The following was written by Madeleine Wahlberg, about protests against high speed rail related projects in Germany.
It is often suggested that we are exaggerating the impact of HS2 and that in those countries that have had high speed services for some years, they are quite satisfied.
However, have you heard that there have been large scale street protests, with up to 60,000 participants (at which 100 people were injured) over Duetsche Bahn’s (DB) planned extension of high speed trains through Stuttgart? I attach a quick summary of the latest phase in this large scale dispute (the report on the arbitration process that the railway company was forced to participate in).
A translation of the full text of the arbitrator’s report is here.
Background to the Stuttgart 21 Plus arbitration
DB have been planning their overall project (called Stuttgart 21 or S21) for many years and the construction phase has started.
The project includes turning the Stuttgart terminus station into a through station, which involves major works remodelling the supposedly conserved station building, building a new station underground, rerouting the rail tracks through the city, and cutting down a large number of trees in a nearby park.
There were also many objections to the failure of DB to consult with the public; to clarify the actual costs of the completed project; and to the inadequate treatment of passenger needs in the new scheme.
Additionally the citizens of Stuttgart were/are concerned about other impacts of the new route including geological concerns (Stuttgart has thermal water), and concern about how the property that would become available through laying the tracks underground, would be exploited.
Such was the level of public protest that the Chief Minister of Baden Wuertemberg (Mappus) agreed to set up (and finance) a public enquiry/ mediation or ‘arbitration’ in October 2010, to be run like an employment tribunal, under the independent arbitration of Dr Geissler. All sides to the dispute were invited, over 9 rounds of arbitration, to put their concerns on the table – as the Chief Minister said, “everyone around the table, and all the facts on the table”. Geissler set out his conclusions at the end of November 2010.
This is a summary of those conclusions and the proposals recommended by Dr Geissler, which he named Stuttgart 21 Plus.
Key points about the arbitration process
Geissler noted that for many citizens the DB proposal was more a concern about ecological, geological and financial risks than economic opportunities. An important goal of the arbitration was to win back a measure of credibility and confidence in democracy. However Geissler concluded that the arbitration could only partially make up for something that should have been done years ago.
DB has moved from ignoring and deprecating the protesters to now admitting that they have sound arguments. The arbitration process lent legitimacy to the views of the opponents.
The Chief Minister’s phrase was that ‘not only must everyone be around the table, but all the facts must be on the table.’ The notable exception to this has been that detailed information on the financing of the project has been withheld given that some contracts have already been signed. Geissler hoped that this shortcoming will be somewhat balanced by the appointment of 3 auditing firms to look at aspects of the DB scheme.
All of the proceedings of the arbitration were publicised live on a range of media – leading to TV audiences of 1 million. Transparency, Geissler argued, is particularly important with large scale projects that last many years, and ways must be found to achieve this. The lack of participation and transparency with the current project was unacceptable and Geissler recommended the Swiss approach which involves 3 rounds of citizen voting, firstly on the basic goal of a project; then on alternative solutions; and finally on the detailed proposals. Until that sort of scheme is in place, he recommends the use of arbitration hearings similar to those for Stuttgart 21 Plus.
As the arbitration will not put a stop to the building of the station, Geissler said that the protests are also likely to continue and further points for arbitration should be set up.
Some key details about the Stuttgart case
Geissler argued that it is too late to hold a referendum on the project (as contracts have been signed), and there is in any case no current law that would oblige DB to adhere to the result. However the city of Stuttgart could still decide to conduct a survey related to the detailed developments that they would fund.
The opponents to S21 have shown that there is an existing viable alternative to it – called the K21 scheme. Geissler recommended that DB should look carefully at specific aspects of K21 and take what they can from it.
Geissler noted substantial critiques of the project management of S21. The real costs of S21 have not been worked out, nor are the building permits in place to achieve it. He said that DB seems to be proceeding on the basis that they have a right to construct whatever they decide. The scheme will only make sense if the line between the cities of Ulm and Wendlingen is built yet the national government has not committed itself to this cost. Similarly, the depth of the new Stuttgart station depends on the design of the last 4 stages of the line but these are only at the planning stage. This makes it risky to spend so much money on re-modelling Stuttgart station, not knowing finally if and at what cost the last 4 stages will be built. The station without the complete line will not actually save travelling time.
Geissler said that he could only support the construction of the underground station in Stuttgart if significant improvements on the original project are made, turning Stuttgart 21 into Stuttgart 21 PLUS. His recommendations included giving any land no longer needed for railway use to a foundation that would preserve it for ‘fresh-air’ uses; detailed control of tree felling and re-planting; design improvements to the station in order to respond to the needs of those with children, disability or the elderly; better response to fire hazard issues; detailed re-alignment of track; and other technical aspects. Geissler also recommended that DB should carry out an intensive simulation to ensure both the functionality and the safety of their proposals – he was not convinced that they knew whether it would be safe or feasible.
Our thanks to Madeleine for such a detailed look at the situation in Germany: we know other countries, such as Spain and China, are also having doubts about their high speed projects.