There is no blueprint on how to conduct decision-making processes during international projects. This was exactly the reason why going through the planning phase regarding the quality improvement of the Groningen-Bremen railway connection – the Wunderline – did indeed involve quite some pioneering. An inside report.
Bremen is roughly as far away from Groningen as Amsterdam is. Yet the travelling time by train to Bremen is much longer: 2 hours and 43 minutes versus the 2 hours and 7 minutes it takes to rail to Amsterdam. It therefore seems simply a matter of common sense – particularly seen in the light of our European ambitions and open borders – to try to reduce the travelling time between Groningen and Bremen. The Province of Groningen – the initiator of the Wunderline project – was as such very much aware of the fact that a project like that would only be feasible if its envisaged quality improvement was to be broadly supported in both the Netherlands as well as in Germany and if both sides of the border were equally willing to provide the necessary funding.
An ambition with a history
The idea of creating a proper direct cross-border railway connection isn’t new. A railway connection between Harlingen and the German border was already constructed in the period 1863-1868 in order to guarantee suitable transportation services between Great Britain and Northern Germany. In 1876, this railway line was then connected to the German railway network near Ihrhove. Over the more than 100 following years, its terminal stations kept changing. However, from the mid-1980s onwards, direct trains only ran as far as Leer. Still, due to railway quality improvements on the Dutch side of the border, the numbers of cross-border passengers have been increasing significantly since 2006. From 2009 to 2011, a number of resolutions regarding the improvement of the Groningen-Bremen railway connection as well as regarding the accessibility of the region by train, have been passed by the States-Provincial of Groningen. Following these resolutions, the Province has reserved 85 million euro to implement them, while the Dutch Central Government also has confirmed 17 million euro additional support funding.
In order to implement the second planning phase the Province of Groningen founded an organisation in 2012, in which the German partners were to be involved as well. Strong relationships had already been developed with three German parties: the Administrative District of Leer, the Chamber of Industry and Commerce of Eastern Frisia and Papenburg and AG Ems, who were all prepared to participate in the project. Over time, many more national, regional and local government authorities as well as political parties and interest groups became involved. Collaboration has always been based on building trust through open-mindedness.
In 2015 the project gained momentum after the Wunderline project was granted an 8.3 million euro European CEF-T-subsidy as its flagship project in order to conduct a feasibility study regarding the improvement of the railway connection. This planning phase was to be completed by the beginning of 2019. An important objective in this context consisted of integrating the railway connection in the Public Transport Vision 2040 of the Dutch Central Government.
Joint ‘Railway Timetable’
The German-Dutch Wunderline Steering Group assembled for the first time in July 2016. It consists of representatives of the Federated State of Lower Saxony, the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen, the Ministry of Infra structure and Water Management, the province of Groningen, DB Netz and ProRail. The following joint ambition was determined: “Due to the Wunderline, a verifiable improvement of the socio-economic development of the northern border-region is to be realised. In 2025, the border shall no longer form a barrier and trains shall be a sensible alternative means of transportation to cars. Travelling time between Groningen and Bremen – and vice versa – by emission-free and innovative trains is to be reduced to a little over two hours.” This ambition has been defined in a joint ‘Railway Timetable’, which also specifies the decision-making process as well as the project strategy in this context.
Over thirty studies have been conducted on the Wunderline. ProRail and DB Netz researched 48 timetable models, which were funnelled down to four potential options. The objective here was to seek an optimum between travelling time gain and the necessary investments. Challenges consisted of increasing the track speed on the mostly soft peat subsoil as well as fitting suitable railway timetabling in with the relatively long bridge opening times of the Friesenbrücke. A number of both Dutch as well as German research agencies conducted studies regarding the socio-economic improvement of the region, the exploitation costs, the transport value as well as a social benefit-cost analysis, all in accordance with Dutch, German and European decision-making structures. Regarding the decision on the preferred alternative, a social benefit-cost analysis was conducted at the beginning of 2018 in line with Dutch assessment methods. In Germany, the decision-making process requires a Standardisierte Bewertung (standardised assessment). To that cause, a quick-scan-analysis was conducted on which the options regarding funding sources were based in Germany. This proved to be a completely new, yet feasible working method for our German partners. This quick scan was also utilised to convince the German Federal Government of the social benefits offered by the Wunderline.
The steering group opted for a step-by-step approach in order to achieve the first short-term successes and maintain momentum. The project was to never become a victim of an excessive level of ambition, which could possibly scare off our German partners. The power of such a step-by-step approach is also the fact that one manages to realise substantial travelling time gain with relatively limited investments. After each step is completed, traveller numbers as well as the socio-economic developments can be also monitored, on which subsequently the decision-making process of the next step can be based.
The objective was to secure the participation of as many as organisations and people possible who could make a positive impact on the project. From the start is was clear that the transport value and travelling time reducing arguments would not be sufficient enough to substantiate large-scale investments. To this cause, we managed to prove that the railway connection would contribute considerably to the socio-economic development of the northern border region. Reinforcing cross-border collaboration in the field of labour mobility, tourism, culture, education and innovations, as well as the improvement of the mobility chain, would prove to generate more cross-border travelling, while more travellers in turn would reinforce this very socio-economic development. These kind of compelling arguments generally prove to be the kind that bring people to realise what their mutual interests exactly are, which indeed then resulted in broad public support in the region.
In a strategic environmental management plan all possible partners and interested parties were mapped out. The four most important issues were:
- Broadening of the railway network in order to reinforcement the region socio-economically.
- Securing funding at regional, national as well as international level.
- Maintaining broad public support along the railway line.
- The quick reconstruction of the Friesenbrücke.
Dutch and German partners collaborated closely in order to push the Wunderline higher up all governmental agendas. And, we regularly gave each other feedback regarding interim results: this increases the attention value as well as the public support in the region. One of the main interim results was the fact that by the end of 2017 the Wunderline was included in the Coalition Agreement of the SPD-CDU in Lower Saxony. In addition, Members of the European Parliament, German and Dutch municipalities and regional interest groups signed many a statement which emphasised the importance of the Wunderline. Also, annual governmental meetings were held both in Brussels as well as in the region in order to keep stakeholders committed.
The Friesenbrücke shipping accident: bad luck or a streak of good fortune?
At the end of 2015 the Friesenbrücke across the Ems near Weener was damaged beyond repair due to a shipping accident, thus bringing all direct rail transportation to Leer to a halt until 2024. The dialogue regarding the best solution as well as a German measure in this context took very long, which heavily compromised the project’s ambitions. Yet, as strange as it may sound, the shipping accident was in a certain way also a kind of blessing: the railway connection gained importance on the German political agenda. And it also drew more attention from Berlin regarding the restoration of the bridge in particular and the Wunderline in general. The Province of Groningen’s participation in the Friesenbrücke Restoration Taskforce managed to assure more direct access to the German Federal Government in Berlin.
Embedding the agreements in a Comprehensive Set of Measures
On 7 February 2019 – after the planning phase was completed – all partners agreed to sign to a Wunderline Comprehensive Set of Measures, thus officially formalising the project on both sides of the border. This agreement consisted of three sub-agreements:
- A Collaboration Agreement Realisation Decree, including agreements regarding the timetabling, funding, planning as well as the monitoring of the project’s progress.
- A Declaration of Intent by the involved German and Dutch municipalities along the railway line.
- A Joint Statement, which emphasises the importance of further cross-border collaboration.
In addition, a 17 million euro support subsidy was also officially granted by the Dutch Central Government on 7 February 2019.
We are proud of the fact that this project, which once started out as a regional, Dutch initiative, has now evolved into a German-Dutch ambition and is considered both in Germany as well as in the whole of Europe as an excellent example of international collaboration.
Tjeerd Postma is a Wunderline project leader
Dick Bresser is a former Wunderline project leader
Marloes Kramer-Hammenga is a former Wunderline environment manager
Transport value research shows that the Wunderline has the potential of attracting about 1,900 cross-border travellers a day. That is more than double the amount of over 700 cross-border travellers before the Friesenbrücke shipping accident. In addition, more travellers are expected to utilise the other parts of the railway connection as well. This kind of an increase however is not unusual after cross-border railway connections are improved. The Enschede-Münster railway connection for instance showed an increase in traveller numbers of 92 percent between 2001 and 2013. Saarland-Lotharingen grew between 1997 and 2012 by 88 percent.
New Friesenbrücke operational by 2024
The German Federal Government, the Federated State of Lower Saxony and DB Netz AG have jointly opted to construct an almost completely new bridge at the same site where the old Friesenbrücke used to be. It is to be the largest swing bridge in Western Europe. The new Friesenbrücke shall be available for railway traffic for 20 minutes every hour. This is the minimal time needed to apply with the new railway timetable services and thus guarantee the quality improvement of the railway connection. By the end of 2024 the bridge should be completed, thus coinciding with the completion of the first construction phase of this faster railway connection.
Three construction phases
- Phase 1 consists of reducing travelling time between Groningen and Bremen from 2 hours and 43 minutes to 2 hours and 26 minutes. In order to accomplish this, an investment of 53 million euro is necessary in order to increase the track speed and expand the railway track in both Germany as well as in the Netherlands (implementation date: the end of 2024, at the same period of time as the new Friesenbrücke).
- Phase 2 consists of further reducing travelling time between Groningen-Bremen to 2 hours and 11 minutes and of optimising the Leer Railway Junction. An extra investment of around 75 million euro shall be necessary here in order to increase the track speed and to expand the track on the German side of the border (scheduled implementation: 2030).
- After 2030, phase 3 shall follow, which shall consist of introducing a direct Groningen-Bremen railway connection with indeed a travelling time of 2 hours and 11 minutes.