Germany plans to reform ailing railway network

To tackle the railway delays plaguing Germany, the federal government plans to reform the company structure of state-owned operator Deutsche Bahn, but private railway operators and the opposition warn that the reform might fall short.

While the German government is promoting train travel to reduce emissions in the transport sector, German long-distance trains are less reliant than in the past, with only 65% on time in 2022, a drop of 10 percentage points compared to 2021.

To address the issue, the German government has agreed to reform its state-owned Deutsche Bahn company, which both operates trains and, via two subsidiaries, owns the related infrastructure, such as stations and the rail network.

The reform will see the latter two subsidiaries merged into one, which in the future would be oriented towards the “common good”, the coalition agreement of the German government coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, and liberal FDP party reads.

This means that instead of being profit-oriented, investments in the infrastructure could follow political priorities, such as the aim for an overall increase in passengers and freight transport via rail.

As for the government target, by 2030, passenger transport via train should double, and the market share of freight transported by rail will increase to 25% from 18% in 2020.

Ahead of a meeting between the German Transport Ministry with stakeholders on Friday (9 June) to discuss the reform plans, private freight rail operators spoke of a “unique opportunity” – but also warned that the reform, as currently foreseen, might not address the key problems.

“We are concerned that the government is tiptoeing around difficult issues,” Peter Westenberger, head of industry association NEE, representing private freight rail operators competing with Deutsche Bahn, said.

“Specifically, we fear that after the partial decision to merge the rail network company and station company, the government has no desire to complete the process and robotically refers to ‘more money for railways’ and a so-called general renovation of the network,” he added.

Opposition calls for separation of railway operation and infrastructure

While the government proposal would keep the new “public good” oriented company under the ownership of Deutsche Bahn (DB), conservative opposition parties CDU and CSU (EPP) want to go a step further and separate the infrastructure completely from the DB company.

“Separating the infrastructure and transport sectors leads to more competition on the railways,” a position paper by the CDU/CSU parliamentary group reads.

“The rail network has been run one-sidedly for far too long. In addition to constructing and operating profitable lines, the goal must also be to maintain and, if necessary, expand less profitable lines that are important for people’s mobility needs,” the group argues.

Furthermore, a separation between infrastructure and railway operation “means that DB’s own railway undertakings will no longer be the main beneficiaries when capacities are allocated for train path use,” the group argues, adding that “other railway companies will also have better and fairer access to the rail network”.

However, DB competitors organised in the freight railway association NEE say that they “do not demand a separation of network and operations, but an efficient and customer-oriented managed and growth-oriented rail infrastructure company”.

[Edited by Sean Goulding Carroll/Alice Taylor]


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