As the fireworks flew and the brass band played at the recent opening of the 57km-long Gotthard Tunnel under the Swiss Alps, Angela Merkel, who was on the first train to pass through it, could not resist the remark: “This is something we Germans still need to work on a little”.
The project was not only completed on time and within budget, she noted with admiration, but it will shave the best part of an hour off the regular journey time between Zurich and Lugano.
A joke heard quite regularly these days is: “If you want to see German efficiency, go to Switzerland.” While it has German engineers squirming, most can only nod in agreement. It is certainly hard to imagine such a prestige project happening in Germany these days. Most of the country’s recent high-profile construction schemes have become great national embarrassments, beset by massive delays and huge cost overruns. A new Berlin airport, originally scheduled to open in 2010, is still years from being realised and billions over budget, while the Elbphilharmonie – a concert hall in Hamburg’s harbour city – is seven years behind schedule and €550m (£430m) over cost. Stuttgart’s underground railway station is in a similarly shambolic state. That’s not to mention the collapse of Cologne’s city archives a few years ago, thanks to the botched construction of a new underground line.
So what happened to the famed German traits of efficiency, accuracy and punctuality? The number 174,630,000 was used to rub further salt into the wound this week. That’s the number of minutes German passenger and goods trains have been losing every day over the past year, with train delays said to have risen by almost a third since 2009. The reason is an extensive wave of very overdue repairs and modernisation taking place across the 33,000km (20,500 mile) rail network, from replacing ageing tracks and 19th-century signalling stations to repairing crumbling bridges and platforms, some of which are so old they are said to be close to collapse.
Commuters are now suffering from the presence of about 850 construction sites around the country, which often cause heavy traffic jams. Tailbacks are up by a fifth, as many abandon trains for cars; then there is the decrepit state of roads and bridges, some of which are in such a state of disrepair that commuters are forced to take huge detours to avoid them. Speed restrictions have also been introduced on many rail and road routes, owing to their dilapidated state and increased traffic density.
Even the trains that are running on time are often much slower than those of other European countries, only reaching top speeds of around 300kph (190mph) on a small proportion of routes.
The creaking rail system is just one part of what is wrong with Germany’s infrastructure, which economists have warned is now in such a shoddy state, due to years of underfunding, that it is starting to have a serious impact on Germany’s GDP. One state premier even suggested introducing a pothole tax to make up for the lack of funding.
The €55bn railway refit is a mere fifth of the €264.5bn investment programme announced by transport minister Alexander Dobrindt in March to upgrade Germany’s autobahns, railways and waterways. Most of the money will be used not to build new structures, just to maintain the existing substance. “We’re aware there’s a lot of catching up to do,” Dobrindt stressed.
To blame is a chronic lack of investment – with money being poured into the welfare state to the detriment of everything else – as well as the nation’s obsession with balancing the books. While much has been invested in the eastern part of the country since the collapse of communism, large parts of the west, especially the already troubled former industrial heartland around the Rhine and the Ruhr, have hardly seen any proper public spending since the 1970s and 80s. The result is everything from leaking swimming pools to dilapidated kindergartens, where it is not unusual to see reinforcing rods inserted in the walls to prevent further decay.
Low interest rates and a surplus federal budget mean Germany could have been readily borrowing for several years to pay for upgrades, but the idea of going into debt is toxic to most voters, who consider debt to be immoral. So the majority of politicians, Merkel included, have simply chosen not to go there.
If there is any comfort to be drawn, it might be this: those who find themselves on a delayed German train will find that the conductor is likely to go into great detail about the cause of the delay, and what the alternative travel options are. And, of course, there’s always the autobahn. As long as it’s not full of potholes.