Germans fear great train robbery

Critics say a new pounds 3.9bn rail project will be a disaster for taxpayers. David Brierley reports
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A DM8.9bn (pounds 3.9bn) futuristic train project has come under fire from critics who believe it could be as big a financial disaster as the Channel tunnel.

The Bonn government last week gave the go-ahead to a 450 kilometres-per- hour link between Hamburg and Berlin, defying massive criticism from independent experts. The Trans-rapid project has received a savage appraisal from the cross-party Bundestag audit commission and opposition parties.

"It is a major budgetary risk," said Elke Ferner of the Social Democrats. "Nobody can say what it will cost the taxpayer." For its supporters, the Trans-rapid represents the technology of the future. Its trains travel along a special - usually raised - track on an electromagnetic "cushion" which dramatically reduces drag and should enable the trains to travel between central Hamburg and Berlin in just one hour.

The Bonn audit commission was not overwhelmed by the technology. It condemned over-optimistic traffic projections, ill-defined and under-estimated costs and poor export opportunities. Professor Wieland, independent expert on the com- mission, described the project as "unconstitutional" because it was so open-ended. The commission noted that the costs of building a proposed stretch through the centre of Berlin had simply been overlooked by the Transrapid's planners.

"The Government does not know what it faces in the future," stated commission member, Ralf Kohlitz.

The German employers' organisation BDI took a different view. It described the Trans-rapid as "the most important innovation in the history of rail- linked transport". It saw opportunities for new business and new jobs. "Germany has the technological lead. All questions about planning, finance, building and future operations were answered two years ago."

German transport minister Matthias Wissmann emphasised the importance of the project for the German banks and the major industrial conglomerates such as Thyssen and Siemens. "[They] will all make major financial commitments and will all have a major interest in ensuring that their money is not lost," he said. "It is the technology of the future. It shows that German industry is able to develop and realise innovative technology."

The Transrapid's critics replied that the German state is already contributing too much - Dm5.6bn out of Dm8.9bn - for a project it will not own. And even its supporters admitted that Dm8.9bn will not suffice. Dionys Jobs, who heads the transport committee in the Bundestag, conceded this was "because the Transrapid will have to go into the centre of Berlin".

Nobody has ascertained what the cost of buying swathes of prime property in the centres of Berlin and Hamburg will be. Thyssen, one of the main contractors, admitted that inflation alone will lift the cost of the project to Dm12bn by its projected completion date in 2005. Eckhard Rohkamm, head of the Thyssen subsidiary responsible for Trans-rapid, described the present agreement as "not a contract, but a statement of intent". He thinks that only when the precise route of the track has been determined will it be possible to give a detailed economic assessment of the project. To save money, the Trans-rapid consortium is exploring the possibility of running the new tracks alongside existing train and underground tracks in Berlin and Hamburg. The technology is being tried out on test tracks in Emsland, near the Dutch border.