Rail network: Germany lags behind in country ranking

Whereas many European countries are making their rail networks fit for future growth in the transport sector, Germany is still investing too little in its railway infrastructure, despite record levels of spending. In a 2017 comparison with selected European countries, Germany once again only comes in near the bottom of the Europe Investment Ranking, whereas Europe’s most important major economies invest three-figure amounts in their infrastructure, according to a study compiled by the German Pro-Rail Alliance and the transport consultants SCI Verkehr.

Switzerland was ranked top with €362 per citizen, followed by Austria, which invests €187 per head of population. Both Alpine countries have for years spent higher amounts on their rail networks than on road infrastructure. But network construction is also booming in other European countries: Sweden invests €183 per citizen, in the United Kingdom network spending is €165 and in the Netherlands the figure is €128. Italy spends €73 on its network, whereas German spending of €69 per citizen means it is still not getting any closer to reducing the large funding gap between itself and other economically potent European countries. Although Germany saw a considerable increase in national spending on its railway infrastructure compared with 2016 (€64), out of all the countries examined, only Spain (€32 per capita) and France (€38) invest less their railway infrastructure.

“Our rail infrastructure may have left the years of poor funding behind it, but we still cannot talk about a real turnaround by the federal government, in spite of record investments in 2017,” said the managing director of the Pro-Rail Alliance, Dirk Flege, on 11 July in Berlin. “Although politicians of all parties are in favour of dynamic and forward-looking rail policies, funding is insufficient for bringing about a transport turnaround,” was Flege’s conclusion. Whereas Germany invested only €49 per person in its rail network in 2014, this amount had already increased to €56 in 2015 and €64 in 2016. Instead of the current €69, the actual figure required to maintain the network and make progress on network expansion and new projects is €80 per capita in absolute figures, according to the Pro-Rail Alliance managing director. “For the digitalisation of the network; for a synchronised national train timetable; for the doubling of passenger numbers by 2030, as set out in the coalition agreement; or for systematic policies for a modal shift in freight transport, as envisaged in the federal transport ministry’s masterplan for rail freight transport: on network expansion we need to think two sizes bigger,” said Flege.

The Pro-Rail Alliance said that above all there should be a shift in priorities. Germany has for years invested considerably more money in road construction than in its railway infrastructure, said Flege. “The transit states in the Alps are facilitating a modal shift towards a more environmentally compatible transport system with targeted investments in their rail networks, whereas Germany is still on the wrong track with its focus on the roads and then wonders why it will miss it climate goals.”

“Germany has already reduced track access charges this year in order to get more transport onto the railways, and this makes increasing network capacity all the more imperative,” said Flege, adding that official forecasts point to a massive increase in rail freight transport in the coming decades. “In order to be prepared, the federal government should immediately follow the lead set by Switzerland and Austria and make the railways its top priority. Accelerated planning processes, digitalisation and upgrades to the network to allow freight trains with a length of 740 metres to operate must all be at the top of the agenda. Just as important: removing bottlenecks to enable a synchronised national train timetable and an ambitious programme of electrification in all federal states so that we can achieve a level of 70% network electrification by 2025.”

The managing director of transport consultants SCI Verkehr, Maria Leenen, agreed with the estimates that Germany should aim for an investment volume of €80 per citizen. “Germany is well off but we spend less on the railways than many of our European neighbours,” said Leenen. “This means that Germany is not only slowing down its own domestic freight transport, it is also putting the brakes on European transport corridors.” Leenen pointed to the fact that Switzerland was impacted by the line closure near Rastatt in Germany in 2017, with Swiss rail freight transport suffering a noticeable loss in market share. “In Germany we desperately need more network redundancy to ensure that a line failure does not once again cause another Trans-European high-speed main line to be completely blocked,” said Leenen.

However, the SCI managing director welcomed the recent shift in Germany’s investment policies. “We can feel a noticeable tailwind. The message that the railways have for years been dramatically underfunded has now reached politicians.” At the same time Leenen called for a pan-European approach on construction projects on the national rail networks. This is why the EU’s Court of Auditors voiced criticism at the end of June, saying that national states’ high-speed networks often resembled a “patchwork” and that construction on lines crossing national borders was not given any priority. It was only recently that the Pro-Rail Alliance highlighted the insufficient state of development of freight lines crossing national borders, said Leenen. “Of the 57 railway border crossings in Germany only 25 are equipped with overhead power cables. Germany is now looking at upgrades to alleviate bottlenecks and should set a good example by also giving consideration to border crossings.