Off Track: German Delays Put Alpine Rail Projects at Risk

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European plans call for expediting north-south train traffic with new railway tunnels in the Brenner and Gotthard passes. But Germany could be creating a bottleneck in both projects because it hasn't made much progress on access lines -- and doesn't have any money set aside to do so.

Photo Gallery: Throwing a Wrench in Transalpine Railway Plans Photos
Südd. Verlag

Kiefersfelden is a small Bavarian town just a stone's throw from Austria. Here, Mayor Erwin Rinner has a reputation for being the go-to guy when it comes to solving tough problems. At the moment, he's standing near a sign marking the southern limit of his community, but he's at a complete loss. In front of him lies the narrowest point of the Inn Valley on his side of the border, which lies just a few steps before him. Crammed into this narrow opening are already two railway lines, a highway and a river. "I don't see any room," he says. "It beats me where the other two railway lines are supposed to go."

The nearby municipality of Flintsbach faces a similar conundrum. Sandwiched in between cliffs are a freeway, railway lines, high-voltage power lines, an oil pipeline, State Road 171 and a high-pressure gas pipeline.

Plans call for things to get even tighter in this beautiful valley. In June, German Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer signed an agreement with his Austrian counterpart, Doris Bures, that obliges Germany to rapidly expand transportation routes leading to the Brenner Base Tunnel, a planned 55-kilometer (34-mile) railway tunnel through the Brenner massif. For centuries, the Brenner Pass has been the most important alpine gateway between northern and southern Europe, and the plan could slash hours of travel times between them. Germany's role in the project is to add two railway lines between Munich and Kiefersfelden.

Much Resistance, No Money

Although Ramsauer's deal was cause for celebration among Bavaria's business associations, it sparked only consternation among small-town politicians. If all goes according to plan, it could mean doubling the number of passenger and freight trains thundering through the Inn Valley each day, from 200 to 400.

Mayors and other local administrators have declared a "popular uprising," with some threatening to promote the kind of massive resistance triggered by the Stuttgart 21 urban development and railway expansion project, which saw months of camped-out protesters and headline-grabbing scuffles with police.

In response, Ramsauer announced in early July that a "planning dialogue" would be initiated with local residents. Still, he has yet to air any ideas on how trains could make it through this narrow valley without making too much racket. So far, he's only said: "I can't tunnel under an entire valley; that much is crystal-clear."

What's also clear is that both the consternation among local residents and the jubilation of the business associations were premature. Ramsauer will not be able to keep his promise. The new railway lines will cost at least €2.6 billion ($3.2 billion), and there's no way he's going to be able to fork up that hefty sum in the near future.

Empty Promises

Austria plans to be done with its railway lines approaching the tunnel -- that is, those between the border and the tunnel entrance -- in December. But Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national railway company, hasn't even finished drawing up plans for its lines. According to one senior official in Germany's Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development, the only thing done so far has been tracing a thick, black line on a map.

For decades, German transport ministers have believed that the Brenner Base Tunnel would never become a reality. In the 1990s, the No. 1 railway plan in Europe envisioned improving the route running between Berlin and Palermo. But German traffic planners have always viewed this plan as nothing more than wishful thinking.

Despite these doubts, German officials eagerly signed international agreements. The declaration of principle to create access lines came in 1994. Three years later there was a memorandum of understanding. And in 2009 there was an accord with Italy and Austria in Rome. During all this time, German economic and transportation ministers continued announcing that they would swiftly move forward with plans to build railway lines headed toward the Brenner Pass. But, at least in Germany, nothing happened.

Austria, on the other hand, got started with plans for the access routes in 1996. Since then, 22 kilometers of exploratory tunnel have been bored into the mountain.

'Up to 20 Years Behind Schedule'

In Germany, however, Ramsauer only recently signed a contract with DB Netz AG, the Deutsche Bahn subsidiary responsible for railway infrastructure, for it to plan the lines on the German side of the border. According to company estimates, finishing the lines will take six years, excluding any delays that might be caused by opposition or legal battles with local residents. Deutsche Bahn also estimates that the initial planning phase could cost €80 million, though the sum could even climb to 18 percent of total construction costs, or roughly €470 million. At the moment, neither the company nor the transportation minister can say where these funds are supposed to come from. A special financing agreement will have to be found, both DB Netz and ministry officials say.

But the budget for the new railway project is overstretched. "We don't have any money, not a cent," says Toni Hofreiter, a Green Party member who sits on the Bundestag's Transport, Building and Urban Development Committee. He says he also explained this to the business associations, "but they simply don't want to believe it."

Germany's federal budget allocates €1.2 billion to Deutsche Bahn each year for new construction projects. At the moment, some of that has already been dog-eared for the new main railway station in Stuttgart and a new stretch of high-speed tracks between Ulm and Wendlingen.

Funding has also been reserved for the important railway line leading to another tunnel: the Rhine Valley line's connection with tracks running through the Gotthard Tunnel further west. Estimates put the costs for expanding the tracks on the German side at €5.7 billion, but only €2 billion has been spent on it thus far.

The new Gotthard Base Tunnel, which will be the world's longest rail tunnel, is expected to open in 2016. By the time that happens, the upgraded lines on the German side are supposed to be completed. Germany has also commited to making that happen -- but it's not going to.

"We will be up to 20 years behind schedule with the Gotthard approach alone," Hofreiter says. "There isn't one single international rail-traffic pact that we'll be able to stick to."

Translated from the German from the German by Josh Ward

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