I travelled last week from Berlin to Regensburg via Nuremberg. The rail line passes through what used to be East Germany — flat plains which were Germany’s bread basket 150 years ago and today mainly grow fodder crops like oats, broken by wooded hills topped by castles. The cities have a long history; one finds Roman walls, medieval gates and ducal palaces in their middle. I thought Indian tourists were missing much. So were Indian businessmen, for I found so many small factories closed and crumbling on the way. But Germany would never get many Indian tourists with the visa policy it has got. It still thinks of Indians as brown little men waiting to take German jobs at measly wages; it is still to wake up to the prosperity that is enveloping India, the upsurge of enterprise that is taking Indian companies abroad, and the cash Indian tourists are getting rid of in the shops of Singapore and Dubai. Meera Shankar, the Indian ambassador in Berlin, is one of our best; but she has not succeeded in making German visa policy more Indian-friendly. Now that the German embassy has outsourced visa processing in India to a local firm, travelling to Germany has become even more difficult.
But having overcome every hurdle presented by the BPO firm and got to Germany, what fascinated me were the German railways, which claim to be Europe’s best. The whole of India, which is nine times as big as Germany, has 63,000 route kilometres and 109,000 track kilometres. German railways have 41,000 route km and 80,000 track km. Indian railways employ 1.5 million workers, Deutsche Bahn, 230,000. Indian railways earn about Rs 400 billion; German railways, four times as much. They have continuous rails, and give an extremely smooth ride.
Passenger trains have bogies with electric motors, which can act as engines (called multiple units), and bogies without. A local train is made up of two multiple units with two bogies between them; if more capacity is needed, two such little trains are hitched together. The speed goes up to 300 km an hour. The seats were not much more comfortable than ours; they were even a bit narrower, since German railways run on standard gauge and ours on broad gauge.
However, passenger comfort is not at the top of the German railways’ concerns. The DB considers itself hard done by because it has to pay tax on the fuel it consumes as well as Germany’s ecology tax, and airlines and shipping lines do not (rivers and canals are important carriers of freight and tourists in Germany). Airlines in India have to pay heavy tax on jet fuel; the government, being the railways’ owner, ensures that they are not disadvantaged. In Europe, all countries except Finland and Germany exempt railways from fuel tax.
Since fuel is its major cost, the DB sees business advantage in economizing on energy. That also appeals to Germans, who have made environment-friendliness their new religion. Thus the DB has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 11.4 per cent since 2002, and will reduce them by a further 20 per cent by 2020. The DB is the most efficient long-haul freight carrier; it generates 24 grams of carbon dioxide per ton km, against ships’ 35, lorries’ 89 and aeroplanes’ 665. In long-haul passenger carriage, however, it is beaten by modern buses, which emit only 31 gms of carbon dioxide per ton km against the railways’ 47; cars emit 143 gms, and planes 191.
How does the DB go about reducing carbon dioxide emissions' It teaches its engine drivers to drive energy-efficiently — to accelerate smoothly and to minimize braking. Railion, the DB’s freight subsidiary, ran an energy-saving Olympiad. It was won by the engine driver, Mario Spangenberg. The race was run on a simulator. Spangenberg won by a hair’s breadth; he used the brake once less than his closest competitor. And even when he brakes in real life, he generates electricity; power generation from brakes saves the DB 8 per cent of its fuel consumption. Spangenberg attributed his win to the fact that he goes angling when he has time; angling taught him smooth and steady action.
Another way in which the DB saved on greenhouse gases is by redesigning its trains. In the Eighties, the DB got its equipment manufacturers, Siemens and Bombardier, to design the trains called Intercity Express. It works closely with the manufacturers to improve the design; till now, the ICE has gone through three generations, introduced in 1991, 1996 and 1999. The first experimental prototype set a speed record of 407 kms an hour in 1988. Once a satisfactory model was developed, an order was placed for 60 trains. This model has been followed ever since: the DB works on an improved model with its suppliers, and once it has a satisfactory model, orders a large number of trains to achieve low costs.
But recently it has started something even more economical: it took 59 old trains into its Nuremberg workshop, stripped them and upgraded them to last another 20 years. This has led to the reuse of 80 per cent of the materials, including 16,000 tons of steel and 1,200 tons of copper, and saved 35,000 tons of carbon emissions and 500,000 tons of waste.
Thus, the DB has become a technological leader. Its ICEs have been adopted by other European railways. Many of its suppliers were used by Taiwan when it introduced trains running at 300 kms an hour on its Taipei-Kaohsiung line. The 345-km line is the most expensive railway line built till now; it cost 15 billion dollars. Taiwan is earthquake-prone; if the rails got slightly displaced by an earthquake, a train travelling at 300 km would be completely wrecked, with close to 100 per cent damage. To stabilize the line, most of it has been buried 100 meters underground. The trains are pulled by more powerful, 14,000-horse-power engines than the DB mostly uses. But the Taiwan railway company borrowed Johann Ubenn from the DB to train its engine drivers.
After high speeds and smooth engine driving, what excites the managers of the DB these days' They want to make trains less noisy. The DB is participating in a project of the European Commission called Silence, aimed at bringing down noise. In the course of this project, maps of noise-intensity are being drawn, rather like relief maps in geography which show altitude. The maps will identify the noisiest spots in Europe and their noise levels. The project aims to reduce the noise peaks by 10 decibels in such places by March 2008. If it succeeds, listeners will feel a halving of noise. Apart from this project, the DB is working on halving the noise made by trains in friction with rails by 2020.
I do not know how much more comfortable passengers of the DB will be 13 years hence; but they will certainly hear less of the screech emitted by trains’ brakes being applied. The ‘whispering brake’ that the DB is trying to develop will be kinder to the passengers’ ears. And that is just on the basis of present technological plans. Who knows' By 2020, the DB will have trains floating on cushions of air, and its passengers will feel as if they are travelling on flying carpets.