Could Cologne’s central station move underground?

A debate about Cologne's future has been sparked after a proposal was lodged to move the Hauptbahnhof underground. But with Germany's questionable track record on public infrastructure projects, is this viable?

Could Cologne’s central station move underground?
Cologne Hauptbahnhof is right next to the stunning cathedral. Photo: DPA

High profile architect Paul Böhm wants to see a green oasis and gathering place for people in the centre of the city where the Cologne Hauptbahnhof currently stands, reports Spiegel. 

Böhm, one of the designers behind the Central Mosque in Cologne-Ehrenfeld, envisages that regional trains would run underground, and long-distance trains would move to a new station on the other side of the Rhine river.

SEE ALSO: Eat, sleep and fall in love like a Kölner: 8 unique things to do in Cologne

The two stations would be connected by a tunnel under the Rhine.

It would allow the present station hall, which is right next to the stunning Cologne Cathedral — Germany's most visited attraction — to be used for cultural events such as exhibitions, theatre or music shows.

The existing railway line would be transformed into a green space with pedestrian areas and cycle paths that would run right through the city centre, Böhm said.

'Heart of the city'

Böhm revealed his designs at the beginning of the month in local newspaper the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger and triggered a lively debate in the city shortly before the 125th anniversary of the railway station next Saturday (May 25th). 

Cologne's Hauptbahnhof is one of the most important transport hubs in North-Rhine Westphalia and Germany. Around 1,300 trains and up to 280,000 passengers pass through it every day on eleven tracks.

“This location is basically the heart of the city,” said Böhm. “And this centre is currently being used only for railway traffic. I don't think that's appropriate.”

The city mayor Henriette Reker said that Böhm's designs could be “positive”.

However, rail operator Deutsche Bahn reacted cautiously. “There are no plans to move Cologne's main station underground,” said a spokeswoman.

But Böhm believes the project could be reality. “I have spoken to other experts who say: 'This can very well be done,'” he said.

Bad track record on public projects

It's not surprising that there are reservations over public infrastructure projects in Germany given the country's track record. 

In Stuttgart a plan to transform its central station has developed into a logistical nightmare — and a sinkhole for public money.

The affluent southern German city has been struggling to revamp its new railway system with a major project known as Stuttgart 21 (so-called because it's meant to represent the 21st century), for years.

In 2017 it was said to cost €7.6 billion, a full €1.1 billion more than the figure projected four years ago.

SEE ALSO: Stuttgart 21 rail project to cost an extra billion euros

Construction, which began in 2010, is also expected to finish four years later than first anticipated, in 2024 instead of 2021.

Meanwhile, the new BER Airport in Berlin has famously hit several obstacles over the years and is expected to cost somewhere between €6 billion and €7 billion when it finally opens. Authorities are not even sure if the October 2020 opening date will happen. 


Underground – unter der Erde

Green oasis – grüne Oase

To trigger (something) – auslösen

The heart of the city – das Herz der Stadt

Appropriate – angemessen

We're aiming to help our readers improve their German by translating words in some news stories. Did you find this useful? Can we do anything else? Let us know.

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EXPLAINED: How Germany is finally set to improve Wifi and phone signal on trains

German rail operator Deutsche Bahn says it will seriously improve the country's notoriously patchy Wifi and phone signal on trains. How will it get up to speed?

EXPLAINED: How Germany is finally set to improve Wifi and phone signal on trains
A passenger connects to the on-board Wifi on a train in Frankfurt. Photo: picture alliance / Andreas Arnold/dpa | Andreas Arnold

What’s going on? 

The chairman of Deutsche Bahn appeared in a press conference with the CEO of Deutsche Telekom on Wednesday to announce a new partnership which they say will “radically improve” Wifi and phone signal throughout the German rail network.

From 2026, the companies want all passengers be able to make calls and surf the internet on all routes without interruption and with vastly improved data rates. 

READ ALSO: ‘We’re running late on this’: Deutsche Bahn promises better Wifi on German trains by 2026

In a press release following the announcement, Telekom CEO Timotheus Höttges said the companies wanted to make Germany “more digital”. 

“Deutsche Telekom and Deutsche Bahn have a shared responsibility for their customers,” he said. “That’s why we are now also tackling the issue of rail coverage together and want to ensure that customers can make phone calls, surf and stream in the best quality.”

So, what’s the plan? 

Bahn and Telekom are basically planning to build out the network coverage of the railways step by step over a period of five years.

The German rail network covers almost 34,000 kilometres, with around 7,800 kilometres of this making up the country’s key rail routes for ICE and IC trains. This is the part of the rail network that the two companies plan to focus on first, with the aim of providing seamless coverage by 2024. 

By 2025, the companies plan to supply another 2,000 daily passengers with consistent Wifi by covering another 13,800 kilometres of busy rail networks.

Then, the following year, travellers on smaller regional routes will also get phone signal on their trains – in some cases for the first time. 

Telekom said it would be putting around 800 new cell sites into operation in the coming years, as well as expanding its capacity at hundreds of other sites in order to improve the mobile network all along the railway lines. 

Sounds expensive. Who’s paying?

It certainly is. The expansion to the network will likely to cost hundreds of millions of euros, with Telekom and Bahn splitting the costs between them.

According to Höttges, Telekom has invested €700 million into railway mobile networks since 2015, and plans to invest a further €300 million over the next five years. 

Meanwhile, the Bahn has set aside €150-200 million to invest in the project.

READ ALSO: Delayed train? Germany’s Deutsche Bahn to give online refunds for first time

It’s unclear if this will include money from government subsidies, though the German Minister for Transport, Andreas Scheuer (CSU), did appear with the two companies at the press conference in Berlin on Wednesday.

Deutsche Bahn is a private, joint-stock enterprise, though the German government is its sole shareholder.

Is the mobile network situation really that bad?

While Germany is in the midst of digitalising its economy, the train network is widely regarded as one of the weakest areas of mobile network coverage. According the a report by the Federal Network Agency, mobile network providers currently only supply around 94.4 to 98.2 percent of the railway routes with service.

While this may not sound particularly bad, the result is often patchy signal, interminable dead zones, and phone calls that continuously cut out – especially on Germany’s smaller regional train routes. 

The Wifi symbol is displayed on the door of a German high-speed train. Photo: picture alliance / Soeren Stache/dpa | Soeren Stache

At present, there are around 550 more antennas needed near railway tracks to provide passengers with decent mobile reception. 

According to Höttges, trains in Austria and Switzerland offer much better Wifi and mobile service than in Germany.

Haven’t we been here before? 

You could say this is something of an ongoing project.

Passengers have been clamouring for better Wifi on German trains for years, and in 2015, the government stipulated that the mobile networks on rail routes had to improve.

At this point, the telecoms companies were given a deadline of 2019, which Höttges made reference to in his speech at the press conference. 

“We’re running late with this, I’m aware of that,” he told reporters. 

In 2019, the government set a target of achieving 100mb-per-second internet across all the busiest train routes in Germany by 2022.

Does this mean we’ll have superfast broadband on trains soon?

Not exactly. From 2024/5, Deutsche Telekom is promising data rates of up 200mb per second along all major rail routes, which is considered an average base speed for urban areas. 

According to tech blogger Ken Lo of Ken’s Tech Tips, with 200mp-per-second download speeds, you can watch eight ultra-HD films on eight different devices, or download an entire album of music in three seconds. 

In other words, it should be more than enough to watch a film or two on a train journey.

For smaller regional train routes, passengers can expect speeds of 100mb per second, which still counts as “fast” broadband, but on the lower end of the scale. 

Does it matter that I don’t have a Telekom mobile contract?

If you enjoy making phone calls on trains, it could be beneficial to get Telekom as your mobile network provider, since the increased reception will primarily benefit people with Telekom contracts.

However, if you just like using the on-train Wifi, your provider won’t make a great deal of difference, since you’ll be connecting to Telekom’s wireless network anyway. 

READ ALSO: Deutsche Bahn to introduce its own ‘Siri’ to better assist customers

It’s also important to mention that the other mobile network providers haven’t been resting entirely on their laurels.

Vodafone and Telefonica have also been involved in talks with Deutsche Bahn about improving the mobile signal along the rail network in line with government targets. 

According to recent news reports, these talks are still ongoing. 

What are people saying about it?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Minister for Transport Andreas Scheuer (CSU), who had pushed for a deal between the two firms, hailed the move as an end to the ‘I have no network’ era.

“Deutsche Bahn and Deutsche Telekom are showing the way by systematically closing the gaps in the mobile network on all rail routes and significantly increasing data rates once again,” he said in a statement. “This is what the future of train travel looks like.”

But not everyone was as excited by the promise of better mobile reception – or the 2026 deadline – as Andreas Scheuer.

Sharing a picture of the Morgenpost on Twitter, software developer Andrew France summed up the news story in a single line.

“Hot of the press is that you’ll be able to make phone calls on trains from 2026,” he wrote.