Rail link spat could see Denmark burn its bridges with neighbour

Transport minister fears squabbling over funding for a vital train bridge connection could undermine the Fehrmarn Tunnel project with Germany

A planned tunnel between Denmark and Germany may be at risk unless the financing for a new connecting train bridge is soon found, the government is warning.

The 18km-long car and rail tunnel connecting the German island of Fehmarn to the Danish island of Lolland – the Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link – is hoped to provide a more direct connection between Germany and the Danish capital, Copenhagen.

But the tunnel will prove useless to rail passengers unless Storstrømbroen, a vital bridge connecting the islands of Zealand and Falster and the only rail link between Copenhagen and the tunnel, is replaced after it was permanently closed last year over safety concerns.

According to the transport minister, Henrik Dam Kristensen (Socialdemokraterne), political negotiations over where to find the four billion kroner to replace the Storstrøm bridge have broken down, putting the entire Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link at risk.

“It could become a serious situation because the opposition is playing with the whole Fehmarn project,” Kristensen told Jyllands-Posten newspaper. “I think it is very disappointing and dangerous for both Denmark and Germany, as well as for all of Scandinavia and Europe.”

Negotiations between the government and the opposition were suspended after the government’s proposal to obtain the money from the Infrastructure Fund were turned down by opposition parties Venstre (V), Konservative (K), Liberal Alliance (LA) and Dansk Folkeparti (DF).

The fund’s spending decisions have to be made consensually by all the parties that voted to create the fund. The four opposition parties are against using the fund because it would mean postponing other infrastructure projects, such as a motorway to Kalundborg and an extension of the Køge Bugt motorway.

The opposition is instead proposing bundling the Storstrøm bridge together with the Fehmarn Belt tunnel and using revenue from a toll on the tunnel to pay for the bridge. This solution would mean the tunnel would take an additional six years to pay off.

“The Storstrøm bridge is intrinsically connected to the Fehmarn connection, both in terms of economics and traffic,” Kristian Pihl Lorentzen, V's traffic spokesperson, told Berlingske newspaper.

Leading coalition party Socialdemokraterne (S) argue that V's proposal is too risky, especially given the simmering political opposition in Germany towards the tunnel.

“The smallest amount of doubt about the project will be used to undermine it,” S's traffic spokesperson, Rasmus Prehn, told Jyllands-Posten, adding that the money needed to be found now and not in the future. “We also risk that the interest becomes so high that the project will suffer ‘interest death’.”

That view was supported by Mogens Fosgerau, a professor at the Technical University of Denmark, who argues that postponing the financing is risky due to the increased interest payments.

“It is in reality a 'Greek solution' to prevent the expense from appearing on the government’s debt sheet,” Fosgerau told Berlingske. “It is simply a way of hiding the expenses, though they do not disappear. It is actually more expensive for taxpayers.”

The negotiations have been suspended indefinitely, though both sides seem entrenched in their positions.

“There is only one way to find the money, and that’s through the Infrastructure Fund,” Prehn told Jyllands-Posten. Lorentzen, however replied that "it will either be our funding model or nothing.” 

The Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link is planned to be ready by 2021, by which time a new Storstrøm bridge also needs to be ready.