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Victims of train AC meltdown paid €500

Germany's national rail operator Deutsche Bahn announced Wednesday that it would compensate victims of a horrific air-conditioning failure on a high-speed train during one of the hottest days of the year with €500 for their suffering.

Victims of train AC meltdown paid €500
Photo: DPA

Temperatures reached up to 50 degrees Celsius on an ICE train from Berlin to Cologne on July 10 after the cooling system broke down. Several passengers collapsed and nine students on a class field trip were subsequently hospitalised when they got off the train in Bielefeld.

Witnesses described dramatic scenes aboard the train, as dehydrated students reportedly stretched out in the aisles and one woman smashed a window in hopes of getting fresh air.

Until Wednesday, Deutsche Bahn had only offered the victims compensation of 1.5 times the worth of their tickets on that day. The VZVB German consumer protection agency had suggested that €300 would be an appropriate amount.

The company declined to provide more details about their new offer of €500, but Deutsche Bahn boss Rüdiger Grube, Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer and members of the parliamentary transport committee plan to meet on Thursday to discuss the situation.

Around 50 defective train air conditioning systems were reported in the days following the incident, with ICE 2 trains particularly affected. There was also criticism of Deutsche Bahn employees for the way they handled the malfunctions.

State prosecutors have also opened an investigation into the Bielefeld train conductor’s actions to find out whether he could or should have stopped the overheating train sooner.

On Wednesday, Deutsche Bahn also denied reports by broadcaster ZDF that temperatures in that train had actually reached more than 70 degrees Celsius, but added that internal analysis estimated it had risen to a scorching 61 degrees in a utility area.

“However this power unit is located outside the passenger areas on the underside of the train,“ the company said.

While Deutsche Bahn has referred to the climate control problems as a new phenomenon, Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel reported on Wednesday that internal documents showed several such concerns already the summer of 2008.

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CLIMATE CRISIS

How the Rhine’s low water levels are impacting Germany

Shocking photos show just how bad the river Rhine looks at the moment after weeks of dry weather. Experts are warning that extreme low water levels are affecting German industry and could hit consumers.

How the Rhine's low water levels are impacting Germany

What’s happening?

Due to the prolonged hot weather and little rainfall in recent weeks, the water levels of the Rhine, one of Europe’s biggest rivers, have dropped sharply. In several places, including near Koblenz, the water level is below one metre. Normal levels here would be 1.50 to 2 metres at this time of year.

Although the Rhine is still carrying more water than in autumn 2018, when the lowest water levels since records began were recorded, it is now moving into this range. At a key measuring point in Kaub near Koblenz, it was just 25 centimetres in 2018. Currently, the water level at this station is 51 centimetres.

The dried up water is causing major problems for German factories which rely on deliveries by ship along the 1,232 km Rhine River.

Weeks of dry weather across Europe have drastically hit water levels on major waterways, and resulted in drought restrictions in some countries. The whole of France has been on a drought alert since the beginning of August.

What does low water on the Rhine mean for shipping?

The Rhine river is important for German inland navigation. Many large industrial centres are located on the river and use it for supplies with raw materials. This includes the BASF chemical plant in Ludwigshafen and the ThyssenKrupp blast furnaces in Duisburg. Fully loaded transport ships, however, need to have a certain amount of space below the water surface to be able to travel on the river.

A fully loaded transport ship needs at least 1.50 metres – and this is no longer guaranteed everywhere. Many barge operators are therefore only sailing with half or a quarter of the normal load. This means that deliveries become delayed because the same route has to be covered several times.

READ ALSO: More floods, droughts and heatwaves: How climate change will impact Germany

What does the low water mean for industry on the Rhine?

Industrial companies that use the Rhine for deliveries have to pay more money, because ships have to sail more frequently, and there are fewer available cargo ships. In June, for example, transport in a liquid tanker from Rotterdam to Karlsruhe still cost €20 per tonne. Recently it climbed to €94 – almost five times as much.

The second disadvantage for industry is that because ships can transport fewer goods, deliveries are delayed so much that they sometimes no longer arrive in time for production. Nationwide, supplies are still sufficient at the moment, but there have been some issues. 

Which companies are most affected?

Energy company Uniper reported that there could be disruption at two of their power plants until September 7th. The two plants are operated with coal that’s normally delivered via the Rhine.

BASF, the speciality chemicals group Evonik and ThyssenKrupp are so far still able to maintain production from stocks and other sources. “However, we cannot completely rule out reductions in the production rates of individual plants for the next few weeks,” a BASF spokeswoman said.

How important is the Rhine for the German economy?

Although the entire water network used for inland navigation in Germany measures about 6,550 kilometres and includes canals as well as rivers, 80 percent of all goods transport takes place on the Rhine. Its water levels are therefore of massive importance to the German economy. Along with parts of the Elbe, the Weser, the Trave and the Kiel Canal, it is the only waterway that the largest inland vessels can navigate.

The level of the Rhine has dropped sharply.

The water level of the Rhine has dropped in recent weeks, causing major problems. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hannes P Albert

How does the low water affect consumers?

Consumers are of course also affected by low water levels. A 2019 study by researchers from Giessen, for instance, shows that the 2018 low-water period led to a noticeable increase in the price of diesel in the Rhine area of Cologne, even though oil prices fell noticeably at the time.

At the time, the Cologne tide gauge saw a record low of just 69 centimetres. Economists cited the lack of transport options across the water as the reason, and consequently more expensive alternative transport over land.

Now, too, the low water levels are likely to put further pressure on consumers’ wallets – and again primarily at the petrol pump. Due to the stagnant goods traffic via the shipping lanes, less diesel and heating oil is currently arriving in Bavaria, regional broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk reported. 

Why don’t the logistics companies switch to roads and railways?

Many goods can also be transported by lorry or goods train. But the low water levels come at a bad time: due to Covid infections, there are currently a lot of train drivers off sick. And let’s not forget that Germany is suffering from a worker shortage at the moment, and there are not enough lorry drivers.

What happens to the water levels? Will they keep falling?

Unfortunately, experts believe water levels on the Rhine will continue to fall. The Federal Institute of Hydrology currently estimates water levels of 44 centimetres in a fortnight at the Kaub measuring station. The Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration does not forecast significantly rising water levels for any of the measuring stations on the Rhine in the coming period. If there isn’t a lot of rain soon, the record levels of 2018 are well within reach.

What is the overall impact of the low water?

When the record lows were recorded in 2018, Germany’s total industrial production fell by 1.5 per cent. The Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW) expects a decline of 1.0 per cent if water levels are too low for at least 30 days. That may not sound like much, but with the manufacturing industry in Germany having a monthly turnover of around €180 billion per month, one percent is still a huge amount. And as Germany is already having a tough time due to the effects of the pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine, this is not what anyone needs. 

READ ALSO: Energy crisis to labour shortage: Five challenges facing Germany right now

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