The Great Station Mission

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By Blegug Nan

T he Offenbach main station has been a tragedy since it was left behind by long-distance traffic. The building is run down and the wall paint has yellowed. Anyone who is unlucky enough to have to wait longer for a train here will search in vain for a kiosk or even a bakery. Offenbach is not a sad isolated case; the list of run-down train stations could easily be continued with impressive examples: sadness is also spreading at the Riedbahn, in Rüsselsheim and in Travemünde.

The Great Station Mission

The train stations, as shabby as they may be, provide a shining example of what is currently going wrong with the railway infrastructure in Germany. Anyone who walks along faded wall tiles in this republic, prefers to stand rather than sit on dirty benches, or passes the time in drafty waiting halls will inevitably think of Deutsche Bahn.

In fact, it only owns around 900 reception buildings in Germany. In recent years it has sold a number of the approximately 5,400 train stations, often to the respective municipality. The reason: Maintenance and renovation of the buildings, some of which are oversized, are far too expensive; especially in rural areas, it is impossible to persuade restaurants and shop operators to rent space there. Not even a baker sets up shop there, which in turn makes urgent renovation of the roof completely utopian.

... Offenbach ...

… Offenbach … : Image: Lucas Bäuml

States and municipalities are also overwhelmed by the task of bringing this not entirely insignificant part of their cityscape into shape. For the Rüsselsheim Opelwerk station, for example, the state of Hesse and the transport associations RMV and NVV, together with the railway, concluded the third multi-million-dollar “framework agreement for the Hesse station modernization program” two years ago. Nothing has been built yet. The city of Offenbach also agrees with the state-owned company that “the reception building and the surrounding area at Offenbach main station must be tackled together,” as a railway spokeswoman put it.

Orphaning and falling into disrepair are mutually dependent

This is how the vicious circle closes: train stations become deserted because they are becoming increasingly dilapidated, and they are becoming dilapidated because they are becoming increasingly deserted. For the customer, the order doesn't matter because only the result counts – and that is often enough devastating. “The train stations shape the image of the railway,” says Heike Moll, who has spent a lot of time in train stations, for example when announcing trains at Munich Central Station. She is now chairwoman of the DB Station&Service general works council. “If the family trip begins in a dingy and shabby train station, it is difficult to improve the bad first impression. Even a punctual and clean train cannot undo the negative experience.”

The railway now wants to change that. Filled with a thirst for action, the new infrastructure director Berthold Huber stopped the sale of train stations in the summer in order to lend a hand. Under the umbrella of a new infrastructure company oriented towards the common good, he not only wants to renovate around 40 high-performance corridors, but also a third of the station buildings in Germany, even if they no longer belong to the railway. He has found a major supporter in Federal Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP). Colorful diagrams of the “train stations of the future” are already circulating in the ministry: They should be efficient and customer-oriented, real mobility hubs.

Wissing has been working for months to get a total package of an additional 40 billion euros for the railway over the next four years, including station renovation. But then the Federal Constitutional Court came up with its rebuke of the traffic light's budgetary practice, and since then the rail skeptics have gained the upper hand again. The FDP budget politician Frank Schäffler is one of them, whereby he emphasizes: “I take the train several times a week. I can have a say.”

Law aims to improve railway infrastructure

This is particularly explosive because, apart from the current coalition dispute over the serious consequences of the verdict, Parliament is currently working on a draft law that will significantly change the railway infrastructure in Germany over the next few decades – if it clears the parliamentary hurdles. What you need to know is that, largely unnoticed by the public, the traffic light factions are caught up in the question of the extent to which the federal government should financially support Deutsche Bahn in the renovation of the station buildings.

The dispute is also unfortunate because it is part of the long overdue reform of the Federal Railway Expansion Act, which is known in expert circles as BSchwaG. This inconspicuous set of regulations contains the legal basis for a new agreement between the federal government and the railways on the financing of the renovation offensive, which will cause additional costs of 40 billion euros over the next four years.

Many of the regulations found there are undisputed; the railway has been desperately waiting for their adoption for weeks. The Federal Cabinet launched the BSchwaG in the summer, and the traffic light factions in the Bundestag have been arguing about it ever since. It is currently completely unclear whether it can be passed in Parliament next week – in the last regular session of the year.

Reception buildings cause disputes

The biggest stumbling block: the very run-down station buildings that the railway is now so boldly trying to renovate. They are also causing controversy because taxpayers should not subsidize the rows of shops from which the railway makes money anyway. That is why the Federal Ministry of Transport has made it unmistakably clear: the marketing areas in the reception buildings remain excluded from federal funding.

There is still a debate because there are enough other areas in a train station where the federal money that has already been promised could bring about a decisive change. Green transport politician Matthias Gastel warns against letting the station buildings fall into disrepair. “That can’t be serious,” he complains. “Some people are being so destructive, it’s really frightening.”

He doesn't mention Schäffler's name in this context, but the FDP householder can safely feel addressed, because he doesn't hold back at all about his skepticism. His concerns are directed less against the means of transport, as he asserts as an experienced train driver, but rather against the railway company as a “bottomless pit”. The Federal Audit Office had already formulated it this way. “You have to keep an eye on the railway because it has massive management problems,” says Schaeffler. “She's been inflating her hydrocephalus for years. In the last ten years the number of people in the Bahntower has tripled, but the quality is not getting any better.”

Bahn rejects the accusation of hydrocephalus with numbers

In the railway tower in question, which is currently closed due to extensive renovation, there is a complete lack of understanding of what could be meant. Upon request, Deutsche Bahn will carefully list the figures at the group level: According to this, the number of employees in the group management has increased from 2,155 to 2,620 since the end of 2017. This is far from a tripling.

... und Travemünde.

… and Travemünde. : Image: Daniel Pilar

Even though these accusations have no basis in fact, they reveal a fundamental mistrust of the state-owned company, which the federal government has refused to control for decades. It is a central obstacle to Deutsche Bahn's adequate equipment. A brief reference to the chaos infrastructure project Stuttgart 21 with its delays and cost increases is sufficient explanation.

This is enriched by anecdotes of almost absurd construction site management. However, it is also a fact that the state has not transferred enough money to Deutsche Bahn for years to keep the tracks and train stations at a minimum standard that customers and politicians consider worthy of the world's third largest economy.

Quadruple investments in Switzerland

Nobody doubts that anymore – not even Schäffler. Model countries like Switzerland have been investing four times as much in rail infrastructure for years – with convincing success. In addition, the infrastructure there is paid for entirely from state funds, with no contribution from the railway as in Germany. Deletions from this budget are only possible to a limited extent.

Interestingly, for some budget politicians, and this doesn't just apply to Schäffler, the little is already too much. Strong increases in the budget are therefore declared to be overdue on the one hand, but on the other hand as too risky for the taxpayer, who cannot be expected to pay more – especially in these times.

Therefore, to be on the safe side, it is better to transfer less than the amount that was considered essential in the traffic light coalition just a few months ago. One could say that it's better to spill than to waste a lot of money – or as Schäffler puts it: "Even if that's not enough, it's still more than any federal government has ever invested in the railways," he states almost defiantly.

After the debt brake ruling, new considerations are being made

The Federal Constitutional Court's ruling seems like a welcome invitation to fundamentally reconsider previous concessions such as the additional 40 billion euros for the urgently needed general renovation. Now, of course, completely new financing questions arise, it is heard everywhere. In any case, train stations are less important than the corridor renovation, the heating law and – depending on the party color – social spending, even if they are now increasingly becoming a security risk as they attract local petty crime.

For a company that not only has to assert itself in the market against private competitors, but also has to provide them with a solid infrastructure, this prioritization of a notoriously distrustful owner is difficult to tolerate. It would be as if the Internet company Google were to make its billion-dollar investments in artificial intelligence dependent on there being enough money left at the end of the year for a future technology that would ensure the company's long-term survival. Completely unimaginable.

In any case, the green transport politician Matthias Gastel warns that the general renovation will fail in view of the new pressure to save money. “If there is no money, Deutsche Bahn will sooner or later have to close down routes because of their poor condition.” After all, you can really save on the train stations on these routes.

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