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.
Fast, But Perhaps Not Fast Enough
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.
The One-Size-Fits-All Rail Line
Still, it is precisely this ability to carry freight traffic that has made the new line so expensive.
Heavy freight trains weigh roughly five times as much as full passenger trains, which means that they can only handle slight inclines. Indeed, lines on which freight trains can travel without requiring two locomotives cannot exceed a barely perceptible incline of 1.25 percent. Such is the case, for example, with lines that traverse the Alps.
On the other hand, routes designed to accommodate an ICE train traveling at 300 kilometers per hour can have only barely perceptible curves.
Satisfying these two requirements produces a line that slices straight through the landscape without inclines or curves. And this is also the reason that the segment passing through the Thuringian Forest, largely underground, could be referred to as Germany's longest subway.
It makes much more sense to design express lines exclusively for passenger trains, as was the case with France's TGV lines and the new German route between Cologne and the Rhine/Main region near Frankfurt. With inclines of up to 3.5 -- or even 4 percent, in Germany -- these lines can pass through mountainous regions while requiring relatively few tunnels. On the other hand, freight trains, which already travel at slower speeds, continue to use the old tracks.
Bending the Railway Rules
The supposed one-size-fits-all line through Thuringia also has the flaw that it failed, by a small margin, to actually guarantee that it would not exceed the maximum incline of 1.25 percent. In four locations, the planners chose a 2 percent gradient to avoid driving costs up even further.
But what happens if a freight train has to stop and then start up again along one of these segments?
Olaf Drescher is the overall director of the VDE 8 project. When confronted with this question, he reflects for a moment before saying: "Then we might have a problem."
The problem would be that the train would be stuck because the wheels of the locomotive would spin in place. The engineer would then have to back the train onto a flatter segment and make another attempt -- which isn't exactly the kind of maneuver one wants to see on a line where ICE trains are traveling at 300 kilometers per hour.
Drescher insists that this sort of horror scenario is merely a "theoretical case." He points out that the segments with the 2 percent gradients are "short ramps" and that signaling technology can be used to ensure that "trains do not come to a stop there."
However, one can't impose a categorical ban on bringing trains to a full stop on rail lines -- and Drescher knows this. But despite the fact that the four steeper segments along the route offer critics plenty of talking points, their construction is no longer up for debate.
In contrast to the Stuttgart 21 project, more than half of the total budget of €10 billion has already been spent, and most of the structures have been built or are almost complete. Indeed, the oldest bridge along the new route has already been standing for 10 years.
Questionable Investment or Cultural Asset?
Drescher is sitting in a visitors' center along the new railroad line south of Leipzig, playing host to a group of Japanese civil engineers. Sandwiches are served and a Deutsche Bahn official gives a PowerPoint presentation. When trains start running on the new tracks in 2017, 30 million cubic meters (1.06 billion cubic feet) of earth and stone will have been moved and 4.5 million cubic meters of concrete will have been used.
Drescher mentions the beauty of the engineering structures, including the graceful bridge piers, which are also meant to serve as a sort of trademark for the new line.
Defining infrastructure as a cultural asset is a way of looking at things that even some critics share. In fact, a KCW expert recently described Germany's expensive ICE lines as the "Neuschwanstein of the Modern Age" in reference to the 19th-century Bavarian castle that has become an international symbol of German engineering -- as well as a renowned wihte elephant for its enormous cost.