Upgrading Rail Infrastructure as an Economic Development Tool

Author: Roger Bardsley, AICP

I very recently returned from a trip to Germany where I attended the wedding of one of my exchange students from 2007-08.  The wedding took place in a 200-year-old Schloss, which is a fancy name for what we would call a plantation house.  It sits in the middle of what was a very large farm in the north German plain.

But, I digress.  Imagine that you lived in country that was taken over by an evil dictator who led everyone into a disastrous war that left the country devastated.  Imagine further that the first evil dictator was replaced by another evil dictator who ruled through fear and intimidation and who did very little to modernize the country or rebuild infrastructure.

That country was East Germany, or the Deutche Democratic Republic (DDR) as it was known when it was reunified with West Germany in October, 1990.  What to do?  There were so many issues, both economic and social, involved in bringing the two countries together.  Berlin was in relatively good shape because much of the city had been part of West Germany.  In the north German plain, however, the farms and farm villages had seen no investment in decades.  This is a large, sparsely-populated area that stretches to the Baltic Sea and relies on farm and forest products for much of its economy.

Fortunately, the area had railroad lines that dated to the 19th Century.  They pass through small towns and villages that were the market centers for their respective agricultural areas.  Each had a station that, at one time, was the heart of the community, handling mail, freight and passenger traffic.  Now, the stations were generally abandoned and the rails themselves were pre-War II vintage.  According to a plaque in the Furstenburg station, a unified Germany decided to completely modernize the rail infrastructure using EU funds.  They electrified the lines, put in new rails and concrete ties, and built new platforms that are H/C accessible.

The result is that 1) Deutche Bahn can run modern electrically-powered trains on the tracks, and 2) The rural area is linked to Berlin and other employment centers by hourly train service.  Freight service has also been improved.

While impressed by what I had seen, I took a closer look at the infrastructure on my way back from the wedding, headed to Dresden (also in the former DDR).  To my surprise, I saw numerous new overpasses and underpasses either recently completed or under construction.  Apparently, electrification and track upgrades were only phase 1.  Phase 2 was eliminating as many at-grade crossings as possible, making the railroad safer and probably able to operate at higher speeds.  Sadly, the old stations are still boarded up.  Instead, travelers simply insert a credit card in a ticket machine instead of needing to buy a ticket from a station agent.