Traffic light negotiations: What should change at the railways – politics

How much has the pressure for reforms in the transport sector increased recently? The outgoing government’s schedule already spoke volumes. Hardly a month has passed since spring without the still acting Minister of Transport, Andreas Scheuer (CSU), having scheduled a summit. There was the national cycling summit, the European rail summit. And there were also auto summits. The goal was always the same: to finally get the climate problem on German roads under control.

Always at the top of the agenda: shifting traffic to rail. That promises quick climate effects. And from the negotiators’ point of view, this is exactly what we urgently need. Because the climate footprint of transport in this country has not improved significantly in the past three decades. But Germany should be climate-neutral as early as 2045. In a first intermediate step, emissions in this sector should fall by 42 percent by 2030. Because more electric cars cannot solve the problem on their own, the railway became a major topic in the coalition negotiations this week.

According to their election programs, the two smaller coalition partners have big plans: to break up the group. The Greens and FDP believe that train operations should be separated from the network in order to create more competition on the rails in the long term – and ultimately more traffic. But the talks ended sobering for the reformers, according to information from negotiating circles.

A break up? “We don’t have that time.”

The SPD rejects a major reform. So it is off the table, it is said from negotiating circles. The party feels bound to commitments to the largest rail union EVG not to allow a break-up. The EVG itself made it clear on Friday that it also remembers the promise. A break-up “would mean a standstill in the traffic turnaround,” said the deputy union chairman Martin Burkert. “We don’t have that time. Politicians now have to move the rails forward and take money into their own hands.” The EVG announced “massive protests” should a future traffic light coalition in the federal government want to split up the group. “The separation is a red line for us,” said Burkert.

But it is clear that something has to change at Deutsche Bahn. The group is expected to double its passenger numbers by 2030. The group is still miles away from that. The problems got bigger instead of smaller with the corona crisis. Empty trains resulted in losses of billions. The mountain of debt grew to a record of well over 30 billion euros. Despite all its problems, the railway itself is strictly against a split. Probably also because they would then have to fear more competition on the rails. Calls from the railway board would have had a higher frequency than some ICE connections between large cities, it is said from negotiating circles.

But there is actually a lot to be said for a major reform. The track infrastructure in Germany currently belongs to the DB Netz subsidiary. It is responsible for the operation and expansion of the network. The company finances this from the train path charges that the railway and its private competitors pay for the use of the tracks, similar to a toll. Opponents of this structure criticize the fact that the railway is subject to economic constraints when it comes to the necessary expansion of the network. According to the negotiators, the cost-benefit factor decides whether a route will be built or not. The train is concentrating on routes that are already busy. As the direct owner of the network, the federal government can decide more freely about investments in the infrastructure, plan the routes differently and create new offers.

A small solution suggests itself as a compromise

Railway associations are still hoping for an agreement on the final stretch of the coalition negotiations. “In almost all network economies – gas, electricity, post, telephony, internet, air traffic – we have long had a separation between the network as a natural monopoly and the services on the network that are provided in competition,” said Tobias Heinemann, President of the Mofair association, which represents private railway companies. “But we stopped at the railroad in the 1990s.”

As a compromise, a small solution is emerging. It is possible that DB Netz will be retained as a Bahn subsidiary, but organizationally more strongly separated from the rest of the group, it is said. The restructuring could also mean that the new government changes the staff at the top of the railway. In addition to CEO Richard Lutz, Merkel’s confidante and today’s infrastructure director Ronald Pofalla would have to fear for his position.

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