Airport mess shows limits of German expertise

Berlin has delayed the opening of its high-tech airport – for the fourth time. The fiasco is all too typical of Germany. Ossified local politics and a penchant for over-engineering have led to many botched infrastructure projects. The legend of German efficiency is exaggerated.

Talk about flight delays. The opening of a new airport in Berlin, under construction since 2006, has just been delayed – for the fourth time. Costs are, of course, out of control as well. So far the 100 percent government-owned project is coming at more than 50 percent above the scheduled price.

It’s a universal problem. Nine out of 10 public infrastructure projects end up costing more than initially planned, according to by Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford’s Said Business School, a proportion which has not changed much for seven decades.

Germany, however, has had a particularly bad run. In 2006, a satellite-based tolling collection system for trucks came into full swing – three years late. In 2009, botched construction of a new underground line in Cologne caused the collapse of the cities’ historical archive, which had survived World War Two, a catastrophe that delayed the subway indefinitely. A new concert hall in the middle of Hamburg’s harbour has been under construction since 2007 and will cost at least seven times more than initially planned. The contentious re-development of Stuttgart’s main railroad station is well on track to be well over budget.

While such excesses are more common in the public domain, private companies in Germany also regularly make fools of themselves with complex projects. Steelmaker ThyssenKrupp frittered away 9 billion euros – more than 90 percent of its current market cap – on ill-fated investments in the Americas. And Siemens, the technology behemoth, continues to struggle to deliver its ICE high speed trains on time.

There is more than mere bad luck behind this German ineptitude. On the political side, the federal structure of the country nurtures expensive vanity projects; overly ambitious local politicians can shift big chunks of the costs to other layers of government. Poor governance, both political and corporate, feeds cronyism, which in turn leads to sloppy project management and poor supervision.

A German penchant for over-engineering makes matters worse. The main problem at Berlin’s new airport is a fully automated fire safety system. It’s cutting-edge technology, but it doesn’t work.

German efficiency is proverbial, but easily exaggerated. In Germany as elsewhere, human weakness can cause fine plans to founder.

(This article was initially  published as a Reuters Breakingviews comment on 7 January 2013.)

8 Comments

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8 Responses to Airport mess shows limits of German expertise

  1. Absolutely right. But it’s not only huge engineering projects. Germany is loosing it’s ability to develop technology. Take for example the digital police radio: More or less every European country is using such a technology for years. Even Albania. Albania!

    In Germany it was planned to start in 2006. Now we’re talking about 2015 – but that’s still not sure. In the meantime we have a controlling authority in Berlin with more than 100 people. No, that’s no joke.

    The worst is: Everyone is talking about buildings – but the reason why these projects fail so miserable in Germany is that noone wants to dive deep into the technological background.

    • I wouldn’t want a 2006 digital radio system.

      In the UK, we spent nine years arguing about ours and eventually brought Airwave (which is a TETRA network) into service in 2005, in part, with more of it coming on line later. But to be honest, by 2006 TETRA was looking distinctly obsolete and by now it’s antediluvian, and in the light of some of the security fun people have discovered in GSM in the last couple of years…

  2. Delayed for the forth time? Only four times we ask, sitting here watching German efficiency with envy.

    Only 50% above the estimated price. Our local city tunnel was a mere 400% over budget.

    I guess it’s all relative. At least you have over-engineered your project so they might last.

    • Olaf Storbeck

      Well, all things are relative….. :-)

    • jo.hannes

      “At least you have over-engineered your project so they might last.”

      Well, part the joke is that Berlin is already considered to be too small for projected growth in passenger demand and that the Stuttgart redevelopment is likely to decrease rail infrastructure …

  3. Is the problem really overengineering? The problems with the E-Class that did cost Mercedes a good deal of its reputation was caused by the desire to save money, after McKinsey had a run through the company (a friend explained it to me that way). I could imagine that a lot of the problems with the ICE are related to this (wishing to save money but doing it in a non-fitting way). Siemens is very occupied with cutting costs by getting rid of unnecessary work instead of realizing that it was this what made the company produce reliable products.

  4. Xenofon Grigoriadis

    Yes, those sweet little lies – or not so little ones – , that we all love to hear or read about ourselves…
    I also know of an IT project, the famous “Hercules” project of our department of defence. But let’s also be fair and and say that private projects are not prone to this kind of failure.
    We Germans also like to think that our public services are exemplary and want to export all kinds of experts especially to the sinful south. But if you ask in Europe, you will find that the French have much more of a good reputation of having skills and know-how of how to organizing the public sector.
    So, thanks Mr.Storbeck for the article and I hope we keep challenging those sweet little lies that shape our nice little German comfort zone.

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