How the German Minister of Transport reinvents the sleeping car and the trans-European railway
This is a translation of the original interview in NachDenkSeiten, and published with permission from this on-line magazine.
Crazy times: Practically out of nowhere, Andreas Scheuer discovered the advantages of an integrated European rail transport system for himself – with “fast through connections”, regular-interval timetables and night trains. The Federal Minister of Transport presented corresponding business games to his EU colleagues the week before. For Joachim Holstein, the concept appears to be copied from passenger associations. The railway activist meets the change of heart of the CSU “car man” with a mixture of confidence and scepticism. Even nonsense projects like Stuttgart 21 are still on the government agenda, he remarks in an interview with NachDenkSeiten. Ralf Wurzbacher spoke with him.
About the person
Joachim Holstein, born in 1960, was a night train attendant with Deutsche Bahn until the state-owned company withdrew the “City Night Line” type of train from service at the end of 2016, in order to offer only thinned-out night transport in seating carriages from then on. Holstein is involved in various rail and passenger initiatives, including “Pro Bahn”, “Bürgerbahn statt Börsenbahn” and the European “Back on Track” network, which is specifically committed to the establishment and expansion of cross-border night train services. (https://back-on-track.eu)
Mr Holstein, on Monday of the previous week, Federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU) slipped into a role that was untypical for him: as the mastermind of a trans-European railway. He presented corresponding business games at a “rail summit” with the participation of his EU colleagues as well as representatives of the EU Commission and various railway companies. The core of the plans is the revival of the Trans-Europ-Express (TEE), which was discontinued more than 30 years ago, and which operated between the states of the European Economic Community (EEC) as well as Austria and Switzerland from 1957 to 1987. This was the model for the future high-speed and night trains to provide “fast through connections” to many major cities. Were you too amazed by all this?
Oh yes, because it is more than strange that Mr Scheuer suddenly changes from brakeman to pioneer. So far, the Federal Government and Deutsche Bahn have responded with rejection to every initiative to improve European rail transport. Most recently, just a few weeks ago, when the Swedish and Danish governments presented their concept for night trains from Stockholm to Hamburg-Berlin and from Malmö to Brussels, combined with start-up financing. German government immediately made it clear that there would be no start-up aid in Germany. They are spending billions on Lufthansa and the car industry, but not a cent on European trains.
People are capable of change
That’s for sure! In any case, after three months of the Council Presidency, a concept suddenly appears which reads like “Rail for all”, “Back on Track” and so on. We have been calling for cooperation instead of competition from the state railways, a European vehicle pool and a customer-friendly booking platform for rail travel from Narvik to Lisbon and from Glasgow to Athens for years! If you look at the night train connections known as “EuroNight” in the Scheuer paper and add to this the “Lunaliner” night train network presented by “Bahn für alle” and “Bürgerbahn statt Börsenbahn” in 2016, the similarities are astounding.
Nevertheless, the press material of his ministry states that the concept is based on Scheuer’s “initiative” …
So vanity probably won out over honesty. Usually well-informed sources from the ministry or the DB group – we always call them “Max Mole” – report that Jean-Pierre Farandou, who was appointed head of the French state railway SNCF last year, was the driving force behind the concept during his time there, when he was responsible for international business. Farandou is a railwayman from the ground up, something that is no longer known in the Berlin railway tower. And the media might have noticed during the presentation that the slides of the consulting agency are from January 2020, so it’s not a fluffy rush as a reaction to corona measures, but there’s more behind it.
But should the real originator or originators simply put up with the fact that the „Car Guy” Scheuer, of all people, is adorned with their feathers?
During the live streams of Scheuer’s press briefing before and the press conference afterwards, someone should have jumped out of the scenery every two minutes and asked: “Who invented it? Imagine that: Scheuer not only presented the TEE concept as a German idea, but also called Germany the best railway country and quasi the inventor of the regular interval timetable. So if I were Swiss, Dutch or Austrian …
The paper reads somewhat differently. At least it admits that other countries are already using the planning methods that are now being projected and already have a high-frequency network of long-distance trains. After all, we only have this on a few lines, but since the abolition of the Interregios it is no longer available overall.
I do not know what happened at the conference itself, which was not transmitted. But I assume that everything was clarified in advance to such an extent that all EU transport ministers were able to support the concept. Many of them have been annoyed for years with Germany as a brakeman, whether it be Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands or Austria. Now, when Scheuer plays the hero at his home game, they might say to themselves: “Well, if it helps.”
And has it helped? Apart from the question of copyright: How did you like the content of Scheuer’s lecture?
Mostly good – because most of it meets the requirements of railway initiatives. It is a recognised fact that transfer-free connections are better than multiple transfers with scarce connections. The same applies to the fact that crazy hurdles caused by different standards in different countries have to be removed – in my car I don’t have to change tyres at the border and buy a different warning triangle. And we have been preaching for years that night trains can travel 2,000 kilometres and thus replace not only short but also medium-haul flights.
So there is nothing to complain about?
Well, for many things I have to say: you could have done all this years ago. – That has happened before, and the German government and DB have just ruined it. – One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and a single TEE per day on long-haul routes doesn’t make a regular service. This would require additional TEEs at least every two hours, even in sections.
Without going into too much detail: It is true that a large part can be implemented “practically immediately”, i.e. with the next timetable change that has not yet been planned through. I only discovered one serious mistake: The night train from Amsterdam to Venice and Genoa is to be put on the fast track between Cologne and Frankfurt, which is technically impossible. Only the special ICE3, where every second axle is driven, can manage this (steep) roller coaster line.
Are there any other horsefeet?
Scheuer clearly waves with the magic wand that the TEE concept in its second stage would only be possible if major projects such as Stuttgart 21, the Fehmarnbelt tunnel and a Tempo-300 line between Hanover and Bielefeld were built, and without complaints from the citizens. As in the discussion about the “Germany Tact”, the suspicion arises that a concept that is perceived as positive by people is to be misused as a lever to push through useless or even harmful construction projects – and the annoying citizen protests are to be dealt with at the same time. Please not like this!
In a recent NDR report, it was shown very clearly that citizens do not want to be obstructors, but creators. For the Hanover-Bielefeld link there was a route concept agreed between regional politicians and citizens’ initiatives, but this was rejected by Berlin. And take Stuttgart 21: Interested companies, media houses and politicians are happy to put the symbolic yucky beetle in the foreground – because they do not want to talk about the destruction of railway infrastructure, the deterioration of connections and the fire-dangerous construction.
So I see demagogy coming towards us according to the principle: “Yes, if you want to have European trains, then you have to …”. I would then say: yes, then we must get rid of the many small bottlenecks. Then we need a few switches here, like in Frankfurt, a second overhead line there, like in Strasbourg, so that normal ICE trains can also go there, or passing tracks – all more sensible, cheaper and much more efficient than the orgies in concrete and the celebration of new top speeds beyond 250 km/h.
The Federal Administrative Court (BVG) in Leipzig is currently hearing several lawsuits by environmentalists against the planned Fehmarnbelt crossing. In the EU planning games for a “trans-European long-distance network” (TEN-T), the megaproject represents “an essential element of the central north-south axis between Scandinavia and Central Europe“. Are the fine sayings about borderless rail travel by day and night just a can opener for gigantism and moneymaking?
You have to be suspicious of that. After all, we have seen in many places how figures and forecasts have been artfully juggled in order to make construction projects appear sensible which, when viewed correctly, are useless or even harmful. This ranges from the 2nd main line of the Munich S-Bahn via Stuttgart 21 and the Frankfurt city tunnel to the Thüringer-Wald underground, i.e. the ICE line Erfurt-Nuremberg. Fictitious goods train traffic has been included to make it appear economical. And everywhere better alternatives were ignored.
And this is repeated in the Fehmarnbelt?
It’s not exactly as if the capacities there were not sufficient, there was only one train every four hours and the ferries easily managed the car and truck traffic. The reason given for crossing the Belt is “expected demand” – but this alleged demand is the additional traffic induced by new construction. With the Fehmarn tunnel comes the fact that the ferry operators do not give up without a fight and have a weighty argument on their side: The truck drivers can take their rest on board. This is not possible in the tunnel. And with the railways, trains can already pass through from Lapland to southern Italy, they have to run via Funen and Jutland. The biggest bottleneck there is the Rendsburg high bridge, with a six-kilometre diversion, sometimes at a leisurely pace. So where does that leave the tunnel project and the upgrading of the other routes? Less concrete, less profit, less interest than the Belt?
After all, the project has only partly grown on German dung …
And the fact that the Scandinavian side is obviously wildly determined to build the tunnel is of course a comfortable situation for the German side. But they were ready to negotiate a new line south of Puttgarden. The single-track Fehmarnsund Bridge is a listed building, and Baltic seaside resorts are to be disconnected from the railway for a new track along the Lübeck-Oldenburg motorway.
And Hamburg’s main railway station would be even more congested than it already is because the connecting curve to the south is only single-track and the line from Lübeck to Lüneburg with a branch towards Berlin is single-track and not electrified. An extension – the first since 1878! – was not included in the Federal Transport Infrastructure Plan 2030 “because of high investment costs”. The new TEE concept therefore also envisages the TEE Stockholm-Berlin-Munich and the EuroNight Stockholm-Berlin-Budapest from Lübeck via Bad Kleinen and Schwerin. However, this still requires the laying of an overhead line and the construction of a connecting curve in Bad Kleinen. It is the usual: A prestige project here – a lot of patchwork there. Instead of approaching an infrastructure as an overall plan, as Switzerland does.
After all, Switzerland is regarded as the great model of a functioning interval traffic system. How far away from this ideal is the promised “Deutschland-Takt”, which according to the German government aims to double passenger numbers by 2030?
Approximately as far as the German telephone network from a nationwide broadband expansion, which is the responsibility of the same ministry. But polemics aside and to cut a long story short: For a nationwide Integral Timetable (ITF), many platform edges and independent access tracks are needed, and for a doubling of the number of passengers, many additional trains and personnel are needed. Unfortunately, Germany is far from achieving this.
Do you have an example of this?
The S21-critical “Engineers 22” are a good place to read up on the subject.
If you look at the “timetable rosette” that Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Hesse – a member of “Bürgerbahn statt Börsenbahn” – has drawn up on the basis of the BMVI target timetable 2030 for Stuttgart, you can see that the opposite of an ITF is planned here, given the fairly even distribution of arrivals and departures over the 60 minutes. This is what happens when decisions are made without any sense or reason, but with political bias and sympathy for tunnel boring machine manufacturers and construction companies. Switzerland, on the other hand, has planned the other way around: There, the timetable was first drawn up and then it was analysed where which construction measures were necessary to achieve the travel times between the nodes that would make sense for an ITF.
They say that you learn from your mistakes. So shouldn’t the German government, which has been the same for seven years, have a lot of room for improvement in terms of rail policy?
A learning process actually involves identifying and naming mistakes. But there is a huge lack of this, from railway privatisation to going public and the unreasonable construction projects to night trains. As is well known, these were abolished against our better judgment. At the beginning of 2015, Ulrich Homburg, the railway board member responsible for passenger transport at the time, told the Bundestag transport committee about night trains: “Stable demand situation. The trains are well booked”. He thus admitted that the railway had lied to the public – and to its owner – with its years of talk of allegedly declining demand and a dying niche. Figures were available which proved the opposite, and the changes to the night train concept put into effect by DB 2015 even led to an increase in passenger numbers of over ten percent in 2016, in some areas of over 50 percent. Every additional car that DB built into the night trains was booked out in no time at all and permanently!
Despite this, the division came to an end in December 2016. Ronald Pofalla, member of the Board of Management of Deutsche Bahn, explained the reasoning at the time: “Night trains are totally uneconomical”
You have to imagine in 2014, Deutsche Bahn asked its night train customers what they would do if night trains did not exist. Three quarters said, fly, drive a car, not travel at all. Only one quarter wanted to or could change to the ICE. In its “target group analysis” at the time, the railways defamed travellers who wanted to travel in an environmentally friendly way or were not allowed to fly for medical reasons as “flight phobics and railway nostalgics”. At the same time, the most solvent and time-sensitive clientele – long-distance commuters, business travellers, scientists and politicians – was completely ignored. Of course, they did not switch to the night-time ICE trains to travel to meetings or lectures, but they were happy if their route was one of those on which the Austrian Federal Railways continued to operate with the rolling stock purchased from DB. Otherwise, they were gone as customers. The owner would have had to give a management that operates in such a way against its customers and its client much earlier. The “Süddeutsche Zeitung” once commented on this with the sentence: “So stupid to simply let the board of directors work would not be a private investor.
What gives you hope that something like sense and reason will now come into railway policy?
Times have changed. In the meantime, ÖBB is desperately looking for used vehicles to cover its needs and to expand its network until its new fleet is put on the rails. The Swiss SBB wants to rent sleeping and couchette cars, private operators are building a night train from Sylt to the Alps within weeks and since Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future there have been many articles in the media about night trains that were really researched instead of just printing the DB-voice. I am sure that no Mr Pofalla would be able to stand up today and declare the night trains to be over.
But if a Mr. Scheuer, of all people, were to stand up and suddenly announce the comeback of the night trains, surely there would be some remaining doubts?
Let’s wait and see. In the midst of the colleagues there was already a sarcastic remark in 2016 that after five or ten years some highly paid external consultants would recommend a totally innovative concept to DB: sleeping on the train! And it took less than four years for the German government to want to introduce night trains again. But the construction is of course exciting, because a joint operating company for these international trains is proposed, which should be open to other railway companies. This is already going in the direction of the “United Railways of Europe”, as Bernhard Knierim and Winfried Wolf outlined in their book “Abgefahren” (“Departed”), which was published about a year ago.
What would be the advantages?
These European trains are to be promoted by the EU, because higher requirements are imposed on rolling stock approved for several power and signalling systems than on rolling stock that runs in only one country. However, this would also allow higher volumes to be produced economically, because then, for example, Danish and Spanish railways would be able to order the same type of EU sleeping car as German and Dutch railways. The other countries, the other railways, the demands of the environmental movement and the persistent work of large and small organisations – “Back on Track” has been to Brussels several times, has organised a number of conferences with railway representatives, politicians and activists and organised actions in half of Europe – have, so to speak, put the previous brakemen under such pressure that they are now suddenly committed to promoting Europe-wide rail transport.
We must now ensure that this does not remain just fine words and sketches on paper, but that this project is taken forward and expanded. Because, as I said, one TEE per day and direction does not yet make any regular service and there is still a long way to go before we have a nationwide night train network and a simple booking system.