Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hard Luck

or rather shit happens? Although not suitable as a title for a blog the latter words perfectly fit the following story.

Last Saturday morning around 10:30 an alarm went of at the signal box of Karlsruhe's main station: Track distortion at the Rhine valley railway between Rastatt and Baden-Baden. Such a warning may occur when extremely high temperatures extend the welded tracks laid without joints but last Saturday the thermometer only showed 20° C (68°F).

©BZ/Stefan Jehle
All signals immediatly went on red and rightly so for if a train had passed the distortion at 110 km/h (68 miles/h)* it had definitely derailed with all the resulting consequences.
*the 11 signifies that the maximum speed in the following section is limited to 110 km/h

What had happened? The German Railway is upgrading the Rhine valley line from two to four tracks to meet the increasing demand for transport capacity from the North Sea ports via Switzerland to Italy. The two supplementary tracks in the region of Rastatt will be running in a twin-tube tunnel of 4.3 km (2.7 miles) length saving the landscape and protecting the town from noise. South of Rastatt the tunnel-boring machine crosses the existing line leaving an overburden of only five meters. So engineers used the proven technology of icing the ground around the boring machine in cooling the soil to - 35 °C (- 31 °F). Did the freezing technique not work at it should have?

The Swiss are angry and rightly so. Although they have kept their mouths shut for years they now insist on the fulfillment of the 1996 treaty in which Switzerland, Italy, and Germany agreed to finish the Neat (new Alp transversal by rail) by the year 2016. While Switzerland completed the basic train tunnels at the Lötschberg and the Gotthardt in 2007 and 2016 the construction of the feeder lines both in Germany and Italy is far behind schedule. Following the Rastatt disaster Swiss newspapers mockingly asked whether German quality needs some Swiss engineering development aid.

Passengers lost at Freiburg's main station (©dpa)
Suddenly not only passengers were stranded at Karlsruhe going south or at Freiburg traveling north but the transport of goods between Rotterdam and Genoa was completely interrupted. Cargo trains were blocked at various stations along the Rhine valley line. Alternative routes do not exist for important rail work blocks the direct link between Horb and Stuttgart. In addition most bypasses are not electrified and diesel engines have become a rare species in Germany.

Presently transport firms are trying hard to trans-ship the stranded containers on to trucks so the autobahn running more or less in parallel with the Rhine valley line is becoming congested. This is a bad situation during the holiday season when thousands of Dutch caravaners are heading for sunny Italy or are returning home.

Meanwhile southbound passenger trains end at Rastatt and northbound trains at Baden-Baden with shuttle buses running between the two stations. Railway officials ask passengers to count in an additional hour while people who already travelled the distance experienced at least two hours of additional travel time.

In an earlier statement the German Railway said that the line should have been repaired by August 27. More news are coming in sparsely but at the time of writing it seems that the end of August date cannot be met. To stabilize the ground officials say that the tunnel under the existing track has to be filled with a concrete plug of 50 meter length giving up the expensive tunnel boring machine at the same time. How long this operation will take - inshallah.

The now lost tunnel boring machine (©BZ/Ralf Burgmaier)
A bird's-eye photo of the disaster site taken on August 18, is showing the progress of the repair work.
The white surfaces are not ice left over from the freezing technique
but concrete slowly filling the hole (©dpa).
Red Baron needs to pass the blocked section four times in September going to Cologne for a family fest and to Hamburg for his annual class reunion. I keep my fingers crossed for a fast repair but as experience shows: Existing shit will attract more shit.

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