Poland screeches over Germanys move to reduce rail noise

BERLIN — Poland has a problem with Germanys efforts to reduce the noise on the railways.

Warsaw fears that German plans to bring forward a ban on noisy, older freight wagons by four years to December 2020 will mean Polish freight trains being stopped at the border, or having to travel through Austria and Italy to reach Atlantic ports.

“This would halt the further development and expansion of Polish rail freight operators in West European markets,” Andrzej Bittel, Polands deputy infrastructure minister, said in a statement last week.

While Germany has invested more than €1 billion in the past two decades to quieten its rail traffic, Poland has negotiated an exemption from EU rules allowing it to operate noisier freight trains until the end of 2036. The details of the new specs for rail carriages were agreed in January.

But Berlin is plowing ahead as it seeks to encourage a shift in freight traffic from road to rail, and plans to ban loud trains from the national network as of next year. Thats four years earlier than mandated by the EU rules, which set technical specifications for trains.

“Noise protection from rail means quality of life at home” — Andreas Scheuer, German transport minister

Germanys Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer on Tuesday announced plans to begin monitoring the level of noise at 19 measuring points along key rail lines that carry more than 70 percent of national freight traffic, as the country aims to halve rail noise pollution by next year.

“Noise protection from rail means quality of life at home,” said Scheuer. “The railway will be a good, and quiet, neighbor and as soon as it becomes demonstrably quieter for the residents, the acceptance that we need to shift more traffic to the railways will increase.”

Much of the noise comes from the braking technology used in carriages. To assuage complaints from other countries, the German government already said that exceptions would be made for older trains running so slowly that they dont generate excess noise.

But Poland maintains that if Germany does impose its ban in 2020, that “would violate the law of the European Union in a gross manner,” the Polish government said in a statement.

Andreas Scheuer, German transport minister | Lukas Barth-Tuttas/EPA

According to Warsaw, the EU deal states freight trains that dont meet the criteria can still move across the bloc until the end of December 2024, giving it access to the full EU market during the transition. But Germanys plans could stop Polands trains in their tracks.

Noisy killer

Noise pollution is responsible for 16,600 premature deaths each year across the bloc, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Although road transport is the biggest offender, the EEA reckons 19 million Europeans are affected by rail noise above 55 decibels — the EUs threshold — which is roughly equivalent to the ambient sound in a restaurant. The World Health Organization recommended in October that rail noise should be kept beneath 54 decibels during the day, and 44 decibels at night, to avoid “adverse health effects.”

While locals living in the flight paths of major airports such as Londons Heathrow or Brussels Zaventem have loudly voiced their opposition to night flights and extra runways, those living along the thousands of kilometers of rail track through Europe have until now been less vocal.

But Berlins effort to incentivize a rapid shift to rail means it now has to persuade locals not to launch similarly tricky “Nimby” offensives against rail development. That includes in the Rhine Valley south of Cologne; east of Dresden, where freight travels to the Czech border through the Elbe Valley through towns and villages; and with traffic through the densely populated former industrial heartland of the Ruhr.

The main cause of railway noise is cast-iron brakes, and retrofits that replace them with plastic alternatives or cladding on train wheels and brakes have been shown to reduce noise by as much as 10 decibels.

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