Party leaders approved a plan to transform the Deutsche Bahn into a publicly owned holding company with no more than 24.9 percent participation from private investors. Seventy-seven SPD members of the leadership council voted in favour of the proposal, 22 were opposed and two abstained. Backing for the plan was unexpectedly high, with anticipated fierce opposition from the party's left largely failing to materialize amid calls to support SPD chairman Kurt Beck.
Social Democratic approval was an important step toward rail privatization, a major goal for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservative Christian Democrats. The two parties, partners in Germany's ruling coalition, will meet in committee on April 28 to hammer out the details between their two plans.
"The Social Democratic position is clear. Now the ball is in the Christian Democrats' court," Secretary General Hubertus Heil said.
German Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee, also a Social Democrat, said he was "very satisfied" with Monday's agreement.
The rail infrastructure - including train stations and 34,000 kilometres (21,127 miles) of track - would remain in public hands under the Social Democratic plan, developed in a policy group led by SPD chief Beck. But private companies could invest in subsidiaries to run freight and passenger traffic.
Merkel's Christian Democrats criticized the proposal for limiting private participation to 24.9 percent - a ceiling Heil and other Social Democrat leaders called 'non-negotiable' while they remain in the junior partner in Merkel's governing coalition.
Christian Democratic parliamentary group leader Volker Kauder called the 24.9-percent figure "an initial step" in an interview with public broadcaster ARD, saying that to allow up to 49 percent private investment would be more appropriate.