October 28th, 2011
12:42 PM GMT
Germany (CNN) – I thought that building trains would be a greasy, oily, noisy business. But as Marketplace Europe discovered on a trip to Germany, building trains is tidy - the messy bit is figuring out how to get them travelling easily across Europe's borders.
When we arrived at Siemens Rail systems factory, just outside Dusseldorf - the home of 2,000 workers - it was like we had landed inside a giant train-set. It was neat, shiny and bright.
Building trains in the 21st century is pretty much mess-free. Apart from welding and painting, it is all about assembling component parts, rather like wiring a highly complex computer - albeit one that will move at 300km per hour.
It is only when you see it that you realize just how much technology goes inside each train. Each car has about 60km of cabling packed inside the walls and flooring. So it is no wonder that every engineer here has had a minimum of three years training, much of that at a specialist center on site.
And those engineers can feel quietly confident about their jobs, Dr Ansgar Brockmeyer, CEO of high speed and commuter rail for Siemens Rail systems, tells me. “The impact (of the financial crisis) has been nearly nil," he said. “There were huge stimulus programs which helped us through the crisis. It helped us that we did not have to lay off any personnel here so we had huge contracts to work on.”
We saw the team working on the next generation of Velaro D, which Europe’s rail passengers will recognize as the “ICE” family of high-speed trains, plus the very first new-style Eurostar’s aluminum body shell, marked “001” in blue felt-tip pen.
More high-school than high-tech? Perhaps not here at Krefeld, where they say that sooner or later every regional and high-speed train built by Siemens in Germany will pass through.
But a playground mentality is arguably getting in the way of Europe having a seamless rail network. Governments are developing rail infrastructures in conflicting ways and at varying pace. For example, Brockmeyer tells me, countries have their own signaling system and electrics - and the train has to deal with all of it.
It would be a whole lot simpler - and cheaper - if European nations coordinated their plans to build infrastructure. Because while these trains are made to go at top speed, the journey can only be stop-start across the continent while it work remains splintered across countries.
I also interviewed the EU’s Transport Commissioner, Siim Kallas, in Belgium. These “missing links” are one of his frustrations, and he believes they could seriously impede the region’s economic growth.
Kallas’s vision for a new European network will connect 83 main European ports with rail and road links, 37 main airports with rail connections into major cities and upgrade 15,000km of railway line to high speed, all by 2030.
But 2030 might be a bit ambitious for a project with so many interested but disparate parties. Indeed the commissioner said so himself, telling me off-camera that just publishing a would-be rail map of Europe was a battle. “Oh there is going to be such a big row!” he told me. “Everybody wants their village connected. It took us such a long time to get to this stage. It is very hard to agree.”
So we left feeling a little deflated. What hope is there really for a joined-up Europe, on the rails, roads or otherwise, if the commission itself doesn’t ooze confidence in the success of their own endeavors?
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