Transport policy: In the subway from Dresden to Prague

Transport policy: In the subway from Dresden to Prague

Before the railway tunnel under the Ore Mountains could be planned, the geological conditions underground were explored through drilling.

Photo: dpa/DB AG/Frintert

Anyone who currently takes the train from Dresden to the Czech capital Prague would actually have to pay an attractiveness surcharge. Because the route winds through the Elbe valley south of the Saxon state capital, enchanting views of the bizarre rock towers of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains open up from the train window. However, the idyll has its price. The journey takes place at a comparatively leisurely pace; The Eurocity trains take two and a half hours for the almost 150 kilometers. The car journey takes 30 minutes less. In addition, trains only run every two hours.

That will change in the not too distant future. A train to Prague could then leave Dresden every hour and arrive at the Vltava just 60 minutes later. However, this also has its price. The panoramic view of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains would be a thing of the past. Instead, the trains, carrying 200 vehicles, rush through tunnels that cross under the ridge of the Erzgebirge at a depth of up to 500 meters. You would be part of one billion-dollar new line, for which an initial feasibility study was carried out in 2008 and which Deutsche Bahn AG has been planning specifically for five years. In 2044, says project manager Kay Müller, the first trains could run on it.

The ambitious project has now reached an important point: the DB has announced which variant it prefers for crossing under the Ore Mountains. Originally, seven different routes were examined within a 1.8 kilometer wide corridor, some of which were supposed to run underground and some above ground. The Saxony State Directorate, as the responsible approval authority, had classified two of them as “suitable for the area”. One of them was supposed to run 26 kilometers underground, but also a part of it above ground. On this section, an almost 500 meter long bridge would have had to be built over the valley of the Seidewitz river not far from the junction of the previous route near Heidenau, and a longer overtaking station was also planned. The second variant envisages that the trains turn into a 30-kilometer-long tunnel in Heidenau and only come back to the surface shortly before the Czech district capital Ústí nad Labem.

It is now clear: the railway prefers this option. This is the result of an examination of economic efficiency, effects on the environment and construction implementation. “The full tunnel variant is ahead in all three areas,” said Müller. In some respects this is obvious, for example when it comes to noise or the destruction of nature: “When we build underground, we do not cause any concern above the surface,” said Müller. With regard to the costs, the weighing up was initially “not so clear”. After weighing up all the framework conditions, it is clear that the full tunnel variant is also “the more economical one,” emphasizes the project manager. In the alternative variant, the costs would be driven up primarily by the bridge structure and the deeply cut train station, which also have problems with the groundwater.

Müller initially did not want to put a specific figure on the construction costs because detailed planning would still have to be done in the next few months and risks would have to be assessed: “What I say today would probably be outdated in six months.” The federal transport infrastructure plan mentions an amount of 1.2 billion euros , plus 217 million for planning services. The actual costs for such projects are usually significantly higher than the amounts initially mentioned. This should be no different with the rail tunnel to Prague. According to Müller, it is certain that the result of the weighing up between the two variants will no longer change: “The full tunnel variant will definitely be preferred.”

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This result will particularly bring relief to a citizens’ initiative that was founded in 2018 and, as its name suggests, vehemently argued for a “base tunnel to Prague” instead of the half-open version. It brings together residents of the future route who accept that the current and notoriously overloaded route no longer meets the requirements of an important European rail corridor, and who also support that the residents of the Elbe Valley be relieved of the noise of the trains. “The bottleneck in the Elbe Valley must be resolved,” said spokesman Steffen Spittler. However, there was little desire to take over the noise. The core requirement was therefore: no noise in populated areas. In the Seidenwitz valley, the railway bridge would have been the third major valley crossing after those for the A14 motorway and the Pirna southern bypass. The initiative therefore drew up plans for a route that would run entirely within the tunnel. The railways and politicians were offered a “development partnership”.

Confidence that this variant could be implemented had recently waned. In the participation formats set up by the railway, you sometimes felt like the fifth wheel on the wagon; People didn’t feel taken seriously by politicians. “From today’s perspective, it is still possible that the full tunnel will be built, but it is still questionable,” it says on the initiative’s website; The planning process is “not transparent enough to be able to assess whether the best solution is really being sought.” The surprise at the 10th Dialogue Forum this Monday was probably all the greater that the variant preferred by the initiative would now be pursued further.

Of course, there is still a long way to go before construction actually begins. The DB will discuss the option with residents and representatives of the neighboring communities for another six months, said Müller. The corresponding draft is to be submitted to the Federal Ministry of Transport in the summer of 2024. The Bundestag, which included the project in the Federal Transport Infrastructure Plan in 2016, must then vote on implementation and financing. A decision is expected in the first half of 2025. This is followed by several years of design and approval planning, said Müller. Construction could begin in 2032. It takes four tunnel boring machines around six years to drive the two parallel tubes through the mountains. The expansion then takes place. According to current planning, the first trains could roll through the “Subway to Bohemia” in 2044. The DB assumes 48 passenger and 150 freight trains per day. The half-open route variant would have had a slightly higher capacity because of the overtaking station. But that, says Müller, was their only advantage.

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