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EXPLAINED: How Germany is finally set to improve Wifi and phone signal on trains

German rail operator Deutsche Bahn says it will seriously improve the country's notoriously patchy Wifi and phone signal on trains. How will it get up to speed?

EXPLAINED: How Germany is finally set to improve Wifi and phone signal on trains
A passenger connects to the on-board Wifi on a train in Frankfurt. Photo: picture alliance / Andreas Arnold/dpa | Andreas Arnold

What’s going on? 

The chairman of Deutsche Bahn appeared in a press conference with the CEO of Deutsche Telekom on Wednesday to announce a new partnership which they say will “radically improve” Wifi and phone signal throughout the German rail network.

From 2026, the companies want all passengers be able to make calls and surf the internet on all routes without interruption and with vastly improved data rates. 

READ ALSO: ‘We’re running late on this’: Deutsche Bahn promises better Wifi on German trains by 2026

In a press release following the announcement, Telekom CEO Timotheus Höttges said the companies wanted to make Germany “more digital”. 

“Deutsche Telekom and Deutsche Bahn have a shared responsibility for their customers,” he said. “That’s why we are now also tackling the issue of rail coverage together and want to ensure that customers can make phone calls, surf and stream in the best quality.”

So, what’s the plan? 

Bahn and Telekom are basically planning to build out the network coverage of the railways step by step over a period of five years.

The German rail network covers almost 34,000 kilometres, with around 7,800 kilometres of this making up the country’s key rail routes for ICE and IC trains. This is the part of the rail network that the two companies plan to focus on first, with the aim of providing seamless coverage by 2024. 

By 2025, the companies plan to supply another 2,000 daily passengers with consistent Wifi by covering another 13,800 kilometres of busy rail networks.

Then, the following year, travellers on smaller regional routes will also get phone signal on their trains – in some cases for the first time. 

Telekom said it would be putting around 800 new cell sites into operation in the coming years, as well as expanding its capacity at hundreds of other sites in order to improve the mobile network all along the railway lines. 

Sounds expensive. Who’s paying?

It certainly is. The expansion to the network will likely to cost hundreds of millions of euros, with Telekom and Bahn splitting the costs between them.

According to Höttges, Telekom has invested €700 million into railway mobile networks since 2015, and plans to invest a further €300 million over the next five years. 

Meanwhile, the Bahn has set aside €150-200 million to invest in the project.

READ ALSO: Delayed train? Germany’s Deutsche Bahn to give online refunds for first time

It’s unclear if this will include money from government subsidies, though the German Minister for Transport, Andreas Scheuer (CSU), did appear with the two companies at the press conference in Berlin on Wednesday.

Deutsche Bahn is a private, joint-stock enterprise, though the German government is its sole shareholder.

Is the mobile network situation really that bad?

While Germany is in the midst of digitalising its economy, the train network is widely regarded as one of the weakest areas of mobile network coverage. According the a report by the Federal Network Agency, mobile network providers currently only supply around 94.4 to 98.2 percent of the railway routes with service.

While this may not sound particularly bad, the result is often patchy signal, interminable dead zones, and phone calls that continuously cut out – especially on Germany’s smaller regional train routes. 


The Wifi symbol is displayed on the door of a German high-speed train. Photo: picture alliance / Soeren Stache/dpa | Soeren Stache

At present, there are around 550 more antennas needed near railway tracks to provide passengers with decent mobile reception. 

According to Höttges, trains in Austria and Switzerland offer much better Wifi and mobile service than in Germany.

Haven’t we been here before? 

You could say this is something of an ongoing project.

Passengers have been clamouring for better Wifi on German trains for years, and in 2015, the government stipulated that the mobile networks on rail routes had to improve.

At this point, the telecoms companies were given a deadline of 2019, which Höttges made reference to in his speech at the press conference. 

“We’re running late with this, I’m aware of that,” he told reporters. 

In 2019, the government set a target of achieving 100mb-per-second internet across all the busiest train routes in Germany by 2022.

Does this mean we’ll have superfast broadband on trains soon?

Not exactly. From 2024/5, Deutsche Telekom is promising data rates of up 200mb per second along all major rail routes, which is considered an average base speed for urban areas. 

According to tech blogger Ken Lo of Ken’s Tech Tips, with 200mp-per-second download speeds, you can watch eight ultra-HD films on eight different devices, or download an entire album of music in three seconds. 

In other words, it should be more than enough to watch a film or two on a train journey.

For smaller regional train routes, passengers can expect speeds of 100mb per second, which still counts as “fast” broadband, but on the lower end of the scale. 

Does it matter that I don’t have a Telekom mobile contract?

If you enjoy making phone calls on trains, it could be beneficial to get Telekom as your mobile network provider, since the increased reception will primarily benefit people with Telekom contracts.

However, if you just like using the on-train Wifi, your provider won’t make a great deal of difference, since you’ll be connecting to Telekom’s wireless network anyway. 

READ ALSO: Deutsche Bahn to introduce its own ‘Siri’ to better assist customers

It’s also important to mention that the other mobile network providers haven’t been resting entirely on their laurels.

Vodafone and Telefonica have also been involved in talks with Deutsche Bahn about improving the mobile signal along the rail network in line with government targets. 

According to recent news reports, these talks are still ongoing. 

What are people saying about it?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Minister for Transport Andreas Scheuer (CSU), who had pushed for a deal between the two firms, hailed the move as an end to the ‘I have no network’ era.

“Deutsche Bahn and Deutsche Telekom are showing the way by systematically closing the gaps in the mobile network on all rail routes and significantly increasing data rates once again,” he said in a statement. “This is what the future of train travel looks like.”

But not everyone was as excited by the promise of better mobile reception – or the 2026 deadline – as Andreas Scheuer.

Sharing a picture of the Morgenpost on Twitter, software developer Andrew France summed up the news story in a single line.

“Hot of the press is that you’ll be able to make phone calls on trains from 2026,” he wrote. 

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TRAVEL NEWS

OPINION: Why Germany’s €49 travel ticket is far better than the previous €9 ticket

The €49 ticket is a lot more expensive than its €9 predecessor - but rightly so, writes Brian Melican. Here's how it's likely to improve train travel in Germany long-term.

OPINION: Why Germany's €49 travel ticket is far better than the previous €9 ticket

In politics, expectations management is crucial. If governments get it wrong, they risk becoming unpopular or – as happened recently in the UK – imploding wholesale: Liz Truss et al. overpromised to win control of the governing Tory party and then did an appalling job of managing market expectations (i.e. they neglected to manage them at all), tanking the UK economy and their own careers at record speed.

Next to this spectacle, of course, Germany’s tripartite government coalition’s performance looks pretty passable. Nevertheless, as the whole 9-Euro-49-Euro-ticket saga demonstrates, Scholz & Co. could well use a lesson in how not to unnecessarily raise expectations.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s €49 ticket

When, this spring, German transport minister Volker Wissing and the Green’s parliamentary leader Ricarda Lang presented a 90-day trial for a travel card covering all local public transport services across Germany at a bargain-basement €9 monthly flat-rate, they set pulses racing – something that, as second-rank figures lacking the heft of their respective party heavyweights Lindner and Habeck, neither of them get to do all that often.

Suddenly, the whole country was electrified by the possibility of riding pretty much everything except ICEs for little more than the cost of a Currywurst and those of us who criticised the idea as an ill-thought-out giveaway which would do little more than clog up an already over-stretched network looked like Scrooges.

Now, of course, after the end of the 90-day bonanza and months of wrangling, it is Wissing, Lang and the 16 state transport ministers who were, presenting its successor, left sounding like they are barking “Bah humbug!” in the run-up to Christmas. “€49 Euros a month?!” For those arguing for an extension of the €9 ticket, that is a difference of €40; even advocates of Austria’s more realistic 365-Euro-ticket are around €19 out. And so all the relief that there will now be a permanent cheap ticket is tinged with disappointment that it won’t be that cheap.

‘Public equivalent of joyriding’

Yes, the political expectations management here was awful, because, considered on its own merits, the €49 ticket is sound policy which will have a long-lasting effect on real incomes and travel patterns without the deleterious effects of its short-lived gimmicky predecessor.

So what was wrong with the €9 ticket and how is the €49 ticket better? The biggest problem with this summer’s eye-catching initiative was that, while it did achieve one stated aim of putting money in the pockets of existing season-ticket holders, the price was so crazily low as to encourage the public-transport equivalent of joyriding.

In milder instances, people who could perfectly well have afforded to use long-distance services switched to far slower and far more complicated itineraries because they were unbeatably cheap, contributing to overcrowding on regional lines; at its worst (i.e. on warm weekends), the ticket encouraged people to head to already busy tourist hotspots when they otherwise wouldn’t have travelled at all

READ ALSO: What happens to Germany’s €9 ticket at the end of August?

This ran completely counter to another of the policy’s aims of reducing emissions (the most carbon-neutral journey is, after all, the one that never happens). It was also counterproductive insofar as it added disruption to a network already struggling with staffing shortages and a chronic lack of capacity: rather than attracting new riders, in many instances, the overcrowded and heavily-delayed services of this summer will have confirmed car-drivers’ suspicions that public transport is a sweaty hell-hole best avoided.

Deutsche Bahn regional trains leave Munich station

Regional trains of German rail operator Deutsche Bahn leave the main train station in Munich, southern Germany, on March 28, 2022. (Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP)

All of this explains why the €9 ticket was a failure: studies tracking its effect showed that, more than anything, it created more traffic without making a serious dent in the number of car journeys undertaken. And while doing that, it drained the coffers of public transport operators who are now reliant on Berlin making up for missing ticket receipts, in turn adding a couple of billion Euros to an already maxed-out governmental credit card.

Avoiding excesses

Now, by cranking up the price from “Oh, sure, why the hell not?” up to “Hm, sounds okay, I guess…”, the €49 ticket will avoid these excesses while still offering considerable savings both to season-ticket holders and anyone looking to make more use of public transport options in their free time or on holiday. This will be a helpful tool in the box when it comes to trying to get a grip on rampant inflation and a boon to hard-pressed commuters and low-income households. What it won’t do is actively provoke people into travelling just for the sake of it – and won’t bankrupt either the federal or the state transport departments. 

Yet what is by far the most important thing about the €49 ticket is its radically simplifying effect. In many countries, public transport (especially rail) is plagued by complicated fare structures, and Germany is perhaps Europe’s worst offender here: within each region, there are dozens of local transport authorities who set their own rates, usually based on complicated geographical zoning and often with a peak/off-peak element; some offer 24-hours day-tickets, others passes only valid until midnight or until 6am on the following day; in addition, service operators tend to offer their own flat-rate tickets, weekend travelcards, and various other deals, often for groups of different sizes or with specific characteristics (youths/seniors, students, jobseekers)… 

So for everyone looking to buy a fare with €49.00 to spare but not 40 minutes, the new go-to monthly ticket offers a quick way out. And if €49 sounds like a lot, it’s worth bearing in mind that many longer return journeys with regional trains can end up costing that if an overnight stay is involved.

Anyone planning to take just one trip from, say, Hamburg to Flensburg, staying a few days there and taking the bus to get around, is quids in – and will be delighted that they can use HVV services back in Hamburg and that, if they end up in Berlin or Munich later that month, they can also ride the busses, trams, and underground trains there. 

By taking a machete to the thicket of fares, this new permanent ticket beats a path to a nationwide public transport experience smoother than at any point in the past. As of next year, most people looking to ride on even just a semi-regular basis will no longer have to think twice about ticketing and will be able to use busses and trains in the same way drivers use their cars.

This is genuinely transformative, and if we’d never had the €9 ticket, the €49 ticket would be a headline-grabbing shift in transport policy. As it is, though, this important moment seems like an anti-climax.

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