Neither passenger nor freight transport has exhausted all of its potential yet. When it comes to sustainability, however, the railway is a competitor for other traffic carriers.
This year, Deutsche Bahn and the entire railroad sector will celebrate a special anniversary – 20 years of railway reform. The reorganisation of Bundesbahn and Reichsbahn into the privately owned and organized DB AG was one of the largest and most successful reform projects in reunited Germany. The primary goal of the railway reform was to bring more traffic onto the tracks – a goal which has become even more relevant 20 years later. The measurable climate change, the risen price of oil, the high consequential costs of road traffic and the new attractiveness of inner cities, where land is scarce and affordable housing is becoming more important than additional streets and parking places – all of these trends supply facts that provide ever more urgent arguments to promote rail traffic more strongly. The question of the future is: how can we simultaneously reconcile the increasing demand for goods transport, the hunger for mobility and the growing demands for a liveable environment? To meet these challenges, a strong and high-performance railway system is indispensable. Therefore it is not only a traffic-related issue, but also an economic and environmental issue to update and to expand the railway reform. As a reminder: passenger and freight trains were hardly used any more in the early 1990s in both East and West Germany. However, since 1994, passenger traffic has increased again by 36 per cent, freight traffic even by 56 per cent. Within the same period of time, the federal government has had to give 19 per cent less in financial support to the railways. Germany is also in the vanguard when it comes to opening new markets. One in four regional trains is operated by a competitor of DB. In the area of rail cargo, the share is even 29 per cent. This year, more than 390 railway companies are operating on the German rail network – a new record. It is not without reason that other countries look to the model of DB AG when it comes to the organisation of efficient railway operations. Milestones have also been set in the modernisation of the railway infrastructure over the past 20 years. One and a half hours from Berlin to Hamburg, one hour from Frankfurt am Main to Cologne, or travelling from Munich to Ingolstadt at a speed of 300 kilometres per hour – the railroad is the most attractive means of transport in many relations simply because of its speed. Despite these successes, there is still a lot to do. After all, the EU, too, has attributed a key role in the development of sustainable traffic networks to the railroad. In its White Paper on Transport, the EU Commission has stipulated the following: by 2030, 30 per cent of road freight transport covering a distance of more than 300 kilometres is to be moved to more environmentally friendly transport carriers like the railroad, by 2050 even a minimum of 50 per cent. By then, the majority of passenger transport covering medium distances also has to be allotted to the railroad. Deutsche Bahn meets these challenges with its DB2020 company strategy. The objective is to sustainably secure the record of success attained in terms of the company and traffic since the railway reform. As part of the DB2020 strategy, Deutsche Bahn together with the federal government will invest around 50 billion euros in the next five years alone, an amount that is unprecedented in the company’s history. Two thirds of this will go to the infrastructure in Germany, and the remaining one third will almost completely be invested in new trains to make railroad travel even more reliable and comfortable. Beyond the business efforts of DB, however, basic conditions must be created to permit a further transfer of traffic growth to the tracks. First of all, the discussion about the model of railway companies must be stopped in Europe. Sufficient experience has been gained that contradicts the demand that the rail network and railroad operations should be separated. France, for example, has recognised that doing so was a mistake. Ultimately, the cooperative activity in the railway sector suffered a great deal – to the sorrow of the customers. Now a reintegration is taking place. The example of France once again has proven that it is not the company structure that is decisive for the performance of the railway system and the development of competition on the tracks. What is much more crucial are fair competitive conditions among the traffic carriers. That is why the open model principle should apply for EU member states. Since 1 April 2013, three quarters of all long-distance trains in Germany have been operated with 100 per cent green electricity. This could only be achieved thanks to the integrated model used in Germany. Without the close interrelations of the DB business areas, this step would not have been possible. Today the percentage of renewable energy in the railway’s energy supply is already 35 per cent. By 2050, all trains should travel based entirely on energy from wind and hydropower. This undertaking will require a huge effort, however. As a result of the revision of the German Renewable Energies Act (EEG), DB AG will have to come up with an extra 50 million euros per year starting in 2015. This is a burden that other traffic carriers (such as roads, air traffic) do not bear. These are not what one would call fair competitive conditions. A fairer energy taxation of the various traffic carriers is urgently needed. Another example are the approval practices for rail vehicles. Unlike for cars and aeroplanes, each EU country has its own approval requirements for trains. In addition, there is only a low level of standardisation. Every vehicle has to be approved separately; every railcar must complete separate test runs. On the backdrop of rising passenger numbers, the tedious vehicle tests constitute one of the most difficult problems of the industry, particularly in Germany. That is why the reform of the approval procedure that has been initiated on the national level must be quickly incorporated in the law and become standard practice. Ultimately, fair competitive conditions are principally a matter of prioritisation in the infrastructure development. While Germany ranks at the very top in terms of operating efficiency of the track network in Europe, when it comes to the investment volume per kilometre of track, we trail behind, occupying only the tenth place. And this is despite the fact that the demand for railway transport is rising continually, while passenger car and air traffic within Germany is measurably becoming less significant. This trend should also be reflected in the allocation of funding. According to the Daehre and Bodewig Commission, each year there is a lack of 1.4 billion euros that would be needed just for keeping the existing DB network in an adequate condition. Here traffic policy must take countermeasures. Above all, regulation and infrastructure financing must have the same goals. Whether it be the building of infrastructure, energy taxation or the approval of vehicles – 20 years after the railway reform, it is becoming increasingly clear that the challenges of traffic policy demand far-reaching and Europe-wide ideas for the railroads. Travel and transport chains no longer end at national borders. Entering the market in the rail traffic sector is associated with significant investments. And infrastructure projects determine our course for decades. The task of regulation must be to increase legal and planning security for all market participants, to create fairer terms of competition and to stimulate investments equally on the national and European levels. Even today, the railway system is by far the most energy-efficient, most environmentally friendly and safest traffic carrier, and the results are getting better all the time. In the still young 21st century, the railway has taken on a new image. It stands for modernness, commercial sense and far-sightedness. 20 years of railway reform prove it in black and white: every euro spent on the railway system is a sustainable investment into the future – in Germany and in Europe.
The author, who was born in Hamburg in 1951, is CEO and Chairman of the Management Board of Deutsche Bahn AG and DB Mobility Logistics AG. After obtaining a degree in automotive engineering and aircraft construction from the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, he went on to study vocational and business teaching. He received his doctorate in 1986 from the University of Kassel. He held leading positions at MBB, DASA and DaimlerChrysler before taking over as head of the DB group in 2009.