East Germany's Railroad Poses Problem for West

Bonn studies ways to connect two railways and restore East's system

AT the Lichtenberg Roundhouse in East Berlin, mechanic Hartwig Huber swings a sledge hammer down hard on the wheel assembly of a Soviet-made diesel locomotive. ``It's been run into the ground,'' he says with disgust, whacking at a stubborn, rust-encrusted bolt.

Just beyond the dingy repair shed, a dozen more Soviet and East German locomotives are lined up on a weed-covered siding, waiting to be overhauled. A 1930s-era steam locomotive and coal tender are parked nearby.

``They all belong in a museum,'' Mr. Huber says with a wry grin.

After four decades of socialism, East Germany's transportation system is a shambles. Although German reunification is near, experts say it will take years to fully integrate East Germany's antiquated transportation system with West Germany's modern network of superhighways and high-speed rail lines.

``We're facing the largest public-works project in Europe since the postwar rebuilding of West Germany,'' says Ulrich Klimke, a West German Transportation Ministry official who heads a task force charged with coordinating efforts to reconnect the systems.

Early estimates indicate that the rebuilding program could cost more than 200 billion deutsche marks ($127 billion) over the next 10 years. Experts believe East Germany's railroad and highway systems will need 100 billion marks each to bring them up to West German standards.

``These are just preliminary cost estimates,'' Mr. Klimke says. Some experts say 100 billion marks will be needed just to repair the East German railway's track and signal equipment, with an additional 15 billion marks needed for new carriages and locomotives.

For more than 40 years, the two transportation systems grew in forced isolation, except for limited transit traffic. West Germany's postwar prosperity enabled it to build a fast and efficient transport system. It has 5,400 miles of high-speed autobahn and numerous international and regional airports bristling with sophisticated air traffic control equipment. The country's 16,950 miles of railway track, run by the Bundesbahn, are among the world's fastest and best.

East Germany's 8,700-mile railway system, operated by the Deutsche Reichsbahn, is crumbling and overburdened. Train cancellations are frequent and unexplained.

Rotten ties, poor grading, and switching problems often cause long delays. The road beds are so bad that there are weight limits on more than one-third of the routes. Forty percent of the nation's railroad bridges (about 3,000) are more than 85 years old. Two-thirds of the signal network was built before 1945. Many lines are not electrified, slowing much inter-German traffic because engines must be changed before crossing the border. On many major routes there is only one set of tracks, further reducing traffic. Because the tracks are not continuously welded, the rides are loud and bumpy. Wrought-iron stations date from the turn of the century, their walls and ceilings filthy, unpainted for decades.

Although East German carriages are sturdy, their furnishings are Spartan, with little attention given to rider comfort. Passengers on an East German intercity train are lucky if there's a canteen that serves sausage and drinks.

Poor track means that trains crawl over bridges at 12 miles an hour. Although West German trains routinely cruise at more than 95 miles an hour, (they will reach 155 miles an hour on two high-speed routes to be opened next year), most East German trains rarely go faster than 40 miles an hour.

East Germany's 1,150 mile highway network isn't in much better shape. Except for a few autobahn transit routes built with West German cash, the nation's roads are in extreme disrepair. In some places, traffic still lumbers over concrete poured in the 1930s, when the first autobahns were built. Rural roads are narrow and treacherous. Urban expressways are nonexistent.

Since the opening of the country's borders, the network has been overwhelmed by new traffic from the West. Accidents - and fatalities - have soared.

A German-German transport infrastructure commission estimates that 45 percent of East Germany's major highways are in poor condition, along with 65 percent of its secondary roads. East German officials estimate that 12 percent of the nation's road bridges are unstable.

So far, priority has been given to connecting the two systems along the inter-German border. But there are bigger plans in the works.

Bundesbahn officials say extensive electrification of East German railway lines is essential. Of the 8,700 miles of railway in East Germany, only 2,175 miles are electrified. Another major project will be the replacement of more than 10 million concrete railroad ties used on 5,590 miles of track in the 1970s and 1980s.

``They're all beginning to snap and crumble,'' says Reichsbahn spokesman Dieter Koschmann. He says the concrete was mistakenly mixed with Baltic Sea sand. After about 10 years, a chemical reaction makes them splinter.

Another big project will be to reduce the volume of cargo carried by the Reichsbahn - more than 70 percent of East Germany's total, compared with 22 percent in West Germany. Communist officials switched predominately to rail transportation after the oil crisis in the 1970s. That policy, officials say, hurt the economy because it was slow and favored bulk goods.

For now, West German officials aren't in a hurry to merge financially with their Eastern colleagues. For one thing, the Bundesbahn already depends on massive subsidies from the Bonn government to offset its operating deficit, estimated to be 5 billion marks this year.

``Right now it makes more sense financially and politically to have two distinct systems,'' says transportation expert Klimke.

Taking over the Reichsbahn's bloated work force of 250,000 would also push the line further into the red. (The Bundesbahn operates twice as much track with 12,000 fewer workers).

Yet Reichsbahn spokesman Koschmann says there's no doubt the railroads will merge in the next few years. ``The two systems are already growing together.''

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