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ICE near Hamburg (symbolic image)

Photo: Daniel Reinhardt / dpa

Apparently, a new, fast rail connection between Hamburg and Hanover is off the table for the time being. The federal government and the state of Lower Saxony have agreed to expand the existing route instead – and to this end to postpone the general renovation planned for 2026 to 2029, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported. The Lower Saxony Ministry of Economics announced on Wednesday that the federal railway commissioner, Michael Theurer (FDP), had sent a corresponding proposal to department head Olaf Lies (SPD). The Federal Ministry of Transport did not initially comment.

For decades, there has been a dispute about how to implement the modernization of the line on the important north-south axis. In essence, the question is whether only the line via Lüneburg, Uelzen and Celle will be expanded or whether there will be a new route in parallel. Deutsche Bahn considers a new line through the Lüneburg Heath to be necessary in order to create sufficient capacity for more local, long-distance and freight trains in the nationwide coordinated "Deutschlandtakt" – but this is now likely to become more distant.

One of the declared opponents of the new building is SPD leader Lars Klingbeil, through whose constituency the route would lead. From his point of view, this would be a breach of promise: in 2015, the railways, the state, municipalities and citizens' initiatives had agreed on a concept for expansion instead of new construction. At that time, however, there was no talk of the Deutschlandtakt and the ambitious goals for more rail traffic.

Saving time – for or against the new building

Before any significant growth in rail transport can even be considered, the old network must function. In the coming years, the railway wants to rehabilitate its most important routes and completely close them for half a year. Just last week, it presented a detailed schedule on which the route between Hamburg and Hanover was scheduled for the first half of 2026 – subject to talks with the state.

Lower Saxony's Minister of Economic Affairs Lies had brought the postponement of the general renovation to 2029 into play. Instead of just renewing the old facilities, the construction work could be used with more planning time to build additional tracks. Whether a new line is really necessary can then be evaluated.

In return, according to the report, Theurer brought a new dialogue process with working groups into play. In it, "together with the region, solutions for the long-term capacity needs between Hamburg and Hanover" are to be developed, Theurer told the "FAZ". That sounds like persuasion to try again after 2030. Originally, the new building plans were to be discussed in the Bundestag this year before the summer break, but the dispute in the traffic light coalition intervened.

He is very pleased with the State Secretary's proposal, Lies said. Lower Saxony had submitted proposals to the federal government on how best to use the time window to make rapid progress. Lies once again emphasized the country's skepticism about a new line. "I don't think the new building, as it was recently envisaged by the railway, is simply not realistic."

Union insists on Deutschlandtakt

The railway announced that it would immediately seek talks with the Federal Ministry of Transport and Lower Saxony. "We welcome the fact that there has finally been movement in the discussion about the necessary upgrading of the existing rail infrastructure and the urgently needed expansion of rail capacities in Lower Saxony, which has been stalled for years," said Ingrid Felipe, the manager responsible for infrastructure projects at the railway subsidiary DB Netz. The railway did not initially comment on further details.

The CDU transport expert Christoph Ploß insists in the decision on the expansion of the railway line on the adherence to the planned Germany clock. "If we want to achieve the climate targets and get more traffic on the railways, the Deutschlandtakt must be achieved," said the Hamburg MP and Union chairman in the transport committee of the Bundestag on Wednesday of the dpa. One day, a long-distance train will connect the major metropolises every half hour with the Deutschlandtakt.

The railway commissioner Theurer told the "FAZ" that he wanted to achieve "as much Germany clock as possible". Even with the mere expansion, "significant travel time gains" are already possible. The concept of nationwide coordinated travel times could not be implemented in one fell swoop, it had always been thought of in stages.