Saved by the "European Axis"
When one criticizes the two most extravagant rail projects in Europe, Nuremberg-Erfurt and S21, the retorts by politicians often include some version of "We're building a very important part of a very important European axis!", i.e. in those cases the Trans-European Network priority projects No.1 Berlin-Palermo (do those people even listen to themselves?) and No.17 Paris-Bratislava aka "Europamagistrale" in German (pathos alert). But that only poses new questions.
|TEN priority axis No.17 Paris-Bratislava, status May 2008. Solid lines: complete (green), work to start after 2013 ('forget about it') (red), before 2010 (yellow). Dashed lines: work planned (red) or ongoing (green). Graphic from TEN-T Progress Report, May 2008.
Are droves of people going to take the ten hour, 882km trip from Paris to Bratislava or even half of it (with what service?) when long distance passenger volumes have been constantly dropping? Projections show otherwise. More importantly, TEN-17 can't be a freight corridor since the LGV Est and most other high-speed lines on the corridor are not for freight rail. Especially Wendlingen-Ulm will pose an unsurmountable barrier to freight because of its steep gradients (up to 3.5%) and high fees. Except of ICE3/TGVs there are no passenger trains that can make the climb.
This leads me to wonder how those TEN corridors were selected and prioritized in the first place. My guess: an EU committee took a European map and criss-crossed it with lines. Make it plausible and politically balanced enough and presto you have a program for 'peace and prosperity' in Europe. But no one knows whether even the priority projects are that important or even desirable. The EU reports are full of bland generalities about so-and-so, unmeasured improvements to be achieved sometime in the future.
When the total investment for completing all the TEN projects is estimated to be €600 billion till 2020 then either (a) TEN is overstuffed with unrealistic and unimportant projects or (b) we will never see the completion of TEN in this half of the century, if ever or (c) both. TEN projects such as Wendlingen-Ulm are supported with symbolic amounts out of the EU budget, usually around €100 million for a project that costs billions. With an investment backlog of more than €10 billion (very low-end estimate 2008) for Paris-Bratislava alone and at best stagnant long distance passenger volumes, that 'project' should be called what it is: a pipe dream good for glossy brochures.
But even if the corridor Paris-Bratislava were of such paramount importance, the investment in S21 and Wendlingen-Ulm wouldn't look very good. The following graphic shows the distribution of funds on German ground (cost estimates 2009). The thickness of the lines corresponds to the construction cost per kilometer.
In the West we can see that the second phase of the LGV Est from Baudrecourt to Strasbourg is currently being built for less than €20m per km (blue). The problems start on the German side of the Rhine where two sections (Strasbourg-Appenweier, Karlruhe-Rastatt) are yet to be financed or put into serious planning. Karlruhe-Rastatt is part of the vital Karlsruhe-Basel link (more on that later). Serious upgrades and new tracks in that part of the corridor could lead to time savings of up to 40 minutes for €1.5 billion. Sounds a lot more cost-effective than S21+Wendlingen-Ulm. It gets worse east of S21 (pink sections). Upgrading the line Ulm-Augsburg to 200 km/h would cost €15m per km. There is no serious planning effort for that project because of a lack of funds! Ditto for Munich-Mühldorf-Salzburg (€13m/km) which is currently single-track and non-electrified! That project would actually solve a pressing capacity problem, i.e. improving connections to the "Bavarian Chemical Delta" near Mühldorf.
And how much money will S21 and Wendlingen-Ulm (red sections) spend? If everything goes well S21 (Feuerbach-Wendlingen) will need around €250 million per km and Wendlingen-Ulm €63+X million per km for a few minutes of net time savings between Stuttgart and Munich. If those two black holes start sucking money then it's obvious that the rest of the "Europamagistrale" [to Salzburg] doesn't stand a chance of getting something substantial done in the next 20 years, whilst being so much more cost-effective. But S21 and Wendlingen-Ulm not only have an impact on TEN-17 but also on Germany's rail network as a whole.
The Cannibals or 'Killing me Slowly'
In 2009 the German federal budget for rail projects stood at around €3.9 billion. €2.5 billion per year are allocated for maintenance of the existing network (fixed for ten years). The stimulus is running out, so the budget will return to €3.2-€3.5 billion per annum for the foreseeable future. Plus, there are ambitions to use highway toll revenues for highway construction only. Then there are new austerity measures starting in the next budget (Sparpaket) due to a new constitutional debt limit (Schuldenbremse = "debt brake"). Finally, there is inflation, the cost of maintenance will rise and so will the construction costs for the 60 rail projects in the federal investment pipeline (Bundesverkehrswegeplan = "federal transport plan"), and the number of projects in the pipeline will rise, too. With all that pressure, from next year on a maximum of one billion Euros per annum will be available to fund construction projects.
If the budget is that small (with no hope of being doubled or tripled) and if even the ongoing projects are grossly underfinanced, hopefully one would prioritize projects that cost little and have large benefits, then attend to projects with higher costs and large benefits, and discard the rest. Unfortunately, S21 and Wendlingen-Ulm belong to the rest. Together with similar pet projects they will consume €20 billion. Projects are apportioned a yearly amount (each year there is a 'wrestling match' at the Fuldarunde (a meeting in Fulda) according to political balance and not according to technical/economic superiority. So unless someone has the courage to cull them [the fatty projects] they will crowd out essential projects that are desperately needed for capacity. This will be crippling for the rail investment program and for rail traffic as a whole. The last years have shown that freight rail is booming. That also goes for regional passenger rail only less so. Long distance travel however is stagnant and travel volumes have actually fallen since highspeed was first introduced in the 90's.
The most glaring example is the quadruple tracking of Karlsruhe-Basel with a high-speed line. Karlsruhe-Basel belongs to the most important freight corridor in Germany and is at capacity. K.-B. with its high benefit-cost ratio is neglected while officials in the federal transport ministry are desperately trying to 'calculate' a ratio above 1 for Wendlingen-Ulm. Start of construction work was celebrated in December 1987 in the presence of Wolfgang Schäuble, then chancellor Kohl's chief of staff, now federal finance minister. Currently 1/3 complete after 22 years and with €3.9 billion of investment remaining, finishing it by 2040 would be relatively fast compared to the speed of progress so far. The most recent financing plan of the ministry of transport (Update [2010-10-4 0:28:39 by epochepoque]: link added) even shows that for the next ten years K.-B. is set to receive €117 million to a maximum of a few hundred million in total! I wonder if I will ever get to see the completion of K.-B. Ditto for the Betuwe line, the extension of freight capacity between Hamburg-Hannover-Bremen, the Rhein-Ruhr-Express, the eastern freight axis, Frankfurt-Mannheim, etc. All the chances to massively increase the share of rail freight at low cost are casually discarded.
The situation is doubly unfair because the sections of K.-B. can be constructed indepedently from each another. Which means those sections are more easily deferred in contrast to the 'all-or-nothing' prestige high-speed projects - once they start sucking they can't stop.
A cause for schadenfreude: even flashy pet projects like Nuremberg-Erfurt are subject to the laws of mathematics. Costing more than €5 billion it probably won't be finished until 2040, either. The official date of 2017 is mathematically impossible.
Sept 30th brought a new level of confrontation between opponents of the project and the state government. Police forcibly removed hundreds of sit-in protesters and activists who had chained themselves to trees in the Schlosspark (one of the few beautiful places in Stuttgart) beside the station. 282 trees (some of which 200 years old) have to be chopped down to make room for the new station. Water cannons, tear gas, and sticks were used.
The latest and last offers of "talks" by the official project stakeholders don't point to any serious willingness to negotiate. If anything, citizens/opponents would be allowed to tinkle with the redevelopment masterplan of the new urban space (2035 or later until everything is cleared). But the officials have made it clear that the project will definitely be built. Not much room for compromise.
Currently, the most probable scenario is an election defeat for the ruling coalition of Baden-Württemberg in March coupled with a public referendum on the project soon afterwards. If, against all odds, the project survives the election there will be another political opportunity to reexamine S21 when the construction tenders start coming back next year. If there is a tad of honesty in those bids the costs for S21 will soar up and above €5 billion. Real upfront honesty would bring it to €7 billion. Point of return? If not there is still the 2012 mayoral election in Stuttgart.
If you understand German:
- Dossier on S21 by Der Fahrgast (magazine of passenger advocacy group PRO BAHN), 1/2005-4/2009
- A 45 minute talk on the nationwide consequences of S21+Wendlingen-Ulm and how the numbers are cooked, by Michael Holzhey, 12/2009
- A 44 minute talk on the costs and utility of S21+Wendlingen-Ulm, by planner Martin Vieregg, 12/2009
- Rail Network 2025/30, study for an effective freight rail network (PDF, 37MB), 8/2010
- Press review assembled by project opponents
Exploding Costs Threaten German Rail's High-Speed Future