Germany's Longest Subway: Billions Upon Billions for Berlin-Munich Bullet Train

By Christian Wüst

Part 2: Fast, But Perhaps Not Fast Enough

Photo Gallery: The Controversial New Berlin-Munich Line Photos

Any higher figure would be an illusion. The segment is primarily designed to connect Munich and Berlin, two major transportation hubs, and the new travel time by rail will still be too long to completely eliminate air travel between the two cities. As experiences with France's TGV high-speed rail system have shown, to do so, the train would have to complete the trip in three hours.

French express trains travel distances of 750 kilometers within this amount of time, while even the fastest German trains can't break 500 kilometers. There are too few continuous high-speed segments in Germany and too many stops -- a fundamental problem for railroads in federalist systems. Officials from states and larger cities responsible for regional matters tend to have an inhibiting effect on transportation-project planning.

Göttingen is a case in point. The central German city successfully lobbied to make itself a stop on the north-south rail line between Hanover and Würzburg, in north-central and south-central Germany, respectively. As a result, it slows down every train traveling north to south from Hamburg to Frankfurt or west to east from Stuttgart to Munich.

The original plan called for a nonstop rail line running directly from Hanover to Kassel as well as a good connection from Göttingen to both cities. But becoming a stop on the ICE route became a matter of prestige for Göttingen, and the city won out.

A New Meeting Point for Germany ?

The VDE 8 project has its own version of the Göttingen problem. It's called Erfurt.

Again, planners considered building a direct line between the Halle/Leipzig region in eastern Germany and Nuremberg in northern Bavaria instead of following a somewhat more circuitous route through Erfurt, the sleepy state capital of Thuringia. The direct route would have saved 90 kilometers and further reduced travel time between Berlin and Munich to less than 3.5 hours, while a nonstop train could have completed the trip in just three hours.

But, between 1992 and 2001, Thuringia had a powerful governor: Bernhard Vogel, a seasoned politician with many years of experience in the CDU before reunification and a friend of then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Vogel later boasted that he had "kicked up a big storm" against the direct route -- and his efforts were successful. In fact, in political circles, the route is known by a nickname: the Bernhard Vogel Line.

Volker Hädrich, Deutsche Bahn's representative for Thuringia, says the detour should not be seen as detrimental to Germany and his company but, rather, as a blessing for Thuringia. A physicist by training and native Thuringian, Hädrich has a sizeable office directly at the newly and attractively renovated Erfurt train station.

Hädrich is an elegant man with a statesmanlike appearance. He was a member of the planning staff of then-Deutsche Bahn CEO Hartmut Mehdorn, with whom he says he had an excellent relationship. Now he reports directly to Deutsche Bahn's new CEO, Rüdiger Grube, with whom he says he also enjoys an excellent relationship.

Hädrich envisions Erfurt as becoming a "meeting point in Germany." An animation on his laptop depicts four white-and-red ICE trains rhythmically arriving at the Erfurt hub and then departing again and heading toward Berlin, Munich, Dresden and Frankfurt, north, south, east and west.

Although he does not dispute that passenger trains will probably never make this route profitable, Hädrich says this won't be a problem because he claims there will be significantly more freight traffic on the newly built line. "That's the only way the route can pay for itself," he adds.

Facts and Arguments

Nevertheless, this assessment contradicts the findings of a report produced by the KCW consultants and commissioned by the Federal Environment Agency. As they did with the highly controversial Stuttgart 21 train station redevelopment project, which includes a new railroad line to Ulm, the consultants have concluded that VDE 8 "is highly unlikely to place a single additional freight car on the rails."

The fact is that the north-south axis in eastern Germany simply isn't an important freight transportation route. Indeed, the existing rail line is not even being used to full capacity. By comparison, railroad lines farther west, such as the one following the Rhine River from the Dutch border to Switzerland, are overloaded.

Thuringia's railroad ambassador doesn't dispute these facts. Instead, he see them as yet another argument in favor of building the new line in the east. A map of Germany showing all railroad lines hangs on the wall behind his desk. He explains that his line through the Thuringian Forest would be suitable for taking on north-south freight to and from Hamburg, and that the detour would be offset by the fact that it would allow trains to travel at significantly higher speeds.

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Graphic: Germany's Longest Subway Zoom

Graphic: Germany's Longest Subway

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