Poor, sexy and incompetent in Berlin

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.

Poor, sexy and incompetent in Berlin
Photo: DPA

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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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.