Transport policy: permanent construction site on the German autobahn

Status: 19.11.2021 3:16 p.m.

The Autobahn is as German as driving without a speed limit. A myth. The reality: traffic jams and construction sites. How sustainable is the intersection-free, multi-lane expressway? And what about conservation?

Germany’s 13,200 kilometers of autobahn have turned from a dream to a nightmare. The Salzbachtalbrücke near Wiesbaden, sagged, abandoned, blown up. Right next door is the Schiersteiner Bridge to Mainz: collapsed, permanent construction site at 40 km / h and traffic jams. The Emschertal Bridge on the A43: bent, closed to trucks for years…. This can be continued at will. The Global Infrastructure Index 2019 only assigns Germany 7th place for highways – far behind our neighboring country France with its toll motorways, also behind Turkey and China.

Almost 1000 bridges not flawless

The 18,000 motorway bridges in particular are a problem. Five percent of them are after one Analysis by the Federal Highway Research Institute in an insufficient or insufficient condition. That’s almost 1,000 bridges.

The Federal Ministry of Transport points out that the situation has improved in recent years. In fact, this is true for the classification in condition classes. But the real problems are getting bigger. Because bridges are no longer just badly classified, but are actually no longer passable.

60 percent more trucks – traffic jam hours tripled

The federal government has launched a special bridges program and is investing almost one billion euros in the renovation in each of the coming years. The question is: can motorways withstand the growing loads at all? When most German autobahns were built, they were designed for maximum loads of 24 tons – a steamroller. Today 44-ton trucks drive over it and not sometimes, but constantly. In the ten years from 2009 to 2019 alone, the Mileage of trucks on toll roads (mostly highways) increased by 60 percent. That means: 60 percent more trucks.

Among other things, this has resulted in the number of hours of traffic jams on the Autobahn tripling during this time. But not only that: Goods with a weight of 3.5 billion tons were driven on German roads in 2019. The trucks covered 534 billion kilometers. A good part of it on motorways.

Trucks – a gigantic burden on roads

Long-distance freight transport has enormous growth rates and even after the onset of the Corona crisis in 2020, the trend is steeply upwards again. The dilemma: the motorways suffer a lot more from trucks than from any number of cars. A truck puts as much strain on the road as 35,000 heavy SUVs or 350,000 small cars.

The axle load is crucial. And since it works in the fourth power – i.e. to the power of 4 – the differences are gigantic. And even that is only half the story. The maximum axle load is limited to 11.5 tonnes, but that is only correct on absolutely flat roads. In fact, the dynamic axle load is much higher. Bumps lead to significantly higher loads and the fluctuations also explain why the typical corrugated iron structures arise. The phenomenon occurs on asphalt motorways especially when it is hot and ensures that the pavement has to be renewed and smoothed at ever shorter intervals.

Concrete ceilings are generally more resilient, but they have joints and these joints are maintenance-intensive. In addition, old concrete ceilings are also exposed to heat and the notorious “blow-ups”, the sudden break that leads to dangerous heels, occur. One Austrian investigation (with similar conditions as in Germany) shows that half of the problem areas on the autobahns are at the transition to bridges.

A bottomless pit, but what’s the alternative?

Ever higher real loads and modern assistance systems will further exacerbate the problems. If trucks are controlled electronically in convoy, this increases the capacity of a motorway, but then the bridges are also subjected to much more stress. Against this background, motorways are extremely expensive – and barely built, they need to be renovated. A bottomless pit.

The alternative? Train? After reunification, a lot of money was invested in the construction of the new autobahn in East Germany. And then there was the announcement under the Red-Green government around the turn of the millennium that more goods should be on the train. After all, freight trains only cause a fifth as much CO2 as trucks per tonne-kilometer. And trains are already electrically powered. But the expectation was not fulfilled. Four times as many goods are transported by truck as by rail and ten times as many as by barge.

The previous coalition has therefore increased investments in road construction again. In federal transport infrastructure planning up to 2030, more funds are earmarked for road construction than for rail. And this despite the fact that the federal government wants to increase the share of rail in freight transport from currently below 20 to 25 percent by 2030.

There is a lack of budget and routes

In Austria and Switzerland, the expenditure for tracks is higher than that for the roads. And the expenses for the rail network are three to five times higher per capita than ours.

But it is not just because of the money that no more goods come onto the railroad. There is also a lack of routes. The Brenner Base Tunnel will be ready around 2032 – an important Alpine crossing by rail. The German connection can only be completed in 2040. For years, Deutsche Bahn has been looking for an optimal route that would result in as few objections from residents as possible. 60 percent of the route will now run in tunnels. An extremely complex structure.

There are similar problems in many places: Freight and passenger trains use the same network and passenger traffic has priority. That literally slows down freight trains. The German network is not equipped for the 740-meter trains, which will be the norm across the EU by 2030 at the latest. The sidings are too short, signals not adapted.

And while trucks can travel across Europe fairly easily, the train driver and locomotive often have to change on the freight trains at the borders – from Spain to France even the track width. In addition, the number of companies with siding has fallen dramatically and new industrial areas are often opened up without them. And finally, the train path prices are higher on the rail than on the road, because the route costs are passed on in full.

Green for rail – motorway network “completed”

The parliamentary group of the Greens had one last year Group decision collected. The aim is to double rail traffic. For this purpose, the weighting in the Federal Transport Infrastructure Plan is to be shifted in favor of the railways. The motorway network, on the other hand, is described as “completed”. No further expansion is planned.

Decisions have to be made soon. The think tank Agora Verkehrswende has worked out what they might look like. A comprehensive package with new routes and measures.

By doubling the share of railways – with increasing total traffic – around ten percent of the CO2 emissions from transport could be saved. And rail infrastructure lasts about twice as long as highways in practical operation.

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