 cm prevails, especially on long-distance train platforms. While in many European countries the railways are operated with a voltage of 25 kV and a frequency of 50 Hertz, which corresponds to the frequency of the European integrated power grid, a railway current of 15 kV and 16.7 Hz has historically established itself in Germany.

When asked, the railway contradicts the criticism. Neither the different platform heights nor the different traction current systems stand in the way of international traffic. A spokesman for the railway refers to the multi-system railcars and locomotives that are common today, which can run on the overhead line regardless of frequency and voltage.

The railways explained this in writing SWR: “A conversion of the power system to 25 kV / 50 Hz would involve the conversion of overhead lines on approx. 20,000 electrified route kilometers and the construction of new tunnels and bridges, since greater distances have to be maintained with higher voltages.”

A model series of the ICE 3 can run on several railway systems. However, only a few examples were built with this ability.

Image: picture alliance/dpa

Multi-system locomotives make rail transport more expensive

The short study states: “It has to be decided whether, in the long term, you want to rely on expensive multi-system locomotives for cross-border traffic or whether the systems are harmonized – initially with a high use of resources – in order to then operate rail traffic much more flexibly and cost-effectively in the long term be able.”

In any case, the national differences in platform heights and rail power supply lead to considerable additional costs and to the “delays in operations” feared by all rail passengers, for example due to the change of railcars on night trains at the system borders.

Germany is lagging behind in security upgrades

In terms of train protection technology, agreement was reached across the EU on the European Train Control System (ETCS) as the uniform standard. However, according to Ludwig Linder’s analysis, the ETCS expansion is progressing at different speeds. While Luxembourg and Switzerland have already converted their entire network to ETCS, Germany is lagging behind here. So far, only 406 kilometers have been converted here.

The railway responds to the criticism of the slow harmonization of the control and safety technology SWR in written form:

By 2035, DB will have fundamentally renewed the control and safety technology in the rail network, including through the rollout of the European train control system ETCS (European Train Control System), the expansion of digital interlockings (DSTW) and the integrated control and operating system. In addition to the Berlin – Munich high-speed line, the border service lines in Switzerland and the first construction phase of the Berlin – Dresden expansion line have gone into operation with ETCS.

EU complains about national approval procedures

Criticism of the slow introduction of the new control and safety technology also comes from the European Railway Agency (ERA). But for Josef Doppelbauer, the executive director of ERA, Germany’s blockade of the Europe-wide approval of passenger trains is even more decisive.

“What we urgently need is uniform Europe-wide approval for passenger coaches,” explains Doppelbauer SWR. While his agency is responsible for the approval of freight trains across Europe, passenger coaches require national approval. This makes the approval complicated, lengthy and expensive. In addition, individual states could block the process.

Another problem for the operators is that they cannot simply use the trains later in other EU countries, which greatly reduces the resale value. “In 2019, Germany prevented us from getting a uniform, streamlined approval process here at European level,” complains Doppelbauer.

On February 8, there will be another vote, so that Germany can revise its blockade of the uniform approval of European passenger coaches, Doppelbauer hopes in view of the goals of the traffic light government.

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