The debacle surrounding the Berlin airport, the country's biggest public infrastructure scandal, has made headlines around the world in recent months, bringing shame to a Germany whose own construction and engineering companies are often contracted around the globe to complete projects on a similarly grand scale. Now, a second multi-billion project appears to be in jeopardy: The massive Stuttgart 21 railway project. It looks like it may be on the path to becoming the country's second outsized white elephant.
With the recent announcement the project would come in at several billion euros over its original price tag, Berlin has been slowly turning its back on the project. A growing number of people in the federal government are questioning whether Stuttgart 21 will now ever actually be completed. Both the Stuttgarter Zeitung newspaper and SPIEGEL ONLINE have obtained information indicating that the three German government representatives on the supervisory board for the project now view it highly critically.
"The arguments for not refusing further financing are weak," states an internal paper from the federal Transportation Ministry obtained by the Stuttgarter Zeitung. As the primary shareholder of Germany's national railway, Deutsche Bahn, which is in charge of the project, the federal government "currently sees no sufficient basis," for agreeing to Deutsche Bahn CEO Rüdiger Grube's request for additional funding for the multibillion-euro prestige project, it states.
German Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer sought to deny the government was distancing itself from Stuttgart 21 in an interview with a public broadcaster, saying, "that's nonsense." But it would be a stretch to interpret the paper circulating in his ministry as being anything less. A spokesperson for his ministry later clarified that the government is seeking an open debate, but that in no way suggests it is "moving away from its plan."
The Stuttgart 21 project, if completed, would transform a terminus into a through station, create a high-speed rail line between the Baden-Württemburg capital city and Ulm and open up space once cut off by railway lines to create an entire new neighbourhood once those tracks are placed underground. Although the project was approved in a public referendum in 2011, it has remained deeply controversial and a magnet for mass public protests.
Officially, Deutsche Bahn says the project will be completed by 2020, but Stuttgart 21 has already been plagued with delays, and Transportation Ministry officials in Berlin are offering an internal forecast that it will not be finished until 2024.
Deutsche Bahn officials so far haven't commented on the Transportation Ministry's internal paper.
Questions over Future Funding
The paper had been prepared in advance of a meeting of the project's supervisory board on Tuesday and also includes additional details. It states, for example, that the project can only bring a return on investment for Deutsche Bahn if excess costs do not exceed €1.8 billion, but cost overruns are already estimated at €2.3 billion, bringing the total expected expense to €6.8 billion.
Transportation Ministry experts have also criticized Deutsche Bahn for informing the supervisory board too late and at times incorrectly about whether funding has really been secured for the project. In the paper, the officials also state that the current cost overrun estimates are inconclusive and that the government cannot justify making additional billions available.
Following the airport disaster in Berlin, which has seen the opening of the city's international hub delayed by several years because of technical problems, other public infrastructure projects in the country have come under major scrutiny, including Stuttgart 21. The internal government paper even suggests a possible renovation of the current train station as an alternative to the costly project.
In addition to the federal government, the Stuttgart 21 project is being financed by owner Deutsche Bahn, the state of Baden-Württemberg and the City of Stuttgart. Both the state and the city, which are governed by members of the environmentalist Green Party, have refused to cover any of the cost overruns. Instead, they have pushed for the federal government to state whether it will cover the costs.
'Cat and Mouse Game'
At the national level, the Greens co-chairperson Cem Özdemir, whose party has long opposed Stuttgart 21, has called for the government and Deutsche Bahn to make all documents relating to the project public and to "stop their cat and mouse game." Özdemir also criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democratic Union for the continued support she has given the project.
"If the price and performance of the train station are out of balance with each other, then Deutsche Bahn needs to finally come up with alternatives and review them unconditionally," Özdemir, who hails from the state, said. "The government can't in doubt always come up with further billions for an underground train station -- especially if it comes at the cost of other railway station projects in Germany."
The latest developments have also drawn citicism from politicians in Merkel's junior coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). The party's transportation issues spokesman, Oliver Luksic, said: "The cost explosion is eating away at Deutsche Bahn's capital to the extent that we will have to urgently rethink the project."