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

The new rail route being built between Berlin and Munich is nothing if not ambitious -- as well as being the most expensive transportation project to take shape since reunification. But the line is yet another example of how France beats Germany in the high-speed rail game and critics say its costs may not justify the advantages it will bring.

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Silberberg (Silver Mountain) is a flashy name for a natural formation standing in the way. Getting rid of the mass of rock is out of the question. In fact, it's hard enough just digging a tunnel through it.

Miners are currently boring their way through the Silberberg, in the mountainous Thuringian Forest region of central Germany, using explosives and hydraulic excavators and a technique called the "New Austrian Tunneling Method." The air is full of the sharp odor of an ammonia compound contained in the explosives.

A wheel loader quickly gathers up the rubble. The driver is wearing a white mask over his mouth.

Once completed, the Silberberg tunnel will stretch more than 7 kilometers (4.4 miles), making it one of the longest tunnels on the new railway line between Erfurt, in eastern German state of Thuringia, and Ebensfeld, in the Bavarian region of Upper Franconia. When the route is finished, it will be capable of accommodating ICE trains traveling at 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph). Each day, the construction project advances an average of 6.5 meters (21.3 feet).

Of the total distance of 107 kilometers on the Erfurt-Ebensfeld route, 41 kilometers will pass through tunnels and 12 kilometers over bridges. Experts refer to tunnels and bridges as "engineering structures," and they will be more highly concentrated on the new route than in almost any other segment of the German rail system.

A Massive Effort to Reconnect Germany

The Erfurt-Ebensfeld stretch of track will cost taxpayers about €3 billion ($4.2 billion), or about €30 million per kilometer. It's probably the highest price ever paid for a single stretch of track -- and a figure that raises a number of questions, such as: Why Erfurt? And where on earth is Ebensfeld?

The answer requires a somewhat lengthy account. It begins with German reunification in 1990 and the discovery of an enormous infrastructure problem. Some 17 "German Reunification Transportation Projects" (abbreviated in German as VDE) were devised to help address the problem and to reconnect the former East Germany, which had been run into the ground by Socialist regimes, to the former West Germany, Europe's strongest economy.

There was a new autobahn to the Baltic Sea (VDE 10), a new canal near Magdeburg (VDE 17), and there were nine projects involving building new railway lines and expanding old ones. Among them was the largest and most expensive project, VDE 8, which the administration of then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), placed on the list.

Stop and Go

Building a high-speed rail connection from Berlin to southern Germany was meant to make the ICE train competitive with air travel between Munich and the German capital. The idea generated a lot of excitement, but it soon had its detractors.

In 1999, with a new ruling coalition in place made up of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party, Transportation Minister Franz Müntefering (SPD) announced a sweeping construction freeze for the "railroad line in Saxony." In saying that, Müntefering, a native of western Germany's Sauerland region, revealed his poor command of German geography, since no part of the new route would run through Saxony. Instead, it would be in the eastern states of Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia in addition to northern Bavaria. Erfurt and Ebensfeld were to be stops along the route.

The construction freeze was lifted in 2002, and the project's final budget plan was in place by 2006. The VDE 8 project is slated for completion by 2017, with an estimated total cost of €10 billion. Building it will reduce rail travel time between Berlin and Munich from about six hours to four.

Worth the Expense?

Although the difference will be noticeable, many wonder whether it really justifies the massive investment. Indeed, all leading transportation experts who have commented on the project to date have arrived at devastating conclusions. According to KCW, a Berlin transportation consulting firm that has prepared railroad assessments for clients including the Federal Environment Agency (UBA), the project is "not in keeping with transportation needs."

Sven Andersen, a railroad engineer once involved in the project's planning, says: "At no time was there a reliable operating concept that justified investing even a single euro in the VDE 8 project." He also argues that too few trains can realistically ever use the rail line.

Andersen points to publications by Deutsche Bahn and the Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development in which the number of ICE trains expected to travel on the route has repeatedly been adjusted downward. In 1994, it was 32 trains per day in each direction. At a certain point, the estimate dropped to 24. Today, it lies at only 16.

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