On February 19, Christoph Strecker, a retired judge, filed a criminal complaint charging EU subsidy fraud in connection with the “Stuttgart 21″ railway construction project. Though formally levied against the official who signed the subsidy request, it politically targets the German federal government and chancellor Angela Merkel. Strecker blames the administration for “fraudulently obtaining a subsidy of EUR 114.5 million from the European Union” by referring to a spectacular increase in capacity of the Stuttgart railway station although “effectively … the capacity of the projected station lies a third below the capacity of the existing station.”
Judge Strecker was able to obtain the official subsidy request only through a protracted battle with German and European authorities. And indeed, the document claims that “the elimination of bottlenecks on the approach routes to Stuttgart main station and locking requirements in the terminus allows Stuttgart 21 to reach double capacity” (p. 13 Sect. 4.1). [Translator’s comment: The garbled language is already in the German original of the subsidy request.]
Dr. Eisenhart von Loeper, attorney and speaker for the Action Coalition against Stuttgart 21, comments that this revelation attests to a degree of perversion of law and truth most citizens could not imagine, comparing the incident to the practices of former state premier Stefan Mappus [who is currently facing an investigation into another well-publicized scandal surrounding the re-nationalization of a major German utility]. Loeper points out that the claim of double capacity conspicuously disappeared from the European Commission’s web site in the autumn of last year – later declared an unintended consequence of a website relaunch – which, in his view, indicates a sense of guilt of those in charge.
Loeper further expects that Germany will have to repay subsidies obtained through falsified claims. He suggests that Ms. Merkel better rethink her devoutness to this ill-conceived project and start repay the initial installments of the subsidy lest she face yet another Europe-wide disgrace. Merkel would find it difficult to preach financial responsibility abroad – blaming the Greeks for their past profligacy – while pursuing a vanity project at home which is co-financed through fraudulently claimed EU subsidies.
If it is true, Loeper continues, that nominal profitability of the project hinges on a margin of only EUR 77 million as reported by the Stuttgarter Zeitung [a usually well-informed local paper] citing a presentation from the supervisory board meeting of Deutsche Bahn AG on March 5, the project would lose its legitimacy without the EU subsidy of EUR 114,5 million.
The Action Coalition against Stuttgart 21 further expects that the criminal complaint will trigger a public debate on the capacity of the projected underground railway station. As there is now proof that the latest cost increases – acknowledged by Deutsche Bahn in December 2012 – where already known internally in 2009, it is equally certain that the fact that Stuttgart 21 will decrease overall rail capacity instead of increasing capacity by 100% as claimed was known to officials including the current state premier Winfried Kretschmann at least since October 2011. [At the time, a group of scientists led by physicist Dr. Christoph Engelhardt started to aggregate and comment all available technical information on the public wiki wikireal.org. Although this was initially widely reported, officials have avoided any discussion of projected rail capacity ever since and the topic has slipped from public attention.]
“The first victim of Stuttgart 21 was the truth” said renowned journalist and author Franz Alt at a mass rally in Stuttgart on February 23. The revelation of the true cost estimates already lead to the uncovering of the first big lie. On second big lie – the capacity claim – the jury is still out.
0049 (0)171 320 980 1 (Werner Sauerborn, also to Christoph Strecker)
What is Stuttgart 21?
Strictly speaking, Stuttgart 21 refers to the construction of a new underground railway station in Stuttgart, but the project at large comprises three major interconnected sub-projects in Germany’s South-West:
1. The construction of an entire new underground railway through station and four new mostly underground approach lines to replace the existing Stuttgart terminus.
2. A new high speed railway line between Wendlingen (near Stuttgart) and Ulm.
3. The construction of a second underground long-distance train station at Stuttgart airport in addition to the existing suburban railway station.
How much does it cost?
Nobody knows. For the underground station, airport station, and approaches, including 35 km (22 miles) of mostly two parallel single-track tunnels, official figures run at EUR 6.8 billion as of December 2012, before construction has started in earnest. Independent expert estimates are closer to EUR 10 billion. Official figures for the high speed link Wendlingen-Ulm, including 30 km (19 miles) of dual single-track tunnels, run at EUR 2.9 billion in 2009 Euros but have been substantially unchanged for much longer. Independent expert estimates lie in the range of EUR 5-10 billion. Hence, a total of EUR 15 billion is probably in the ball park. If any of the major risks materialize, construction costs or collateral damage could run much higher.
What is the European Union’s contribution?
The EU has pledged EUR 114.5 million for the approach tunnel and line between the underground station and Wendlingen. This is the subsidy referred to in the article above. There is a further EU contribution of EUR 103.85 million toward the high speed line Wendlingen-Ulm. This distinction is important because Wendlingen-Ulm could well be operated without the underground station while the underground station could not be operated without Wendlingen-Ulm.
What makes Stuttgart 21 special?
All three subprojects truly stand out against other European rail projects in that engineering effort, risk, and costs are spectacularly disproportionate to even optimistic projections of the expected gains. At the same time, serious risks and drawbacks are not being acknowledged or accounted for.
Why do people rally against Stuttgart 21?
On the face of it, the project negatively impacts rail passengers, commuters, citizens of Stuttgart, and taxpayers in constituencies ranging from the city of Stuttgart to the European Union. On a deeper level, the manner in which Stuttgart 21 was pushed through democratic institutions laid bare the failings of the German political system on a scale few people had imagined before. This is partially due to the sheer audacity of the responsible officials, but also due to the fact that Stuttgart 21 is exceedingly well documented, not least through careful analysis of the official planning documents by engaged citizens and independent experts, so that by now the absurdity of the project has been exposed with impressive detail.
What are the risks?
The approach tunnels as well as tunnels between Wendlingen and Ulm will cross some of the most challenging and unpredictable geological formations. The construction of the underground station requires massive unprecedented groundwater engineering efforts which pose risk to Europe’s second largest mineral spas, the foundations of city buildings, and the stability of densely populated hillsides. The underground station itself can contribute to flooding hazards, the evacuation concept in the event of fire has been severely criticized by experts and lacks final regulatory approval, and the slope of the tracks in the underground station exceeds applicable engineering codes by a factor of 10, forcing special operating procedures while further restricting the utility of the station.
Why the political support for Stuttgart 21?
The main driving force behind the project comes from the fact that Germany’s sixth largest city – and one of the most affluent ones – is geographically constrained within the slopes of narrow valleys. Hence, the prospect of developing a large area currently occupied by railway installations into prime real estate has been a temptation that politicians, cheered on by various lobby groups, have found impossible to resist.
Why is Deutsche Bahn pursuing the project?
Besides cozy connections between Deutsche Bahn, German politics, and economically powerful groups, there are three main contributing factors. First, network monopolist Deutsche Bahn is pursuing an overall strategy of eliminating redundancy and favouring few high-speed city-to-city links at the expense of the network at large, presumably to focus on scarce high-margin offers and to eliminate niches in which competitors could grow. Second, Deutsche Bahn gets a default 17% cut on all tax-funded infrastructure projects.
This is particularly profitable for high-expense sections like tunnels and bridges where planning cost per Euro spent is low. Third, the city of Stuttgart has already paid Deutsche Bahn in advance for the land that would eventually be vacated. Deutsche Bahn has since disbursed this money as profit to its only shareholder, the German federal government. So Deutsche Bahn would face an immediate substantial write-off if it were to stop the project now, which is bad for manager bonuses and could lead to potential criminal charges.
How does Stuttgart 21 decrease rail capacity?
This is a very complex topic, but the argument boils down to two main points. First, the underground station would reduce the number of station platforms from 16 to 8. In view of this, officials claim that a through station can operate more efficiently than a terminus.
However, the existing terminus station already possesses an ingenious system of tunnels and bridges which entangle the two main approaches with the connections to the rail yard such that it can operate much like a through station, only that trains must change their direction of travel. In particular, the number of points that entering or leaving trains must cross are comparable, so that there is no rational mechanism that would allow the underground station to make up for its dearth of station tracks.
Second, the most important approach into Stuttgart is from the North-West, particularly for long-distance travellers. While this approach is the real bottleneck of the entire system, the corresponding number of tracks would remain unchanged. Worse, plans call for strict one-way traffic and eliminate all cross-over possibilities between long-distance and suburban lines, thereby destroying existing redundancy on the main approach.
In conclusion: the underground station would probably be able to handle today’s traffic on a good day, but is certain to fall over badly in the event of irregularities. There would be little room for possible future increases in demand and the new station would be virtually non-extendable. This conclusion is corroborated by numbers contained in the original planning documents, carefully kept out of the executive summaries, which show that the new station was intentionally specced below current peak capacity from the very beginning.
What is the impact on German rail infrastructure?
The greatest effect is an unprecedented raid on the federal rail infrastructure budget and to a lesser extent on regional public transport subsidies. Stuttgart 21 will absorb several years worth of the entire federal rail infrastructure budget all the while its network effects range between negligible and negative. Further drawbacks include new hurdles for mobility impaired passengers (including everybody lugging heavy baggage around), overcrowded platforms (the available area will be reduced by almost a third and is sprinkled with obstacles), and severe constraints on possible train schedules for the entire country.
Are there any advantages to rail passengers?
Sure there are, and they have been advertised heavily. One must note, however, that official figures always compare to the current state of relative neglect as no substantial investments into the Stuttgart infrastructure were made ever since Stuttgart 21 was first dreamed of in the late 1980s. Deutsche Bahn has staunchly refused a comparative evaluation of alternative concepts. Having said this, the chief and largely undisputed improvements are the reduction of travel time between Stuttgart and Ulm from 54 to about 30 minutes and better connections to Stuttgart airport. However, even these gains are embarrassingly modest when compared to rail projects elsewhere. Moreover, when looking at point-to-point travel times which involve change of trains at Stuttgart main station, gains are largely eaten up or even reversed because the low number of station tracks implies drastically reduced stopping times for trains which leads to increased typical waiting times for passengers, an effect very apparent from the official projected Stuttgart 21 train schedules. Finally, the travel time gap between the flagship Stuttgart 21 connections vs. the present could easily be narrowed with smart upgrades to the existing infrastructure at a fraction of the cost. And even now, the real bottlenecks in the Germany rail network lie elsewhere.