In July 2011, I went down to Stuttgart by train (from Mannheim, where I had attended an opera premiere the night before) to take part in a large demonstration against “Stuttgart 21”. As you can see from the photos, the demonstrators came from all age groups, including lots of older folks like me.
The demonstrators in Stuttgart pride themselves on being creative, humorous, loud, persistent and peaceful, though the press and conservative politicians try to portray them as rioters. I was reminded of demonstrations against the Vietnam war that I attended in Berkeley in the 1960s — what I saw on the streets bore little resemblance to what came out later in the papers or on television.
The Stuttgart protesters said (and still say, nine years later) they are not just demonstrating against a plan to spend billions of Euros for 33 kilometers of tunnels leading to a small, slanting underground railroad station, they are also demonstrating in favor of an alternative plan to preserve, modernize and optimize the city’s well-functioning ground-level terminal.
Originally I wrote “millions of Euros”, but that turned out to be an understatement. The cost overruns on “Stuttgart 21” are so overwhelming that the entire German railway system is suffering from inadequate maintenance as a result.
In the 1990s there were plans in several German cities to replace the existing ground level terminals, where the tracks ended, with smaller underground stations that would have tracks coming in through tunnels from both directions. The plans for “Frankfurt 21” and “Munich 21” were announced with great fanfare, discussed for a few years and then quietly dropped when it became evident that that the projects would be too expensive and too risky to justify the very slight gain in travel time that might result.
The plans for “Stuttgart 21” were initially discarded for the same reasons, but were revived at the beginning of the 21st century (which is what the 21 stands for) at the insistence of local and regional politicians who were primarily interested in getting rid of the railroad tracks so they could use the real estate for “urban development” or simply for sale to private investors. This is what the protesters mean when they say that “Stuttgart 21” is primarily a real estate project, not a transportation project.
They also say the presence of large automobile manufacturing companies near Stuttgart is a factor, since the car companies have little interest in preserving a well-functioning railway. And they point out that the world’s largest tunneling company (a major contributor to German political parties) has its headquarters in Schwanau, Baden-Württemberg, a little over a hundred kilometers from Stuttgart.
As a frequent traveler on the German railway system, I was against Stuttgart 21 right from the start, in the 1990s, but at first only because of its obvious disadvantages for us passengers. Even if it resulted in saving two or three minutes on the journey from Frankfurt to Stuttgart, we would lose that time and more by riding the long escalators (if by chance they were working properly) up from the new below-ground station.
But I really turned against the project when I learned that the new station was going to be slanted at such an angle that one end of a long ICE train would be six meters higher than the other end, that’s the height of a two-story building. This sort of slanted station is against the law in Germany, for good reasons (trains can start to roll away, as can wheeled suitcases and baby carriages), but for “Stuttgart 21” a conservative transport minister authorized an exception years ago, and this exception is (inexplicably) still in force, even though the transport minister, the state governor and the mayor of Stuttgart are all now members of the Green party.
Somehow I seem not to have taken any pictures of the thing that impressed me most on this day. One of the protest groups set up a full-scale mock-up of a section of the one of the platforms of the projected new station, built to the exact dimensions as specified in the building plans. They invited us to come up and see for ourselves how few people could fit onto these platforms — no more than five or six people from one side of the platform to the other, with hardly any room to move around. And each of these narrow platforms was supposed to serve two tracks with six trains an hour, with several hundred passengers entering and leaving each train.
Music at the demonstration, before and between the speeches, was provided by a local funk, soul and jazz group called ‘Queen Mum and the Kings of Rhythm’. The lady at the microphone is Andrea Conradt, aka Queen Mum. Nine years later, you can still see and hear her on YouTube.
The speeches were very good, by the way. Clear, strong, short and to the point.
At the end of the demonstration the people spread out around three sides of the station and at a signal released hundreds of green balloons into the sky. On the green balloons it says “K21”, which is the alternative proposal to “S21”.
Looking at these photos nine years later, I’m actually rather aghast that they released all these balloons into the atmosphere, without considering that they would eventually burst or deflate and all come down somewhere as unsightly and potentially dangerous litter. I like to think that no environmentally-conscious demonstrators would do such a thing today.
Of course today, with the coronavirus and social distancing, such large demonstrations — with thousands of people standing shoulder to shoulder — are no longer possible. Even in Stuttgart, after a total of 504 Monday evening demonstrations against “Stuttgart 21”, it was announced that the 505th demonstration, on March 16, 2020, would take place online, not on the streets.
Now, as of April 2020, the center of Stuttgart has a huge pit where the new station is being built, more than twelve years behind schedule and at many times the originally promised cost.
A number of European cities, for instance Antwerp, Zürich, Berlin and Vienna, have successfully built new underground tracks in addition to — not instead of — their pre-existing ground-level stations. Antwerp now has fourteen tracks on three different levels. Zürich has twenty-six tracks on two levels. But Stuttgart (a larger city than Antwerp or Zürich) is supposed to get along with only eight tracks and four narrow platforms, all below-ground, instead of the sixteen ground-level terminal tracks it has now.
My photos in this post are from 2011. I revised the text in 2020.