Rundown state of Berlin’s U-Bahn lines has hit ‘crisis point’

The service on Berlin’s underground lines has become so poor that the city is facing a public transport “crisis”, the Berlin Passenger Association (IGEB) has told The Local.

Rundown state of Berlin’s U-Bahn lines has hit ‘crisis point’
Photo: DPA

If you have impatiently been tapping your foot over recent weeks waiting for an U-Bahn train that never seems to arrive, you haven’t just got a case of the Berlin winter blues.

The service on the Berlin underground has become so poor that things have reached a “crisis”, Jens Wieseke, spokesman for IBEG said on Tuesday.

Across the entire network, trains are running at more irregular intervals, are shorter and are turning up with malfunctioning doors, explained Wieseke.

“Really, no train is supposed to be put into service with  graffiti on it. But they can’t spare the trains for the time it takes to clean the paint off, so now carriages covered in graffiti are also being used,” says Wieseke.

“You can’t narrow it down to just one or two lines,” he says. “The problems are surfacing across the whole U-Bahn network.”

Wieseke explains that the average train on the Berlin U-Bahn network is 30 years old. “That is when a train should normally be sent for scrap, so it really says something if that is the average age of a train being used in Berlin.”

“On the U55 line they have started using trains again that were sold to North Korea and were put out of service two decades ago. I might want to see these when I visit a museum, but not on my way to work.”

According to Wieseke the situation has been getting worse for years “but it has been dramatically worse since the summer.”

While he says that for several years the Berlin Transport Company (BVG) managed to paper over the cracks by refurbishing trains from the pre-First World War lines (U1-U4) for the more modern routes (U5-U9), the trains “are now at the end of their lives – the time of magic tricks is over.”

The BVG confirmed to The Local that “due to the continually rising number of passengers” their trains are “increasingly put under strain.”

But the company also claimed that “the punctuality of our trains is very good in international comparison.”

Moreover the company added that “the U-Bahn is by some degree the most reliable mode of transport in the city. The cancellation quota in 2016 was under one percent.”

Reinforcements on the way?

The BVG also emphasize that they are taking action.

At the start of November the company announced that they had ordered 20 new trains from the Swiss company Stadler to a value of €120 million, with the first planned to enter service in the second half of 2019.

So eager were the BVG to purchase the trains, that they ordered them without going through the normal procedures.

Instead of opening a bidding process across the EU, the company gave the contract directly to Stadler, claiming this measure was forced upon them by an “unforeseeable and substantial wear-out of the current U-Bahn carriages.”

But this reasoning hasn’t been accepted by German industrial giant Siemens, which announced on Monday that it would take legal action against the Stadler contract. According to Siemens, the current trains are still in a good enough state of repair to withstand the extra months that would have been involved in the bidding process.

While a court looks at the case, Stadler is not permitted to start building the new trains.

According to Wieseke, the BVG should have addressed problem six years ago.

“Buying a train is not like buying a car, it takes time to build them,” he says. “The trains have now reached the end of their lives.”

If the Stadler order is held up in the courts “the situation will become really dramatic,” he warns.

Berlin daily Tagesspiegel also reports that the BVG ignored the problem for years, choosing not to spend any extra money on renewing its fleet despite knowing that the aging trains were becoming ever less reliable.

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.