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Why the new Berlin-Munich rail line has got off to such a bad start

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Why the new Berlin-Munich rail line has got off to such a bad start
An ICE high-speed train travels at speeds of up to 300 km/h. Photo: DPA.
12:16 CET+01:00
Since the new express line between Germany's two most prominent cities opened on Sunday, it has been hit with delays, breakdowns and cancellations. Here are some reasons why.
'They haven't had a trial run'

Gewerkschaft Deutscher Lokomotivführer (GDL), a union that represents train drivers, has criticized Deutsche Bahn (DB) for being inadequately prepared prior to the launch of the new route.

“Train drivers are doing their best," GDL chairman Claus Weselsky said on Wednesday. "But they haven't had a trial run."

DB however rejected Weselsky's statements, adding that the company's train drivers had been appropriately trained.

“The technical issues were analyzed intensively and largely eliminated via hundreds of trial runs before the line went into operation,” a DB spokesman said.

On Tuesday morning a high-speed ICE train travelling between Berlin and Munich was completely cancelled for the second day running. DB has so far not given a reason for Monday's cancellation, but attributed Tuesday's non-start to a technical malfunction.

These weren't the first mishaps to take place on the ICE route though. On Sunday, the day of the line's official launch, an express train arrived in the capital two hours late, also reportedly due to technical problems. Similarly a private train for honorary guests on Friday evening arrived two hours later than planned after various unspecified problems caused it to stop at several points along the line.

Deutsche Bahn boss Richard Lutz and Chancellor Angela Merkel after riding a private ICE train on Friday. Photo: DPA.

Errors in the new signaling technology

Back in June, when the last section of the line was being completed, head of DB Richard Lutz said: “We have finally arrived in the digital railway age."

The DB boss went on to explain that trains on the line would reach speeds of 300 km/h, boasting that a new signalling technology would cut two hours' travel time off the route.

But this technology - the European Train Control System (ETCS) - which Lutz referred to as making “historical progress” has been heavily criticized.

Teams of technicians from Alstom, the railway engineering company that installed the ETCS, have been working on the track together with DB employees since Friday in an effort to correct errors in the system. Alstom has said it is committed to fixing the bugs as rapidly as possible, reports Tagesspiegel.

The ETCS is different from the system which DB uses on its older lines; whereas the train driver receives information via radio in the ETCS, older routes rely on a system where information is transmitted via a cable placed between the rails.

By resisting converting to the use of ETCS for years, Germany has been slow to catch up in terms of train technology as ETCS is already widespread in other countries such as Switzerland.

Back in 2015, a section of the high-speed route between Leipzig and Erfurt equipped with the ETCS was already found to have technical problems, says Matthias Gastel, Green party MP and national rail policies spokesman.

DB hasn't learned as a result of this, added Gastel, referring to the state-owned company's failure to resolve problems on that route.

Problems with management

“I am surprised that there hasn't been a reasonable explanation [for the breakdowns]," Christian Böttger, professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, told Tagesspiegel in response to the latest series of DB mishaps.

“We are still waiting for clarification of the exact reasons for the breakdowns," said Weselsky, head of trade union GDL.

Böttger believes a variety of reasons are at play, including thin resources, unclear responsibilities within DB's management and the company's tendency to hire too many consultants.

“The long-distance rail routes have not been well managed for years," Böttger said.

But Birgit Bohle, chairwoman of DB Fernverkehr (a division of DB that operates long-distance passenger trains in Germany) and Berthold Huber, member of the DB board of directors responsible for passenger transport, beg to differ.

Bohle and Huber claim that DB trains have seen an improvement in punctuality and service and that the rail company offers passengers a wide range of customer-friendly innovations.

For now, travelers should still expect possible cancellations or delays on the much advertised high-speed route in the next few days, reports Süddeutsche Zeitung.

DB expects the availability of trains to stabilize by the weekend.

With DPA

READ ALSO: This is how much quicker German trains will be starting Sunday

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