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"Nature and species conservation are part of our DNA"

Andreas Gehlhaar is responsible for envir- onmental conservation and noise protection at Deutsche Bahn. In this interview he explains what the rail company is doing to promote environmental sustainability – and what it can do to help bring more traffic onto ra

Mr Gehlhaar, recently we’ve been hearing more and more about bees in connection with the railways. That’s an unusual combination. What’s the story there?

Nature and species conservation are part of Deutsche Bahn’s DNA. Each day, DB staff take part in more than 12,000 environmental projects. One of those projects is supporting honey bees, which are very important in the cycle of nature. But – and this is where the problem lies – the number of bees in Germany has been dropping for years, dramatically so in places. We want to do something about that and that’s why Deutsche Bahn is making several hundred green areas available to private beekeepers – for free. For us, that’s what active species protection is all about.

Deutsche Bahn is also active in other environmental fields. What exactly are the most pressing needs and what is DB doing?

We must think of the environment and business as interlinked. That is our core approach and it applies to all our objectives, from climate protection to specific nature conservation projects such as the bees, which we’ve just spoken about.
Three tasks are right at the top of the agenda: playing our part in climate protection, sustainably expanding renewable energy, and introducing quieter trains – especially in the rail freight sector.
When it comes to climate protection in particular, we at Deutsche Bahn can make a critical contribution because we already operate climate-neutral and environmentally friendly services in many areas. And it is our goal to improve further. Firstly, from the beginning of next year all our long-distance trains will be powered exclusively – 100 per cent – by green energy. Secondly, we want to cut our greenhouse gas emissions by more than half by 2030. That makes us the most environmentally friendly mobility company by far – and not only in Germany. Renewable energy already makes up 42 per cent of the DB rail electricity mix. We want to increase that to 70 per cent by 2030. That is green.
At the same time we are taking active steps to work on making rail freight transportation significantly quieter. We are fitting our whole fleet of freight wagons with whisper brakes. By the end of this year, 40,000 wagons will already have been made quieter, and by 2020 the whole fleet will have been refitted. In addition to that, we, together with the federal government, are investing around €100 million each year in further noise protection measures. Around 1,600 kilometres of track have already been fitted with sound insulation walls and more than 55,000 homes with sound insulation windows. Quiet rail freight transportation is a basic prerequis- ite for moving traffic from the roads to our greener railways.

But DB is surely also doing much more with regard to the environment. How can we find out more about this work?

Deutsche Bahn is the most envir- onmentally friendly mobility company in Germany. From trains powered by green energy to recycling, from our green train stations to projects to protect falcons, bats and squirrels: for us, environmental protection is a 360-degree challenge that we engage with 365 days a year. And now we have a single umbrella under which we group together all these diverse projects – under the motto “That is green”. We are starting with 112 green projects because we first operated a train with clean green energy 112 years ago, incidentally with power from our own hydroelectric station in Kammerl. That was the beginning of environmentally friendly and climate-neutral rail transport in Germany. But we are, of course, doing much more and this green number will grow steadily.

You mentioned bringing more freight onto rail. But how exactly do you plan to achieve that and what would help DB to actually accomplish this goal, which has often been stated?

To succeed in bringing more transport operations from the roads onto the green rail network would not only be active climate protection. It would also help people on a local level because when we transport more by rail, we also simultaneously take the burden off our roads and villages, because fewer loud and polluting lorries are about, to put it simply. That’s why, for us, noise protection also counts as active envir- onmental protection.
For DB, more traffic on the rail network is also naturally a business factor. To achieve both – environmental protection and economic viability – we need a big tool box. I want to highlight two of those methods here. Firstly, targeted infrastructure development, which Deutsche Bahn can only proceed with in cooperation with political decision-makers. The current “Plan for Federal Traffic Routes” is a step in the right direction. Secondly, the route pricing system – i.e. the railway tolls – has to become sustainably competitive. It is particularly important in this regard that a significant reduction in route prices not only helps us at Deutsche Bahn, but all the companies that operate rail services.

You have mentioned various environmental protection programmes that DB implements when the company is expanding or laying down new sections of track. What is so special about that –  after all, doesn’t DB have a duty to provide area compensation?

To give you an accurate picture, I’d have to say this: when we carry out construction work in order to improve the rail system, it’s impossible to completely avoid encroaching on nature in some way. DB therefore provides new habitats and rebuilds natural areas in other places as a matter of course. As I said earlier, this is in our DNA. In 2016 alone, DB carried out around 1,800 species protection projects at a cost of up to €140 million.
The Berlin-Munich line, which will go into operation in December, is a prime example of this. A green axis has been cre- ated here. Over an area the size of about 5,500 football fields we’ve set up brooding boxes for falcons, special noise protection walls at tunnel entrances and new floodplains. When implementing these measures we often went way beyond the prescribed requirements.
The construction of the Saale–Elster Viaduct, which is more than six kilometres long, was carried out using what’s known as the advancing head construction process, which largely avoids the need for construction areas on the valley floor and protects existing habitats.

You are also the Chief Noise Officer. What are DB’s goals in terms of reducing noise on the railways?

Reducing the noise levels of rail traffic is one of Deutsche Bahn’s central company objectives. Traffic noise has become a huge strain for a large number of people. We want to ensure that residents living near rail lines can enjoy more time undisturbed in their gardens during the daytime and sleep better at night. We have therefore set ourselves the aim of cutting rail transport noise by half by 2020. We have already achieved much in that regard. DB Cargo is a pioneer when it comes to refitting wagons. That obviously comes at a price: DB Cargo alone is investing an additional €230 million in upgrading freight wagons between now and 2020.

Would you have liked more support from the government with the financing of new brake pads and noise protection sections?

In all fairness, I do think we get some tailwind from the government. Yet despite that there are, of course, still a number of points that would help the rail transport sector further. I’d include the discussion about route charges here, as well as the EEG reallocation charge and energy prices. And support with the increased operating costs resulting from refitting the freight wagons would also be extremely helpful, of course.
You have to bear in mind that the federal government has already invested a huge amount of money in rail. With the introduction of the noise-based route charging system at the end of 2012, for example, the government and Deutsche Bahn created an effective incentive to fit freight wagons with the latest braking technology. At the same time, the government also launched a €150 million subsidy programme for refitting freight wagons. Loud freight wagons will be banned in Germany from the 2020/21 timetable change onwards. In addition, financial support is provided for re- search programmes on vehicles and infrastructure.