'Sometimes flying is cheaper': The problems and the positives of train travel in Germany
From pricey tickets to delays and overcrowding. Here's the verdict on what's good and what's bad about travelling by train in Germany after #GretaGate.
A massive row over the quality of train travel in Germany erupted after activist Greta Thunberg was pulled into a row with Deutsche Bahn over overcrowding on German trains.
So we wanted to know exactly what you think about train travel in Germany.
We were inundated with dozens of responses to our survey which was open for just under 24 hours.
What's the verdict? Well overall, German rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) receives a pretty good report card – but there's a lot of room for improvement.
Just over 36 percent of respondents described train travel in Germany as “good”, while 18.2 percent said it was “very good”. Just over 27 percent said it was “average” while 18.2 percent said it was “poor”.
A small number of people – 7.6 percent – described train travel in Germany as “exceptional”.
So what are the biggest problems when it comes to travelling by rail?
For the majority of people – 36.4 percent – the worst part is the high cost of tickets. Meanwhile, 30 percent said delays and not being on time was their biggest bugbear.
Just 4.5 percent of respondents said overcrowding was the biggest problem. Others complained about customer service and trains being cancelled too often among other things.
Tickets cost too much
The cost of travelling by train in Germany varies depending on when you buy a ticket and which type.
The Sparpreis (saver) is a cheaper ticket with no flexibility, whereas Flexpreis is a much more expensive ticket which is valid for any train on the day of travel and you can cancel the ticket for free. Deutsche Bahn has a Sparpreis finder tool on their website so that you can find cheaper tickets for your journey.
But if you're not planning well in advance, it doesn't look good for your purse.
Bradley Bennett in Frankfurt said: “Last-minute travel is excessively expensive if traveling long distance.”
Some people even said it forced passengers to turn to other types of transport.
“Plane tickets look much cheaper in comparison train tickets,” said Elshad Nasibov in Berlin. “Taking into consideration the travel time and costs by train, planes look more convenient at the moment.”
Viswa K in Aachen added that tickets are "super expensive" considering "most of the time the trains are either delayed/cancelled. A 200km ride can cost up to €100 if the person is not planning four months in advance. No wonder so many people travel with cars.”
Another respondent, Bako, said: “The prices of train tickets in Germany are so expensive that people would prefer to go by car, as it is far cheaper. Therefore, the use of train for climate protection will never be easy in Germany especially if the trains are not accessible for everyone.”
“It should not be cheaper to fly from Berlin to Zurich (for example). Nor should it cheaper to rent a car to drive that distance,” said David Bayly in Berlin.
Reader Khalid El Nounou, who lives in Mönchengladbach, said trains were “not cheap”.
He added: “Sometimes even flight tickets are cheaper than train tickets.”
And Grant Goodwin in Munich said: “Germany is one of the few countries globally where travellers pay nearly the entire cost of running the train network, without subsidy from the government. It’s not the way to encourage people away from cars and fossil fuels. It’s often cheaper to fly than travel by train!”
Plans afoot for cheaper tickets
It's important to note that tickets on the rail network are set to become cheaper cheaper after the government voted to reduce the VAT on train journeys from the standard 19 percent to the 7 percent reduced rate, although the details are still being negotiated.
The measure is part of a range of proposals to reduce the environmental impact of transport. The VAT subsidy for train travel will only apply to journeys longer than 50km.
However, will that be enough to lure people into opting for rail more – and if it does, can infrastructure cope?
When it comes to travelling by train in Germany, delays and cancellations were a huge issue for many.
Germans are known for being punctual, but many people slammed the trains for not being on time.
Shiladitya Das in Mainz described the system as “unreliable”.
“My office is 100km away and requires three changes - one IC (Intercity) one S Bahn then a bus. The IC is unreliable and is cancelled or delayed by more than 30 minutes. I just cannot plan office work as I did not know how late will I be. I finally got a car.”
Meanwhile, Christian in Aachen said he often takes the ICE between Cologne and it's rarely punctual.
“I have never arrived on time, I always arrive late by at least 30 minutes,” he said.
A regional train in Germany. Photo: DPA
Eric in Duisburg travels to work using Deutsche Bahn everyday and needs two transfers. "90 percent of the time, trains never come on time and that affects my connections and plans," he said.
Nathaniel William Philip in Reutlingen added: More often than not, DB trains arrive late or trips get cancelled, with alternatives ending up being very crowded."
DB recently said it wanted to become more punctual and expand capacities for rail travellers in Germany and aimed to do this with the launch of its new timetable on December 15th.
From the start of the year up until the end of September, 76.5 per cent of all long-distance trains arrived on time, according to the operator.
When Thunberg tweeted the picture of herself sitting on the floor of a German train on Sunday, DB appeared to take it as a slight on their service.
Traveling on overcrowded trains through Germany. And I’m finally on my way home! pic.twitter.com/ssfLCPsR8o— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) December 14, 2019
But Thunberg said it was a good sign because people were choosing to travel by train.
Yet busy carriages and overcrowding are a problem for some.
Vita Whitehead in Hannover told us: “I live in Hannover and my boyfriend in Osnabrück so every other weekend I travel between cities.
“I have frequently been in inhumane conditions on the IC (Intercity) with no space to even stand. Lots of people commute on this route so it is always packed on weekdays.
"The train is always delayed (I can’t think of a single time when it arrived on time) and if you miss one, it can be nearly a two hour wait until the next train.”
"Trains are often overcrowded, we pay full price for being squeezed like cattle," added Carl C Thier in Aachen.
Maxine Wu, who was recently travelling in Germany, said her family had bought first class tickets "but had no seats and sat on the ground from Frankfurt to Hamburg".
Rod Jackson said: "Trains are crowded and if you have to move on or off in a timely manner, good luck."
Other complaints included there not being enough space for bikes, customer service can be sketchy and there's a lack of reliable Wifi on board.
‘Not a lot to complain about’
Others praised Germany’s rail system.
Tonya Stevens in Frankfurt said: “There are sometimes delays, which can be stressful if you miss a connection. But overall, there is not a lot to complain about.
"You can turn up at any Hauptbahnhof (main station) in Germany and you can find trains and connections right throughout Europe and even beyond.
“It is a great pleasure to be able to board a train in Frankfurt and within 3 - 4 hours arrive in Munich, Hamburg or Berlin.”
How can train travel improve?
The majority of respondents urged Deutsche Bahn to seriously reduce the price of tickets especially on long-distance services.
Peter Sewell in Leipzig called for more reliable services. He said: "I have to schedule an extra hour in case the train is delayed."
Others said more pratical measures would be helpful for Germany’s increasingly international population.
Anita Sheth in Bonn said: “Announce in multiple languages - not just German. Your passengers do not speak German always.”
Melda in Erlangen, Nuremberg, had a similar suggestion, urging for more staff to assist when there are timetable changes.
"As a foreigner, sometimes it is hard to keep up with the info tables and announcements, for example you need to change to another line or there is a delay I need to ask people to understand the ongoing situation," Melda said.