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 Germany needs Strong Rail.

Sustainable and efficient transport is now more important than ever. Germany plans to eliminate transport emissions by 2050, but this won’t be possible unless the railway plays a larger role in transport than ever before.

The agreed emissions targets present major challenges for politicians and business-owners alike. While transport technology and performance have improved over the last few years, growth of 63% in freight transport from 1991 to 2015 has long since offset these improvements according to the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt). Commerce and freight transport will only continue to grow, with the German government forecasting growth of some 40% by 2030 compared to 2010.

Given these figures, Germany can no longer avoid investing in a strong rail freight transport network if it wants to meet its agreed climate targets. This has been the case for years, which is why the German government’s coalition agreement provides support for the railways. Developed in 2017, the master plan for rail freight transport was also created with the intention of supporting the railways and offsetting the competitive disadvantages of rail transport. The German climate council (Klimakabinett) has now resolved to put a price on CO2 emissions. Seen from a macroeconomic perspective, this is the most cost-effective way to achieve climate targets while also supporting investment in more environmentally friendly rail freight transport.

At the same time, the rail system still suffers from many disadvantages when compared with transport on the road. The market for freight transport is fraught with difficulty and volatility. Shifts in the world of commerce have negatively impacted the rails, as fuel costs have kept the price of lorry transport low. Even today, railway infrastructure is already desperately in need of repair. The German government and Deutsche Bahn therefore plan to invest EUR 86 billion to renovate the rail network by 2030. These investments could increase the network’s capacity, which could significantly benefit rail freight transport. By investing in combined transport and single-wagon transport as an alternative to lorries, the German government also aims to shift more transports to the rails.

Finally, myriad country-specific responsibilities have hindered the construction of a uniform European rail system. In contrast to their direct competitors – lorry drivers – train drivers must have sophisticated knowledge of specific countries and systems before they can navigate multi-system locomotives on international routes.

Despite these obstacles, the railway offers a strong model. The current pan-European network of national companies and local partner railways means that almost 60% of transport services are performed at European level. Thousands of freight terminals, railway stations and multimodal transhipment terminals link up with an extensive network that allows the railway to play an important part in its customers’ logistics systems.

The most important point of all may be sustainability – DB Cargo offers clear-cut CO2-related benefits with its block trains in combined transport and its complex single-wagon system. Compared with a lorry, a train emits a mere fifth of the CO2 measured per tonne of freight per kilometre travelled.

Nevertheless, DB Cargo has not benefited enough from the economic growth experienced in Germany over the past few years. Help is now on its way from the very top. “Germany will only achieve its climate targets if there is a massive shift of transport to the rails”, says Dr Richard Lutz, Chairman of the DB Management Board and CEO. “Germany needs Strong Rail for the climate, the people, the economy and, last but not least, for Europe. We are committed to honouring our responsibility to society and, in all of our efforts, we will focus on making Strong Rail a reality.”

Ambitious plans

DB is therefore pursuing ambitious targets in its Strong Rail strategy. It plans to further reduce CO2 emissions by 10.5 million tonnes per year by shifting transport to the rails and increase the market share of rail in freight transport to 25% from the current 18%.

The target is to increase the volume of freight on the rails by 70% by 2030. This is equivalent to 13 million fewer lorry journeys on German roads, with lower emissions as a result. To achieve its targets, Deutsche Bahn is taking action for the climate in three areas.

  1. The first of these is infrastructure, which will be expanded to increase its transport capacity by at least 30%. Huge investments will prepare country-specific routes, hubs and terminals for this increase, including the most important European corridors. Sensible approaches such as extendedlength freight trains and reactivated private siding terminals are part of the solution. New technologies will be introduced in terminals for combined transport, railports, classification yards and freight terminals with the aim of making processes speedier and more efficient. An important aspect in this area is digitalisation, which allows for higher rail service frequency and higher speeds. Technologies like digital signal boxes and the European Train Control System (ETCS), which is both uniform and digital, will help achieve this.
  2. The second area involves Deutsche Bahn upgrading its fleet, with DB Cargo continuing its push to automate and digitalise transports. The company’s entire German fleet of some 68,000 wagons will be upgraded by 2020. As of today, more than 38,000 wagons have already undergone a digital refresh. As part of the upgrade, smart sensors allow for better management and networking as well as higher productivity and improved punctuality. Digital tools like 3D printing, intelligent diagnostic systems and robotics also assist in maintaining the fleet. At the same time, DB Cargo is making another massive investment in new vehicles: 300 new locomotives, including 100 of the multi-system variety, have joined the fleet, meaning almost one in three trains can be used for international transport.
  3. The third area relates to the employees who maintain, manage and navigate the network and the trains. Demographic changes have made it necessary to take urgent action in this area. About half of the company’s employees will have departed by 2030. In the years to come, Deutsche Bahn will hire 100,000 employees across all its business units. In 2018 alone, DB Cargo brought more than 1,800 new employees on board. It is essential to the German and European economies that freight transport on the rails runs smoothly. But the railway cannot meet all of the expectations placed upon it alone. Railways function in a complex system whose efficiency depends on many different factors. Many different people and entities must work together for the system to be successful.

New models

In the business realm, new supply chain models which value reliability rather than just speed could relieve the financial pressure on the railways. Moreover, the system’s overhead costs and the investments required to expand infrastructure require political support. Berlin is currently providing a boost in this area, with virtually everyone in the current political arena recognising the fact that more rail transport equals greater sustainability. Having recently passed a bundle of climate-related measures, the German government is investing in the railway sector. “Political tailwinds have been upgraded to gale force”, says Ronald Pofalla, Member of the Management Board for Infrastructure.

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Meike Hillenbrand

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