Not just a railway


Guest post by Michael Renner, senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute.

In Stuttgart, capital of the south-western German state of Baden-Württemberg, tens of thousands of people have been demonstrating for months against a huge railway construction project. Opposition has been building since “Stuttgart 21” was first announced in the mid-1990s. Germany’s Green Party has been among the most consistent opponents. But why are the Greens opposing a rail project? Shifting from heavy automobile reliance to greater use of railways is one element of making an economy more sustainable.

Stuttgart 21 is the very poster child of an over-dimensioned megaproject, with escalating costs running into the billions of euros. The idea is to put Stuttgart’s main train station, along with a total of 60 kilometres of railway track, underground and to transform the present terminal station into one that accommodates through-traffic. Those in favour of the project argue that it is essential for Europe’s high-speed rail development. Yet Stuttgart is not the European transportation linchpin that project proponents make it out to be.

Ironically, the planned underground station would cut the number of available platforms in half, create new bottlenecks, disrupt synchronised timetables, and fail to address the travel needs of 90% of all rail passengers. Indications are that the project promoters have also been less than truthful [German-language link] about costs, safety issues, and other aspects. Yet the state government is determined to push the project through—even though the money could be better spent [German-language link] on a range of other rail projects.

On September 30, the prime minister of Baden-Württemberg ordered a massive police crackdown against non-violent demonstrators. Water cannons, batons and pepper spray were used indiscriminately against demonstrators, including school children. At least 100 people were injured. A retiree was hit in the face by a jet of water that blinded him.

If anything, the crackdown only served to steel opponents’ resolve. The following day, as many as 100,000 demonstrators again took to the streets peacefully, some carrying signs that read “You can’t get rid of us. But we will get rid of you.” The reference was to upcoming state elections in March 2011. Although dispute resolution efforts are currently under way, it is possible that the elections may serve as a de facto referendum on the project. Polls indicate that the Green Party could emerge as the winner, and it might lead a state government for the first time ever.

I happened to be in Stuttgart a mere week after the violent crackdown. Demonstrators and police were facing off in the public park adjacent to the train station. The police put up a fence to prevent opponents from interfering with project activities (which so far have entailed demolishing a wing of the old train station and cutting down several trees in the park).

"Politicians count on votes so much they don’t
get around to listening to voters."

Homemade signs abounded in the area, giving voice to opponents’ heartfelt views, often expressed in witty or sarcastic ways:

* “It takes a dirty project to require so many water cannons.”

* “Politicians count on votes so much they don’t get around to listening to voters.” (See image to the right)

* “Those who cut trees shall be sawed off.” (vernacular for ousting someone from political office).

* “Caution: German-German border separating population and politicians.” (a double entendre referring both to the fence in Stuttgart and the wall that separated East and West Germany for three decades) – (See image below)

“Caution: German-German border separating
population and politicians.”

Germany’s south-west—my own home region—is ordinarily rather conservative. But the escalating dispute is generating something of a political insurrection. The battle over Stuttgart 21 is no longer just about a railway project. It is becoming a milestone in the political development of the country at a time of public belt-tightening and rising inequalities, indicative of the growing disconnect between the population and what many see as an arrogant, out-of-touch, even corrupt political and economic elite.

This post first appeared on the Worldwatch Institute blog as "When a rail project becomes a political symbol".