22.–23.05.2024 #polismobility

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Using existing structures

How reactivating disused rail lines can accelerate the mobility revolution

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The reactivation of disused rail lines holds significant potential for the mobility revolution.

Many closed rail lines could make a significant contribution to the traffic turnaround when reactivated.

Over the past decades, far more rail lines have been decommissioned than put into service. There is a lot of potential in reactivating disused lines. It is also relatively uncomplicated.

© Pixabay

Many closed rail lines could make a significant contribution to the traffic turnaround when reactivated.

The inauguration of the six-kilometer Nuremberg-Fürth rail line in December 1835 marked the start of the rapid growth of German rail traffic. Just five years later, the rail network had already reached 500 kilometers, and by 1850 it had grown to almost 6,000. There seemed to be no limits to mobility within Germany, and industrialization was able to take full effect. The peak in line length was reached in 1912 with 58,297 kilometers; from then on, a shrinking process began that continues to this day. More than one hundred years later, in 2020, only slightly more than half of the formerly available route still existed, at 33,399 kilometers. The roots of this development can be found not only, but to a large extent, in the rise of the automobile, which resulted in a much lower demand for rail connections.

This shift in the general understanding of mobility caused user numbers to drop rapidly, to which Deutsche Bahn could have responded with a wide variety of measures; in fact, however, most economically unprofitable connections were thinned out after some time of waiting. As a result, passenger volumes continued to fall until traffic on the line was finally discontinued altogether. This picture prevailed until the railroad reform in 1994, as a result of which the two state-owned railroad companies were merged into Deutsche Bahn AG and privatized; after the reform, the situation slowly improved, partly because the establishment and reactivation of railroad lines had to be ordered by the respective federal state from then on. Since then, however, the assessment criteria for the profitability of individual lines have become even more deeply rooted in economic factors.

New plans for reactivations

But a turnaround seems to be on the horizon. In June of last year, DB AG, together with the industry associations Allianz pro Schiene (Pro-Rail Alliance) and Verband Deutscher Verkehrsunternehmen (VDV), presented plans for reactivating rail lines that had been shut down in the past. All in all, Deutsche Bahn plans to reactivate an initial 20 rail lines in Germany with a total length of 245 kilometers, on which passenger or freight services are to be operated again in the future. The lines are in various stages of implementation. Furthermore, the exchange with the federal states regarding the reactivation of additional lines continues.

Dr. Martin Henke, VDV Managing Director Rail Transport, called it "historic" that the railroads had taken the decision "after decades of retreat to take a step again into the development of the area and thus into the expansion of the network" From the point of view of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, in addition to upgrading the infrastructure, additional funds are also needed for operations on revitalized rail lines.

Rail-Trail: From rail line to bike path

Given the pressing need for a transportation turnaround as a result of climate change, it would have been beneficial if the downward trend in rail traffic had never begun. The railroad tracks that decades ago still guided passenger trains from A to B, after their closure - if they were not dismantled - either stretched fallow through the landscape and slowly gave themselves over to vegetation, or were at least used for freight transport. In many places, abandoned railroad lines were converted into cycling and hiking trails some time later, as shown, for example, by the Hunsrückbahn between Simmern and Boppard, the Nordbahntrasse in Wuppertal, or the Fallowfield Loop in Manchester, which enjoy great popularity beyond their respective catchment areas and facilitate non-motorized mobility. In keeping with the "Rail-Trail Movement" initiated by Peter Harnik in 1986, abandoned tracks have thus been given a new function.

While Rail Trails have the potential to increase the share of Active Mobility in the modal split, they no longer benefit public transport in their new form, yet they are occasionally included in possible reactivation plans. Michael Kaufmann, research associate at the Chair of Public Transport Systems and Mobility Management at the University of Wuppertal, has investigated a possible reactivation of the Niederbergbahn between Haan and Essen. He classifies this development as ambivalent: "In this way, it can happen that two players in the environmental network are played off against each other," he says. Still, he says, it's possible to implement one- or two-lane connections, for example, without jeopardizing the newly created bike lane: "So both uses could take place in parallel." In fact, the bike path on the Niederbergbahn was created in part to keep open the possibility of reactivating it as a rail line at a later date. According to Kaufmann, however, the focus should rather be on connections that have not yet undergone a functional rededication and are falling into disrepair - if it makes sense from a traffic point of view.

Visualizations of the planned Interborough Express as a link between the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn.

Visualizations of the planned Interborough Express as a link between the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn.

New rail line for New York

An example of such a project can be found in New York City, where Governor Kathy Hochul announced the Interborough Express in early January 2022, which is intended to breathe new life into an existing rail link between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens that currently only runs freight trains. A 22.5-kilometer line is planned that could revolutionize public transit between the two boroughs, which has long been considered a problem child in terms of transportation planning. Bay Ridge on the western edge of Brooklyn is the starting or end point of the new line, which will run northeast through Kensington and Flatbush to Jackson Heights. It thus draws a semicircle open in the direction of Manhattan and in this way offers connections to 17 other subway lines and thus the entire city area. About one million commuters are to be served by the IBE; the travel time between the terminus stations, which are currently only connected to each other with a change in Manhattan, will shrink from more than one and a half hours to about forty minutes. Upgrading the mass transit system is almost essential: In Brooklyn, 57% of households do not own a car; in Queens, 36% do.

Kaufmann estimates that such a model could be transferred to European route networks. "The reactivation of disused rail lines - along with the introduction of a uniform, affordable fare system - is a fundamental vehicle for the transportation turnaround," he clarifies. However, he also points out that there has been a significant trend reversal in recent years and far fewer rail links are now being closed than was the case some time ago. He, too, sees the reasons for closure as generally anchored in negative cost-benefit calculations, which in turn is closely linked to the attractiveness of the line - the watchword now, he says, is to increase the attractiveness of existing lines and thus ensure their profitability. Furthermore, in view of the transport turnaround demanded by science and large sections of politics and the population, it is indispensable to include ecological and economic factors in the assessment in at least equal measure - even if the former are investments in the future, the results of which will become visible far later than immediate monetary income or loss.

Ecological, economical, practical

In relevant rail associations and societies, large-scale reactivation has long been a key item on the agenda. The Pro-Rail Alliance, for example, emphasizes how important the expansion of infrastructure over a wide area is for the quality of rail transport - also in view of the fact that the railroads have set themselves the goal of doubling passenger numbers by 2030. Reactivating rail lines results in far less expense than building new ones, even if sections of track have already been removed. Both track areas and embankments are usually still available, whereas new construction requires their complete creation - at high cost and with an enormous expenditure of time and resources. Examples of implemented reactivations show that as soon as regular connections are operated on lines that have been put back into service, they are used. In order to reinforce the upward trend that the railroads have been experiencing for some time, the network now needs to grow in breadth to ensure adequate service in peripheral regions as well.

Reactivation also holds some potential for international train traffic. During World War II, some connections were destroyed and not rebuilt; in addition, hundreds of kilometers of electrified lines, including the power plants that supplied the traction current, were shipped off to the Soviet Union as part of reparations payments. Reactivating these lines would benefit the former East German states as well as upgrade direct connections to Poland and the Czech Republic.

However, there is still a long way to go before this happens. Since the 1994 rail reform, about four times as many route kilometers in Germany have been decommissioned as reactivated, even though the gap is shrinking and many projects are in the planning process. In addition, the differences between the federal states are serious: More than half of the reactivated route kilometers are attributable to Baden-Württemberg, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate and Hesse. In less densely populated federal states, however, many medium-sized centers are still waiting for a rail connection.

It is doubtful whether the record number of rail kilometers achieved 110 years ago can be reached again - but it must still be regarded as the goal. As expensive, laborious and time-consuming as the construction of the rail network must have been back then, the reactivation of the disused tracks will not come close.


David O'Neill