A FINANCIAL debacle over a futuristic railway station in a southern German city threatens to derail Chancellor Angela Merkel’s third bid for power later this year.
Her government is desperately seeking ways of pulling out of the Stuttgart 21 project, a cause it once championed.
State-owned rail operator Deutsche Bahn had to go begging to Berlin seeking a further €2 billion (£1.73bn) to finish the underground rail station and high-speed tunnel links.
MPs are running for the exits on the project, raising the prospect it might be abandoned altogether despite billions having been ploughed in already.
Particularly difficult for Mrs Merkel is the fact she insisted the project, intended to link Stuttgart with Paris within three hours, had to go ahead, despite concerted middle-class opposition two years ago, when many conservative professionals took to the streets to condemn it. One man was blinded by a police water cannon and, in a subsequent state election, the right-wing premier was voted out.
The project involves 16 tunnels and cuttings, 18 bridges, 64 kilometres of new rail lines, three new stations and a price that could double from current estimates to nearly €11bn.
As this is happening at a time when Berlin is calling for austerity across Europe, an extra €2bn is already being seen as too much. Deutsche Bahn chief executive Rüdiger Grube has been called a swindler in e-mails and even received death threats. He has endured them, it has been claimed, because he knew he could always rely on the support of Mrs Merkel. But now her officials have told him they cannot find the money. Mr Grube has said they had better, as it will cost €2bn more to scrap the venture.
What Mrs Merkel’s government fears is that, if it does underwrite it, Deutsche Bahn will be back for more, and more, and more, fulfilling the prophesy that the project will double its costs before it is completed sometime next decade.
“Does the government still support Stuttgart 21?” Mr Grube asked officials he met in emergency session last week. Apparently he did not get a straight answer.
The media are now predicting doom for Mrs Merkel in the autumn elections if the project is abandoned. But she may also be doomed if she bails it out.
Several other high-profile projects look like hitting the buffers in Germany. In Berlin, the new Willy Brandt Airport is two years behind schedule, billions over cost and now not expected to open for at least two years.
Other big building projects mired in delays and rocketing costs include a futuristic concert hall in Hamburg, a new underground rail link in Cologne, a new headquarters for the BND – the intelligence agency – in Berlin which has already gone in cost from €500 million (£432m) to €1.4bn (£1.2bn) and a commuter rail tunnel in Leipzig running at close to €1bn, almost twice the initial budget.