Meme Weeding: Polycentricity and High-Speed Rail

There is a common line among German rail advocates that high-speed rail is not a good fit for Germany’s urban geography because the country is more polycentric than Japan or France. Per such advocates, it’s more important to connect small cities to a national network of trains averaging 120 km/h. It’s based on a wrong understanding of what polycentrism really means in the context of an entire country, and I’d like to explain why. A correct understanding would lead to a national effort to complete a high-speed rail program connecting all of the major cities at higher average speeds than 200 km/h, potentially going up to the 230-250 km/h range typical of France.

How Germany and France differ

When Germans speak of the superiority of the German InterCity concept to high-speed rail, the main comparison is France, which Germans are primed to think of as a nation of lazy spendthrifts. So it’s most valuable to compare the urban geographies of these two countries, and only secondarily rely on either other European countries or on Asian examples.

The most glaring difference is that there is no Paris in Germany. Ile-de-France has about 20% of France’s population, and is far and away the richest region, concentrating all the important corporate headquarters, basing its economy not on a specific industry but on its status as France’s primate city. Germany has nothing like this. The largest single-core metropolitan region here is Berlin, which at 5 million people is around 6% of national population. Moreover, cities are somewhat economically specialized, so the wealth of the richest cities is split across Munich’s heavy industry, Frankfurt’s finance, and so on.

Supposedly, this makes high-speed rail a poorer fit for Germany – there’s no Paris to just connect to every other city. But in reality, a high-speed rail network would still connect all the major cities: Berlin, Hamburg, Hanover, Bremen, the Rhine-Ruhr complex, Dresden, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Mannheim, Munich, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe. Some of the smaller cities, like Erfurt and Fulda, happen to lie on lines between larger cities and are already connected, just not at as high a speed since German high-speed lines almost always have long legacy segments with a top speed of 160 km/h or even less.

And once all the cities are included, Germany turns into better geography for high-speed rail than France. Precise numbers depend on definitions, but around half of the German population lives in the above-listed 13 metropolitan areas of at least 1 million. In France, it’s only one third, and the median French person lives in a metro area of about 350,000; TGVs are thus forced to spend much of their running time on classical lines at low speed to reach cities like Grenoble and Saint-Etienne, and even some larger cities including Nantes, Toulon, Nice, and Toulouse are not on LGVs.

High-speed rail and connectivity

Blue lines preexist or are under construction, red lines should be built new

In the above map, the trip times are very aggressive – Berlin-Hanover in an hour is doable nonstop but barely and the sort of advocates who think train performance levels are still stuck in the 1990s may think it is impossible to do better than 1:30. But the 2020s are not the 1990s, thankfully.

The important thing to note is that not only does it connect all major city pairs, but also there is no alternative that has that feature. The Deutschlandtakt without further investments in speed connects Berlin and Munich in 4 hours, which is borderline for high-speed rail; in Cascetta-Coppola, the elasticity of ridership with respect to travel time in Italy ranges between -2.2 and -1.6, so going from 4 hours to 2.5 more than doubles ridership, for less cost than it’s taken to get to 4 hours so far since Germany has built the hardest segment first and much of what remains is in the pancake-flat North German Plain. With high-speed rail, the longest distance between two major cities, Hamburg-Munich, is 3:45, compared with 5:20 in the D-takt.

This also cascades to the roughly half of Germany that lives outside the metropolitan areas. A smaller city like Rostock, Münster, Regensburg, or Halle gets a connection to the national network either way; the D-takt actually only gives Rostock and Regensburg two-hourly rather than hourly connections to the nearest major node. It takes an hour under the D-takt to get between Regensburg and Nuremberg; the connections between Regensburg and the rest of the country depend primarily on how fast trains are between Nuremberg and the other million-plus urban areas.

Germany benefits from having centrally-located train stations everywhere, making transfers already easier than in France, where Paris has four distinct TGV terminals. Getting between two Parisian stations’ lines requires using a bypass, on which trains run at low frequency, at best stopping at Marne-la-Vallée and CDG, both 30 km from city center. In contrast, Germany train stations are set up for through service except Frankfurt, which is about to get an announcement for a through-service tunnel. To the extent that any bypasses are needed here, they’re because a station’s tracks point the wrong way for some through-service, as in Cologne and (even after through-service opens) Frankfurt; in both cases there’s a convenient near-center station, that is Deutz within walking distance of Cologne Hbf and Frankfurt Airport 10 km from Hbf, and at any rate the lines would have far more demand if speeds between major cities rose to French levels, so the frequency wouldn’t suffer.

Polycentricity and high-speed rail

Polycentricity does not make high-speed rail an inappropriate choice for intercity transportation. It’s neutral, and the urban geography of Germany, in terms of density and city size, is conducive to such a network. The question at this point is not about building a single line like Paris-Lyon, but about completing the half-built system that Germany has, and at that scale, having many major cities is not a problem at all.

So why do German activists keep bringing up polycentricity? I have a few explanations, none legitimate:

  • Germans look down on France, and bring up the most glaring differences to justify not learning. I’ve spent more than a decade watching Americans make up the silliest reasons why they can’t learn from Europe, reasons that are often unrecognizable to a European (“American cities weren’t bombed in WW2” – but neither was Paris). The same is visible internally to Europe, where Germany will not learn from France or Southern Europe.
  • Polycentricity is a convenient excuse to morally elevate rural and pretend-rural life over the big city, a common romantic trope in an arc from 19th-century nationalism to the modern New Left. High-speed rail breaks this pretense: it centers the largest cities, and tells the rest that their participation in national transport comes from their connections to large cities, which the romantics find deeply immoral. For the same reason, the German New Left finds subways less moral than streetcars.
  • Older activists are stuck in the past, when they were younger. In the 1980s, European high-speed rail meant Paris-Lyon, and not the national TGV network. At the scale of Paris-Lyon, Germany’s lack of a Paris indeed weakens high-speed rail. But it’s not the 1980s anymore; at this point the question is about completing fast links like Hamburg-Hanover and Erfurt-Frankfurt, not building the first link. My impression is that younger Greens support high-speed rail more than older ones, who joined the party to express opposition to nuclear power rather than support for immigration.

Looking forward rather than backward, nothing in Germany’s urban geography is an obstacle to a connected high-speed rail network. With central stations and less of the population living in truly isolated rural and small-city communities, Germany can expect to greatly surpass any other Western intercity rail network if it builds high-speed rail, more than reaching DB’s pre-corona 250 million ridership target.


  1. Charles Olson

    A well-researched and insightful post as usual. But can I just complain about one thing, which is that your map format is really hard to figure out? As an ignorant American who has only been to Germany once and that 25 years ago (but a serious geography nerd nonetheless), I have no idea what about 3/4 of the abbreviations on your map signify, without having to refer to Google Maps. Would it be too much trouble to label the cities with their full names?

    • James Green

      I was wondering why Hamburg is HH and Bremen is HB. That through me off at first.

      • Muenchner

        Those are the abbreviations used for all car number plates in Germany. HH is Hansastadt Hamburg, HB is Hansastadt Bremen.
        They would be known to almost all Germans and almost no one else.

      • ckrueger99

        For the most part, these are the standard abbreviations, as found on German car license plates. HH=Hauptstadt Hamburg, etc. Don’t disagree that the map is hard to read, but level of detail is kind of necessary to see other cities outside the top 13 as well as the general topography.

          • Trainphilos

            Sorry…my fat finger mistake. That should be Hansestadt Hamburg. HB stands for Hansestadt Bremen.

          • Herbert

            After reunification HL, HB and HH got company in HRO (Rostock), HWI (Wismar) and HST (Stralsund)

          • michaelrjames

            Ha! At least 3 German commenters got it wrong. The message is clear: Alon should put in full city names. Especially as they use this same map over and over.

          • Sassy

            The full city names are visible on the map if you zoom in. It would be nice if the important city names were made as visible as the text for the links (along with heavy dots where the cities are, and a different color to easily separate them from the other map content). Abbreviations that make sense for English speakers on a map on an English language blog would be nice, however other than the Hansestadt thing, I think the standard German abbreviations are quite sensible (as an English speaker).

            Using full city names when stating the travel times on each of the links could get crowded fast, which would hurt readability, so using abbreviations for those is sensible I think. People unfamiliar with the abbreviations would only have to glance at the city points to familiarize themselves (instead of having to zoom in to read the fine print full city names).

  2. michaelrjames

    I really don’t know enough about Germany to comment but I had the impression that when Transrapid went nowhere, including as an export market to China or anywhere, and it coincided with austerity politics esp. as regards DB, the enthusiasm for HSR deflated like a pricked balloon.

    Polycentricity actually provides an economic efficiency reason for HSR connectivity as the effective agglomeration it creates substitutes for bigger centres that have more independence. I had assumed this was the logic behind the maglev development? Similar to the logic, whether real or not, for France’s TGV program to counter the gravity of Paris drawing in the entire nation as it was threatening to do post-war. That is, to support more polycentricity. Some people think it has done the opposite but there were demographic projections of Paris hitting 20m if something wasn’t done.

    • R. W. Rynerson

      At the time when Transrapid was an active program I got the impression that it was a technology looking for a purpose. The one thing it was really good at was stalling HSR studies, replacing monorails in that role.

      • Herbert

        It was always argued that Transrapid couldn’t be sold abroad unless it was demonstrated successfully in the real world at home…

    • Alon Levy

      It’s not about Transrapid. And it’s not even austerity – Germany has spent a comparable amount of money to France on HSR to date, it’s just that much of it has been wasted on joint freight/passenger lines with way more tunnels than would be necessary with passenger-dedicated standards.

      The romantic hate for the city is of course present in both France and Japan, hence the constant talk of rebalancing and the justification of infrastructure on centrifugal grounds. But here my impression is that this romanticism is much stronger than in France; in France the elites will sell anything on centrifugal grounds while actually building centripetal HSR, but only really wrecks the city at the granular level of Hidalgo’s attempt to put important government centers in random residential neighborhoods. Here it’s at much greater scale, this idea that urban growth is immoral (and it’s getting worse in the sense that there’s white flight, but as it gets right-polarized the Greens sort of become less anti-urban).

      • Herbert

        Did you hear of the whole brouhaha when the greens pointed out that gas prices will rise?

        • michaelrjames

          @Herbert: ” … the greens pointed out that gas prices will rise?”

          What’s the German for gilet verts?

          (And tell them they shouldn’t have insisted on closing down gigawatts of zero-carbon nuclear generation decades prematurely.)

      • Frederick

        I don’t see much “romantic hate for the city” in Japan. What you see is probably some rural landlords grasping at straws to stop the rural flight. Most Japanese people have no problem with the current situation — that Tokyo is basically all of Japan.

        • Phake Nick

          Many politicians and other commentators are also against further developing Tokyo area. It have also been used as a reason against the Chuo Shinkansen project.

  3. Phake Nick

    Speaking of Polycentricity, what about Japan? As everyone know Japan have one major axis of large cities, but many often criticize the lack of investment and unbalanced development on cities that are outside such axis. A few days ago, prefectures containing some of these cities came together and formulated a proposal, calling for the construction of a new HSR line on the Sea of Japan side of the Tohoku area forming a new axis, in addition to a branch from Tohoku Shinkansen into the Sea of Japan side area that would replace the two current Mini Shinkansen. However, the way they try to produce a positive B/C estimation for the two proposed new lines involve using more embankment and cutting, single-tracking, using Mini-Shinkansen trains, as well as assuming Japan will experience accelerated economic growth in the next 40 years, and especially the last point make their estimation seems quite fishy. Is it worth to try to create polycentrality this way despite such lack of direct financial prospective?
    Note apparently they think dual tracking and using 100% tunnel or bridge will cost them 5.35 trillion yen while single tracking and using 34% embankment/cutting (70% surface section) will cost 4.04 trillion yen.

    • borners

      Outer Japan does not suffer from “lack of investment”, outer Japan gets lots of pork infrastructure, overbuilt roads, flash city offices, oversized libraries and way too many civic centres and museums. Take an average west coast municipality’s city office and compare it to a Tokyo suburban city office and the latter will be a concrete box from the 1980’s and the former something more modern with nicer colors and way more glass…..I may collect photos of these things…don’t judge me.

      Putting aside the demographic collapse, the problem is that the Japanese have been so good at getting megacities right (kinda by accident; Yimby zoning codes, privatised parking and legacy private rail operators beating the crap out of state backed cartopias) that it denied regional centres their cost advantage. But the real failure was universities and the service sectors, half of unis are in Kanto and at least two thirds of the top ones, that’s why Keihanshin can be a wonder of urban living and be judging as “declining”. HSR can’t solve all your problems. Creating a “polycentric” Japan starts with a stronger 2nd tier and 3rd tier cities that can anchor their rural peripheries. Non-Tokyo urban Japan is the real neglected part of Japan not declining rural areas. Its not an accident that as we’ve discussed before 3rd tier cities are where Japan is relatively weakest in mode share.

      As somebody who liked travelling the west coast of Japan, I think extending the Yamagata Shinkansen to Sakata would be a better ask along with a new tunnel between Fukushima and Yonezawa. Niigata should try to build a commuter service using the Joetsu shinkansen line within Niigata’s built-up area with an eastern terminus next to the depot. Its not as though that line is full up.

      • Phake Nick

        First I think that area is traditionally referred to as Inner Japan, with Outer Japan referring to the Pacific coast
        As for extending Yamagata Shinkansen to Sakata, I think it is not favored by local residents around that area, because a.) it wouldn’t save times compares to connecting to Joetsu Shinkansen via Niigata, and b.) Geogrpahically such extension is hard to serve Sakata and Tsuruoka together, either only one of the two get the line or both have it but with halved frequency.
        A new tunnel between Fukushima and Yonezawa have already been proposed by JR East, but with the expected cost of ~150 billion yen and time saving effect of only ~10 minutes, even though it can also improve the line’s operation reliability, it is hard to see funding actually get directed into building such tunnel.
        As for Japan universities and service sector being so much concentrated at Kanto, I wonder what actually made Germany succeeded in avoiding this. Was it a result of losing the capital area of Berlin forcing industries around the country to develop on their own without relying on a single center? Is something in the same magnitude necessary to change Kanto’s centricness?

        • Frederick

          > I wonder what actually made Germany succeeded in avoiding this.

          Before the 20th century, Germany was only a unified country in name — the free cities of the Hanseatic league (e.g. Hamburg) and the Kingdom of Bavaria enjoyed a high degree of autonomy.

          • Herbert

            Prussia was pretty Berlin-centric and by the 1920s Berlin was the third largest city in the world by population (behind London and NYC) and the second largest by area (behind Los Angeles). Only, war and partition wreaked untold havoc on Berlin and made Berlin based companies move or fold.

            There wouldn’t be (This extent of) media in Cologne, electronics in Munich, publishing in Hamburg or myriad other things if Berlin hadn’t been cut down in its prime by the Nazis and then bombed and partitioned to smithereens

          • Phake Nick

            Japan was also divided into tons of small basically independent territories with even wars between them until late 19th century, each with their own commerce policy and military.

          • Herbert

            I thought the Tokugawa Shogunate was pretty centralized and they already had their capital in Edo (Tokyo)

          • Alon Levy

            Kind of. The shogunate was feudal, with powerful magnates who had their own territory; they were disempowered in a bunch of ways, like the rule forcing them to spend time in Edo and otherwise leave their families there as hostages, but they remained somewhat independent. Only some of the land in Japan, IIRC around half, was directly controlled by the shogun. This proved relevant after reopening – the most powerful and geographically peripheral daimyo, like the Satsuma Domain, were the ones that overthrew the shogunate and reinstalled imperial rule in the 1860s.

          • Herbert

            So a bit similar to the contemporary Louis XIV France? In Theory the nobility and various other groups had a lot of power, but Louis XIV “encouraging” them to attend to him personally in Paris made that a moot point in practice…

            Only when two successive successions to basically kids (Louis XV was 5 when he took the throne and Louis XVI was a young adult who considered himself woefully unprepared) and an ever worsening financial situation occurred did those aspects of French power reassert themselves…

        • borners

          A federalised structure with an even distribution of universities etc helps, as does Berlin’s relative isolation, you would not chose to put a capital in Brandenburg but accidents of history. And critically Germany is at the centre of Europe geographically and economically. Primate city centric economies tend to be ports (Tokyo, Seoul, Dublin). And the other polycentric major economies, China, Australia India and USA have continental positioning. Don’t say Brazil, Indonesia or Russia where ecology is in the way.

          • borners

            @phake nick
            Moving the capital would work if you put it somewhere sensible, e.g. Fukuoka, Keihanshin or Aichi. Changing holiday culture so that urbanites spend European levels of money in rural peripheries. If I had a useful gimmick to sell the LDP it would be 4 week holidays and country pad tax breaks. But the reality is that you’d need to solve the demographic issue and that would require doing….a lot. Regional Japan though has itself to blame, its economic conservatism as much as its social conservatism by underpowering regional cities has screwed them good (by economic conservatism I mean lots of subsidies for decaying industries, neglect of stuff like unis while helping the LDP/Keidanren screw the urban poor).

            Yeah Sakata via Yamagata is a wash time-wise, but you don’t have to burrow through as many mountains! Also like the Uetsu line needs station reform so its local services are like a bus in the Shonai plain (and Akita city too). Its not ideal but what is? On the tunnel, its the LDP they like building things plus JR East and the Yamagata governor like it. The problem is that we are seeing the limits of the post-privatisation Shinkansen funding formula, when building location and benefit don’t match (the tunnel is in Fukushima not Yamagata). Although JR East could probably bribe Fukushima with better urban rail in Fukushima-Koriyama. And by better urban rail I mean through-run the conventional Tohoku mainline service between Koriyama and Fukushima to western edge of the Fukushima city urban area, no change in journey times, not much increase operating cost and you can bring passenger up dramatically (don’t believe me look at Tohoku main line station numbers compared to Fukushima sections of Yamagata line with similar urbanisation).

          • Herbert

            If you look at the borders of 1871 Germany, Berlin’s location is much more central. And virtually all legacy rail lines were built before WW1

          • Phake Nick

            I 1000% don’t get Japan’s fascination with moving capital would solve the centralization issue. Brazil moved the capital to Brasilia, didn’t solve the concentration around Sao Paulo and Rio. Taiwan moved capital to Zhongxing, and Taipei is still by far the largest capital area. Korea moved administrative capital to Sejong, didn’t change Seoul’s significant. China is moving to Xiong’an but apparently failing. Myanmar moved to Naypyidaw, their largest city is still Yangon. Australia capital being Canberra, New Zealand capital being Wilmington, and US capital being DC, also didn’t change the primateness of their largest cities. Istanbul is still Turkey’s most significant city despite capital at Ankara.

          • Paul

            @Phake Nick
            Choosing DC as the capital did work, it just took 150+ years. DC does have a huge metropolitan area and an economy that isn’t solely dependent on the federal government, unlike Canberra or some of the other examples you mention. It also pulled the Northeast Corridor south – if Philadelphia or New York had become the capital, there would probably be a huge Philadelphia-New York megaregion instead. I doubt Baltimore or Richmond would have been enough of a draw to continue the development to the south in that alternate universe.

          • michaelrjames

            “Choosing DC as the capital did work, it just took 150+ years. DC does have a huge metropolitan area and an economy that isn’t solely dependent on the federal government, unlike Canberra or some of the other examples you mention”

            Actually, while Canberra may be a small city, it too worked if slowly. It is Australia’s sole inland city and it is thriving. All the other comparable sized secondary cities like Gold Coast, Newcastle, Wollongong, Geelong are all on the coast.

          • Nilo

            Choosing where to put a capital in a small rural country like the 18th century US is very differerent than moving it now. Brasilia I think everyone agrees at this point was a mistake. It’s construction in no small part being the cause of Brazil’s persistent post war inflation issues.

          • Herbert

            Canberra would’ve worked better if they hadn’t taken a century to getting around to building the tram…

          • michaelrjames

            @Herebert: “Canberra would’ve worked better if they hadn’t taken a century to getting around to building the tram…”

            Yes. That would have happened if they had actually built the city when it was planned, ie. shortly after federation. In 1913 it was laid out according to the plan of FL Wright students Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony, as a tram-based city. Unfortunately the pollies didn’t get serious about building the city until post-war and by then the world was ripping out tramways to cater for car-based transport, and it never got its trams. Another 7+ decades and tramways are back in favour. Of course they didn’t steal road lanes but mostly took adjoining parkland of which luckily there was plenty.

          • borners

            @alon levy Seoul is the same distance from open sea as London on a larger river. Its a port city economically if not culturally. Incheon is more Yokohama than Liverpool let alone Hamburg.

            I think the problem with Brasilia isn’t the concept or even a failure, its a wealthy fast growing centre away from the traditional Rio-SP axis, the problem is its 1960’s car centred urban planning and that it wasn’t located next to an existing city which it simply bulked up. Canberra has similar problems.

            I think DC is actually a good example, it has helped the upper south’s economy for sure while being complimentary to the NEC.
            I’d also point to Ottawa as a good case as well, certainly saved Federalist bacon in the 1995 Quebec referendum, and it is now a large city by Canadian standards.

            Moving capitals makes sense because Government is a high-skill occupation that brings a lot of ancillary private sector activity, suppliers, lobbyists, journalists, diplomats etc. Governments control their employees if they control anything, certainly more than private sector industries. For countries whose cities aren’t rapidly growing due to urbanisation/population the trick is to use the capital move to revive a region’s that struggling, but also has enough assets to make the most of government and not damage access to high-skill personnel. Assets like high capacity heavy rail. I would consider Berlin a good case of this.

            Sejong city did not and does not fit those criterion, its a completely new city in a very mature society demographically that is already highly urban. Of course ROK regional rivalries meant the 2nd tier city’s were never going to get it unfortunately.

            Personally I think moving the capital out of London is a good idea for England, I’m skeptical we can ever build enough housing (politically) and the Northern industrial belt needs a new economic purpose. Its also a legible promise in a way “levelling up” is not. Problem is it will cost a bob and if there is one thing Northerners hate its economic change.

          • Herbert

            Managua is not quite a “planned capital” (it is among the most unplanned cities in Central America, as readily visible from its street grid) but it *was* chosen as a political compromise capital right between León and Granada, the two traditional rivals who also continue to represent the two opposite political poles (León the left, Granada the right). Only problem is where the old downtown Managua used to be, there is an active fault line and there were earthquakes in 1931 and 1972 which devastated the city. Add to that corruption and car centric urban planning and Managua has ended up as one of the most depressing towns in Central America…

      • Frederick

        @borners: Well, people expect returns from “investment” but pork barrels are meant for one-off consumption only. No amount of flash city offices and oversized libraries is going to save the local economy, and the money earned (legal or not) from the pork barrels will just go back to the Tokyo Stock Exchange immediately (if not NYSE or some Swiss funds).

        Kintetsu, the largest private rail operator in Japan, has basically beaten JR in Nara and Mie. But if you look at their annual report, you will see them whining, “the population of Nara and Mie is declining; tourism is also declining; in future, passenger counts will be low; we need to move on from railroad operation and expand into real estate instead.” And they did move into real estate — they built the tallest office building in all of Japan.

        And it is not like Tokyo can escape this problem; Japan as a whole has a declining population, and at some point in the future, the population of Tokyo will also decline. Otherwise, why would JR Central try their hands in Texas, or JR East in West Midlands?

      • borners

        Whoops I forgot the Yamagata line is standard guage (should be dual gauge like the Ou/Akita shinkansen section to ease the Sendai freight bottleneck but that’s a different story).

  4. Mark N.

    > Paris…France’s primate city

    I’m not a Parisian, but I’d guess one might take offense at this characterization. 🙂

  5. Mark N.

    My impression is that this polycentricity argument is just a post-rationalization for Germany being so far behind its less economically powerful neighbor in developing HSR.

    • Herbert

      Is it tho? In terms of ridership (as Alon has pointed out in the past) the ICE is doing better than the TGV and in terms of raw net kilometrage, the difference can’t be all that huge…

      • Alon Levy

        DB Fernverkehr > SNCF Voyages on ridership, but not per capita, on the eve of corona. (My guess is that DB will have overtaken SNCF since just because we had less economic contraction than France.) And this is on spending similar amounts of money on capital construction – Germany has a lot of waste on ridiculous construction standards and tunnels, just as France has a lot of waste on flight level zero operations.

        • Frederick

          Another disappointing stat, given that Germans have much more need to do intercity travel. Top universities are scattered around Germany, the supreme courts of law are also scattered around Germany. The stock exchange is in Frankfurt, but company headquarters are likely in Munich. People live in Rhine-Ruhr, Hamburg has a seaport, and Berlin is the capital.

          When could the Germans wake up and see that their HSR is falling behind?

        • Herbert

          Blame the way benefit cost quotients are calculated. They give a lot of extra points if your hsl can take freight trains – even if they are hypothetical as in the case of Stuttgart-Ulm which is too steep for them.

          Germany historically didn’t build hsls for speed but to relieve capacity bottlenecks like the old north-south line

      • michaelrjames

        Again, here’s that table people want to ignore:

        Passenger traffic on selected global high-speed rail networks in 2019, by national rail operator (in billion passenger kilometers)
        Nation…..paxkm (bn)…..paxkm/cap

        So, is a factor of 2.3x huge?

        I hope Germany does continue to catch up*, but still it seems unlikely given France’s central position (those ley lines to the Med) as well as its own visitor numbers, not to mention the explicit policy of the train replacing domestic flights.
        I remain not entirely convinced of the “waste on flight level zero operations” hypothesis. These numbers may not confirm it but they don’t refute it either.

        *of course I still hope they have a change of heart and build a maglev network linking all those cities!

      • Mark N.

        I would also suggest taking a look at France and Germany on the OpenRailwayMap and set the view to “Max speeds” to see how much more disjointed the HSR system is in Germany.

  6. Mark N.

    Something you don’t mention, but which shows even more how important quicker expansion of HSR is in Germany, is how critical Germany is in creating a European-wide HSR network. It’s frankly tragic how Germany has neglected its rail connections that cross borders. Just look at what Switzerland, which ironically isn’t even a member of the EU but clearly recognizes its obligations, has invested huge amounts in things like the Gotthard Base Tunnel. And then you board a train in Zurich to Stuttgart that tootles along the Neckar River at a leisurely pace. Germans complain about the lack of solidarity between EU countries, but HSR expansion is precisely the kind of thing which could establish more solidarity.

    • Alon Levy

      So, Switzerland is really good for international freight, but as an international bridge for passenger rail, it’s not that great. The 2035 takt plans for Zurich-Lugano are 2-hour trips, on a 180 km line that by then will be majority in base tunnel.

      • michaelrjames

        Is that because they have no choice but have to share the tracks with freight?

        • Herbert

          Unless you want to do 180 km in one hour thru alpine terrain any speed increase runs into possible problems with the nodes. A 90 minute trip time would change trains that arrive on the hour to ones that arrive on the half hour and I’m not 100% positive that would still remain workable with the planned nodes

          • Alon Levy

            So much of the route is in 250 km/h alpine tunnels that 60 minutes may be feasible. Even if not, 90 minutes is fine, the Zurich knot is half-hourly.

          • Eric2

            Sounds like there is a role for investigative journalists to approach SBB and ask why exactly led to their 2 hour schedule and how it is split by track segment and why it can’t be any lower.

      • Roger

        I thought Zurich-Lugano is within 2 hours already, with existing infrastructure (at least according to SBB timetables). Aside from Zimmerberg II, are anymore upgrades planned before 2035?

    • michaelrjames

      @MarkN: ” Switzerland, which ironically isn’t even a member of the EU but clearly recognizes its obligations, has invested huge amounts in things like the Gotthard Base Tunnel. ”

      The GB tunnel was planned (20 years ago) as purely freight until quite close to its completion. The rationale behind building it was that it would make money (from other Europeans using the fastest route to Italy) and take a lot of noisy, polluting heavy traffic off Swiss roads.
      BTW, Switzerland is a member of most EU agreements that matter including Schengen.

      • Richard Mlynarik

        The GB [Great Britain? Really? “Gotthard” isn’t hard to type, cut-and-paste, or autocomplete] tunnel was planned (20 years ago) as purely freight until quite close to its completion.

        No it wasn’t.

        Please stop typing random nonsense about things you have no clue. It isn’t useful.

        • michaelrjames

          The 1992 referendum was entirely about freight:

          The goal of both the laws (and the goal of the GBT, which is one of the means by which the law will achieve its objective) is to transport trucks, trailers and freight containers between southern Germany and northern Italy by rail to relieve the overused roads (intermodal freight transport and so-called rolling highway where the entire truck is transported) and to meet the political requirement of shifting as much tonnage as possible from truck transport to train transport, as required by the ‘Alpine Protection Act’ of 1994.[15]

          It wasn’t until 2015 (five years after the TBMs had broken thru) that its use for cars was considered:

          Swiss mull Gotthard Base Tunnel car shuttles
          Anitra Green, 10 Sept 2015.
          A GROUP of independent engineers and transport experts in Switzerland has carried out a study in the possibility of setting up a car shuttle service on the Gotthard route as an alternative to building a second road tunnel.
          Concerned by the lack of information available to Swiss voters on this option in the run-up to a referendum on a second road tunnel, which will take place early next year, the group has produced figures based on government data to show that the rail shuttle is feasible. The cost of establishing a shuttle, including rolling stock and facilities, is estimated at around SFr 1bn ($US 1bn), or roughly a third of the SFr 2.8bn pricetag for the construction of a new road tunnel and refurbishment of the existing one.
          According to the projections, the shuttle service through the Gotthard Base Tunnel, which is due to open next year, would comprise six trains an hour carrying a maximum of 31,000 cars a day. The maximum number of cars using the current road tunnel is around 24,000 vehicles per day.
          Separate shuttles for transit and local lorry traffic would accommodate around 3300 units per day (currently the maximum by road is 3100).
          Based on this option, renovation of the existing road tunnel could be completed within 10 years, but this could take up to 20 years if a second road tunnel is built.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Please, just stop. Selectively misquoting English Wikipedia isn’t helping.

            The NEAT (“Neue Eisenbahn-Alpentransversale”, “nouvelle ligne ferroviaire à travers les Alpes” etc) was always conceived and sold as an integrated part of the (inter-)national rail network. (There would have been no hope of national vote approval if it were just for freight, even if that were desirable. Ecological benefits only persuade so many, and others need to to think they’ll be getting faster holiday trips to the sunny south in return too.)

            It’s really really really simple: Don’t have any familiarity with a subject? Say nothing, and hope to learn from others who do.
            It’s a pretty good rule, with really wide applicability in nearly every aspect of life!

            No doubt Max Wyss will waste his time recounting pertinent local political details to counter this off-topic non-reality-based blather, but meantime why don’t you spend some quality time with ?

  7. Herbert

    There is still a cultural reluctance among many green voters against what they call “speed for speed’s sake” and “prestige projects” which they associate with hsr. They often claim that speeding up legacy lines would be better investment…

    Of course there’s nothing more moral in adding two tracks next to a two track line in a densely built river valley compared to building them where there is space and building them as straight as possible to gain speed advantages…

    • Eric2

      > Of course there’s nothing more moral in adding two tracks next to a two track line in a densely built river valley compared to building them where there is space and building them as straight as possible to gain speed advantages…

      Less habitat fragmentation?

      • Alon Levy

        Usually those greenfield lines are built near freeway corridors where possible. New ROW carving exists but not in environmentally sensitive areas.

        • Herbert

          And if you absolutely have to avoid surface disturbance, you can still tunnel…

  8. Herbert

    Also: Munich has a dead end station and no plans to do anything about it for long distance trains… Are you saying it’s not a problem because you don’t want to have thru service south of Munich?

    • Eric2

      If you have a good takt, then dead end stations are not such a problem. Passengers can take a train to the dead end and switch to a train out of the dead end, at the cost of a few minutes, and the train can reverse to do the repeat journey.

      Sure it would be nice to save those few minutes and the annoyance of transferring, but it’s probably not worth building a new tunnel just for this.

      The problem with Paris is not so much the use of dead end stations, but rather the fact that there are different dead end stations in different parts of the city, so getting from one to the other is very difficult.

        • Eric2

          I haven’t checked. Possibly capacity – reversing out of a dead-end station tends to kill track capacity, lots of flat junctions to cross.

          • Herbert

            Munich main station has approximately eleventy billion tracks (about the same number as O’Hare has runways) but is still a source for unreliability in the network. However, do the myopia of the Bavarian administration, most non S-Bahn trains that serve Munich end there, even if connections like Nuremberg-Munich-Salzburg would make tons of sense…

          • Eric2

            You think they should run these trains to/through Ostbahnhof rather than Hauptbahnhof?

          • Herbert

            I think they should build thru tracks at main station for long distance trains…

          • Sascha Claus

            Maybe to a new Nordbahnhof? The unnegotiable part of through-running in Munich is to have the airport served by as many long distance trains as possible, to cut down on domestic air travel.

          • Herbert

            Well that would require routing the NBS on Ingolstadt-Munich through the airport, which is of questionable utility for all the people who do not wish to go to the airport…

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah, I don’t get this. The only places that would really benefit from such a routing are Nuremberg-rest-of-world and Ingolstadt-rest-of-world. Würzburg is closer to Frankfurt, Erfurt is closer to Berlin, Augsburg is not on the same line. People flying to Munich can keep taking the S-Bahn. And Nuremberg isn’t even that much closer to Munich than to Frankfurt, which has a bigger variety of destinations to fly out of.

          • Herbert

            Plus Nuremberg has a decent number of flights to other hubs and for price sensitive customers, that is often the better option. Flying out of Nuremberg via some other hub can be quite a lot cheaper than flying direct from Munich or Frankfurt. Which is why LH used to sell NUE-MUC-XYZ tickets cheaper than MUC-XYZ tickets on many routes to be competitive with e.g. Turkish Airways via IST…

      • michaelrjames

        @Eric2: “The problem with Paris is not so much the use of dead end stations, but rather the fact that there are different dead end stations in different parts of the city, so getting from one to the other is very difficult.”

        What is ‘very difficult’ is to find any journey from one part of (intramuros) Paris to any other part that can be described as ‘very difficult’! The mainline stations are extremely well served by Metro (+ RER). In fact only Montparnasse is not served by RER (the other 3 TGV stations have one seat ride on RER connecting them). Alon has a plan to fix that: The RER Paris Needs. But Montparnasse does have 4 Metro lines including the orbital M6 and M4 which intersects with every other Metro line in Paris. (My only concession is that there is a longish walk to the main station, an unfortunate result of relocating Montparnasse station further south in the 1960s. But most of it is via a travelator … )
        In any case it is my contention that very few travellers would be doing this, ie. without a proper stay in Paris even if only for a few hours in the city rather than a hotel stay.

        Because Frankfurt is en route to many other German cities in all directions whereas Munich is end-of-the-line in German terms (ie. neglecting Vienna); and Berlin is the same.

        It is opposite to HSR but there is to be a Nightjet nighttain, beginning 2023, from Berlin to Paris (presumably passing thru Frankfurt?). Presumably using the LGV-Est from (near) Strasbourg.

        • Eric2

          Montparnasse to Nord is a 13 stop subway ride. At rush hour you might not even get a seat for it.
          Montparnasse to Lyon is technically a 2 seat subway ride, although the second segment is just one stop and you can walk it if necessary.

          These add a lot of time and frustration to the trip. And frequent travelers who have somewhere they need to be are not going to enjoy playing tourist at high expense on their 341st lifetime trip through Paris.

          • michaelrjames


            It’s all predicated on your state of mind. I might even agree with most other cities, including London & NY.

            Montparnasse is connected to St Lazare and Gare du Nord by one-seat Metro rides. Boarding at Montparnasse–close-ish to one end of the line and where many pax leave it at this major interchange node–means you will likely get a seat! (And actually one’s preference if lugging a suitcase would be one of the 8 strapontin (fold-down seats) in the foyer zone using the vacant space in front of the door between cars (locked in M4 trains) for big luggage.) Once on a Paris Metro, especially a one-seat ride, the number of stations is not so important; those 13 stops will take under 20 mins (less than some walking ‘correspondances’ at Shinjuku etc.).

            not going to enjoy playing tourist at high expense on their 341st lifetime trip through Paris.

            Like I said, state of mind. It’s not playing tourist but playing Parisian and one never tires of it. Especially those who are traversing it to somewhere else in France for the hundredth time. It is exactly those people who will welcome taking a short break in their journey in the ville de lumière. I know Alon and presumably Eric2 and others here don’t agree, but that is why they live in Berlin or NYC and not Paris. Les pauvres!
            Eric, stop (and get off that train) to smell the roses (and be a Free Man in Paris)… or for Alon, at a terrace cafe, the diesel fumes:-)

        • Herbert

          Even if you, for some bizarre reason, pretend that the world ends at the German southern border (the Brenner base tunnel will make this contention even more ridiculous than it already is) there is a bunch of stuff of tourist interest south of Munich. Like Neuschwanstein, the alpine lakes (Chiemsee, Königssee and so on) the Alps themselves etc etc

          There’s a reason they built a station with connections in all four directions in Berlin… But then Munich can’t even build a proper Ringbahn

      • Sascha Claus

        Why should the train go back from a dead-end station? It can simply reverse, go around the city and continue where it was going before. Changing direction doesn’t take longer than the passengers need to get on and off. Rounding the city and navigating the approach maze is the stuff taking its toll on trip times.

  9. Lee Ratner

    Tokyo might be very dominate but the cities of the Kansai region are no slackers either. Plenty of big companies across all of Japan’s major cities. What might help Japan more than Germany is that many of their big cities are kind of in line with each other because of Japanese geography rather than being spread out in all directions.

    • Herbert

      Berlin to Munich is a pretty straight shot that takes in two half million cities without much deviation. Ruhr aligns well with the Blue banana. And the Hannover-Würzburg north-south spine has already been built

      • Sascha Claus

        Munich to Berlin/West was delayed by about 40 years for poltical reasons and then delayed further because of the desire of some regional poltician to serve the vibrant metropolises of the Vogtland, whereas the Hannover – Würzburg north-south spine deserves honourable mention for how it manages to completely miss Frankfurt.

        • Herbert

          The Vogtland is the southwesternmost part of Saxony where it borders Franconia. Are you sure you meant that? The line notably does not pass thru that region…

      • Eric2

        “half million cities” lol – in Japan you have 17 million person cities along the way!

  10. Michael Noda

    I’ll synthesize Mark N.’s comment with Alon’s larger point, which is that at this middle-stage of German HSR construction, the Paris of Germany is… Paris. Even with the language and international ridership maluses included, Île-de-France is so massive that it should be weighing very heavily on rail construction planning in Germany, both directly in terms of cross-border links, and less directly in terms of higher weighting of east-west connections on the approaches to the border. But so long as the planners’ horizon stops at the borders of the Federal Republic instead of the borders of Europe, awful myopic decisions will continue.

    • Frederick

      Well, planners are paid to consider federal matters only and they don’t have authority across the border.

      Maybe we need a centralized rail-planning office at the EU level.

      • Herbert

        Unfortunately there is no-one at the EU level bold enough to just take powers to the EU level as needed. Sort of the way the U.S. became a modern country thru creative use of the Commerce Clause… Well, in the case of the EU, the failed attempt to write a constitution (or rather get it passed) seems to still leave its mark…

        • Eric2

          The problem is not enough Europeans (in pretty much any European country) support such massive strengthening of the EU at the expense of national government for it to happen.

          • michaelrjames


            I agree.
            But the silver lining of Brexit (if you’re not Brit, and for some if you are Brit) is that more Europeans have come to realize the value of the EU, and not to take it for granted*. Even Marine Le Pen has pulled back her anti-EU rhetoric because her own supporters have this same reaction. In all likelihood Brexit’s worse outcomes are yet to unfold so this effect will strengthen rather than weaken with time. Covid-19 may have a similar effect though there is the counter force of the initial ‘every nation for itself’ chaos, which of course was the problem. I don’t know how widely understood it is now, but blaming the EU was as dumb as Brexit because the EU has almost nothing to do with Health issues which remain firmly national. Almost certainly this will lead to increased EU- or at least transnational institutional responses to pandemic and related health issues. As it happens, transport and especially rail transport remains one area of considerable EU influence.

            *as in (which could be a transit blog’s theme tune!)
            Don’t it always seem to go
            That you don’t know what you’ve got
            ’til it’s gone…
            [They paved paradise
            And put up a parking lot]

          • Alon Levy

            The Le Pen clan tends to, from time to time, announce that they’re evolving away from one of their unpalatable positions, like Putinism, Holocaust denial, or Frexit, but then people see through the charade and keep treating them as illegitimate neo-Nazis and so they go back to their roots.

            The main impact of Brexit is not on France but the European periphery. Italy dialed down the who-needs-the-EU rhetoric – most of its political parties are populist and love finding external enemies to blame their failures on, and now that leaving the EU is actually a possibility they stop calling for it (except Lega, and even Lega is more racist than europhobic) because they might be expected to follow through. And Greece, the origin of the country + exit portmanteau, is not going to leave anything.

          • michaelrjames

            Well, yes but that unrest on the periphery in Hungary, Poland, Slovenia (and far-right parties like Liga) predated Brexit and doesn’t have any dependency on it. These do pose a real threat to the EU and its core values, but I’m not sure Brexit isn’t an overall postiive w.r.t. the countries’ people even if their far-right leaders would exploit anything, like Brexit and Trumpism, to reinforce their hold. I actually think the EU will survive those threats; indeed the EU’s seemingly muddling thru is a reflection of liberal democratic traditions. In many ways the rise of far-right movements like Le Pen, AfD, Liga and the Dutch etc are a bigger worry–because it is the old core EU of ‘mature’ democracies. And here I think Brexit has been an unambiguous benefit to the EU. It has been an ice-bucket challenge to all those singing the flimsy sovereign rights & freedom angle. As it will prove in the UK itself which is at real risk of breakup into constituent natural states (which could be a good thing if they rejoin the EU; I’ve always thought the EU represents a means to ameliorate these intra-nationalist tensions even if the EU itself seems weirdly divided on this, eg. w.r.t. Catalonia independence).
            I’m hoping the failure of Le Pen in last week’s regional elections–including in ‘your’ part of France (PACA) notionally her stronghold–is a reflection of this realisation. That Le Pen is a spent force, and political cul-de-sac. (Like AfD). Of course political gurus say nothing can be learned from those elections, esp. given low turnout, but I do think it is a pre-run of next year’s prez elections. The electorate may be in a bad mood and restive and a fair number will express that by giving a protest vote to Le Pen, it won’t stop Macron being re-elected, essentially by default. Somehow I can’t see Hidalgo being able to overcome this inertia; in fact, having pissed off the 10 of the 12 million Francilienes who aren’t Parisians, seems a big obstacle just in her own back yard; Chirac rose to Prez via the mayoralty of Paris but he was from the Right so naturally aligned with the rest of Ile de France though of course he had a much higher profile before becoming mayor too. I reckon she is just putting her marker down prior to the real chance in 2027. Hey, transit may even play a role: with a lot of GPX coming to completion by then it may create more Parisian unity and political comity? Some of its gold dust will settle on Hidalgo …

          • Matthew Hutton

            What are the UK’s natural states? Because other than Scotland and probably Wales I don’t think that’s clear at all. I mean northern England and Cornwall could certainly both also peel off.

          • adirondacker12800

            Because other than Scotland and probably Wales I don’t think that’s clear at all. I mean northern England and Cornwall could certainly both also peel off.
            Secessionists usually change their minds once someone explains to them that they won’t be getting subsidized by those awful people in big cities who pay lots and lots of taxes. That fund their subsidies.

          • michaelrjames

            Scotland could have been like Norway with its own future fund/Sovereign Wealth fund from North Sea oil. But of course Maggie Thatcher ensured it was all pissed away with almost nothing to show for it. And indeed, it does make Scotland’s secession more problematic budget-wise.

        • Mark N.

          Although in practice you may very well be right about the importance the Commerce Clause played, the theoretical basis which made that possible was the (quick) realization by the Founders of the inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation. I would like to think the various (and many) crises the EU has faced during its short existence (and continues to face) would strengthen the resolve of its member countries to also create a stronger framework for more federal authority. I can’t say my hope for that is high, however.

          • Herbert

            The thing is that the EU as currently set up has too many points where those who’d lose (relative) power if the EU gained more power would have to sign off on such a transfer… And few people voluntarily give up power after having possessed it.

  11. Nilo

    Alon, is there any planning for a connection between Paris and Frankfurt using the extent French HSR lines?

    • Mark N.

      There are already several daily direct connections with both TGV and ICE using various routes but all by way of Mannheim (I think). The fastest current route takes the round-about way over Strasbourg, utilizing (mostly) high-speed tracks. As Alon suggests, it looks like there would be great potential to build out the more direct route over Saarbrücken and Kaiserslautern. On the French side, in variance to Alon’s map, I wonder if it wouldn’t make more sense to branch off the Paris-Strasbourg HSR line earlier to include Metz before crossing the border.

        • Mark N.

          Maybe I’m just confused about what “it” is here, but the Magistrale contains the TGV line to Strasbourg, and then continues in Germany to Karlsruhe and then Stuttgart. Any more direct HSR branch from TGV Est to Frankfurt wouldn’t be a part of it.

        • Mark N.

          I just happened to take a look at current DB projects, and developing Saarbrücken-Frankfurt is indeed a project associated with the Magistrale. My bad! Here’s the page (in German) which talks about it:

          They’re only optimizing it to reach up to 200 kmh, and it won’t provide a direct connection to Frankfurt (like in Alon’s plan) but only deals with the line between Saarbrücken and Ludwigshafen (across the river from Mannheim).

    • Mark N.

      After investigating the Paris-Saarbrücken route more closely, it looks like the existing TGV route branches off of TGV Est but then runs on legacy tracks with a max. speed of 130 kmh (according to OpenRailwayMap). That suggests to me further optimizing potential on the French side of the border as well.

  12. Phake Nick

    In fact, rather than just a map, would it help the progress of Germany train network by identifying the priority of which of those drawn lines should be built first, second and third?

  13. Tom the first and best

    Rostock would have to be the most serious candidate for an intermediate station on any future Berlin-Copenhagen HSR line, once a Gedser-Rostock tunnel is built (which is very likely in the medium to long term, even with it not currently on the agenda due to the Fehmarn Belt tunnel under construction).

  14. Herbert

    Trams are not “more moral” than subways, it’s just that they work better for cities of a certain size. Basically, all cities in Germany with a size where a subway would make sense already have one. (In the cases of Cologne or Frankfurt it is subway surface, but still) And then there is one city where a subway doesn’t make sense which still built one – Nuremberg.

    Would you rather have a dozen tram lines or two and a half subway lines to cover a city of half a million?

      • Herbert

        Stockholm is not a city of half a million but a city of almost a million. That’s a factor 2 difference. When the decision to build Nuremberg subway (and at the time, to shut down the trams) was taken, Nuremberg did not even have half a million inhabitants (throughout the 20th century it only briefly jumped above that threshold as a consequence of the 1970s municipal boundary reforms)

        • Eric2

          Stockholm is a much larger city than Nuremberg both in population and area. For both capacity and travel time reasons, it needs metro much more than Nuremberg.

          • Alon Levy

            At the time it built the T-bana it was smaller than Nuremberg is today and there was a lot of criticism that the city was too small for such a system. There’s been growth since, and maybe Middle Franconia isn’t as fast-growing, but it is growing, thanks to high Bavarian incomes and internal and international migration.

          • Herbert

            Stockholm is a national capital. Nuremberg isn’t even the capital of Middle Franconia. Also: *both* cities ultimately decided to keep their tram and the biggest urban rail extension in the works in Middle Franconia is a 25 km extension of the tram to Erlangen and Herzogenaurach…

      • Phake Nick

        From experience of mid-sized cities in Japan and various Soviet cities, having a vast network of tram lines are more useful than having one or two subway lines, and those cities that have retained vast network of tram lines are more likely to have higher transit ridership than those who abandoned those and constructed a few metro lines instead

  15. Pingback: The Leakage Problem | Pedestrian Observations
  16. Pingback: Institutional Issues: Dealing with Technological and Social Change | Pedestrian Observations

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.