Marketing can be done by Sigrid Nikutta. In her old job, she made the Berlin transport company and subway driving cool. As the new boss of DB Cargo, the freight train division of Deutsche Bahn, she presented the media to the media in the middle of the corona crisis, traveling from Italy to Nuremberg. The pasta supply for the Germans is assured, the message was - despite buying hamsters and trucks queuing at the borders.

Deutsche Bahn as the savior of supermarkets - that was well received in the rail industry. Overall, however, rail freight transport tends to be among the losers in the Corona crisis. Traffic at operators in Europe declined by 20 to 35 percent in March and April, the consulting agency SCI Verkehr has determined. In a forecast, depending on the course of the pandemic, SCI does not anticipate a return to the pre-crisis level before 2023. The industry will not only have to struggle with an economic downturn in the next few years. The low oil price helps them do this. "If road freight traffic suddenly has ten percent lower energy costs, it hits the mark," says Maria Leenen from SCI Verkehr.

So the start of Sigrid Nikutta as DB director for freight traffic is now even more difficult than expected. Rail freight transport has been in crisis for years. Last year the division generated an operating loss of 308 million euros and this year DB was already anticipating a loss of over 350 million euros before Corona. At the same time, DB Cargo has been transporting fewer and fewer goods for years. In 2010, the train still ran 415 million tons of freight over Germany's tracks, compared to just 232 million tons last year.

Ambitious government guidelines

The rail competitors, on the other hand, grew vigorously. They now transport just over half of all goods by rail. But across the street, rail freight traffic could hardly gain in an overall growing market. The share of rail has been fluctuating around 18 percent for years - although for decades every federal government has wanted to shift freight transport for climate protection to rail. The current coalition has set the goal that a quarter of all goods will be transported by rail in ten years.

However, Nikutta seems happy to accept this challenge. After years in which DB Cargo tended to reduce business, they are now fully committed to growth, they announced to get started. She wants to shift 25 million truck journeys by rail by 2030.

The logistics trends run against the web

Compared to the main competitor, the road, rail freight transport is only partially competitive under today's general conditions. "The transportation of bulk goods such as iron ore, coal and steel, where the railways are good, has been declining for years," says rail expert Christian Böttger from the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. On the other hand, delivering small quantities on time at a very specific point in time, as is required for just-in-time production, is not so important. In view of this, it is actually a major achievement of the players in the industry that the railways held an 18 percent market share. 

The reason that at least that was successful: When transporting the containers from the large overseas ports in Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg, the freight railways were doing well, says Böttger. But the booming business is increasingly reaching its limits because the main routes for container transportation are chronically overloaded. "The route to Basel south of Karlsruhe is often dense. Certain trips simply cannot take place as a result," says Peter Westenberger, Managing Director of the Network of European Railways (NEE), which represents DB's competitors. Bottlenecks exist in the German rail network not only in the so-called alpine transit from Rotterdam to Genoa, but also on the route from Dresden to the Czech Republic, at the port of Hamburg and around the major cities.

Above all, many small measures would help freight traffic - such as overtaking tracks and switches, so that passenger and freight trains can get past each other. Electrifying certain routes would also cut costs and create alternative routes. After politics had long focused on expensive, large-scale projects for long-distance passenger transport, the potential of these small measures had been recognized, says Westenberger. He is therefore very satisfied with the federal transport route plan that has been in force since 2015. He sees the problem at Deutsche Bahn, which is responsible for the network. Westberger does not get the money, criticizes Westenberger: "There is a lack of planning capacity." Therefore, hardly any new routes would be inaugurated by 2025.