Stuttgart's White Elephant: Germany Spends Billions on the Wrong Rail Project

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A multibillion railway development project is going ahead in Stuttgart, despite the fact that it offers hardly any benefits for the rail network and the money would be better spent elsewhere. Experts have been warning against the plans for years, but they were ignored.

Photo Gallery: 'Stuttgart 21' Photos
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There are hundreds of little reasons to be opposed to the "Stuttgart 21" railway and urban-redevelopment project. Most of them are trees, which will be cut down as part of the work. Angry locals are now sitting on the branches of those trees in the city's Schlossgarten Park to protest against the chainsaws of power. And the massive demonstration against the plans, which involve moving Stuttgart's main railway station underground and turning it from a terminus into a through station, is starting to look more and more like an open-air festival.

There is also a big, truly compelling argument against Stuttgart 21, one that concerns all Germans and not just those living in Stuttgart: money. Or, more precisely, the extremely large amount of money that will be sunk into the project.

Current estimates put the costs of building the subterranean railway station in Stuttgart, the capital of the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg, at €4.1 billion ($5.38 billion). An associated high-speed rail line to Ulm, a city lying about 90 kilometers (56 miles) southeast of Stuttgart, is slated to cost another €3 billion.

Stuttgart 21 is one of the most expensive transportation infrastructure projects in Germany today -- and by far the most controversial.

To address the arguments of the project's critics, the people behind it have now launched an ad campaign that fires back with supposedly better arguments. When it comes to the trees, this is relatively easy: While 282 old trees will be cut down, it points out, the city plans to replace them with 293 new trees.

But when it comes to the issue of money, the case for Stuttgart 21 isn't as easy to make. "It's true that 'Stuttgart 21' is expensive," the campaign posters read. But, as they go on to explain, the funding also includes "billions from (Germany's national railway operator) Deutsche Bahn, the federal government, the state government and the European Union."

How comforting.

From Paris to Bratislava

Those in the campaign's target audience are probably smart enough to realize that -- since they aren't just Stuttgart residents, but also Germans and Europeans -- those state and EU funds are actually coming out of their pockets as well. But what, you might ask, is the payoff for Deutsche Bahn, the federal government or the EU of implementing Stuttgart 21 and building the new line to Ulm?

Deutsche Bahn CEO Rüdiger Grube offers one answer: The building project, he explains, will "eliminate the biggest bottleneck on the high-speed route from Paris to Bratislava."

Despite having been at the helm of Deutsche Bahn for more than a year now, it would seem that Grube still doesn't have his facts straight. It might help if he actually took the train from Paris to Bratislava. The roughly 13-hour trip would probably be enough to convince him that this so-called express corridor actually isn't so express and that boring tunnels through the karst formations of the Swabian Alps mountain range for the Stuttgart-Ulm line is not about to make the connection significantly more attractive.

'A Transportation-Policy Disaster'

As Düsseldorf-based engineer Sven Andersen puts it, "Stuttgart 21 does nothing for long-distance travel." Unlike Grube, Andersen has spent his entire career working in the railway industry, most recently as an expert on operational issues, and is considered one of the top experts on Germany's railway system.

As Andersen sees it, Stuttgart 21 and the related plan to built the Stuttgart-Ulm high-speed railway line are "a transportation-policy disaster." Likewise, he adds, the project seems to be based on a complete misunderstanding of Stuttgart's role in the German and European railway network. "Stuttgart is a destination," he says. "It's not a place people travel through to get someplace else. Converting the station into a through station won't be an improvement on any significant route."

Indeed, all you have to do is look at a map to realize that Stuttgart is not a central location. All fast connections between key economic zones pass through other cities. For example, the Frankfurt-Zurich route runs far west of Stuttgart through Karlsruhe and Basel, while the Frankfurt-Munich route makes a wide arch through Würzburg and Nuremberg, far north and east of Stuttgart.

What's more, while Deutsche Bahn forecasts substantial growth in traffic along these key routes, it predicts that the Stuttgart-Ulm-Munich corridor will continue to be less-frequently used. As Wolfgang Weinhold, who used to be Deutsche Bahn's director of network management, pointed out in 2007, "After Stuttgart, there's a big drop-off in traffic."

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BTraven 09/23/2010
The author is right – the new underground station would only make sense had the method engineers planed to extend the high-speed line which ends in Strasbourg now further to Stuttgart enabling customers to choose between plane and rail. After it had been built would it have been only a matter of time until the construction of its extension to Vienna would have started. O’Leary will be happy about it. He does not need to fear any competition from DB in the near future.
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