DB announced today that it had 500,000 riders across the two days of last weekend. This is a record weekend traffic; May is so far 5% above 2019 levels, representing full recovery from corona. This is especially notable because of Germany’s upcoming 9-euro ticket: as a measure to curb high fuel price from the Russian war in Ukraine, during the months of June, July, and August, Germany is both slashing fuel taxes by 0.30€/liter and instituting a national 9€/month public transport ticket valid not just in one’s city of domicile but everywhere. In practice, rail riders respond by planning domestic rail trips for the upcoming three months; intercity trains are not covered by the 9€ monthly pass, but city transit in destination cities is, so Berliners I know are planning to travel to other parts of Germany during the window when local and regional transit is free, displacing trips that might be undertaken in May.
This is excellent news, with just one problem: Germany has not invested in its rail network enough to deal with the surge in traffic. Current traffic is already reaching projections made in the 2010s for 2030, when most of the Deutschlandtakt is supposed to go into effect, with higher speed and higher capacity than the network has today. Travel websites are already warning of capacity crunches in the upcoming three months of effectively free regional travel (chaining regional trains between cities is possible and those are covered by the 9€ monthly pass). Investment in capacity is urgent.
Sadly, such investment is still lagging. Germany’s intercity rail network rarely builds complete high-speed lines between major cities. The longest all-high-speed connection is between Cologne and Frankfurt, 180 km apart. Longer connections always have significant slow sections: Hamburg-Hanover remains slow due to local NIMBY opposition to a high-speed line, Munich’s lines to both Ingolstadt and Augsburg are slow, Berlin’s line toward Leipzig is upgraded to 200 km/h but not to full high-speed standards.
Moreover, plans to build high-speed rail in Germany remain compromised in two ways. First, they still avoid building completely high-speed lines between major cities. For example, the line from Hanover to the Rhine-Ruhr is slow, leading to plans for a high-speed line between Hanover and Bielefeld, and potentially also from Bielefeld to Hamm; but Hamm is a city of 180,000 people at the eastern margin of the Ruhr, 30 km from Dortmund and 60 from Essen. And second, the design standards are often too slow as well – Hanover-Bielefeld, a distance that the newest Velaro Novo trains could cover in about 28 minutes, is planned to be 31, compromising the half-hourly and hourly connections in the D-Takt. Both of these compromises create a network that 15 years from now is planned to have substantially lower average speeds than those achieved by France 20 years ago and by Spain 10 years ago.
But this isn’t just speed, but also capacity. An incomplete high-speed rail network overloads the remaining shared sections. A complete one removes fast trains from the legacy network except in legacy rail terminals where there are many tracks and average speeds are never high anyway; Berlin, for example, has four north-south tracks feeding Hauptbahnhof with just six trains per hour per direction. In China, very high throughput of both passenger rail (more p-km per route-km than anywhere in Europe) and freight rail (more ton-km per route-km than the United States) through the removal of intercity trains from the legacy network to the high-speed one, whose lines are called passenger-dedicated lines.
So to deal with the traffic surge, Germany needs to make sure it invests in intercity rail capacity immediately. This means all of the following items:
- Building all the currently discussed high-speed lines, like Frankfurt-Mannheim, Ulm-Augsburg (Stuttgart-Ulm is already under construction), and Hanover-Bielefeld.
- Completing the network by building high-speed lines even where average speeds today are respectable, like Berlin-Halle/Leipzig and Munich-Ingolstadt, and making sure they are built as close to city center as possible, that is to Dortmund and not just Hamm, to Frankfurt and not just Hanau, etc.
- Purchasing 300 km/h trains and not just 250 km/h ones; the trains cost more but the travel time reduction is noticeable and certain key connections work out for a higher-speed D-Takt only at 300, not 250.
- Designing high-speed lines for the exclusive use of passenger trains, rather than mixed lines with gentler freight-friendly grades and more tunnels. Germany has far more high-speed tunneling than France, not because its geography is more rugged, but because it builds mixed lines.
- Accelerating construction and reducing costs through removal of NIMBY veto points. Groups should have only two months to object, as in Spain; current practice is that groups have two months to say that they will object but do not need to say what the grounds for those objections are, and subsequently they have all the time they need to come up with excuses.