Faster train connections between Groningen and Bremen – many travelers in Bremen, in the north-west of Lower Saxony and in the Netherlands have been hoping for this for years. But the destruction of the Friesen Bridge near Weener over the Ems after a freighter collision in December 2015 dashed this hope for the time being. That’s why no train has crossed the border line for six years; Travelers must use rail replacement buses between Leer and Weener. While work on the new Friesen Bridge is now starting, the expansion of the railway line planned at the same time is also to pick up speed. With the so-called Wunderline, the travel time between Groningen and Bremen should be reduced. What exactly is Deutsche Bahn (DB) planning there? An overview:
What does the Wunderline bring to the Northwest?
The Wunderline refers to the expansion and upgrading of the existing 173-kilometer railway line between Bremen and Groningen – most of it is on the German side. “We would like to have a cross-border, comfortable connection, if possible without having to change trains,” says Stefan Wey, Wunderline sub-project manager at DB. The expectation is that the expansion will enable travelers by rail to find a job in the neighboring country more quickly. Students and day trippers should also benefit from the Wunderline. “Of course, the goal is also to increase customers,” says Wey.
How exactly should travel times be reduced?
Due to the destroyed Frisian Bridge, there is currently no continuous train connection between Groningen and Bremen. Before the destruction, the travel time was two hours and 43 minutes. After the expansion of a first section between Ihrhove (Leer district) to the Dutch border, including the new Friesen Bridge, the journey time should be reduced to two hours and 28 minutes. From the end of 2024, trains should be able to travel almost continuously on this route at up to 120 kilometers per hour. It is also planned to expand and upgrade a further section in a second stage by 2030. After that, a journey should only take two hours and 13 minutes.
What is the work schedule?
For the first section on the German side, the railway wants to submit the planning approval documents to the Federal Railway Authority by the summer. Work is scheduled to begin in fall 2023. The plans for the second construction phase are still ongoing. The Dutch are already further: A lot of work is already underway there. Despite Corona, “a good bit of progress was made in 2021 in terms of realizing the Wunderline,” wrote Tjeerd Postma, Wunderline project manager at the provincial government of Groningen, in a December newsletter. On the route between Scheemda and Winschoten, for example, the participation process for the double-track expansion of the route has been completed. The track doubling to a length of four kilometers will be part of the Wunderline.
What does the new Friesenbrücke have to do with the Wunderline?
“Without the Wunderline, no train will run over the Friesenbrücke,” says Wey. Both projects are complex and closely intertwined, because both are scheduled to go into operation at the timetable change in 2024/2025. “So we need a precision landing.” The previous Friesian Bridge was a bascule bridge that could be opened when large ships wanted to pass on the Ems. There was also a crossing next to the tracks for pedestrians and cyclists; many cyclists on the popular Dortmund-Ems canal route, the German Fehn route and the Ems Cycle Path use the bridge. In December 2015 the freighter crashed Emsmoon into the hinged part of the closed bridge, destroyed it and, due to the force of the impact, shifted the superstructure of the bridge by a few meters. Since then, the bridge has been closed to traffic, and cyclists and pedestrians can use a free ferry in the summer months. Demolition of the old remains of the bridge has been underway on the Friesenbrücke since November 2021, and a floating crane was recently used. The new construction for the future railway lifting swing bridge is to begin in April.
What work is pending on the first section of the route?
The railway plans to extensively rehabilitate the route between Ihrhove and the border. These include upgrading or building 17 culverts and seven bridges. According to the plans, 27 level crossings will be adapted or renewed. A signal box will also be renewed at the station in Ihrhove. “The consequence is that we can drive much faster later,” says Wey.
What does the project cost?
According to Bahn, the investment sum for upgrading the railway line on the German side has not yet been determined. Calculations are currently still in progress, also because the second construction phase is still in the early planning phase. According to a cooperation agreement signed by Bremen, Lower Saxony and the province of Groningen in February 2019, 128 million euros were to be invested in the expansion, according to information available at the time. It is already known that the Friesenbrücke as a separate project will be significantly more expensive than initially planned at up to 125 million euros.
Which trains will run later on the route?
On the first section, one regional train per hour will run in both directions between Leer and Winschoten. It is still unclear which provider operates the connection, says Wey. “This is determined by the state of Lower Saxony and the province of Groningen.” Long-distance trains, such as an Intercity, or freight traffic are currently not planned on the route. In principle, however, the route will be designed for both, according to the project manager. Incidentally, the expansion does not provide for electrification – even if the new Friesenbrücke is already being planned for a possible retrofitting with overhead lines. Overhead lines are also missing on the Dutch side. Basically conceivable, but not yet planned, is the testing of hydrogen trains or trains with battery systems on the route, says Wey.