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Magdeburg still feels flooding pain

Flood water and floating debris caused significant damage to Magdeburger Verkehrsbetriebe’s operations and maintenance facility at Betriebshof Nord, which had to be evacuated on 8 June 2013. Sections of the system were impassable for weeks after the waters resided. (Image credit: MVB)

That which floodwaters can destroy in an instant, may take a long time to repair or replace. The truth of such a statement is dramatically illustrated by the German city of Magdeburg where, even now, no firm date can yet be given for completion of dealing with the aftermath of devastating flooding that took place in June 2013.

This city of around 200 000 people in Saxony-Anhalt was particularly hard hit by the floodwaters nearly four years ago; the Elbe – one of Germany’s major rivers on the sides of which Magdeburg sits – broke its banks, sweeping through surrounding low-lying areas and causing millions of Euros worth of damage. At its height on 9 June, the water level measured nearly 7.5m – against a more normal average of around 2m, and the roughly 6.7m of the ‘flood of the century’ in 2002.

Magdeburg had already been living in emergency conditions since 4 June, as the river levels rose. The effects were substantial: whole areas of the city evacuated; schools, the university, old people’s homes abandoned; train services suspended. Thousands of people were in action, with sandbags and barriers trying to protect property.

It was part of a much bigger picture, which saw floodwaters spread not only across parts of Germany, but through large areas of Central Europe. The effects this had on some tramway systems were substantial – and were covered in detail in TAUT 908 (August 2013).

In terms of the former East German city’s extensive tramway, the immediate effect was drastic: all but two routes were disrupted; two depots were cut off and the third flooded; 70 vehicles were evacuated. The drama unfolded over some days as the rising waters spread, with the worst disruption coming on 9 June. As a result, Magdeburger Verkehrsbetriebe (MVB) resorted to stabling vehicles on the West- and Südring road, a dual carriageway thoroughfare that has the tramway running down its centre on reserved formation. Unsurprisingly, the disruption cost the MVB ridership: the 2013 figure of 60.8m passengers was 370 000 down on the year before.

Nevertheless, most of the effects were dealt with quickly after the water receded: by the start of July 2013, all but three sections of the tramway had been restored, although line 5 remained out of use due to the temporary tram stabling which at that point was still taking place on its route.

The three out-of-use sections were Messegelände – Herrenkrug (which at that point had no service); the Anna-Ebert-Brücke, a bridge across the Alte Elbe (Old Elbe) where tram replacement services were in operation; and Neue Neustadt – Barleber See (which also had tram replacement services).

Now, in 2017, one of those three still represents a challenge: Barleber See. For while the ideal solution for the route to Herrenkrug on the Elbe’s eastern bank (served by lines 5 and 6) was considered to be raising the formation by 1m-1.5m, the sensitive environment in this area alongside the river meant this was ruled out. Instead, the line was repaired, with the choice being to rely on Magdeburg’s own flood defences which were themselves to be improved. The Anna-Ebert bridge was also returned to tramway use.

Reduced services

The line to Barleber See in Magdeburg’s north-east, a route bounded by lakes alongside the Mittellandkanal waterway, was also repaired – but initially only in an interim fashion.

Before the flooding, line 10 services ran every ten minutes during the day between Sudenberg and Rothensee, with every second service continuing through to Barleber See. That gave Barleber See a 20-minute service; but in peak times this was increased to a tram every ten minutes. Post-flooding, the ten-minute service has been cut back from Rothensee to Neue Neustadt (six stops before Rothensee). Beyond that, there is only a 20-minute service – unreinforced at peak times.

The reason is simple: it is a reflection of the damage from 2013, which has not yet been completely overcome. For while repairs to the running lines themselves were carried out so that trams could return to service relatively quickly, the same was not true for either the turning circle at Rothensee (damage to which included an embankment washout), or the electric supply. In bureaucratic terms, given the extensive nature of some of the work needed to revitalise this section, it was officially tendered through the Official Journal of the European Union.

Now, almost four years on, the power supply is still a key limiting factor on the level of service that can be offered – and although the end is now in sight, it will not be for a little while yet. MVB expects that a new rectifier substation built in the turning circle at Rothensee will be connected in 2018. The boost to the power supply it will bring is the last remaining technical obstacle to restoring a ten-minute service; it will have taken around five years to reach that point however.

Even this will not be the complete end of work: more is expected to take place the following year with repairs to the line between the stops at Schule Rothensee and the terminus at Rothensee. But this is dependent on the success of a planning application, which was expected to be submitted in March.

No date for ‘Nord’

In terms of routes, these repairs should finally bring the MVB system back to ‘normal’. However, even now, no date can be given for when the effects will be overcome of what was perhaps the most dramatic aspect of the flooding: the inundation of the northern depot, Betriebshof Nord. Trams from this depot were evacuated (and so avoided damage) before the Elbe’s waters arrived – although one of the most symbolic pictures of the disruption was surely that of a vehicle raised on jacks inside the depot building, perched above the water below (see left).

Betriebshof Nord was returned to operation in 2014, but this was only on a provisional basis; the particular challenge here is that the depot is situated on land lower than that of the surrounding area, making it particularly vulnerable to flooding.

As a more permanent solution, the idea is for a new depot to be constructed here, designed with the intention of making it less vulnerable to the elements. Planning for this is currently underway, but as yet the money has not been finalised; Germany has an established ‘flood fund’ at federal level – the Hochwasserfonds des Bundes – and MVB is currently in discussions with the Saxony-Anhalt regional state authorities with the aim of accessing funds.

Once again, Magdeburg demonstrates how the damage that flooding can quickly create can take a long time to put right; and this against a backdrop that extreme weather events are considered to become more common.

However, despite the fact that Magdeburg is even now still having to deal with the effects of the ‘high water’ of 2013, there is at least some good news. In 2014 it was estimated that the cost of overcoming all the tramway flood damage would be more than EUR100m. Following these estimates more detailed planning work has taken place and that figure has since been reduced to around EUR70m. That number includes the expected cost of the new depot at Betriebshof Nord.

That may be some consolation, but it does not change the disruption caused by those floodwaters of 2013 – and even though the figure for overcoming it may have dropped, this is money the MVB would surely prefer not to have to spend at all.

New connections…

Developments in Magdeburg are not all about returning the tramway to how it was before the Elbe broke its banks in such a devastating manner. By 2019 it is intended that the MVB system will have grown by 13.8km (8.6 miles) through the creation of a second north-south connection through the city – albeit this was a scheme already in progress before the flooding took place.

Mooted in the 1990s, this long-term project is broken down into sections and has been underway since 2000 when work started to bring the tramway to the Europaring. This initial section was finished in 2004.

In total the scheme creates new infrastructure that serves Kannenstieg, Birkenweiler, Neustädter Feld, Reform, Buckau, Sudenberg, Stadtfeld and Neu-Olvenstadt; it encompasses 37 new stops. That, MVB estimates, brings the tramway within reach of another 44 000 additional people; the saving in travel time from the complete project is estimated at 250 000 hours each year.

The circa EUR135m expected cost of the scheme is being covered 60% from Federal Government sources, 30% by the regional state of Saxony-Anhalt, and 10% by the MVB.

Also underway is the major reconstruction of the area outside Magdeburg Hbf (main station) that will see a reorganisation of this important interchange, including putting motor vehicles into a new tunnel and creation of a new tram stop and pedestrian areas.

Feature originally published in May 2017 TAUT (953).