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
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.