Where Europe Is Growing Together The Flying Bird Line between Germany and Denmark

In use since 1997: the ferry MS Schleswig-Holstein
In use since 1997: the ferry MS Schleswig-Holstein | Photo (detail): Scandlines

This year the ferry link between the German Baltic island of Fehmarn and the Danish island of Lolland is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Eight years from now a tunnel will shorten the travel time between Puttgarden and Rødby to ten minutes. A snapshot of the exciting growing together of two European countries.

You have to hurry. Hardly have the passengers poured out of their cars on the upper deck of the ferry MS Schleswig-Holstein than all the best seats in the cafeteria at the bow are taken. From the forward tables you have an excellent view of the Baltic Sea through the panoramic windows. In the distance, passing ships look like bright swabs upon the blue-green water on this sunny, brisk Friday morning. Seagulls circle the ferry, but you hear nothing of their cries through the windows. All the more so the excited talk of the passengers. Many families sit about in holiday attire, but there are also dozens of businessmen in suits of the better sort. Most people order only a drink; sometimes also a snack. There is hardly enough time for a proper meal; in three quarters of an hour they will all be sitting again in their cars.

The diesel engine in the hull chugs almost silently. When it turns on its 21,500 PS, the vibration of the ship tickles the feet a bit. Slowly, the 142 metre Schleswig-Holstein glides out of the small harbour of Puttgarden in the direction of Denmark.

North to Work

Student Johannes Beel wants to write his B.A. thesis in Sweden. Student Johannes Beel wants to write his B.A. thesis in Sweden. | Photo: Armin Plöger Still a bit sleepy, Johannes Beel (30) grasps his coffee and looks out the window. He “got up shockingly early”, says the Bremen psychology student, to catch the 8 o’clock ferry to Rødby. The journey will take him to his parents’ holiday house in Sweden, where he goes “at least twice a year”. There he wants to write his B.A. thesis without ruffle or excitement. A Scandinavia fan, Beel is already looking forward to the time in a few years when he can cross the Fehmarnbelt through the tunnel. “That shortens my travel time by one and a half hours. Which makes it worth driving north once and a while over the weekend.”

The Kiel MP Jürgen Weber is interested in joint projects of the Baltic states. The Kiel MP Jürgen Weber is interested in joint projects of the Baltic states. | Photo: Armin Plöger Two tables away and also drinking a cup of coffee, Jürgen Weber (58) is reading the newspaper. The SPD MP from Kiel almost always travels this route with the train, which is parked below in the ship’s hull: “A lot more comfortable than with the car”. His goal today is a conference in southern Sweden, where politicians from the Baltic states are consulting on how to tackle common infrastructure problems. Weber sees the tunnel between Puttgarden and Rødby as a done thing: “The agreement between Copenhagen and Berlin has been signed; start of construction is planned for 2015. By 2012 we’ll all be saving time driving through the tunnel”, he says happily.

Construction problems on the German side

Another sketch: a reality by 2021. The tunnel entrance on the Danish side. Another sketch: a reality by 2021. The tunnel entrance on the Danish side. | Photo: Femern A/S It is to be hoped that Weber is right. True, the Danes have agreed after years of negotiation to raise by themselves the estimated 5.5 billion euros for the some 18 kilometres long tunnel. After all, Germany is Denmark’s most important trading partner; more Danish goods are traded in the Hamburg harbour than in the Copenhagen harbour. Better transport routes are helpful. But it is exactly here that there is a hitch. And it is on the German side. In Heiligenhafen, about 26 kilometres before Puttgarden, the motorway E47 from Lücbeck turns into a two-lane road. The upgrading of this stretch is to take place simultaneously with the construction of the tunnel – including a four-lane bridge from the mainland to the island of Fehmarn. In addition, two electrified high-speed railway tracks are required as far as Hamburg. The problem: none of this has cleared the necessary official hurdles, which in Germany can take years. And of the estimated two billion euros construction costs, only 890 million have been approved.

Especially those living along the railway line are up in arms; meanwhile, the alternative route Hamburg–Flensburg–Odense–Copenhagen is working at more than full capacity and relief is urgently needed. But it may take a long time until it comes. Too long. In short, the German side has to hurry up if it is not to disgrace itself unforgivably in the cooperation on the pan-European prestige project of the Fehmarnbelt link.

Back then a border; today a transport route

  • Seit 1997 im Einsatz: das Fährschiff Schleswig-Holstein Foto: Scandlines
    Seit 1997 im Einsatz: das Fährschiff Schleswig-Holstein
  • Cafeteria der Schleswig-Holstein: Von hier hat man den besten Blick. Foto: Armin Plöger
    Cafeteria der Schleswig-Holstein: Von hier hat man den besten Blick.
  • Beladen der Fähre in Puttgarden: Nach nur 20 Minuten ist alles voll. Foto: Armin Plöger
    Beladen der Fähre in Puttgarden: Nach nur 20 Minuten ist alles voll.
  • Entladen der Fähre in Rødby: Los geht’s ins Landesinnere von Dänemark. Foto: Armin Plöger
    Entladen der Fähre in Rødby: Los geht’s ins Landesinnere von Dänemark.
  • Gleich legt die Fähre in Puttgarden an, einige Pkw-Motoren laufen schon. Foto: Armin Plöger
    Gleich legt die Fähre in Puttgarden an, einige Pkw-Motoren laufen schon.
  • Die Abfertigung der Fahrzeuge klappt reibungslos. Foto: Armin Plöger
    Die Abfertigung der Fahrzeuge klappt reibungslos.
  • Auch ein verkürzter ICE (unten) passt in den Bauch des Fährschiffes. Foto: Armin Plöger
    Auch ein verkürzter ICE (unten) passt in den Bauch des Fährschiffes.
  • Im 30-Minuten-Takt verkehren die Fähren der Vogelfluglinie. Foto: Armin Plöger
    Im 30-Minuten-Takt verkehren die Fähren der Vogelfluglinie.
  • Aus Finnland kommt ein ganzer Bus voller Shoppingtouristen. Foto: Armin Plöger
    Aus Finnland kommt ein ganzer Bus voller Shoppingtouristen.
  • Attraktiv für Skandinavier: die Alkoholpreise in Deutschland. Foto: Armin Plöger
    Attraktiv für Skandinavier: die Alkoholpreise in Deutschland.
  • Von oben eher bescheiden: der Fährhafen auf der Ferieninsel Fehmarn. Foto: Scandlines
    Von oben eher bescheiden: der Fährhafen auf der Ferieninsel Fehmarn.
  • Hafenanlagen in Rødby: sechs Millionen Passagiere pro Jahr. Foto: Scandlines
    Hafenanlagen in Rødby: sechs Millionen Passagiere pro Jahr.

The Danish-German company Scandlines annually transports six million passengers on the Flying Bird Line between Puttgarden and Rødby. Fifty years ago no one dreamed that the link would one day become so important a factor for the two countries. Back then, on 14 May 1963, the first ferry, the Kong Frederik IX, began operation. Today there are four ships, including the Schleswig-Holstein, which run at thirty-minute intervals across the Belt.

Only about a dozen people from the German island of Fehmarn commute in the morning to the Danish island of Lolland by ship, according to Nathalie Ard of the Ostholstein district administration. “They’re mainly construction workers. In Denmark the wage level is 20 to 30 percent higher than it is in Germany, so almost nobody comes from the other side.” With higher earners it is different. Of these, about 200 Germans work in Copenhagen and drive home on the weekend. The number of Danes who go to work in the area of Hamburg is estimated at more than 300. Both local and trans-local border traffic, 25 years ago still something special, has thus become more and more a matter of course. The Fehmarnbelt Tunnel takes the next step in the growing together of two European countries.

Another border phenomenon: shopping tourism

Nina Moerater and her family make a day trip to Germany. Nina Moerater and her family make a day trip to Germany. | Photo: Armin Plöger Meanwhile, the Schleswig-Holstein has disembarked its passengers in Rødby and taken on board new ones. This time the ship is packed; several cars and lorries must wait for the next ferry. A considerable number of the new passengers are Scandinavians who come to Germany for the cheaper prices. One of them is Nina Moerater (36) from the Danish town of Fredrikssund, who along with her family is translating for a shopping tour. “We do this about every two months”, she says. “With lunch and a walk, it’s a very nice day out.” But there are many others who have no interest in an enjoyable excursion; they come only to buy – above all, alcohol – and then return immediately. For such tourists a special supermarket ship is moored in the Puttgarden harbour. On its three levels it offers beer and liquor, at prices that are at least 25 percent cheaper than in Denmark.

The tunnel is eagerly anticipated

Long-distance lorry driver Jan Lucas is one of the most frequent passengers on the ferry. Long-distance lorry driver Jan Lucas is one of the most frequent passengers on the ferry. | Photo: Armin Plöger Jan Lucas (42) doesn’t want anything to do with alcohol. “That wouldn’t be good in my job”, says the lorry driver, grinning. Along with about twenty-five colleagues he is sitting in a side room of the cafeteria specially reserved for long-distance lorry-drivers and taking a rest. He uses the ferry “at least four times a week”, always in both directions – and so contributes to the statistic that recorded for 2012 a total of 369,871 lorry transports between Puttgarden and Rødby. An increase, incidentally, of 1.76 percent since 2009. From his native Holland, Lucas transports fresh vegetables to Denmark and Sweden; on the way back, usually paper rolls or machine parts. Today his lorry is loaded with ice cream from Copenhagen. He too is looking forward to the future tunnel: “Then I’ll be home one and a half hours sooner”.

Engineer Jolanda Matthijsen prepares the installation of an exhaust filter on the ferry. Engineer Jolanda Matthijsen prepares the installation of an exhaust filter on the ferry. | Photo: Armin Plöger Jolanda Matthijsen (32) will have to wait somewhat longer for her journey home. In these weeks the engineer is a permanent guest on the ferry. Every day back and forth, several times. Using special instruments, she measures the amount of soot and fumes produced on each trip by the smoke stack of the Schleswig-Holstein. At the idle, at full load, under various weather conditions and wind directions. Once all the data has been collected, her company will devise a precisely tuned exhaust filter, which will be installed in the vessels of the line in 2014. Despite the projected speedy construction of the tunnel, Scandlines is investing in the future of its ships. They can after all later be used on other lines – for instance, that between Gedser and Rostock. “Almost all the passengers want the tunnel to be built as soon as possible”, says the Dutch engineer. “But during my work I’ve learned to appreciate the ship. The sea and its spicy smell. The view of other ships. The seagulls. I’ll miss all that.”