Almost a fifth of freight traffic in Germany is transported by rail. The federal government wants to increase this proportion to around a quarter by 2030. But railway companies now fear further disadvantages in competition with the road: the fees for using the rail network, the so-called route prices, are expected to rise sharply in the coming year. The industry fears that this could lead to higher prices for passengers and industrial customers and make rail less attractive. The Greens are calling for legal changes to reduce route prices. And even the railway, whose infrastructure division collects the fees, is worried.

Ministry of Transport: We are keeping a close eye on price developments

The Federal Ministry of Transport signaled at the weekend that it had heard these concerns. A spokesman said the government is keeping a close eye on the impact of the new route prices on local, long-distance and freight transport. In the current budget negotiations, the ministry is working intensively to secure short-term funds to subsidize route prices in long-distance passenger and freight transport.

Deutsche Bahn also made this suggestion. The high additional financial burden, especially on freight and long-distance transport, could lead to stagnating demand on the rail network, said the head of the new rail infrastructure company InfraGo, Philipp Nagl, to the German Press Agency. “We must find solutions with the federal government to limit the disproportionate increases in fees in rail freight transport and long-distance rail passenger transport,” he added. It is conceivable, for example, to reduce the increase in freight transport from the current 16.2 percent to 6 percent through further route price support.

The ministry commented openly on this. Because a subsidy for route prices “cannot be a permanent solution, we must also consider a fundamental revision of the route pricing system in the long term,” said the BMDV spokesman. “Various approaches are currently being examined in order to modify the route pricing system in the future.”

The route prices

The route prices are fees charged by InfraGo. All companies that use the railway infrastructure have to pay it, including the railway transport companies themselves. Specifically, depending on the type of use, there is a certain amount per kilometer of route. “We use these funds to finance the running costs for operation, maintenance and DB’s investment contributions in the more than 33,000 kilometer long rail network in Germany,” explained Nagl.

Significant increases in rail tolls

A few days ago, the Federal Network Agency approved a significant increase in route prices for 2025 – an average of 6 percent compared to the previous year. “This results from the significantly increased personnel and material costs in recent years and corresponds to the general price increase in Germany,” emphasized InfraGo boss Nagl. The problem: Although regional transport is responsible for most rail traffic, it is only allowed to be burdened to a small extent due to legal regulations. The network agency only approved an increase of 0.6 percent in route prices for this segment.

Long-distance and freight transport will therefore be asked to pay disproportionately in the coming year. Route prices will increase by 16.2 percent for freight transport and by 17.7 percent for long-distance transport. From the industry’s perspective, this is a serious blow to the competitiveness of rail compared to road. The responsible ruling chamber of the Federal Network Agency wrote that the price jumps were not illegal and were not an abuse of a dominant market position – and also referred to high price increases in other areas.

Broad criticism

However, the price jumps triggered widespread protests. “Higher prices every year for less quality in the rail network and inadequate service,” said Neele Wesseln, managing director of the Güterbahnen association, in which rail competitors are organized. “The historically unique increases in route prices that companies are now expected to accept are the result of years of mismanaged federal transport policy.” Political intervention is overdue to save the transport transition.

“Until then, freight railways have to fear for their existence: sudden skyrocketing prices for increasingly unreliable routes cannot be communicated to their customers – it is foreseeable that more will be transported by truck again,” Wesseln continued.

“The train path prices in Germany are already the highest in Europe,” said the company Flixtrain, one of the few competitors of Deutsche Bahn in long-distance transport. “They must not continue to rise under any circumstances and must be reduced to marginal cost levels in the medium term. Not only would all providers benefit from this, but passengers in particular would benefit from an improved overall offering.”

Dirk Flege, managing director of the Pro Rail Alliance, criticized the federal government for setting ambitious goals for shifting transport from road to rail. “Sharply rising route prices are, however, a real brake on relocation.” The share of rail in freight transport is currently almost 20 percent. The federal government’s goal is to increase it to at least 25 percent by 2030.

State subsidies reduced

Cuts in government subsidies for route prices have already caused criticism. Against the background of budgetary constraints following a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court, the subsidies for this year fell significantly to 229 million euros. InfraGo boss Philipp Nagl suggests limiting the additional burden, at least in rail freight transport, to six percent through higher federal route price support.

Greens demand changes

In politics, however, further legal reforms are required. The Green Party’s housekeeper and transport expert Paula Piechotta said: “Rail freight transport and passenger transport should be significantly strengthened through the corridor renovations. This would be counteracted if the use of rail becomes economically unattractive due to the increase in route prices associated with the equity increase. An adjustment to the Railway Regulation Act is here the cleanest solution.”

A so-called corridor renovation of heavily used railway lines should be an important step so that the network becomes less prone to disruption and trains run more punctually. In order to mobilize additional money for this, the federal government is planning to increase the equity capital of the federally owned Deutsche Bahn by up to 20 billion euros. This could lead to higher route prices later.