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."
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."
Ignoring the Experts
The situation was no different in 1988, when Professor Gerhard Heimerl first proposed the tunnel idea -- before being promptly shot down by railway experts. In an essay examining the proposal in February 1992, Deutsche Bahn's then director of locomotion, Eberhard Happe, wrote that it made sense "to transport people traveling between the Rhine/Ruhr region, Frankfurt and Munich on trains passing through Würzburg," which lies roughly 150 kilometers (93 miles) northeast of Stuttgart. More specifically, he added that: "This eliminates the need to spend billions to make the Stuttgart-Ulm route extremely fast."
Happe was even more sharply critical of the plan to put a tunnel under Stuttgart and an underground train station on top of sloping ground. As he put it: "A platform line downward gradient of more than 1.6 percent in the train station of a major city -- which is not allowed according to regulations for railroad construction and operation -- must be viewed as illegal."
This harsh verdict had consequences -- for Happe himself. Then-Deutsche Bahn CEO Heinz Dürr tried to take disciplinary action against Happe, but he failed.
Keeping the Ball Rolling
Like Grube, Dürr came to be head of Deutsche Bahn after working in a different industry. At the time, he was very enthusiastic about Stuttgart 21 and preferred to close his ears to experts who doubted its wisdom. In February 1994, Ulf Häusler, a senior executive in Deutsche Bahn's track division, filled out an information sheet needed to apply for the launch of a regional planning process related to the Stuttgart-Ulm route. Under item 2, labeled "Proposed Route," Häusler wrote: "The approach to the Stuttgart main railway station will stay as it is."
In a section entitled "Key Requirements of the State (Stuttgart Long-Distance Rail Tunnel with Connection to the Main Train Station)," Häusler wrote: "These requirements could not be included." Ultimately, he concluded, the project would not be economically feasible "even under the most favorable of scenarios."
Nevertheless, the state and city governments kept the ball rolling. The potential benefits that the development project would have for the regional economy were far too enticing, and the city of Stuttgart was thrilled at the prospect of acquiring the enormous piece of property the current track system was sitting on -- and opening it up to developers. The trick was to convince the federal government and Deutsche Bahn that a project that had been so roundly criticized by so many people was actually a good idea. And proponents of the plan were encouraged by the fact that, at the time, two Baden-Württemberg natives held key decision-making positions related to such projects.
Two months after Happe's negative assessment, Dürr fired the initial salvo for the massive project at a now-legendary press conference. There, he was flanked by then-Transportation Minister Matthias Wissmann, then-Baden-Württemberg Governor Erwin Teufel and Manfred Rommel, the mayor of Stuttgart at the time. All four were natives of Swabia, the region surrounding Stuttgart, and all four backed the tunnel project. And, so, the foundation was laid for wasting a massive amount of money.
Stop, Go, Stop, Go, Go
If you were to hypothesize on what might have motivated Dürr to promote Stuttgart 21, you could come up with a lot of answers. For example, as the scion of a family of Stuttgart industrialists, Dürr could certainly recognize the importance of such a development project for the local economy. Still, higher-ups from Deutsche Bahn had already informed him a while back that the plan wouldn't help the company.
But then the project was suspended for a while. Dürr's successor, Johannes Ludewig, a colorless and cautious man with a background in politics, put Stuttgart 21 on ice for the time being.
Then, yet another industry outsider almost got the project on track again. Looking back, if you are going to say that Dürr's tenure as CEO of Deutsche Bahn was marked by incompetence and Ludewig's by hesitancy, you'd have to say that Hartmut Mehdorn's was characterized by dreaming too big. The former aviation industry executive -- who, in his determination to take Deutsche Bahn public at any cost, imposed austerity measures that led to disastrous drops in quality levels -- had a thing for oversized construction projects.
With Mehdorn at the helm of Deutsche Bahn, Stuttgart 21 went into the execution phase. Still, even just trying to hammer out a professional infrastructure plan failed. When the state hired SMA, a Swiss transportation-planning company, to evaluate the overall plan in 2008, the experts discovered embarrassing engineering mistakes.
Most importantly, however, the narrow, eight-track transit station called for in the plan did not at all align with the city's needs. SMA concluded that: "Routes that terminate in Stuttgart must be avoided if at all possible." But it was an absurd demand for Stuttgart, given its status as a classic destination city within the rail network.
Connecting the Railway Dots
Constructing a new high-speed line to Ulm also creates more problems. Granted, it will reduce the traveling time along the route going east by half an hour. But the fact is that upgrading the track that is already there -- which has been heavily neglected and is currently in poor shape -- could alone reduce that time by 15 minutes. Doing so would be cheaper and cut the travel time between Munich and Stuttgart to an attractive two hours.
Likewise, the only way to justify the cost of building the high-speed line would be to guarantee that it will attract a lot more passengers to this particular route. But that doesn't seem to be in the cards. In a presentation on the issue, Deutsche Bahn itself only highlighted how the line would improve connections from Mannheim, Frankfurt and Cologne to the small city of Ulm.
In fact -- just as Happe, the critic reprimanded by former CEO Dürr, concluded 18 years earlier -- the far-more-important Frankfurt-Munich route will continue to pass through northern Bavaria. And, in any case, travelers can already reach their destination more quickly along this route than they would be able to if they were travelling via Stuttgart and Ulm on the planned high-speed segment.
The line also promises to be a challenging engineering feat. For example, the line would have to pass through karst rock formations. Cavities in these formations are extremely difficult to detect beforehand, and if they are encountered, it will drive up construction costs even higher.
What's more, the trains that will be allowed to travel on this section of track will also be extraordinarily expensive. For example, the tracks running parallel to a 16-kilometer (10-mile) section of the autobahn would have an average gradient of about 2.5 percent. A steep section of that length "corresponds to the characteristics of railroads in the Alps," says Andersen, the railway expert. And having high-speed trains travel along this corridor would place enormous demands on their engines and brakes.
Of all the high-speed trains currently operating in Europe, only the ICE 3 model could be used on the route because it has an underfloor drive system and additional eddy-current brakes, which operate electromagnetically and are therefore not susceptible to fatigue. However, the route between Munich and Stuttgart has traditionally been travelled by Intercity trains, which are older and pulled by locomotives.
At some point in the next decade, the railroad industry will replace these trains. But then it will have to develop a train that is designed to operate at normal speeds of up to 250 kilometers per hour (155 mph) and that is equipped with the most sophisticated brakes available today -- and all of this just to satisfy the demands of a short segment between Stuttgart and Ulm.
If you take all these facts into consideration, you have no choice but to conclude that, instead of representing progress, Stuttgart 21 would merely translate into horrendous costs with hardly any appreciable benefits.
Still -- unlike other, truly urgently needed construction projects -- it has already gone through the entire approval process. For example, Deutsche Bahn network experts have been lobbying for years to build a high-speed rail line between Mannheim and Frankfurt, which would also benefit Stuttgart. But even though it would close a critical gap in the German rail network, the plan has long been blocked as a result of disagreements with the city governments of Mannheim, Darmstadt and Frankfurt.
Likewise, it's also true that Stuttgart would get more out of having an improved rail connection to Paris than from having an underground train station. Even though high-speed trains -- German ICE trains and French TGV ones -- travel along this route, the trip between these two cities still takes about four hours. The only thing lacking are good tracks on the German side.
The French national railroad, on the other hand, has already built high-speed rail track almost all the way to the German border. More than 18 years ago, the German and French transportation ministers signed an agreement stipulating that the Germans were going to provide connections to their high-speed rail network. But the Germans have yet to keep that promise.
Closing the gap north of the border city of Strasbourg, in northeastern France, would reduce travel time by about 40 minutes, Andersen says. If this were to be done, he believes, rail connections from Frankfurt and Stuttgart to Paris would finally become competitive with air travel. And total construction costs would amount to €1.5 billion -- or less than a quarter of the budget for Stuttgart 21.