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Berlin and Brandenburg agree on controversial S-Bahn tender

Berlin's S-Bahn on the so called "Stadtbahn" alongside the river Spree with the TV-tower and the red townhall (to the left) - the "Stadtbahn" is one of the tender lots I © UTM

The Berlin Senate and the Brandenburg state government have decided to tender the sub-networks East-West (Stadtbahn) and North-South of the S-Bahn, Berlin’s commuter rail. The decision has been communicated in a press release last week, following long discussions and despite ongoing criticism of key points for the planned tender.

The S-Bahn Berlin runs on a network that is largely independent of the rest of the rail system with some technical peculiarities. For example, the Berlin S-Bahn is supplied with 750 V DC third rail instead of the 15 kV AC catenary of Germany’s mainline railway system. For these reasons, normal regional trains are not suitable for use on S-Bahn lines. The so-called “S-Bahn crisis” in 2009, during which many vehicles temporarily failed due to lack of maintenance, led directly to drastic operational restrictions and interruption of the operation.

S-Bahn station Charlottenburg with some of the special features of the S-Bahn Berlin: third rail, 96 cm high platforms, metro-like vehicles, urban environment I © Felix Thoma

While Berlin’s metro, tram and bus system in Berlin have been operated by the municipal BVG since 1929, the S-Bahn has been operated by the Deutsche Reichsbahn (DR) since its opening in 1924. As DR continued to be the GDR’s national railway operator until its liquidiation, DR also remained also the operator of the S-Bahn until 1994. DR’s S-Bahn operation in West Berlin only stopped in 1984 after years of boycott and a strike by the West Berliners. The remaining routes in West Berlin were then taken over by BVG. The S-Bahn Berlin GmbH was founded in 1995 as a 100 % subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn AG as part of the German rail reform. It operates the S-Bahn in West and East Berlin and is today the only transport company on the S-Bahn infrastructure which is managed by the infrastructure operators DB Netz, DB Station & Service and DB Energie.

Since the S-Bahn crisis in 2009 and a ruling by the Federal Court of Justice in 2011, direct awarding to subsidiaries of Deutsche Bahn has been prohibited. Since then alternatives for the awarding of the S-Bahn Berlin have been discussed. After DB had rejected the sale of S-Bahn Berlin to the public authorities, the state of Berlin decided to tender the S-Bahn. To do so, the entire network has been divided into the three sub-networks East-West (Stadtbahn), North-South and Ring, each of which would operate on a mainly, but not completely separate infrastructure.

Under the political coalition in Berlin 2011-2016 (Christian democrats and social democrats), the tender for the ring network was launched for a period of 15 years from 2021. Probably due to the high complexity of the tender with new vehicles and numerous specifications, DB remained as the only bidder at the end. Despite the internal separation between infrastructure and operation and between the sub-networks, the different business units are still coordinated by DB group. The increased transport fees were interpreted by the opposition (the green party) as monopoly prices by DB.

S-Bahn series 485 at the station Baumschulenweg on line S46 which is part of the ring network I © UTM

Under the new social-democrat-leftist-green coalition (red-red-green) in the Berlin Senate 2016-2021, the networks East-West (Stadtbahn) and North-South shall now be tendered. The operation period is approximately between 2030 and 2045, depending on each line. Maintenance contracts even go until 2060!

In order to reduce the dependence on DB in comparison to the previous tender and in order to increase competition, there will be now a state-owned vehicle fleet and, following the recent agreement, also optional workshops as well as separated tenders for maintenance and operation. This so-called combined procedure allows for bidding for combined lots as well as for individual lots. With this new method, however, it is questionable to what extent the many possible combinations and options will legally be comparable in terms of quality.

Even if the bidding process would start in May 2020, contract awards would not happen before 2022 due to the high complexity of the tender. Ultimately the awards could also be subject to any unsuccessful bidders’ objections and required confirmation by the House of Representatives. Given the delays caused by the long political discussion and the Corona Pandemic, the conversion of the first line to the new transport contract has been postponed by one year to the end of 2027.

The North-South network partially runs in a tunnel, here seen at Nordbahnhof I © UTM

Finally, to avoid monopoly prices, a disintegration of the Berlin S-Bahn system might become a reality. In an extreme case, more than 10 organizations could be responsible for the S-Bahn system. The emerging interfaces between sub-networks, contracts and contract periods could lead to coordination issues and additional costs. Parallel to the agreement at government level, there is an increasing number of critical statements from trade unions, privatization critics and environmental organizations and the red-red-green party base. Some tender critics have started the Alliance “One S-Bahn for everyone”: https://www.eine-s-bahn-fuer-alle.de

A detailed analysis by the author of this article dealing with the currently planned tendering process as well as the still existing alternative of the sale of the S-Bahn network from the federally owned DB to the states of Berlin and Brandenburg has been published on the „Zukunft Mobilität“ online platform (in German only):

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