Poland has a problem with Germany’s efforts to reduce the noise on the railways.
Warsaw fears that German plans to bring forward a ban on noisy, older freight wagons by four years to December 2020 will mean Polish freight trains being stopped at the border, or having to travel through Austria and Italy to reach Atlantic ports.
“This would halt the further development and expansion of Polish rail freight operators in West European markets,” Andrzej Bittel, Poland's deputy infrastructure minister, said in a statement last week.
While Germany has invested more than €1bn in the past two decades to quieten its rail traffic, Poland has negotiated an exemption from EU rules allowing it to operate noisier freight trains until the end of 2036. The details of the new specs for rail carriages were agreed in January.
But Berlin is plowing ahead as it seeks to encourage a shift in freight traffic from road to rail, and plans to ban loud trains from the national network as of next year. That’s four years earlier than mandated by the EU rules, which set technical specifications for trains.
Germany’s Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer on Tuesday announced plans to begin monitoring the level of noise at 19 measuring points along key rail lines that carry more than 70% of national freight traffic, as the country aims to halve rail noise pollution by next year.
“Noise protection from rail means quality of life at home,” said Scheuer. “The railway will be a good, and quiet, neighbor and as soon as it becomes demonstrably quieter for the residents, the acceptance that we need to shift more traffic to the railways will increase.”
Much of the noise comes from the braking technology used in carriages. To assuage complaints from other countries, the German government already said that exceptions would be made for older trains running so slowly that they don’t generate excess noise.
But Poland maintains that if Germany does impose its ban in 2020, that “would violate the law of the European Union in a gross manner,” the Polish government said in a statement.
According to Warsaw, the EU deal states freight trains that don't meet the criteria can still move across the bloc until the end of December 2024, giving it access to the full EU market during the transition. But Germany’s plans could stop Poland's trains in their tracks.
Noise pollution is responsible for 16,600 premature deaths each year across the bloc, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA).
Although road transport is the biggest offender, the EEA reckons 19m Europeans are affected by rail noise above 55 decibels — the EU’s threshold — which is roughly equivalent to the ambient sound in a restaurant. The World Health Organization recommended in October that rail noise should be kept beneath 54 decibels during the day, and 44 decibels at night, to avoid “adverse health effects.”
While locals living in the flight paths of major airports such as London’s Heathrow or Brussels’ Zaventem have loudly voiced their opposition to night flights and extra runways, those living along the thousands of kilometers of rail track through Europe have until now been less vocal.
But Berlin’s effort to incentivize a rapid shift to rail means it now has to persuade locals not to launch similarly tricky "Nimby" offensives against rail development. That includes in the Rhine Valley south of Cologne; east of Dresden, where freight travels to the Czech border through the Elbe Valley through towns and villages; and with traffic through the densely populated former industrial heartland of the Ruhr.
The main cause of railway noise is cast-iron brakes, and retrofits that replace them with plastic alternatives or cladding on train wheels and brakes have been shown to reduce noise by as much as 10 decibels.
State rail company Deutsche Bahn said it has spent €1.4bn on cutting the din since 1999 in Germany, including by improving wagon brakes and installing noise barriers. Last year, DB said it spent €100m on 45 km of insulating fences running trackside, and funding soundproof windows in 2,200 apartments.
Andreas Gehlhaar, who works on noise protection and environmental issues at DB, said that policy is key to the country’s environmental push.
It’s not just Germany’s keenness that presents a problem — Switzerland also plans to implement a December 2020 deadline, according to the Polish ministry.
“Such a situation would be very unfavorable for Polish freight transporters,” Bittel said. “Those whose wagons do not meet the criteria of the rail noise directive would not be able to use the rail networks of Germany and Switzerland as of December 2020, and the transit of goods to the rest of Europe would have to take place by avoiding those countries.”
The ministry said it had raised the issue at a meeting with the European Commission this month, and the Commission had “expressed its understanding of the Polish position and declared openness to engage in talks with EU countries.”
A Commission spokesperson said in a statement that it “wants to boost rail freight as this is the most energy efficient way to move cargo over longer distances and EU-wide coordination is essential to maintain the interoperability of railway systems in Europe.”
The Commission has also offered up cash to countries to retrofit their old rolling stock, the official said.