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Competing priorities: how actors and institutions influence adaptation of the German railway system


Large-scale infrastructure networks are vulnerable to climate change. Their operation involves public and private actors under complex legislative and market regulations. We analyze climate adaptation of railway infrastructure, based on an in-depth case study of the German railway system. The case includes a unique set of qualitative interviews with key players of operating and regulative organizations, as well as a document study. Our analysis crucially extends previous technology-oriented research on the railway sector by applying core insights and categories from the actor-centered institutionalism. We trace observed obstacles for a climate resilient railway system and adaptation decisions back to deeper causes, in particular political priorities and values. Moreover, diverging perceptions and the competition among different actors hamper adaptation. On the other hand, single actors who display a great willingness to act are able to make use of unclear responsibilities to integrate adaptation concerns into existing institutions. Our research suggests that changes in technical standards and in economic regulation support adaptation of infrastructure systems.

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  1. Following Godschalk (2003) and Mileti (1999) we understand a resilient railway system as one that “is able to withstand an extreme natural event without suffering devastating losses, damage, diminishing productivity […] and without a large amount of assistance from outside the community” (Mileti 1999, p. 32–33), as well as one “able to […] function under extreme stress” (Godschalk 2003, p. 137).

  2. The German railway system consists of actors (railway companies, public authorities), institutions (laws, financing mechanisms, standards, etc.) and technical artifacts (railway infrastructure) that build the cornerstone for the German railway transport.

  3. Composite actors can be divided into collective and corporate actors. Collective actors are coordinated actions of individuals, who can act by themselves; corporate actors are formal, organized majorities of people with centralized resources of action. Corporate actors usually are top-down organizations with hierarchical leadership (van Lieshout 2009).

  4. DB is the dominant player and operates about 90 % of the rail network (VDV 2014). Railway infrastructure that is not federally owned and other railway undertakings are not considered in the analysis.

  5. Our empirical focus is on the national level and major actors. Since major decisions on railway infrastructure are taken on the national level, this justifies the pragmatic research focus.


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This research was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, BMBF) in the Socio-Ecological Research initiative (SÖF) under Grant No. 01UU0910 (Project Chameleon, We are especially grateful to Nils Marscheider, Felix Reutter, Jacob Beutler and Johanna Schmidt for their valuable contributions in preparing interview data, relevant documents and literature streams. We thank Klaus Eisenack, Katrien Termeer and two anonymous reviewers for constructive feedback. Finally, we are indebted to our interview partners for their openness and cooperation.

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Correspondence to Esther Hoffmann.

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Maja Rotter conducted the research during her previous affiliation with IÖW and Rebecca Stecker during her previous affiliation with the University of Oldenburg. The presented research and its results do not necessarily reflect the views of the ministry.

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Rotter, M., Hoffmann, E., Pechan, A. et al. Competing priorities: how actors and institutions influence adaptation of the German railway system. Climatic Change 137, 609–623 (2016).

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