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Is Germany’s legendary efficiency more fiction than fact?

Talk about flight delays. The opening of a new airport in Berlin, under construction since 2006, has just been delayed – for the fourth time. Costs are, of course, out of control as well. So far the 100-per-cent government-owned project is coming at more than 50 per cent above the scheduled price.

It's a universal problem. Nine out of 10 public infrastructure projects end up costing more than initially planned, according to by Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford's Said Business School, a proportion which has not changed much for seven decades.

Germany, however, has had a particularly bad run. In 2006, a satellite-based tolling collection system for trucks came into full swing – three years late. In 2009, botched construction of a new underground line in Cologne caused the collapse of the cities' historical archive, which had survived the Second World War, a catastrophe that delayed the subway indefinitely. A new concert hall in the middle of Hamburg's harbour has been under construction since 2007 and will cost at least seven times more than initially planned. The contentious redevelopment of Stuttgart's main railroad station is well on track to be well over budget.

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While such excesses are more common in the public domain, private companies in Germany also regularly make fools of themselves with complex projects. Steel maker ThyssenKrupp frittered away €9-billion ($11.6-billion) – more than 90 per cent of its current market cap – on ill-fated investments in the Americas. And Siemens, the technology behemoth, continues to struggle to deliver its ICE high speed trains on time.

There is more than mere bad luck behind this German ineptitude. On the political side, the federal structure of the country nurtures expensive vanity projects; overambitious local politicians can shift big chunks of the costs to other layers of government. Poor governance, both political and corporate, feeds cronyism, which in turn leads to sloppy project management and poor supervision.

A German penchant for overengineering makes matters worse. The main problem at Berlin's new airport is a fully automated fire safety system. It's cutting-edge technology, but it doesn't work.

German efficiency is proverbial, but easily exaggerated. In Germany as elsewhere, human weakness can cause fine plans to founder.

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