Railing on Germany’s Prince of the Rails

Forget late trains and spying on employees. Roger Boyes, the Berlin correspondent of British daily The Times, explains why Deutsche Bahn boss Hartmut Mehdorn should be run off the rails.

Railing on Germany's Prince of the Rails
Photo: DPA

Once upon a time there was a girl who could only convince the world that she was a princess after she lay for a night on 20 mattresses and could not get a wink of sleep. The reason: a pea at the bottom of the pile that had somehow dug into her skin. She was hyper-sensitive and therefore noble.

I was reminded of Andersen’s fairytale when I read recently that Hartmut Mehdorn, the thin-skinned prince of Germany’s railway operator Deutsche Bahn, has problems sleeping. According to Stern magazine, when it gets late on the 25th floor of Bahn headquarters in Berlin and the sensitive monarch is too wired to sleep, he summons the notorious “Red Wine Council.”

“Come on over,” Mehdorn reportedly orders on the phone. The courtiers then leave their nearby apartments around Potsdamer Platz, abandoning their beds, and return to the office to hear the late-night thoughts of Chairman Hartmut.

Now let me hasten to say – before my editor gets another angry letter from the shiny Bahn Tower – I am not criticising or even judging this practice. Great leaders often function best at night, undisturbed by telephones. They have their best ideas after midnight. Fidel Castro was like that. Josef Stalin too. Insomnia is a professional hazard.

It is, of course, a tense time at the Tower. Because of a scandal involving Deutsche Bahn spying on its own subjects – er, employees. Stern says there is a “Regime of Fear” in the headquarters which, according to my source – please don’t fire her! – is an absurd exaggeration. You just think twice about using your email or telephone.

My friend has closed her internet banking account but, she says, she would probably have done that anyway. Oh, and when we meet nowadays, we don’t go to any bar around Potsdamer Platz. But that’s okay. Normal. You have to understand, Prince Hartmut is under big pressure. Will he be sacked after the election this September? If so, he has to put his plans to privatise Deutsche Bahn into place in the next six months. Everything else is a distraction.

The fact is, I sympathise with the Prince of the Rails. I am one of the few people in Germany who feels Mehdorn’s pain. For the past few months, as part of the research for a book, I have been comparing the privatisation process in Britain, Iceland and Russia. It does not matter how mature the democracy is, corruption always creeps in – and usually in the 18 months before the company is floated on the stock market.

So Mehdorn’s suspicions his subjects are on the take are probably not unreasonable. Just as supermarkets have to ensure that employees don’t slip whisky, glazed ham, or razors in their handbags before leaving the shop, so too does Deutsche Bahn have to keep an eye out for corruption. Nobody wants privatisation to be poisoned at source. In fact, nobody wants privatisation at all. Naturally, the Bahn detectives also have to obey the law of the land. But if they don’t that is not necessarily a reason to sack Mehdorn unless it can be shown that he ordered illegal actions. So far I can see no evidence of this.

No, the real reason to sack Hartmut Mehdorn is safety. It is months since ICE 518 came off the tracks outside Cologne station. The cause was a break in a drive shaft and not surprisingly it made everyone in the railway universe a little nervous. Just minutes before the high-speed train had been travelling at 300 kph between Frankfurt and Cologne. It could have been another disaster like Eschede.

Deutsche Bahn approached the crisis with what appeared to be its usual Alice-in-Wonderland upside-down logic. Trains were withdrawn from service so that they could be tested. This led to delays. Friendly staff gave out bottles of free mineral water to frustrated passengers. Who found, when a train eventually arrived, that the toilets had been locked since they were positioned, with all their heavy water tanks, over the possibly fatal wheel assemblies. So we crossed our legs tightly, and our fingers too, and cursed the Bahn.

But the railway behaved absolutely correctly: safety trumps comfort. The difficulty came a little later, last autumn, after the government insisted that inspections of trains should be carried out every 30,000 kilometres instead of every 300,000 kilometres. Mehdorn protested in a furious letter to the Transport Ministry, which was the moment, I believe, when Prince Hartmut should have been asked to abdicate his throne.

Yes, there would have been more irritating delays and a loss of revenue. But a good Price of Rails would have gone on the offensive, used all of his persuasive skills to convince Germans that he wanted to reduce the risks of train travel.

It would have required strong leadership, an open, humble, apologetic manner. To be head of Deutsche Bahn nowadays one has to be a politician capable of entering a dialogue with citizens. Mehdorn has none of these qualities.

Sometimes I think that Prince Hartmut has become King Lear. And every time an ICE train makes an unusual noise, I will exchange anxious glances with my fellow passengers. That, and not his wannabe Stasi spy regime is why Mehdorn has to go.

For more Roger Boyes, check out his website here.

For members


EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.