Losing Steam: Massive Rail Project Haunts Merkel Campaign

Photo Gallery: Stuttgart 21 Controversy Rumbles On Photos
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Part 2: What Happens Then?

Current estimates show the project costing at least €2.3 billion more than originally planned. If Deutsche Bahn is required to pay that entire amount, the project will no longer be economically feasible for the company and will result in financial losses, the Deutsche Bahn executive board admitted to the supervisory board last week.

The question now is which route will be less financially painful -- cancelling the project or continuing it? "If it turns out that cancelling the project would lead to even greater losses than continuing it," reads a Deutsche Bahn statement submitted to the supervisory board, then "the danger of a negative return on equity capital" could be an acceptable risk to take. That ending the project would in fact be more expensive, the statement continued, appears to be "at least a possibility, according to the current state of our knowledge."

The state secretaries, though, don't find the projected €2 billion for closing down the project realistic. In reviewing Deutsche Bahn's plans, they found items included in the calculations that weren't actually connected to Stuttgart 21, or that they felt were assessed at too high a rate.

For example, the cost of buying back plots of land that had been sold to the city of Stuttgart was put at €795 million. These properties, however, were recorded as being worth just €25 million when they still belonged to Deutsche Bahn. The state secretaries also found that the calculations included €17.6 million for engineering work that was carried out not as part of Stuttgart 21, but rather during the construction of a new high-speed rail line between the Stuttgart suburb Wendlingen and Ulm, a city of around 125,000 along the main railway route to Munich. The compensation payments to contractors also seemed to be calculated quite generously at €486 million. Deutsche Bahn based that sum on an assertion that contractors would supposedly be entitled to 30 percent of any contract that was cancelled. But that, says one Deutsche Bahn insider, is "complete nonsense." Deutsche Bahn, meanwhile, insists its calculations are correct.

Government Considers External Audit

Since it has been difficult for the three state secretaries on the supervisory board to check the validity of Deutsche Bahn's figures, they are now considering bringing in external inspectors. In a few months' time, those inspectors' verdict could well be the deciding factor in whether or not Berlin shuts down Stuttgart 21.

In Stuttgart, opponents of the multi-billion-euro railway station are dusting off alternative scenarios they had set aside after losing a 2011 statewide referendum on the fate of the project.

One such scenario is the so-called "combination solution," which mediator Heiner Geissler, a former top CDU official, presented in summer 2011 as a possible compromise. In this variation of the plan, only four instead of eight platforms would need to be built underground for intercity trains, while regional trains would remain in the old, aboveground station.

Then there's the "terminus solution," known by its German abbreviation "K21," a rallying cry that can be seen adorning bright green tote bags around Stuttgart. This name actually encompasses at least a dozen different concepts, but all have one thing in common: They propose giving up on the underground station entirely, instead using the existing tracks in the current terminus-style station and renovating the station's historical main hall.

In Tübingen, just south of Stuttgart, Mayor Boris Palmer of the Green Party is one of the most prominent critics of the construction project, and he considers the K21 approach the best option. "This way the current railway station, which is fully functional, is simply retained," he says.

One of the most important points in favor of the terminus solution is its flexibility. "K21 is a modular construction concept that can be implemented in stages," Palmer explains. For example, he says, the first step could be to renovate the existing station building. After that, decisions could be made bit by bit concerning other measures, for example a possible link to the new stretch of track between Wendlingen and Ulm.

All together, Palmer says, the most recent estimates put the cost of this plan at between €1.3 billion and €1.7 billion, or around a quarter of the projected cost for the Stuttgart 21 project. Furthermore, he adds, the K21 approach "can be oriented according to the actual transportation needs and financial resources of the city and the state," whereas Stuttgart 21 is an "all or nothing" project. "That's just not a modern approach," Palmer believes.

Examining Alternatives

But while Palmer and others within the protest movement are hatching plans, the state government is consciously holding back. The government stands by its obligation to support the project, says the office of Baden-Württemberg Transport Minister Winfried Hermann of the Green Party, even though the minister himself has spent decades fighting Stuttgart 21.

Political relations remain tense between Baden-Württemberg's state government coalition partners, with the Green Party generally opposing the project and the SPD supporting it. One critical glance, one statement from the Green distancing themselves from the project, is enough to alarm members of the SPD. This is particularly true of Claus Schmiedel, head of the party's state parliamentary group, who seems to be trying to outdo the opposition in his declarations of how impossibly high the cost of stopping the project would be.

Baden-Württemberg's governor, Winfried Kretschmann of the Green Party, also curtly declared last week that "cancelling the project is not up for discussion." The struggle against Stuttgart 21 is what first brought the Green Party into office, but Kretschmann is trying to support his coalition partner, the SPD. The executive branch of the state government, he says, considers itself bound to honor the results of the 2011 referendum that established support for the project.

The Transport Ministry in Berlin likewise has not officially examined any alternative proposals. "If that were the case and it got out, there would be a serious uproar within the coalition," explains one insider. Still, the same individual believes that it's only a matter of time before the ministry receives the go-ahead to look at other possibilities. "We won't be able to make an objective assessment of the current situation until our specialists are finally allowed to start examining the alternatives in detail," says one ministry official.

Members of an alliance of organizations working to stop Stuttgart 21 don't want to wait that long. Hannes Rockenbauch, a Stuttgart city council member, has been part of the Stuttgart 21 protest movement since 2007 and says he's clear on what the next steps should be.

"Five million euros to €10 million would be enough to straighten back out the worst of Deutsche Bahn's mistakes on the existing station," he says, adding that there would be plenty of time after that to discuss other options with the public. There is only one aspect in which Rockenbauch feels time is of the essence: "We're calling for construction to be halted immediately."

BY SVEN BÖLL, FRANK HORNIG, SIMONE KAISER and ANDREAS WASSERMANN

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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