The concept "21" was born in the 1980's. More than 20 cities in Germany would put their [terminus] stations underground [and turn them into through stations]. Real estate transactions on newly available spaces would pay for a majority of the costs. In the end, all those projects were abandoned because the cost could never be justified by the benefits - real estate revenue could never come close to pay for construction.
Only Stuttgart 21 came through. In that instance the idea of building three additional tracks under the station was combined with a redevelopment idea by a two urban planners. Five tracks, additional stations/tunnels were added and thus Stuttgart 21 was born. Allegedly some high-level politicians took a helicopter ride over the city and were immediately sold on the idea.
This should not be surprising. Politicians, frustrated by the glacial speed of progress in their day jobs, jump at the opportunity to realize visionary, revolutionary construction projects. The exciting 'tingling in the legs' apparently has the power to sweep aside all reason or at least the simple questions "Why are we doing this project?", "Is this economical?". Regrettably, often enough the 'Emperor Nero Syndrome' wins through and the successors have to handle the fallout. Somehow no one is responsible for the idée fixe for which justifications are gathered after the fact (quite desperately). It would be far more effective to define concrete goals first and then develop project ideas from there. Considering the long-term consequences (see part II), it's strange that infrastructure politics seems to work on a 'one-day-to-next' basis.
S21 was comatose for a long time. Officially announced in 1994 it was abandoned by then Deutsche Bahn CEO Ludewig in the late 1990's because it was deemed "uneconomical" and unnecessary from a rail point of view. In 2002 Stuttgart bought the tracks for €459 million and the State of Baden-Württemberg ordered and paid for regional trains that don't even exist yet. They effectively asked to shoulder more of the costs and risks. Now DB's share of the cost is shrinking to zero while the federal, state and city governments have to pay more and more. In 2007, Baden-Württemberg state prime minister Oettinger, in political dire straits, pressed forward with a financing agreement and offered to share the cost of the new high-speed line (a first in Germany's history). Wolfgang Tiefensee, probably the worst federal transport minister of all times, agreed. S21 was resurrected.
There are a number of reasons to do Stuttgart 21 but so many more not to do it.
Money, Money, Money...
The official estimate for S21 is at €4.1 billion (initially 2.5 billion). The figure stood at 4.9 billion in late 2009 but was 'magically' pared back to 4.1 billion because 4.5 billion were viewed as the political threshold. Wendlingen-Ulm was revised in July to €2.9 billion (+50%). In total €7 billion.
All recent German rail projects with high tunnel ratio have been finished at ~200% of the original budget. This time will not be much different. S21 and Wendlingen-Ulm together need over 120 km of tunnels (the new Gotthard tunnel has 153 km in total). Ordinary tunnels cost at least €60 million per km. Therefore just the tunneling for S21+Wendlinge-Ulm will cost €7.2 billion, if everything goes well. Add to that new stations, bridges, signalling, tracks, electrification, etc. and it's impossible to stay under €10 billion. In 2008 federal auditors estimated the total cost at €8.5 billion and asked the ministry to do its due diligence (like proving that those projects are economical).
Estimates by outside experts put the optimistic minimum at €11.5 billion with the sky being the limit. To achieve €7 billion the tunnels would have to be some of the cheapest ones in Germany (per cubic meter) while being digged in some of the most difficult geologies of the world (gypsum keuper, karst, anhydrites, high-pressure water). Similar tunnels in less difficult geology (Nuremberg-Ingolstadt) cost quadruple the amount (per m³) of the official estimates of Wendlingen-Ulm. This is a financial bomb waiting to explode in someone's face. Delays, inflation, planning chaos, and financial difficulties will do their part to raise costs. It will be impossible to build this thing in less than 15 years.
Additionally, such expensive infrastructure will cause station/track fees to soar, which means less trains and higher cost for the passenger. On the state side the construction costs will probably entail even more austerity, higher taxes, and higher fees e.g. for kindergartens.
The Need for Speed
S21 itself saves four minutes at most compared to the terminus station - reversing direction nowadays only takes two minutes.
Proponents therefore tout the time savings of new high-speed line: it will reduce trip times to Ulm by 26 minutes down to 28 minutes. But catching up on neglected maintenance and using tilting trains would also allow for substantial speed gains so that the net benefit of the new line will be 10-12 minutes.
Even worse: ICE trains in the 1990's used to be able to make the trip to Munich in 2:01. Today they need at least 2:20. S21 + Wendlingen-Ulm are supposed to bring the trip time back down to 1:58. Proper maintenance or €10+ billion for new infrastructure? Which one is more cost-effective?
"The New Heart of Europe"
Just about every city in Europe that is embarking on a redevelopment project uses that slogan.
In 2002, the city of Stuttgart bought the new space for €459 million (+€200 million interest) to make S21 worthwhile for Deutsche Bahn. Federal auditors criticized the sale because that real estate was federal property. But no matter. The future of the re-development subproject can be discerned by looking at Area A1 of S21 which has already been under development for years.
|The new public library currently under construction is called "Stammheim 2" in the vernacular, named after a maximum security prison. Webcam City of Stuttgart. |
Why so empty? After ten years Area A1 is still not fully developed. The buildings that have been built don't show a lot of promise. The bailed-out LBBW has its new bunker/growhouse-like headquarters and the Pariser Platz is as charming as an empty swimming pool. A new "urbane feeling" is touted while officials make the same mistakes as after WWII, effectively producing dead zones.
To recoup the expenditure for the land (legally mandated), it would have to be filled with expensive condos, office space and high-end retail. A lucrative construction boom seems unlikely due to coming economic and demographic changes.
In any case those new areas must be the most heavily subsidized building lots in Europe. The slogan "The New Heart of Europe" would actually fit after all. Project opponents contend that major holding/operating areas (about 75% of the 100 hectares) could be freed up for development without building a new station and lots of tunnels. If that's true the net amount of subsidy for that 25 hectare [former] track field will reach astronomical heights.
Problems with Capacity
S21 is supposed to have almost double the capacity of the current station and will have an improved long-distance connection to/from the airport (as if Stuttgart airport was an international hub). But is there even a capacity problem with the current configuration? Even the S21 cheerleaders don't seem to think so:
|A study commissioned by the chamber of commerce of Stuttgart, a strong proponent of S21, shows the expected load of the existing lines by 2025 if everything is left as it is. Rail node Stuttgart (blue arrow) doesn't look very overtaxed. Yet Karlsruhe-Basel (on the left) is between 150-195%. Link|
But surely S21 with its through station and the new line to Ulm will at least improve capacity? Unfortunately it creates more problems than it solves. Currently, the 17-track station in Stuttgart is the second-most punctual in Germany. S21's new 8-track through station would have less approaches and less platform capacity. The new station will have a gradient of 1.6% which is usually illegal in Germany. A special permit has been issued to make it legal. Trains are supposed to dwell for no more than two minutes. Clearly, the future S21 operating environment is "on the edge" from the get-go.
More importantly, numerous new conflicts turn Stuttgart into a new bottleneck.
During the past months Stern magazine has published a number of documents that show S21 to be at best very complex and at worst irresponsible and unhinged. First came a hitherto secret study by the internationally renowned Swiss firm SMA, commissioned by the State government (Link to Stern magazine). The conclusions regarding the S21 configuration and timetable are fairly devastating: "high risk of instability", "limited capacity", "overall system barely controllable", "no room to shape timetable and add additional service or capacity".
This should not come as a big surprise since critics have been onto those problems for a while.
|Left: Stuttgart's rail configuration as of 2009. Right: Future S21 configuration. Signs denote Crossings, slow zones, tight curves, bottlenecks. Chart by "derFahrgast" PRO BAHN (see Reference 1) |
ICE trains are to use the same tunnels/tracks as S-Bahn trains which is usually not allowed. Again a special permit with conditions has been issued. The biggest legal constraint: if a train stops (congestion will happen all the time because of the limited capacity/speed) the oncoming trains in the opposite direction have to stop as well. This could possibly cause 'gridlock on rails' whose waves would propagate throughout the German network.
No wonder the SMA report concludes "Because of the explosiveness of these findings absolute secrecy is necessary." As a reaction, officials claimed the study to be a "working paper" and that all problems had since been resolved. Yet, a week later an option for double tracking a section at the airport was exercised...
Fixing the S21 mess would necessitate 10 (better yet 12) instead of 8 tracks in the new station. An additional new line and station in the south, elimination of crossings and double tracking (most of which can't be done retroactively), etc. But that would mean another cost explosion, another major delay. It's customary to wait until the project is in progress to let the numbers soar towards reality. Removing all those problems beforehand would reveal S21's central problem to everyone: it's not a rail project but a real estate project with lots of tunnels that is sold as a rail project.
One of the original co-architects, legendary Frei Otto, who dropped out of the project team a year ago, recently warned of major safety risks. The new station could be flooded with groundwater during construction or it could "start rising like a submarine" with all sorts of consequences for e.g. the remaining tower of the old station; it could turn into the next Tower of Pisa.
Additionally, the geology of Stuttgart represents a special challenge. It contains cavities and anhydrites that can swell with enormous pressure once they're fissured/fractured and come into contact with water - Stuttgart happens to have mineral water springs in its ground (itself at risk). A nearby example is the Engelberg autobahn tunnel which, despite having concrete walls two meters thick, has to be regularly renovated. Geological dislocations in the middle of the city could lead to damaged houses or even collapses in extreme cases.
Late in 2009 Deutsche Bahn estimated the costs at €4.9 billion but soon after that DB announced it had found opportunities to save money by slimming down the tunnel walls (bad idea in that high-pressure geology) and using some sort of "innovative tendering and management process" (?).
Of course, none of the geological catastrophes have to happen. But negative surprises are very probable, and in any case S21 will test technological limits due to the geological complexity. Therefore the official cost estimates of €4.1 billion (assuming 66km of happy variety tunneling) are mathematically improbable and practically impossible to achieve.
Plan for the best...
The latest bombshell concerns the state of project management. Internal documents show that planning is behind ["in chaos"] for rather important areas such as signalling, electrification, fire protection, etc. For instance, it is currently assumed that the smaller-than-usual tunnels will be fitted with ETCS since the usual PZB / LZB systems would require more room and thus replanning. Problem: there are currently no trains in Germany that use ETCS. One could expect new high-speed trains to be equipped with ETCS by the end of construction in 10+ years. But to expect all legacy trains to be retrofitted with ETCS hardware for 300,000 Euros apiece is utopian. S-Bahn trains with ETCS? Surely not. This will inevitably lead to an expensive (rainmaking) re-engineering subproject.
A local paper found preparatory works on the existing tracks to be months behind. The sum of delays in all sections had amassed to over 2000 days. Renovating tracks -if only for ten years- using 1950s technology and with few competent railway engineers turns out to be hard. The real point of no return, when machines start digging, is nowhere near.