It should be a dazzling first: with a lot of fanfare, Hamburg wants to open the future on rails in October. For the first time, several S-Bahn trains will pass through a German city with passengers under computer control. Starting, braking, stopping, it is no longer the driver of the engine, but digital technology that brings passengers to their destination. On a 23-kilometer pilot course, four trains are to show what is technically feasible on railways as part of a world mobility congress.
In fact, this should only be the harbinger of a nationwide renovation. According to the federal government’s plans, thousands of kilometers of rail network and many vehicles will be digitally modernized by 2030, and then by 2040 at the latest the entire 33,000 kilometer network. It is only with the 32 billion euro plan that the major objectives of the federal government can be achieved by the railways. The number of passengers is expected to double by 2030 so that Germany can meet its climate targets.
After all, the network is reaching its limits in many places. In rail hubs such as Mannheim, Cologne or Frankfurt, there is simply no more traffic with conventional means. Digital upgrade could change that. Because the authorities trust technology more than people, the digitally controlled train would run at a faster rate. Up to 35% more trains could run on the same network, without the company having to lay new tracks.
But instead of anticipation, frustration is currently growing up and down the country. The largest and most expensive modernization project in railway history, which bears the title “Digital Rail Germany”, is threatened with serious delays. “To put it bluntly: if we do not move much faster with digital rail, the strengthening of rail and therefore the climate targets in the transport sector cannot be achieved”, says Heike van Hoorn, CEO of the company German Transport Forum (DVF), the newspaper Süddeutsche. “It is time for the federal government to pursue its objectives with the corresponding acts.
The DVF is one of the most important trade associations and an important voice in the transport sector. The who’s who of traffic managers sits in its presidium, including the boss of Deutsche Bahn, Richard Lutz, but also the bosses of car manufacturers, airlines and ADAC.
So far only one percent of the network has been upgraded
According to its own statements, the government started the planned nationwide introduction of the ETCS train control system – the basis of digital traffic – in 2015. It has not gone very far in the past six years. According to current information, only 340 kilometers have been converted, or 1% of the network. Van Hoorn makes it clear what the slow pace means: “The digitization of rail is the prerequisite for us to achieve the goal of doubling the number of passengers and more goods on the rails by 2030.”
Other insiders are also sounding the alarm bells. There is a lack of effective leadership and planning on the part of Andreas Scheuer’s Federal Ministry of Transport (CSU), authorities, ministries and companies say in unison. Traffic forecasts are out of date, budgetary issues have not been clarified. An example is the upgrade of the vehicle fleet, which must be able to receive signals from the smart grid. However, there are still no specifications on what exactly to fit into the trains, nor general support measures. “The financial question is crucial for the conversion,” explains Peter Westenberger, managing director of the European Railways Network, the association of private freight railways. “Hurry up.” Given the tight margins, the industry could not manage the restructuring on its own.
However, if the vehicles are not equipped with the technology during manufacture, the conversion will be long and expensive. For the retrofit, a vehicle is withdrawn from circulation for two years, while the factory installation takes only two months. Modernization would also be much more expensive. Because around 10,000 rail vehicles need new technologies, the stakes are high. Years as planned and billions for the federal budget.
Ministry of Transport refers to model project in Stuttgart
The industry has long called for quick decisions, but little has happened. The Department of Transport rejects the allegations. The criticism that his own department is slowing the project is not even known to the ministry, a spokesperson said. The BMVI is progressing. There is a model project in Stuttgart. A first digital node must indeed be built there around the main station by 2025. But so far, nothing more than such pilot projects has become concrete.
It is far too little for the opposition. “So far, only an absurdly small part of the rail network has been digitally modernized,” said Green Party leader Anton Hofreiter of the Süddeutsche Zeitung. “Massive acceleration of the expansion is absolutely necessary now.” For trains to travel digitally, not only test fields are needed, but entire corridors. “Trains have to go from A to B. Nothing else will get us anywhere,” complains Hofreiter. “The next government must finally make decisions quickly.”
The railroad does not comment on the critics, but also says it is pushing for an acceleration as well: “We are in good talks with the federal government to advance the digitization of rail from 2040 to 2035,” a door said. word.
The industry also rejects the fact that it would be a side effect of the renovation to take power away from the strikers. Engine drivers would still be needed on board – at least to monitor the technology and to be able to respond to emergencies. During the pilot project in Hamburg, too, they have to ensure in the cockpit that the technology does not make any mistakes.