Germany jumps aboard high-speed rail system as cars clog roads

June 17, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Forget the image of a shiny Mercedes rushing unobstructed along one of Germany's speed-limitless autobahns. The German car is more likely to be stuck in a traffic jam, and the famous roadways are headed for speed limits.

The sign of the future in German transportation is a fast train -- a 175 mph InterCity Express -- which the Germans, for all their reputation of being first, are getting 27 years after Japan introduced the original bullet train and 10 years after France's TGV began setting speed records.

For many Germans, the ICE is an admission of defeat.

"We set everything on roads, especially the autobahns. But the autos and the autobahns cannot solve our transportation problems. We have to go back to rail," transportation expert Heiner Monheim said.

The development of the express service, which began running between Munich and Hamburg June 2, is just one sign of a widespread rethinking of transportation problems in Germany.

Except for reunification, no domestic issue attracts more public discussion than the country's auto-induced transportation "chaos."

Although cities elsewhere, such as Los Angeles, also have found that the car is unable to fulfill long-term transportation needs, the problem is particularly controversial and painful in Germany, where the car is king. By the end of the decade, more than 43 million cars -- or one-tenth the world total -- will be registered in Germany, a country half the size of Texas.

The result has been not only regular 100-mile traffic jams on the autobahns, but also severe environmental damage. At least 55 percent of Germany's forests are sick from pollution. Smog regularly exceeds safe limits in cities such as Munich and Berlin.

A federal study put the cost of auto-related pollution at $27 billion a year, compared with $750 million a year for rail. Much of the difference is the cost of air and noise pollution, with one result being that Germany probably will introduce a speed limit

on its autobahns in the next few years.

Even expensive attempts to save the car, such as sophisticated traffic-flow guidance systems, are proving inadequate. The Federal Office for Street Construction reports that they add only the equivalent of an extra lane to the existing road network. Eventually this lane fills up, and streets are again congested, the study shows.

In all, the government estimates that the national economy loses $9 billion a year in wasted transportation time, much of it the 65 hours ayear that the average German spends in autobahn traffic jams.

Faced with this situation, planners are casting a fresh glance at modernized rail systems, such as trains and streetcars, which once were synonymous with clanking inconvenience.

The $11 billion InterCity Express is the most visible sign of the new hope being placed in rail.

Although the 32-times-daily Hamburg-Munich train is only the first of eight planned, it is expected to increase the number of rail passengers by 15 percent and attract travelers fed up with airport delays and traffic jams.

Over the coming five years, the railroad is to add an east-west line from Berlin to Cologne, where the train will hook up with the French TGV system. Within 25 years, Germany and other West European countries are planning to have in place a 20,000-mile system of high-speed rail lines.

In Germany, the idea is to put every major city within 3 1/2 hours of Frankfurt. This would be faster than driving and not much slower than flying, when commuting time to and from the airport is included.

Despite the improvements, rail chief Heinz Duerr said trains cannot yet solve the nation's transport problems.

"The railway is not now in the position to stop the impending air and street traffic crisis. It must be restructured before it can really compete," Mr. Duerr said.

His plan is to privatize the system. Government subsidies would become contracts with a new rail corporation to finance uneconomical but important services, such as providing cheap tickets for the elderly and service to remote areas.

But with debt of $25 billion and with former East Germany's archaic railroad system still awaiting modernization, Mr. Duerr knows that the ICE alone cannot make rail travel a serious alternative unless the government helps out.

"We can't just say, 'Give us more money.' We have to prove that we can make money ourselves and run the railways as efficiently as a business. Then we can get people to get out of their cars and into the train," Mr. Duerr said.

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