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To understand why the German economic engine is slowing, look no further than the country's struggling railways.
Germans' reputation for punctuality is being tarnished by a worsening record of train delays. One in four trains last year was late, and 22 percent of long-distance departures so far in 2019 have been delayed.
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That’s prompted soul-searching in Berlin as summer holiday season nears, and critics point the finger at the government’s dogmatic insistence on balancing the books and never going into the red — under what's known in Germany as the schwarze-Null (black zero) budget surplus policy.
On Tuesday, those concerned are meeting for a summit in the capital aimed at addressing the problems faced by state-owned rail giant Deutsche Bahn and figuring out how to meet a target of doubling passenger traffic by 2030. Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer and DB CEO Richard Lutz will be in attendance to discuss the problems created by decades of underinvestment in a creaking 33,000-kilometer rail network.
“Germany even lags behind Italy on investment per head, and it’s undeniable that we need to do more because traffic is growing rapidly,” said Markus Sievers from Allianz Pro Schiene, a lobby group aimed at promoting rail transport.
Germany’s railway network measures roughly the same as it did a century ago, with a patchwork of high-speed lines added in some segments.
Among the larger Western European countries, Germany beats only Spain and France on railway infrastructure spending per head. Its outlay is far less than the U.K., the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland, the continental leader. In 2017, €66 for every German was invested in track infrastructure compared to €165 for every Brit, €128 for every Dutch citizen and a whopping €362 for every Swiss resident, according to figures collected by the lobby group.
It’s not just the railways: German Autobahns are crumbling, prompting Berlin to create a new agency to manage the highways this year. Bridges need buttressing, and even government planes have been hit by a wave of embarrassing breakdowns.
With the government’s economic policy standing accused of throttling public investment and dragging down growth, the government has downgraded economic growth expectations to 0.5 percent this year. Europe’s largest economy is at risk of dipping into recession if a transatlantic trade war bites or the U.K. cuts itself off from the single market with a hard Brexit.
DerailedNot long ago, DB enjoyed a near perfect record on the rails.
Its local and suburban services still perform well, delivering 95 percent of trains on time last year. But on long-distance routes linking up Germany’s big cities, demand has far outstripped investment. Passenger numbers have doubled since the 1990s, DB says.
“This is a consequence of the considerable increase in traffic,” Johannes Ludewig, a Deutsche Bahn CEO in the late 1990s, said of the delays. “When two or three times more traffic runs on this network than 100 years ago, it will clearly have an effect on punctuality.”
The decline in performance has already prompted crisis meetings in the transport ministry, and a commitment from DB executives to splash billions on fixing up track and putting extra staff on maintenance duty. Around €10.7 billion will be pumped into the railways this year alone, with DB starting work at more than 800 construction sites. Ronald Pofalla, a former minister and close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been appointed as crisis manager, and is also expected to be a front-runner in any future race to take over at DB.
This article first appeared on www.politico.eu
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