Portnoy's Stammtisch

Poor, sexy and incompetent in Berlin

Poor, sexy and incompetent in Berlin
Photo: DPA
Berlin is facing months of public transport chaos caused by a near-total shutdown of the city’s S-Bahn commuter train network. The latest installment of Portnoy's Stammtisch, The Local’s column about life in Germany, asks what the mayor is doing to end the mess.

Mayor Klaus Wowereit once famously called Berlin “poor but sexy,” yet this latest S-Bahn debacle proves he left out an important adjective: the German capital is poor, sexy and incompetent.

For a city with such laughably global ambitions, the fact there are no commuter trains crossing the heart of the country’s largest metropolis this week shows just how hopelessly inept Berlin is when push comes to shove.

If you didn’t know, several weeks ago the Eisenbahn Bundesamt, a federal agency tasked with train safety, became concerned about Berlin’s S-Bahn trains. So it asked the company running them – national railway operator Deutsche Bahn – to take them out of service for inspection. Then they became more concerned and started fretting over all of the S-Bahn’s rolling stock.

So now – with plenty of opportunity to avoid just such a collapse of the network – Berlin’s commuters are scrambling to get to work via alternative means. And the tourists that are so crucial to the city’s economy are simply left to fend for themselves. Currently there is no S-Bahn line running to the city’s Schönefeld Airport and any information there about replacement busses or regional trains doesn’t seem to be in English.

How did we get to this point? Such ineptitude, of course, starts at the very top.

Wowereit might not be to blame for faulty S-Bahn train wheels, however, he certainly is responsible for letting the situation deteriorate to such a degree of Berlin-level incompetency.

You’d think he’d be out there screaming and kicking and yelling and trying to get something rolling, but he’s not. He’s spent very little time banging on the doors of Deutsche Bahn even though they’re a short U-Bahn (not run by Deutsche Bahn) metro ride away from City Hall.

Yes, there was a meeting a week ago to discuss the situation, but it was planned long in advance. His now perennially late constituents don’t want planned meetings, they want late-night, emergency get-togethers that bring results. Meetings that put trains back on the tracks and get people to work and school and the airport.

Klaus, you’re being paid to lead. So get out there and lead, dude.

All of this is happening during high tourist season in a poor city that has tourism as its biggest industry. Now not only can these tourists not go anywhere and spend cash, no one’s even offering them help in any language other than German. Nice one.

Here’s a photo-op idea for hizzoner: Head out to the S-Bahn platform and use his own command of another language to help out. Aid the tourists in getting where they want to go. Give one a lift to the airport.

And why isn’t he sitting down with the Eisenbahn Bundesamt to convince them to lighten up and allow just a few of the trains back on the track? Maybe with a strict speed limit or other limitations ensuring safety? There’s no way all those trains can pose a real danger. If the London Underground can keep its wretched public transit rolling with those ancient trains, the S-Bahn’s near-new cars simply can’t be that big of a threat.

Part of what leaders are supposed to do is work out compromises. So why isn’t Wowi – as we call the mayor here – out there cutting compromises and deals? Why, in the name of Liza Minelli, isn’t he doing something? Anything?

Oh right, because he never has.

Remember that new big airport Berlin so desperately needs that’s been 15 years in the making? Apparently it doesn’t bother Wowereit to let that saga drag on a decade longer than necessary. Maybe it will open in 2011, but there’s already talk there will be no proper express rail link to the central train station.

Perhaps cornerstone transportation issues just aren’t his strong suit.

His solution for the iconic Tempelhof Airport was to shut it down long before the new airport opens in order to hand it over to his favoured Bread & Butter fashion fair a few months out of the year.

Seriously, this is this man’s legacy – he handed one of Berlin’s most history-laden architectural diamonds to a summit of the vapid. Now his other legacy will be this S-Bahn disaster.

That is, unless he’s to be forever associated with the city’s new fab marketing slogan: “Be Berlin.” But then again, it might be okay to be poor and sexy while you’re young, but who really wants to grow up and be incompetent?

Since a good German Stammtisch is a place where pub regulars come to talk over the issues of the day, Portnoy welcomes a lively conversation in the comments area below.

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