Infrastructure Lessons

How to Build a Railway

Ein Arbeiter geht am 16.02.2016 in Düsseldorf (Nordrhein-Westfalen) im Tunnel zur U-Bahn-Station Schadowstraße über die Gleise. Die 3,4 Kilometer lange neue Wehrhahn-Linie startet am 21. Februar. Der Tunnel mit sechs unter- und zwei oberirdischen Haltestellen hat 843 Millionen Euro gekostet, fast 200 Millionen mehr als veranschlagt. Foto: Federico Gambarini/dpa [ Rechtehinweis: Verwendung weltweit, usage worldwide ]
A worker in the new Wehrhahn line tunnel in Düsseldorf.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany has struggled with large infrastructure projects but the successful completion of a stretch of railway track in one city offers lessons on how to avoid potential pitfalls in others.

  • Facts


    • A 3.4 kilometer stretch of railway track under the German city of Düsseldorf opens Saturday.
    • Germany has been plagued by problems with big construction projects.
    • Berlin’s new airport was due to open in 2011. It is now delayed until 2017.
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A stretch of railway track under the German city of Düsseldorf, will open Saturday, on time and just slightly over budget.

The 3.4 kilometer long railway track is one of the biggest construction projects recently completed in Germany and is a rare success in a country that has been plagued by high profile infrastructure fiascos.

Two of the most famous disasters of recent times are the new concert hall planned for the city of Hamburg, and the still delayed Berlin Brandenburg airport. But there are also other overruns. The railway tunnel in the west German city of Augsburg was budgeted at €80 million ($88 million), and it has already cost at least €170 million. And instead of opening in 2019, it won’t be open until 2022. The city tunnel in Magdeburg is also a long way from finished and will cost at least €100 million, instead of the originally budgeted €36 million. A project comprising street tunnels and underground railway in Karlsruhe cost €900 million – instead of €588 million.

In this climate, the Düsseldorf tunnel project manager, Gerd Wittkötter, is pleased with what he has achieved with the Wehrhahn line.

“The sad realization was that our structures couldn't be transferred to other projects, as most of those involved were unwilling to delegate power.”

Gerd Wittkötter, Project Manager

The line, eight years in the planning, was due to open in December 2015, so is only two months late. Instead of the originally planned €650 million, the railway track has now cost €840 million. If you deduct additional costs, which were planned for, Mr. Wittkötter said the budget was exceeded by only 15 percent.

So what did he do that was so different? “Well, I’m certainly no witchdoctor,” said Mr. Wittkötter. The 67-year-old engineer has been working in the construction industry for 30 years. When his former employer Walter Bau went bankrupt in 2005, it would have been tempting to take early retirement. But then there was a call from Düsseldorf. “The project gave me the opportunity to avoid all the mistakes I had experienced working on big projects in the past,” said Mr. Wittkötter.

From his point of view, two things were crucial: Organization and forward planning. “Most big projects are only planned as far as it takes to go through the planning permission process,” said Mr. Wittkötter, “and then you wait until the permission comes.”


Huge Cost Overruns - Textgrafik-01 Berlin Brandenburg Airport Hamburg Elb tunnel Magdeburg Leipzig Düsseldorf


That is understandable from a financial point of view. If you go into detail during this process, you are stuck with the costs, if approval is not given. The other side of the argument is this: As soon as permission has been given, then everything has to happen really fast. Then, all-inclusive contract work is put out to tender – with only vague definitions of the results expected from such work. “In the final analysis only the lawyers are happy with that,” said Mr. Wittkötter. In the case of the Wehrhahn line though, planning was done parallel to the permission process. So when the approval came, they were all ready to go.

The second explanation sounds trivial: The whole process is in one place. The Düsseldorf City Council had one department responsible for all relevant tasks, from the underground railway construction to traffic management and road construction. In other cities there are four or five different authorities involved. “Planning permissions I had to wait four weeks for on other projects, were there within a day,” said Mr. Wittkötter.

It‘s no wonder then, that in recent weeks Mr. Wittköter has had visitors from many other German cities that are currently planning, or already involved, with tunnel projects. “The sad realization was that our structures couldn’t be transferred to other projects, as most of those involved were unwilling to delegate power,” said Mr. Wittkötter. The principal or client in railway projects is usually not the city, but the transport company – and it is not prepared to relinquish this role. The only place with a similar structure to Düsseldorf was Munich, and the tunnel work on the south-west middle ring road was completed in 2015 – on time and on budget.


Konrad Fischer is a correspondent for WirtschaftWoche magazine. To contact the author: 

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