THE German government, formed by an unprecedented three-way coalition of the centre left Social Democrats, the Green Party and the more centre right Free Democrats, came to office following the 2021 general election having concluded a lengthy coalition agreement that prioritised transport spending on rail infrastructure over new roads, especially motorways.
But German political commentators have noted that the agreement included multiple policy priorities from each party but did not rank them in order of precedence, which is now leading to disputes over future spending. The Free Democrats who control the Finance Ministry are determined to reign in borrowing to return government debt to pre-pandemic levels.
This mix of competing policies is threatening to undermine anticipated higher investment in rail as the Free Democrats, who also control the Transport Ministry, have proposed building new motorways instead.
This was specifically excluded from the coalition agreement, which stated that expenditure on the road network would focus on repair and maintenance and would shrink as a proportion of total transport expenditure to fund an increase in rail infrastructure investment. The coalition agreement states that “we want to invest significantly more in rail than in road, in order to prioritise the implementation of Deutschland Takt [national regular interval timetable] projects.”
Transport minister, Mr Volker Wissing, with some support from the Social Democrat party, who represent the largest bloc in the coalition, is proposing to construct new motorways, arguing that traffic forecasts show that the number of cars on the road will increase in the coming decades. In doing so, he is apparently ignoring the coalition agreement to double rail passenger numbers by 2030 while increasing rail’s market share to 25%.
Wissing has also told the European Union that Germany no longer supports the planned ban on new cars with internal combustion engines from 2035, insisting on an exemption for so-called “e-fuels” derived from hydrogen, which has caused widespread criticism from other European countries. The coalition agreement committed the new German government to ensuring one million public electric car recharging points were in place by 2030, in part as a means of pushing the German car industry to fully embrace the transition away from petrol and diesel.
Organisations representing the rail sector have reacted negatively to the political discussions. German pro-rail lobby group Allianz pro Schiene has accused Wissing of being “fatalistic” for proposing policies based on unfounded forecasts that are pessimistic about the speed of the modal shift from road to rail.
In early March, Wissing used a traffic forecast commissioned by his ministry for 2051 to justify his current plans to build more motorways, claiming this represented “actual events” and he was pursuing a “fact-based policy.”
Allianz pro Schiene chairman, Mr Martin Burkert, described Wissing’s statements as outrageous, and said it amounted to “an unacceptable rejection of the goal enshrined in the coalition agreement of increasing the market share of freight railways.” Burkert points out the ministry forecast contained no incentivisation assumptions for freight to switch from road despite that being government policy.
Deutschland Takt delayed?
The German media has reported that the Deutschland Takt timetable due to be implemented in 2030 could be delayed for a considerable time after state secretary for transport, Mr Michael Theurer, told local media that the timetable will only be implemented “in the next 50 years as a project of the century.”
The reality is more mundane as Mr Scheuer explained that a long list of rail infrastructure projects, some barely started, were specifically listed in the 2021 coalition agreement. However, full implementation of Deutschland Takt always relied on infrastructure projects that were never planned to be completed, or in some cases even under construction, by 2030. This included new tunnels for through long-distance services under Frankfurt, the new Ulm - Augsburg and Frankfurt - Mannheim high-speed lines, and the new S-Bahn tunnel west of Hamburg main station.
Planning work for all these projects is underway but construction is unlikely to be completed until 2030 or 2040. Allianz pro Schiene has criticised the government’s mention of a 50-year implementation process, pointing out that the 181 infrastructure projects needed to deliver the new timetable could and should be accelerated, with most completed in the mid-2030s, not the 2070s.