Saturday, 20 April 2013

The S21 Protest Tour

Today was a long day of back to back to tours in cold drizzle. I really had the feeling I was working on a performance today and not playing at being a tourist, as it has sometimes felt.

First tour of the day was the much anticipated tour of Stuttgart 21: the most hated rail development in Europe. At least that is the impression I got listening to my guide Mark, who I met in front of the campaign tent which is parked squarely opposite the main station where S21 is focussed. I heard that the tent has been staffed 24 hours a day by volunteers for the last 3 years which is quite an achievement in itself given that Winter temperatures drop to -15°C  with 30cm of snow. For more on their opposition and alternative proposals see K21 (in German).

We started with an overview of S21 looking at the map on the side of the tent. It appears to be an attempt to bury the train tracks and create a through station and thus free up a lot of land that is presently used as train tracks and service yards. It will involve a huge amount of tunnelling that will keep the construction companies happy for years to come. In spite of preservation orders on the station and surroundings these were brushed aside in the 'public interest'. That old one. 

So this building is one next to the station that will be demolished, indeed it has already been hollowed out and is just a facade waiting to be pulled down. It was apparently a rather attractive arts space with counter-cultural tendencies. Other arts venues have also been closed as a result of S21 so it would appear to be a washing of the city centre, clearing out smaller and medium scale cultural spaces and replacing them with prime corporate development opportunities. The whole atmosphere around the station was rather gloomy to tell the truth and it was apparently a rather attractive place in the past. Now some people prefer not to come into the city centre but to stay in their suburbs on account of this.

The one building next to the station which will not be disrupted is the bank offices. Indeed the tunnelling has to accommodate their underground spaces and is therefore rather squeezed. It seems as if the number of tracks envisaged will reduce capacity rather than expand current train capacity. Still the bank is important as they may be one of the financiers who stand to profit from S21 from the interest on loans.

The work has already begun with the sides of the station having been pulled off and a deep pit dug, among other things. It appears as if the strategy from the S21 team has been to keep plans quiet and advance the work as much as possible so that when opposition is encountered they can say it's too late to stop now. Indeed a regional referendum was fought on that tactic in 2011 and they got it passed by a small majority. It reminds me rather of the London Olympics and the case made to sell it to the British public. The entire public infrastructure was at the hands of the pro-lobby along with business and sports chiefs while those against were unfunded and without access to media and power. A level playing field it was not.

We visited the exhibition in the tower advertising S21 and it was a very slickly designed space. From there we had a view over the roof of the station which the protesters occupied. Over 4000 are now on trial as a result of civil disobedience actions such as these and Mark himself spent 10 days in jail for such naughtiness. In the exhibition space they played videos like this one here:

If Mark's predictions are correct the final station will look nothing like this but instead be a compromise as they will have to keep some tracks and an above ground station to deal with capacity. Time will tell. I guess time will also tell if they encounter difficulties with the water drainage which is quite a thing here and a definite unknown.

While I cannot verify any of the information my instinct from the start of my stay in Stuttgart was that this was a big swindle that is more about property development and money passing hands within a tight circle of people at the top than it is about improving the rail network. This tour has only gone to deepen that impression so while the future is not looking bright for Stuttgart I wish their campaign the best of luck.

In spite of all that my guide Mark was still able to smile and for this much more incisive tour than any of the ones I have been able to find I have to say a big thank you.

Now onto the second tour. This will be briefer as it was in many respects a much more predictable tour. It was the Stuttgart Marketing Ltd City Centre Walking Tour. The weather was still wretched but we soldiered through the city stopping at point to point to get a description of the buildings and their history.

The thing that most struck me was that this tour made an effort to make Stuttgart look as nice as possible. And it worked, more or less. The major problem with the tour however was that it was a bilingual German and English tour with 95% of the group following it in German. This meant that most of the group had to stand in shivering drizzle whilst listening to the guide repeating the information to the three of us following it in English. Unsurprisingly the German descriptions of the locations were longer and more detailed than the English ones which most of the people simply experienced as a nuisance.   

That tour finished on the market square where I also saw another tour. This was one of the costumed tours, a woman dressed as a cleaner giving a local style tour in the Swabian dialect. I had wanted to follow one of these tours but after nearly 4 hours of tours in such miserable weather, I was done.

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