Ronald Pofalla should have been pretty happy that he was no longer the infrastructure board of Deutsche Bahn on Monday. Otherwise he would probably have had to deliver the bad news that Deutsche Bahn boss Richard Lutz himself had to report. Deutsche Bahn (DB) has found that things cannot go on like this: the trains are full again after the pandemic, some even overcrowded, and thanks to the 9-euro ticket, that is unlikely to change in the next few weeks.

But at the same time, construction is taking place at so many points in the rail network that the system is reaching its limits – or has long since exceeded them. “Continuing like this is not an alternative,” says Lutz.

Deutsche Bahn therefore wants to use a completely new system for the renovation of its route network: Instead of permanent individual construction sites, the work in corridors with particularly heavy traffic is to be bundled into a kind of general renovation. “We have to turn the overloaded infrastructure into a high-performance network,” says Lutz.

But this is nothing new: it has long been a fact that the rail infrastructure in many places is dilapidated and no longer up to the demands. So far nothing has changed. The group has been keeping a list of congested rail routes since 2008, but it’s not getting shorter, it’s getting longer. There are now 22 sections on it.

Bahn boss Lutz spoke of an “almost insoluble dilemma” of having to grow and renovate at the same time. The federal government has set the goal of doubling passenger traffic by 2030. Freight traffic is also to be increased. All of this is simply impossible with the existing infrastructure. It won’t work without “growing pains,” says Lutz. But they could be violent.

Because the bundled general renovation would of course mean that individual, particularly heavily used sections of road would only have to be closed once, but probably for a much longer time, possibly for months. The consequences for passengers would be detours and longer travel times. It is already clear that the goal of 80 percent punctual trains can no longer be achieved this year. Bahn boss Lutz makes it clear that in the next few years, should the bundled renovation come, cuts will probably also have to be made in the punctuality target.

The general renovations are to start in 2024, and two to three of the particularly heavily used route corridors are then to be modernized every year. At the end of the 2020s, at least this core network should be renovated. The Bahn boss promises that traffic will then roll normally for at least a few years. Overall, the work that would be pending in the next eight to ten years should always be bundled. For at least three to five years, passengers should then have “peace and quiet” on their routes once they have been renovated.

The only problem is: How is the goal of doubling the number of passengers to be achieved by 2030 if the conditions in the route network are significantly worse for five years? “It’s important to us not to lose our customers,” says Lutz. But without a radical change in the modernization of the routes, this will not succeed. We want to proceed as “tolerably as possible”.

Criticism comes from the private railway competitors, who have joined forces in the Mofair association. There they also believe that the work urgently needs to be bundled. However, this is not a new idea from the Bahn boss, but has been a consensus in the industry for at least five years. But nothing has happened so far, says Mofair Managing Director Matthias Stoffregen. The competitors therefore consider the initiative of the state-owned company to be a diversionary tactic, which should mean that the fundamental structural reform of Deutsche Bahn is no longer being dealt with in this legislative period.

According to Mofair, a bundling of work often fails due to regulations that state that no components may be replaced that are not fully depreciated. So if a construction measure is only due in three years, it cannot be brought forward at all.

Bahn boss Lutz therefore wants to coordinate his renovation concept closely with the federal government and Transport Minister Volker Wissing. Probably also because bundling the work is likely to cost more. So far, only around 100 million euros have been earmarked for so-called “customer-friendly” construction, i.e. for additional costs that lead to the restrictions for passengers being kept as low as possible. That will probably not be enough, says Lutz.

The Bahn boss does not want to take care of the mammoth project alone in the long term. After the departure of Pofalla, the post of infrastructure manager at Deutsche Bahn is vacant and Lutz is acting on an interim basis. It probably won’t stay that way forever. However, the supervisory board must decide on a successor for Pofalla. The next regular meeting will take place at the end of June. Of course, he cannot anticipate a decision in the committee, says Lutz. “But we need someone who stands for this concept.”

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