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Major construction kicks off to fix Germany's railway system

July 6, 2024

Overcrowded, delayed, canceled: Deutsche Bahn trains are notoriously unpunctual. And the situation will worsen before it improves.

Stuttgart main station platform with passengers as ICE train arrives
Germany's dilapidated rail network slows down modern trains Image: Arnulf Hettrich/IMAGO

Anyone traveling with Deutsche Bahn over the next few years will need more time –– and patience. On July 15th, the day after the final game of the European Football Championship, the state-owned railway company will start a massive renovation program. 

It is planning to renew 40 primary train routes by 2030. Each route will be closed for several months while construction work is carried out. The first slated for renewal is the central German route connecting Frankfurt and Mannheim known as the Riedbahn. 

"The Riedbahn will be the initial building block of a high-performance network," says Berthold Huber, Deutsche Bahn's Director of Infrastructure. "Nowhere else in Germany is the infrastructure currently under more strain. Around 300 local, long-distance and freight trains travel along this route every day." 

This route sees regular disruptions caused by defective switches, signal boxes or overhead power lines, due to disrepair. These in turn delay almost every train on the approximately 70-kilometer-long (43-mile-long) Riedbahn route, which affects rail traffic across Germany. 

Sign pointing travelers to the alternative bus service for the Riedbahn
The 70-kilometer-long Riedbahn connecting Frankfurt and Mannheim slated for renewalImage: Andreas Arnold/dpa/picture alliance

Delays and cancellations 

Train delays with Deutsche Bahn have steadily increased in recent years. In 2023, less than two-thirds of long-distance trains reached their destination on time –– a new record low. In Germany, a train is considered punctual if it is delayed by less than six minutes. 

Train journeys are often curtailed due to massive delays and don't even make it to their final stop. For Deutsche Bahn, there is an advantage in that: curtailed train journeys are not included in punctuality statistics. If they were, those statistics would be much worse. 

If a train is delayed by more than 60 minutes, travelers can claim back part of the fare. In 2023, Deutsche Bahn refunded €133 million ($143 million) due to delays. That was 43% more than in 2022. This money could have been invested in the rail network. 

The rail company's finances are in bad shape. Deutsche Bahn has not managed to balance its books since passenger numbers plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2023, its deficit was around €2.4 billion. It is now stuck with a mountain of debt of around €34 billion. 

German commuters face chaos as a three-day rail strike begins

Investments in rail infrastructure: needed but expensive 

Repair work is becoming ever more expensive. In 2023, Deutsche Bahn invested a record amount of around €7.6 billion in its infrastructure. But most of its rail systems are so outdated, they often cannot simply be repaired. And most are not suited to digitally controlled rail operations, which will become the standard in the future. 

As a state-owned company, Deutsche Bahn relies on subsidies from the German government. However, the government has invested far too little in the company in recent decades.

This underfunding is now taking its toll. The calamity is so severe that minor interventions no longer suffice. Forty main routes, which are essential for the operation of a high-performance rail network, must be completely renewed. Around 4,200 kilometers (about the width of the United States) of track are involved up to 2030. 

This plan –– the largest infrastructure program in Deutsche Bahn's history –– is expected to cost €45 billion. Tracks, switches and signaling technology will be renewed, overhead lines will be replaced and soundproofing along tracks near residential areas will be improved. The construction work will also affect international trains passing through Germany. 

Travel on the diversion routes will take longer. Stops on the routes under construction will not be accessible by train. Thousands of passengers will have to use alternate means of transportation, such as buses. Deutsche Bahn is modernizing a special fleet of vehicles for this purpose to help minimize customer annoyance. 

German Minister for Transport, Volker Wissing is full of praise for what he calls the "deluxe rail replacement service."

"The buses will be equipped with high-quality equipment, with toilets, WiFi and so on, so that customers will feel comfortable on the replacement service during the five months," he said.

Germany's most scenic railroad line

Frankfurt Airport will be disconnected 

Here is an important notice for air travelers: During the construction period, accessing Frankfurt Airport by train will not be possible. The high-speed rail line from Cologne to Frankfurt, coming from the northwest, will be closed from mid-July to mid-August. Trains will be diverted.

Following the "Riedbahn” renewal, the ca. 280-kilometer route (about half the length of New York State) from Hamburg to Berlin will be closed and renewed. That is planned for 2025. With up to 30,000 passengers every day, it is the most heavily used direct long-distance city train connection in Germany. And around 230 regional, long-distance, and freight trains travel on these tracks daily. The route between Emmerich and Oberhausen, near the Dutch border, is also scheduled for renovation in 2025. 

But Deutsche Bahn's main financier, the German government, and the federal states involved in the railway network must all reduce their over-indebted budgets. In addition, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court declared parts of the federal budget unconstitutional in autumn 2023, making billions of euros inaccessible for investments in the railway. 

However, if Deutsche Bahn wants to improve its efficiency and reliability, renewing existing routes will not be enough. Its current railway network is running at full capacity and cannot handle additional trains.

More trains would require building new routes –– hard to imagine, given the government's current austerity plans. 

This article was originally written in German.

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