December 20, 2013, at 1:02 p.m. That's the exact moment the operating license for German national railroad operator Deutsche Bahn's newest ICE high-speed train came through from the Federal Railway Authority (EBA). Martin Steuger remembers this not because he was surprised, he says, but because he was pleased.
Steuger -- who works for Siemens, the German train manufacturer -- currently has the most thankless job in the German railway industry. A heavyset man with unshakeable good humor, he is responsible for the development of the 407-series ICE, also known as "Velaro D," which has become a massive disgrace for Siemens.
Due to a disagreement over technical details, the approval process for the train ended up taking two years longer than planned. Siemens will now deliver 17 trains instead of the 16 originally ordered -- with one thrown in for free as an apology for the delay -- and will likely pay compensation on top of that. The company's transport division now has accrued liabilities of 360 million, largely because of the Velaro D.
Steuger, one of the few top members of the development team who still has his job, is currently sitting in the dining car of his new train as it takes a demo ride. Two press relations officers are watching over him while he explains the Velaro D's story. The first thing he says: "The Federal Railway Authority didn't throw up roadblocks." It's clear Siemens has no desire to provoke the EBA.
Disasters Cause Overhaul
You need to look back as far as 2000 to understand what happened, Steuger explains. That's when railway engineers and authorities all around Europe ratcheted up licensing regulations in the wake of a disastrous ICE accident -- caused by a fractured steel tire -- that occurred on June 3, 1998. Because of an avoidable technical defect, 101 people lost their lives -- a tragedy, it was determined, that could never be allowed to happen again.
Then, on July 9, 2008, an ICE 3's wheelset axle -- made of a form of high-strength, but easily damaged steel -- broke as the train was pulling out of Cologne's central station. The EBA's regulators were once again alarmed. These days, Steuger says, "the licensing regulations are at a very high level of complexity."
As a result, the 407 series' approval process took place in a tense climate. At first, things went more or less according to plan, and in June 2012 the single-traction version with eight train cars was approved. But the double-traction train ran into trouble. "There were a number of disagreements over operational philosophy," Steuger says. "But there were no safety-related technical problems with this train at any point." (The train wheels don't have steel tires and its wheelset axles are made of well-tested steel.)
The disagreements were over other issues, like whether it was acceptable for there to be a 1.6-second delay between the moment the driver operates the brakes and when the brakes actually engage. This process is delayed in all modern trains -- the individual elements in the command chain need to be electronically checked before the instruction to brake is carried out. This doesn't create problems during normal operation, and they engage immediately in cases of emergency braking.
Some passenger trains take up to four seconds to perform that check. ICEs normally require around one second. The double-traction Velaro D took 1.6 seconds. The Federal Railway Authority considered that too long.
Siemens has since brought that time down to the usual one second, but implementing that sort of change in a train whose design is already complete is a protracted process. That half second cost the company years.
More Obstacles Remain
What happened? Were the regulators too exacting or the engineers too careless? That question is likely to remain unanswered, given both sides' desire not to rekindle the conflict.
In any case, it's clear that both sides were overwhelmed by the new regulations. In the future -- Deutsche Bahn's next major order is for a successor to the Intercity, called "ICx" -- the developers want to work closely with the Federal Railway Authority's experts from day one, to avoid unpleasant surprises down the line.
The Velaro D, meanwhile, still has three further hurdles to clear. The train was conceived as the first ICE to travel from Germany to London, and has fulfilled all fire safety provisions necessary for traveling through the Channel Tunnel. But it doesn't yet have an operating permit for the United Kingdom, nor, in fact, for the countries it would have to travel through to get there, France and Belgium.
Deutsche Bahn CEO Rüdiger Grube had only just begun his job when he declared, in 2010, that he wanted to send his ICEs to the UK in time for the 2012 Olympics. The former Daimler man didn't yet understand the way things work at Deutsche Bahn.
Siemens has not issued a hard and fast timetable for obtaining the desired operating permits in those three countries. If all goes well, it looks like the Velaro D may carry passengers to England sometime this decade. London, Steuger says, is the long-term goal.