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In Germany, many small upgrades together are transformative

December 19, 2017

This week's edition is in memory of Jim Hamre and Zack Willhoite, who lost their lives in Monday's Amtrak derailment. Both were dedicated passenger rail advocates. When the time comes to analyze this tragedy for lessons and policy, we will do so in their honor. For now, we dedicate our thoughts to their friends and family.


Passengers in Germany can now ride between Munich and Berlin in just under four hours.

Originally, this trip took nearly nine hours by train. (It’s about the same distance as Chicago to Cleveland, except with a lot of tricky terrain in the way.) Unsurprisingly, many chose to drive or fly instead.

The faster rides are made possible by a 10 billion Euro mega-project that began shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Rather than building a whole new line from scratch, Deutsche Bahn decided to combine limited segments of new track with upgrades to existing track.

It’s a perfect example of the Phased Network Approach. Much like the United States, Germany has a federal system where individual states have a lot of power. This distributed political structure, combined with Germany’s lack of a central hub like Paris or Madrid, has prevented it from building long “showpiece” high-speed lines as France and Spain have. Instead, Deutsche Bahn worked within the constraints of local demands and budget limitations to identify investments that would benefit both regional and long-distance service.

Because the various upgrades took advantage of the existing network, travel times have been steadily decreasing as individual segments were finished. This last piece was a big one, though: half of its 66-mile length is made up of bridges and tunnels, and it cuts more than two hours from travel times.

With the web-like design of Germany’s rail network, this new piece of track will improve much more than just Munich-Berlin service. In fact, it will benefit a third of all long-distance trains in the country. Deutsche Bahn calls it the single biggest improvement in its history. This route is also part of a trans-European corridor stretching all the way from Scandinavia to Sicily.

Germany’s approach to tackling political and geographic challenges offers important lessons for high-speed rail in the Midwest and across the U.S. It also offers a great example of how the Phased Network Approach can incrementally bring faster, more frequent and more reliable trains.

Mike Kotsch

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