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Berlin to München in under 4 h

16 Nov 2007

Funding has been secured to ensure completion of upgraded or new high speed lines all the way from Berlin to München. Ralf Roman Rossberg reports

PLANS for a high speed service between Berlin and München have existed for many years, but the project has had a chequered history with work on sections of new line starting and stopping because of funding shortfalls. Now the project has been restarted thanks to a funding agreement reached with the German government – but another decade will elapse before ICE3 trainsets can link the two cities in the target timing of less than 4 h.

The route is divided into four sections: Berlin to Leipzig and Halle; Leipzig and Halle to Erfurt; Erfurt to Nürnberg; and Nürnberg to München. Upgrading suffices on some parts of the route, but others require long segments of new line to be built to achieve worthwhile time savings. Berlin to Leipzig and Halle has already been upgraded for 200 km/h, and this speed is also possible between Ingolstadt and München. From Nürnberg to Ingolstadt trains use the 300 km/h line which opened in May 2006. This leaves the sections from Leipzig and Halle to Erfurt and from Erfurt to Nürnberg to be completed.

Back in 1939 Deutsche Reichsbahn introduced a Berlin – München diesel railcar service calling only at Leipzig and Nürnberg. This achieved a remarkable timing of 7 h 4 min over a 685 km route which compares with today's best performance by an ICE-T tilting train of 5 h 36 min with intermediate calls at Berlin Südkreuz, Naumburg, Jena, Saalfeld, Bamberg and Ingolstadt. The route is now nearly 28 km shorter thanks to the Nürnberg – Ingolstadt high speed line which is more direct than the routing via Treuchtlingen. On the other hand the route is slightly longer at the Berlin end as trains now run to Hauptbahnhof rather than terminating at the former Anhalter Bahnhof which was located 3 km further south.

Leipzig and Halle to Erfurt

A commemorative stone marking the start of work on the 25 km section of new line from Leipzig to Gröbers was laid on October 2 1996, and this part of the 120 km line to Erfurt was opened to traffic in 2003.

Since then work has been progressing towards Erfurt with a new mixed traffic alignment that will allow passenger trains to run at 250 km/h. Although much of the route lies through flat country, three tunnels with a combined length of 15 km are required, together with six viaducts totalling 14 km.

Of particular note is the 6·5 km elevated structure across the Saale-Elster valley which is designated as a nature reserve. Ground-based access to some of the construction sites is not permitted, so that work on these sections has had to proceed with special framework being pushed out from completed sections of the viaduct.

Near Schkopau there is a junction on the viaduct where the 2·1 km spur to Halle leaves the main line. The route via Halle will be over 30 km shorter than via Leipzig, where trains must reverse in the terminus. However, for the moment there are no definite plans to operate Berlin – München services not calling at Leipzig.

Strong opposition

The 107 km new line from Erfurt to Ebensfeld and the 83 km upgrading project from Ebensfeld to Nürnberg represent by far the most difficult part of the route.

At the outset the alignment of the new line was strongly contested by local interests. Proposals were made to upgrade the existing sinuous route through the Thüringer Wald via Saalfeld and Lichtenfels instead of building a new line with numerous tunnels and bridges. But this would not serve Erfurt, which is the Land capital of Sachsen-Anhalt; in any case another high speed route is to be built in the long term from Erfurt towards Frankfurt-am-Main. The new line also featured as one of the German unity projects after reunification in 1990, giving it considerable political status.

Budget cuts

Despite this, in 1999 the government slashed the budget for the project, although by that time most objections had been dealt with and legal procedures for the route had been completed. Nonetheless, work continued at several sites where construction of bridges and tunnels had begun. Until now these have stood as isolated 'investment ruins' dotted across the landscape. If the election campaign in 2002 had not forced Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to promise to resume work — which did in fact happen — the entire project would probably have been abandoned.

DB Chairman Hartmut Mehdorn kept up the pressure for work to continue, and DB was able to carry out a number of smaller projects ensuring that rights to build did not lapse. The government has now agreed to release €400m a year to ensure the project will proceed, but even with a contribution from the European Union this means that completion is unlikely before 2017.

Erfurt – Nürnberg

The difficult terrain is reflected in the number of major structures, with 22 tunnels totalling 41 km on the 107 km new line from Erfurt to Ebensfeld; there are also 29 viaducts and bridges with a combined length of 12 km. Access to and from Coburg is ensured by a 5 km spur.

Planning approval for work to proceed has existed over the entire section for 10 years, and DB has completed several structures. Now the way is clear for tenders to be let for the rest of the work.

Already under construction is the 8·3 km Bleßberg tunnel through the ridge at the top of the Thüringer Wald; this is the longest bore on the entire route. An intermediate shaft has recently been completed and work is proceeding in both directions.

The project to upgrade the Ebensfeld – Nürnberg section for 230 km/h operation requires construction of two additional tracks for S-Bahn traffic over the 38 km from Forchheim to Nürnberg. Work is already in hand on quadrupling the section from Nürnberg to Fürth; it was here that Germany's first railway opened in 1835.

To reduce congestion at Fürth a 13 km avoiding line is to be built from Erlangen-Eltersdorf to the marshalling yard at Nürnberg; this is a major project as a 10 km tunnel is needed to take the line under the city. Total cost for the Erfurt – Nürnberg works amounts to €5·1bn.

Apart from the need to achieve an end-to-end timing of under 4 h to compete with air and road, the project is essential to handle projected traffic growth. It is currently the largest civil engineering scheme underway in Germany.

  • CAPTION: A major viaduct parallel to a motorway has been completed on the section of new line through the Thüringer Wald, but it will remain unused until 2017.
  • CAPTION: The Berlin – München project is a combination of upgraded route and sections of new line; it will take 10 years to complete the central sections between Leipzig and Nürnberg
  • CAPTION: Construction in progress on the Saale-Elster viaduct. In the background is the Schkopau power station that feeds traction power to the rail network
  • CAPTION: This model shows the junction on the Saale-Elster viaduct where the spur branches off to Halle
  • CAPTION: Framework used to launch construction of parts of the Saale-Elster viaduct where no access from the ground is possible because of its status as an official nature reserve