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Do it yourself instead of waiting for the train

Who takes care of route reactivations?

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Last year, not a single kilometer of a disused railroad line was put back into operation. What about the German government's declared goal of reactivating lines? On February 7, the Pro-Rail Alliance organized a webinar on this topic, at which two new studies were presented. They show a scene supported by committed people - but also where support is needed.

Overgrown railroad line on a railroad embankment between young trees.

The disused Siemensbahn in Berlin is waiting to be reactivated © Volker Emersleben/Deutsche Bahn AG

With heart and soul for rail transport

Last summer, Prof. Johannes Klühspies from the Deggendorf Institute of Technology and his students interviewed hundreds of active members of reactivation initiatives in German-speaking countries. Their study paints a picture of a very committed scene. "It's a bit male-dominated and over 40 years old on average," he admitted in the webinar , "but people are highly motivated, very active and invest a lot of time and passion." The active members felt closely connected to their projects and identified strongly with them.

According to the survey, the groups themselves see money as the biggest obstacle to their reactivation projects. They are predominantly financed by personal contributions and private donations, which are very traditionally raised; not an ideal starting point for ground-breaking changes. The second biggest obstacle for the initiatives is the lack of political support - especially from local politicians - followed by proof of economic viability. Specifically, Klühspieß advises the initiatives to give greater consideration to freight and school transport, for example. He also recommends concise and more professional media strategies to increase acceptance of the reactivation and ultimately make the project a success.

Funding for routes is good, operating concepts are better

Prof. Volker Stölting spoke as a representative of the working group "Reactivation of railway lines as an instrument of integrated spatial development" at the ARL. The working group intends to publish a position paper at the beginning of the year, in which the numerous positive effects for regions that (again) have a rail connection are to be worked out. The working group also wants to examine obstacles to reactivation. Stölting believes that one major problem at the moment is the permanent operation of currently disused lines: "It is usually possible to finance the infrastructure somewhere via funding pots, but the operating concept is important." To achieve this, it may also be necessary for local authorities and districts to contribute more financially.

In the webinar, Andreas Geißler from the Pro-Rail Alliance also saw the framework conditions for infrastructure funding significantly improved, for example through the new 90% funding option in the 2021-2025 GVFG programme. In addition, the Standardized Assessment Procedure, which has been in force since August 2022, is "much more practical". The Pro-Rail Alliance is also calling for a federal reactivation program specifically for freight transport, as there has been less funding in this area to date.

Train at a platform

The current end of the railroad line in Wölfersheim-Södel. © Wolfgang Wolf/Hessen Mobil

Who takes care of services of general interest?

The group was almost unanimous in its criticism of DB InfraGO, the infrastructure unit within the DB Group that was merged at the turn of the year and has a stronger focus on the common good. In their view, it does little to change the situation that DB is not interested in "uneconomical" routes. On the other hand, apart from Deutsche Regionaleisenbahn, which is run by committed individuals, there are few companies that are involved in this area. "It's not necessarily the most profitable business," admitted Prof. Lukas Iffländer from Pro Bahn. Prof. Stölting replied that DB was certainly committed to reactivation in some areas. At the moment, support from the federal states is particularly promising.

The webinar also dealt with how potential railroad lines can be protected. Kerstin Haarmann from the Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD) advocated stricter criteria for route de-dedications, i.e. the final abandonment of a railroad line. Instead of waiting for objections, all those affected should prove that they have no interest in reactivation. Prof. Stölting criticized how differently railroads and roads are treated here: "Why do we have to talk about infrastructure maintenance for railroads? It's a public infrastructure, so for me it goes without saying that it should be maintained like a state or district road." At the moment, however, a high level of performance is still required from the initiatives, said Prof. Klühspieß in conclusion. All those involved called for cooperation to be sought in order to exploit the potential of reactivation.

According to the Pro-Rail Alliance, only eight kilometers of rail network in Germany were reactivated in 2022, and none were reactivated at all in 2023. The organization had already pointed out last year that the number of feasibility studies for reactivations in Germany had risen sharply. Together with the Association of German Transport Companies (VDV), the non-profit alliance calculated that feasibility studies come to a positive conclusion in more than 75 percent of cases. Some lines are already further along and could be put back into operation in the next few years, in Hesse for example the Horlofftalbahn from Wölfersheim-Södel to Hungen or the Lumdatalbahn to Londorf.

Rusty railroad line crosses a country road, in the background a forest, fields and trees

The Horlofftalbahn between Hüngen and Wölfersheim (here in summer 2018) could be running again as early as 2025 and thus better connect the region. © Wolfgang Wolf/Hessen Mobil