Stuttgart 21: The Cost of Efficiency

20 Aug

In Stuttgart 2 weeks ago I witnessed a protest-rally against Stuttgart 21.

In a time where transit projects across Europe seem to be having a problem with cost control let’s take a look and see why this project is on the table in the first place.

A New Heart of Europe

Backed by the EU, “Stuttgart 21” and the associated plan to build a 60km High-Speed line to Ulm are both part of the “New Heart of Europe” initiative, an ambitious plan to link Paris and Budapest by high speed rail. The new high-speed line will also bypass the Geislingen an der Steig incline, a major bottleneck for rail in Southern Germany, whilst the Stuttgart redevelopment will concentrate on replacing the dead-end Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof into an underground pass-through station together with a high speed rail link to the city’s airport.

Terminal Problem?

Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof (Hbf) is not the world’s greatest station. Whilst the outside looks architecturally appealing, the inside and platforms look decrepit and a renovation feels overdue. The large inner atrium is impressive but the feeling of space has been compromised by poor footfall planning (the majority of travellers are usually squeezed into tight walk-through passages and escalators), and walking through to the trains can give you the impression you’ve walked into a different station entirely, with dimly lit, dirty platforms. A larger scale problem is that it’s also a dead-end terminus.

Stuttgart lies in a naturally occurring bowl with high hills on it’s sides. It’s terminus type station, usually only found in towns close to the sea, a border or perhaps in cities with a ring of stations such as London or Paris, has an obvious constraint which counteracts efficient movement. Services which continue their journey after calling at Stuttgart have to double back, traverse the same lines for a few kilometres and in doing so travel for some time in a wrong direction. Built at a time when there was less demand for destinations to the South, the station points its tracks to the North East with services to Singen, Böblingen and Calw passing through the Nordbahnhof (North Station) before doing a U turn.

InterCity trains, for example those from Mannheim to Munich, stop for an extra amount of time then double back which produces a challenge for signalling. Due to the design, the speed of arriving and departing trains can hardly be described as brisk, and if you add the time it takes to slow down on the approach, stop, reverse, depart and start travelling in the right direction, a high speed train could have travelled over 30km.

All these points are targeted by the Stuttgart 21 project which aims to rebuild the rail network around Stuttgart like this;

So why the Protests?

The protests are against the design of the new station, doubts in the efficiency gains and, most of all, the cost of the project itself. I’m not qualified to comment on architecture and won’t comment on that aspect over and above the functional design comments I’ve made above. The efficiency gains are a matter of common sense. A terminus station in the middle of the country without a secondary station serving the opposite direction will obviously incur inefficiencies. If you were to design Stuttgart Hbf from scratch today any proposal for a dead-end station would get rejected immediately as it doesn’t make sense. It’s worth noting here that Frankfurt suffers the same problem with its main terminus station, although a solution, to some degree at least, is to route some through services to Sudbahnhof (South Station) which is an option Stuttgart doesn’t have as it lacks a secondary transport hub.

The cost issues are by far the most prevailing. As seems to be the case with most recent civil building projects, the cost of the project appears to have escalated sharply since it was approved, from €2.6bn in 2004 to €4.1bn this year.

There are some clear reasons why this may be. Simply adding on the effects of 6 years worth of inflation brings the figure close to €3bn. It has also been suggested that politicians deliberately underestimated the cost of the project only to then slowly increase it after it was approved, however the architect of the new station rebuffs this point as a “Fairytale” in this revealing interview (German).

The Cost of Complaining

The Cologne to Frankfurt high speed line is a good example of how mired things can get in German rail engineering. The route of the line was agreed by the federal government in 1993, but the final legal dispute was only settled in 1997. That’s 4 years of legal wrangling. Where does the money come from to deal with that? Originally planned to open in 1999 the whole route finally opened in July 2002, three years late. Now add on inflationary effects, security costs, the price of keeping people tied up on the project, plus the expense of dealing with legal challenges and it’s easy to see how these projects become more costly.

In Stuttgart legal challenges are highly predictable for such a controversial project, and while all views must be given the opportunity to be aired once a decision has been made it can become counter-productive to carry on protests to the point where dealing with objections leads to a self-for filling prophecy of escalating costs.

Dealing with the Concerns

Protests against the project began way back in 1997, but I’m interested in what the cost estimates were then? The project itself is completely sound as far as its objectives; however I am concerned to hear that DB plans to reduce the number of safety points inside the tunnel so that needs to be analysed.

Gradients on the route are also under scrutiny as the new route will still have notable inclines; however the new link to Ulm will provide a bypass around the freight trains tackling the gradient at Geisligen an der Steig in the same way that a road bypass works, so the reasoning is sound there.

Building the line underground will mean that a lot of land currently used for the railway can be returned for other urban projects such as new houses and office developments, this opens up further income opportunities and social benefits for all concerned.

People are right to be sceptical if they feel government has not done enough to answer the criticism of a lack of cost control so the financial books need to be opened up for scrutiny. Failure to do this will only heighten tension and reduce trust. Once these concerns have been addressed a decision needs to be made as to how to continue and then people need to be held to account regarding that decision.

If the project is stopped then the protestors will get what they want, but will have to put up with the limitations of the current transit network not just for tomorrow but for the next 20 years and the associated economic and social consequences. If the project goes ahead, politicians should be held to account if the costs escalate.

Simply weathering the storm of protests without mutually deciding on a compromise will result in years of legal battles, as experienced on other German rail projects, which will have the inevitable result of higher project costs and for that both politicians and the protestors will have a case to answer.

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