Stuttgart 21: Germany’s most divisive rail project
The radical redevelopment of Stuttgart’s central rail station was first announced in 1995, but the station project is still under construction today, with completion not expected until 2021 at the earliest.
The problem with Stuttgart 21 (S21), says Professor Dr Christian Böttger, is that it has become a politically symbolic project. A classic case of for and against; those who see it as a necessary step to change travel through the region, while those against cite budget and environmental concerns and claim the project is unrealistic and poorly designed. It’s an argument that’s been raging for nigh on 20 years.
Böttger is an expert in railway organisation and finance based at Berlin's University of Applied Sciences for Engineering and Economics who believes that S21 has “separated supporters and opponents in the region in a way we have not seen in Germany for decades”.
The cause of the division is the redevelopment of Stuttgart’s central rail station, which was first announced in the early 1990s. It is included in the wider Stuttgart-Ulm concept, which is part of the European high-speed Main Line for Europe network, which aims to link Paris, Strasbourg, Munich and Vienna with Bratislava and Budapest.
S21, which has been called Baden-Württemberg’s most ambitious and largest upgrade to public rail transport since the 19th century, will see the main station converted from a terminus into an underground through-station. Modifications to the overall Stuttgart rail hub include 57km of new track for long-distance, regional and suburban trains, 33km of which will be in tunnels and cuttings, as well as four new stations.
Official project documentation states that: “At the heart of the project is the new Stuttgart main station. Lying at right angles to the present track system, the station connects eight platform tracks and eight adjacent through-tracks with around 50 sets of points. The above-ground railway space [can be] made available for urban development.
“The new main station will be connected to the existing network via short sections of a predominantly underground railway ring.”
Outlining the opposition
At a cost of approximately €6.5bn, S21 is not cheap. Overall, the bill for the Stuttgart-Ulm project is expected to reach €9.786bn. However, Deutsche Bahn’s (DB) Stuttgart-Ulm project team believes such an outlay is worth it to make Stuttgart “an efficient through-station”.
Those backing the project also see it as a ‘once-in-a-century opportunity’ to undertake extensive urban development. As the DB document said, “The Stuttgart-Ulm rail project will lay the foundation stone for a sustainable railway infrastructure and for the mobility of people in Baden-Württemberg.”
However, S21 has been beset by local protests. Back in 2010, thousands took to the streets to show their displeasure. At the time, Walter Sittler, a leader of the protests, told German radio: “What we hope to achieve with these protests is that elected leaders will reconsider and stop this project. Most people oppose it.”
Clashes with the police have, fortunately, been relatively rare, although injuries were reported in 2010 when police used a water cannon and teargas to disperse a crowd that had gathered to protect trees marked for felling for S21.
Just over three years later, Reuters reported the contents of an internal DB document, which stated that if company executives had “the knowledge we have today, we would not have begun the project, but we would still continue it”. This, in some ways, has only hardened the protestors’ resolve.
Matthias von Herrmann is a founding member of the Parkschützer, or Protectors of the Park; a group that forms part of the social movement against S21. When asked if anything could change his opinion on S21, he simply replied, “no”.
Von Herrmann is, along with the majority of protestors, opposed to the project for a variety of reasons. Says von Herrmann: “There are substantial environmental concerns, starting with the water balance in the Stuttgart valley [a worry due to tunnel construction] affecting the rich mineral water resources, [and] the destruction of vital central park areas.”
Böttger agrees, saying: “It is a highly complex project, the geology of Stuttgart is extremely challenging.” Von Herrmann also believes that, if allowed to continue, rail travel will get worse rather than better.
Authorities have attempted to ease some anxieties by installing, what they term, an extensive groundwater management system, designed to regulate groundwater level during each stage of construction. They also insist that the floor slab of the new main station is approximately 40m above the geological layers that carry the mineral water.
A necessary urban development?
In contrast to the grassroots antagonism, national political support has been forthcoming for a long time, particularly from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union Party, although it should be noted that the current Mayor of Stuttgart is Fritz Kuhn, who in 2012 became the first Green Party candidate to win a state mayoralty.
Kuhn has previously expressed doubt regarding S21, but in late December, he was quoted by the Stuttgarter Zeitung newspaper as saying: “The city is on the side of those who want to finish the project in a timely and qualitative manner.”
So, what are the potential benefits?
The DB Stuttgart-Ulm project claims that moving the tracks underground will free-up around 100ha in the city centre; land that could be used for urban redevelopment. It is also touting the potential job creation (up to 5,000 during construction, according to estimates) and an economic stimulus to the region once the project is complete.
As to be expected, an improvement in train services is also predicted. DB Stuttgart-Ulm spokesperson David Bösinger says: “[Up to] 75% of all citizens in Baden-Württemberg live in regions that will benefit from more direct and faster connections.
“Today’s connection from Ulm’s main station to Stuttgart central station is approximately 60 minutes; after the project is finished it will be around 30 minutes. When the inhabitants of Baden-Württemberg were asked in November 2011, 60% voted [in favour] of Baden-Württemberg being a project partner. Even in Stuttgart’s inner-city, over 50% of citizens voted for the project.”
According to project documentation: “The new through-station will have half as many platform tracks as the current terminus – and yet will be able to handle far more trains with fewer delays.
“There are three critical reasons for this: arriving and departing trains will no longer get in each other’s way; the number of platform tracks for long-distance and regional trains will rise from five to eight; [and] where the present speed limit is just 30km/h to 40km/h, trains will in future be able to arrive and depart at 60km/h to 100km/h.” The overall Stuttgart-Ulm scheme could also benefit up to eight million people in the state of Baden-Württemberg, reports suggest.
None of this is enough to convince the likes of von Herrmann who, alongside his colleague Dr Carola Eckstein, another founding member of Parkschützer, has put together a different proposal. They suggest renovating the existing station and its surroundings and “add to the local, regional and national services…[by using] the excavations already made for S21 to build a bus station, a rent-a-car-station, a bicycle-station and a short-time parking area below the terminal station.”
For now, however, construction on S21 continues. “The project will be finished and opened to the public in December 2021,” says a confident Bösinger.