“Crazy” is the word that Hermann Schoyerer uses most often when he talks about his voluntary work. A “crazy civic project” is his support association. Together with hundreds of volunteers, Schoyerer got the train connection between the Lower Bavarian cities of Passau and Freyung running again. The connection called “Ilztalbahn” is one of the most beautiful train routes in Germany, it runs a good 50 kilometers over romantic bridges along the Ilz river, past rocks and dreamy forests.
The connection was shut down in 2005, but trains have been running again since 2011 – because the volunteers working with Schoyerer cleaned up the tracks and have been maintaining them ever since. A “crazy job” that also includes the organization of train operations: administration, sales, conductors, traffic, all of this is regulated by the approximately 700 members of the association or the Ilztalbahn GmbH, which was founded for this purpose. Even the train drivers work voluntarily; the association financed their training specifically, says Schoyerer.
The history of the Ilz Valley Railway could be an example of how committed citizens can use their own resources to promote the turnaround in traffic, give impetus to politics and pave the way from road to rail. But it’s not that easy.
So far, the Ilz Valley Railway has only had the status of a “leisure railway” and is not integrated into regular local public transport either in terms of tariffs or in any other way. So far, it only runs on weekends and public holidays between May and October – that’s all the volunteers can do. For more than ten years, the Ilztalbahn activists have been fighting for their connection to be integrated into Bavarian railway operations. The future of the route is an ongoing topic in the region. Local politician are basically in favor, but not everyone is convinced.
District and CSU brake the project
The Bavarian Ministry of Transport would be responsible for integrating the Ilz Valley Railway into regular operations. This is “fundamentally positive” about route reactivations, a ministry spokeswoman said when asked by WELT. Nevertheless, they would have to be “economically and ecologically sensible”. “The environment and rural areas are not helped if we run empty trains through the area,” Bavarian Transport Minister Christian Bernreiter (CSU) told a Passau magazine last December.
In order to avoid unprofitable empty trains, it must be proven before reactivation that at least 1,000 passengers use a route per day. This hurdle is higher in Bavaria than in other federal states. The Volunteers of the Ilztalbahn feel they are set too high – because the demand would only increase once the offer of a regular timetable is there, so the argument goes. In ten years, a total of 300,000 passengers were transported, according to the 10th anniversary in 2021. So far, the Ilz Valley Railway has been used largely as an excursion route.
Nevertheless, the members would be willing to have the potential of the route examined in terms of passenger numbers and ecology. But such an investigation costs money, and the state government only wants to spend it if a region fully supports a route. And this is also where things have failed so far: not all the districts or municipalities involved have unconditionally recognized the need for the Ilz Valley Railway; According to the spokeswoman, the Ministry of Transport has “no regional consensus”. Thomas Schempf, honorary managing director of Ilztalbahn GmbH, criticizes: “There is a lack of political will to push this forward vigorously”. So far, the district has failed Passau.
One appreciates the commitment of the volunteers, says a spokesman for the Passau district administrator Raimund Kneidinger (CSU) on WELT request. But “there should be no deterioration in the existing public transport service, especially in the area of school transport”. Should the Ilz Valley Railway be integrated into regular local transport, this would oblige the district to present a bus concept for the connection to the train stops. And this could be at the expense of other bus routes, the critics argue. Another thing: buses are already running between Passau and Freyung, with which passengers can get to their destination a little cheaper and faster than with the Ilztalbahn.
They fight because of their homeland
But efficiency was never the primary concern of the volunteers anyway. According to Schoyerer, 40 volunteers are involved in every driving day. According to a local medium, the volunteers have put in more than 100,000 hours of work and put more than 1.5 million euros into the project from private funds. Managing Director Schempf names two motives that prompted the volunteers to do this: One is homeland, a kind of “civic counter-movement” to infrastructure dismantling. In the region, post offices and corner shops gradually closed, and at some point many thought: “Everything can’t just get away here.” The others are primarily motivated by transport or environmental policy, they see the Ilztalbahn as a route “Worth fighting for”.
A few hurdles had to be overcome. Accidents, landslides or other damage to the tracks endangered operations. The Corona pandemic also put the project to the test financially: as a “leisure facility”, the Ilz Valley Railway had to temporarily stop operating, but at the same time had to pay for the maintenance of the tracks. These costs are actually settled with the ticket sales. And when the nine-euro ticket came and with it a nationwide run on regional trains, the Ilztalbahn was again left out as a non-member of the tariff association – the fact that passengers needed additional tickets scared or upset some.
There was at least positive news in February: the Ilz Valley Railway received 2.5 million euros to modernize the tracks and bridges Ministry of Transport from a corona pot. Managing Director Schempf welcomes this windfall, but regrets its uniqueness: “I can’t deny infrastructure financing with flash in the pan.”
The basic problem remains: as long as all districts concerned do not agree unconditionally, the potential of the route will not even be analyzed. If this should happen at some point, it does not mean that the analysis will be positive. And even then it would take years for something to happen: According to Schempf, there are three lengthy reactivation routes in Bavaria, behind which one would then have to line up. “If I’m realistic, nothing will happen to the Ilz Valley Railway in the 2020s,” says Schempf.
So the Ilztalbahn will continue to transport mainly tourists and day trippers on weekends – who can admire the route in return, no matter who finances the train running on it.
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