How to reconnect three million Germans to the train

SWEG network in Bade-Wurtemberg

According to Allianz Pro Schiene and the Verband Deutscher Verkehrsunternehmen (VDV), the reactivation of 238 lines with a total length of 4,016 km would reconnect almost 291 municipalities totalling three million German citizens to rail. Audacity?

All over Europe, a large number of small lines have been closed to all traffic. Contrary to popular belief, these closures were in no way decided by Europe (this is not its role), but date back to the national policies of the 1950s to 1980s, when all public railway companies operated local trains with a clear lack of enthusiasm. Running express trains and then High Speed Trains was far more prestigious than looking after a rural population that only took the train under social fares.

In Germany, too, many line were closed when, in the 1970s, Deutsche Bahn preferred to concentrate on suburban S-Bahn and Intercity trains between major cities. When reunification took place, Deutsche Bahn inherited the ruins of the former East German Reichsbahn in 1994. The communist railway experience still weighs heavily today, especially in Saxony.

However, many of the abandoned lines have retained their platform. Dirk Flege, managing director of Allianz pro Schiene, explains that by « reactivating disused railway lines, we can stop and reverse the decades-long retreat of rail. This is a recipe for a better transport mix in the future. » Contrary to what is too often written about cities, in Germany, around 70 percent of people live in medium-sized and small towns or in rural areas (the same in UK, Benelux, Switzerland or in North Italy). We are very far from the French or Spanish situation, with empty rural areas. A welcomed remark when in many academies and among some experts, the idea is perpetuated that tomorrow everyone will live in the city. However, these « experts » base themselves on global growth curves without any comparison with our European rural areas, which are much more populated than the empty spaces of India, Africa or… Texas.

ODEG trainset around Berlin (photo ingolf via flickr license)

The challenge today is often political: should these railway platforms be transformed into cycle paths or reactivated as modern railway lines? Rural mobility is indeed the subject of many initiatives other than the railways. For example, many associations focus on cycling, a cheap and « quiet » transport. In addition, the reactivation of long abandoned railway lines meets opposition of local residents who do not want to see « big buses on rails » in their gardens, even if they are « ecological ». The battle of ideas is fierce in this area. The most radical ecologists also believe that the train is not an ecological tool, because the carbon footprint of its construction is negative (steel, glass, various plastics, copper for electrical cables, engines, …) and because « it maintains the capitalist delusion of the big manufacturers companies ». Everyone will judge…

Dirk Flege, exlains: « The Federal Government wants to double the number of passengers on rail by 2030 and increase the market share of rail freight transport to 25 percent. This will only work if the infrastructure is consistently expanded. The reuse of disused railway lines is an indispensable part of a growth strategy that puts an end to decades of shrinking of the rail network. »

Bringing rural residents closer to the railway stations can obviously only be done by reopening lines. « For a large majority of this population who live in less dense areas, we need efficient and environmentally friendly rail transport services. This is a matter of climate protection, but also of the equal value of living conditions. If the railways are to become the means of transport of the 21st century, then we have to look at the whole area of the country and not only the big cities and conurbations for long-distance transport, » explains Jörgen Boße, chairman of VDV. Dirk Flege: « Within a year, passenger transport has resumed on six railway lines nationwide. This reactivation is a huge opportunity to quickly make the rail infrastructure fit for the transport of more passengers and more goods. »

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But who is going to pay for this, as the national infrastructure manager, DB Netz, cannot afford to reopen these lines and is very busy with the maintenance of the existing network? With the amendment of the Municipal Transport Financing Act (GVFG) in Germany, the federal government has considerably improved the framework conditions for reactivation projects in passenger transport. This applies not only to the amount of funds made available, but also to the conditions for funding. This positive development leads to projects at municipal and Länder level to define more quickly eligible re-opening railway lines. « It is expected that this will considerably boost the revitalization of closed lines in the coming years, » saids Jörgen Boße.

The VDV and Allianz Pro Schiene have produced a map of recent railway line reopenings.

(post based on the Allianz Pro Schiene presentation)

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