OPINION: The shocking state of German trains exposes the myth about punctuality
This summer, we have the comparatively rare opportunity to watch a widely-held stereotype dissolving in real time: all you need to do is get on a train – or, if you would like to avoid that rather unpleasant experience, simply stand on a station platform as panicky tourists charge through the country’s Hauptbahnhöfe (main stations) from one delayed connection to another, crying out in anguished surprise as the train doors close in front of them: “But aren’t Germans supposed to be punctual?!”
Of course, as the less chauvinistic and more realistic among us well understand, being on time has long been more of a cherished collective aspiration than a national characteristic. Ironically, while countries whose timekeeping we regularly deride, such as France and Italy, have relatively reliable rail networks, Germans, who feel acute embarrassment at every minute of tardiness, must make do with trains which are chronically delayed and now getting worse. Hence the surprise of foreigners caught up in chaotic delays – and our own sense that things are generally going down the pan.
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Trains becoming ‘unattractive prospect’
Yes, just as tourists and business travellers return after Covid, Deutsche Bahn and the country’s other operators are doing their level best to bust one of the few remaining myths on which we as a nation trade (“German efficiency”, “German engineering”, and “German preparedness” having already been caught with their proverbial pants down on numerous occasions in recent years…).
The official Deutsche Bahn statistics may state that around 70 percent of its IC and ICEs are still punctual, but there are two things about this: firstly, taken on its own terms, this is an appalling admission, meaning as it does that almost one in three long-distance journeys suffers a delay or more than six minutes (and that an unnamed number are delayed by up to 5:59 minutes, enough to miss a tight connection). Secondly, whatever the statistics say, I personally as a regular rail traveller have never experienced chaos as extensive and sustained as over the last 12 months – and I’m not alone.
People queue to get on an ICE train at Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder
I’m not, by the way, challenging the accuracy of the DB statistics: it’s just that the delays seem to be affecting the most strongly frequented lines. Having a train run punctually, but empty or on a quiet route will not do much to dispel the now widespread impression that rail travel in Germany has gone from being a continuing, yet reassuringly predictable disappointment to resembling one of the outer circles of hell. And while punctuality is the main issue, a range of other factors – from on-board comfort to passenger information and compensation for delays – are making what should be the backbone of Germany’s switch to carbon-neutral transport into a horrifically unattractive prospect.
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Two hours behind schedule
Take last weekend, when I returned from a holiday in the UK via changes at Brussels and Cologne. Things got off to a bad start when my Eurostar was delayed by half an hour: theoretically, I would have missed my onward ICE from Brussels, yet – somewhat fortuitously for me – it left 50 minutes late due to a technical defect in the unit; at Cologne, too, I should have missed a connection due to this delay, yet the IC to Hamburg was also running late, by around a quarter of an hour…
If that sounds like getting lucky twice, it wasn’t: after around 40 years as the workhorse of the north-western route, the IC rolling stock on the Cologne to Hamburg services is in a parlous state, of which a lack of air-conditioning in several carriages was the most obvious manifestation; and as so often, the BordBistro was first closed, later able to serve drinks only (lukewarm due to a broken fridge). Then, as minor delays are want to, this one slowly increased to almost an hour by Bremen, where we had to stop for another 50 minutes due to trespassers on the line. We were then held for a further few minutes because, as the audibly exasperated guard explained, we were unable to get moving again until the people in coach 3 agreed to put their masks on. That’s Germany these days: holding up an already severely delayed train on a petty point of Pandemic-related principle while actually creating conditions which will make the spread of Covid considerably more likely.
Eventually, we arrived into Hamburg just shy of two hours behind schedule – masks, t-shirts, and everything else drenched in the kind of sweat you can only get into as a result of failed on-board air-conditioning and prolonged concern about whether you will reach your destination. I personally was exhausted, but at least close to home; spare a thought for the plucky Greta-inspired teenagers heading from Amsterdam back to Stockholm who, already several hours behind schedule due to a delay on their previous IC, went on to miss the last sensible connection northwards…
Passengers on the train platform in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bodo Marks
It says a lot that, during two weeks’ holiday travelling around the UK – a country assumed both at home and abroad to have deplorable trains – the worst of the journeys were in Germany. Sure, the services I took in Britain were delayed, but the rolling stock was better maintained, refreshments were reliably available, and the “Delay Repay” scheme far more generous. The latter kicks in after just 15 minutes, whereas Deutsche Bahn’s compensation is only available for delays of one hour of more – a telling yardstick. And interestingly enough, as our IC approached the two-hours’ delay mark just ahead of Hamburg, it accelerated markedly and, suddenly, the passengers removing their masks around me as they gasped for oxygen in the fetid miasma of coach 10 didn’t seem of particular interest: from 120 minutes on, the amount of compensation due doubles…
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All of this is especially tragic in that, between the nadir of 2015 (the last time Germany’s trains were this unpunctual) and 2021, train travel actually improved somewhat. New units ordered by Deutsche Bahn and various other operators began to come into service, staffing was improved, and the first of the many long-overdue works to expand capacity, upgrade damage-prone components, and prevent unauthorised access were undertaken. By the arrival of the Pandemic in 2020, punctuality had gone up, as had comfort (on-board WiFi; refreshments on longer journeys).
Why are trains in Germany getting worse?
Yet now, the same old disruption of yesteryear has returned – as has the rail industry’s tendency to blame poor performance on external factors. This time, it’s apparently the resurgence in passenger numbers after 2020/2021 and a lack of staff that are the cause of all our woes, despite the fact that traffic is still slightly below the pre-pandemic peak and that, in the intervening period, Deutsche Bahn and other operators have had a field day poaching out-of-work air-industry workers…
So what actually is behind the chronically poor and fast-worsening performance of German rail? I don’t know for sure, but 15 years of up-close-and-personal experience tell me that it’s most likely a combination of three overarching factors: decades-long network underinvestment so sustained that even the various gazillions announced in recent times will take years to make a dent on the infrastructure problems; vastly increased complexity since privatisation along with a weakened, yet still dominant national operator (Deutsche Bahn) whose internal structures and corporate culture combine the worst inefficiencies of the public with the worst short-termism of the private sector; and a populace and political class which only shows sporadic interest in rail (“9 Euro ticket!”) and is otherwise still obsessed with personalised motor transport.
Car-crazy penny-pinchers? Now there’s an enduring stereotype about us Germans unlikely to be dispelled any time soon…