German VDV presents plan for faster electrification of railway lines

Image: Pxhere

To realise a significant shift of traffic to the railways to achieve the climate protection targets in the transport sector, the German rail network must be further electrified in the coming years, says the German industry association VDV. This could however be done at a faster pace by doing away with a preliminary environmental impact assessment and the planning approval requirement.

“The most efficient and cost-effective form of electrification is still the overhead line”, says Ingo Wortmann, President of the VDV. However, the construction of overhead lines fails in practice due to excessively lengthy and complicated planning and approval processes, he adds.

In Germany, currently around 60 percent of the of the railway lines are electrified. The VDV advocates a degree of electrification of 75 percent of the network. In a position paper, the industry experts underline why electrification is still the best form of railway operation and propose changes to be able to electrify the German network faster

No more planning approval requirements

In December 2020, a new act named the ‘Investment Accelaration Act’ came into force in Germany, which is intended to facilitate the implementation of certain projects by waiving the need for planning approval. Related to railway, these include the installation of digital signalling and safety technology, the (barrier-free) reconstruction of platforms and the construction of noise barriers for noise abatement.

Also, the environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) are made easier in several cases. Now, to equip an existing railway line with an overhead line of a length less than 15 kilometres, a so-called site-specific preliminary assessment must be carried out. Should the result of this assessment be that the project does not trigger an EIA obligation, no plan approval or plan authorisation is required anymore.

This change is a step into the right direction, says the VDV, but the limitation to 15 kilometres of railway is not a value that can be justified without further ado. In their position paper, the VDV concludes that the obligation to carry out an EIA preliminary assessment and the planning approval requirement for all electrification projects must therefore be dropped, irrespective of the length of the line. Catenary systems for railway lines should therefore be classified as accessories.

Modular systems for overhead lines

The VDV also sees further potential for improvement in the fundamental design of overhead contact lines. As an example, they name the Danish overhead contact line system. Developed since the mid-1980s, it is based on a modular system. Its special feature is that both the masts and the gantries, in order to span several tracks, are based on standardised square tubes that are bolted together for the portals.

Also, overhead line constructions of tramways or light railways should be considered for the electrification of regional railway lines, if the train speeds are very similar. “Lines with a speed of 80 kilometers per hour do not necessarily have to be electrified with overhead contact lines that are also suitable for 200 kilometres per hour”, says Wortmann. The VDV is currently developing a set of rules for economical overhead contact line systems of regional railway lines, for example with maximum speeds of up to 120 kilometres per hour.

Advantages over battery and fuel cell trains

Electrification of lines is not the only way to achieve a more sustainable railway system powered by electricity. Trains powered by batteries or fuel cells can also be used as a more sustainable alternative to diesel for non-electrified lines. However, the experts of the VDV consider the overhead line to have the advantage here because vehicles with battery or fuel cell are always heavier and technically more complex than those that are directly fed by electricity from the overhead line. They require an energy storage system, such as a battery or hydrogen tank, which requires both installation space and a not inconsiderable weight.

The energy also has to be converted several times to storage and back, which means energy loss. On top of that, these trains require a special charging or hydrogen infrastructure in the depots or stations, which will largely still have to be built. “However, trains with alternative propulsion can also make sense depending on the circumstances of the line”, says VDV President Wortmann.

The efficiency and thus the total energy demand with electricity from the overhead line is usually significantly more favourable, says the VDV. Electric traction enables significantly higher top speeds, and heavy goods trains with fewer locomotives and at higher speeds can run on electrified tracks.

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Author: Esther Geerts


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