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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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STRIKES

How to navigate the Deutsche Bahn train strikes in your region of Germany

A standoff between the GDL train drivers’ union and Deutsche Bahn means that rail services will be crippled nationwide in Germany for five days. Here’s the information you need to navigate the strikes in your region.

How to navigate the Deutsche Bahn train strikes in your region of Germany
Berlin central station on Thursday morning. Photo: dpa | Paul Zinken

Deutsche Bahn is encouraging travellers to download the DB Navigator app and to use it immediately before they travel in order to see which services are currently running.

There is some information in English but the detailed lists of which lines are still running are in German. We provide links here to those pages and a brief overview of the main lines that have been affected. (tip: if it says Linie eingestellt, trains aren’t running on that line. 20-Minuten Takt means they’re running every 20 minutes).

SEE ALSO: What you need to know about the German rail strikes

Berlin

In the capital, S-Bahn services and regional train services have been severely impacted by the strike but the U-Bahn is not run by Deutsche Bahn so is running normally. That means that trying to get around by bus and U-Bahn (both run by BVG) should help you avoid the strikes.

If you’re happy to do plan ahead, there are still some S-Bahn services running. This website (in German) details which lines have been completely closed and which ones still run a train every 20 minutes.

In terms of the key lines: the Ringbahn is not running at all in either direction. Nor is the north-south S26 line, the S45 to the airport (the S9 to BER is still running), and the S75 from Wartemberg in the north-east into the city.

All other S-Bahn lines are running every 20 minutes with the exception of the S8 which is running every 40 mins. Not all of them are doing the full route though.

You can plug your journey into this English page run by Deutsche Bahn and it will show you how to best avoid the strike action.

In terms of regional trains to and from satellite towns, there is a detailed list of which lines have been completely halted for the strike and which have a form of replacement service.

The following lines are not running at all: FEX, RB10, – RB11, RB13, RB20, RB21, RB22, RB23, RB31, RB49, RB55, RE/RB66

Other lines connecting Magdeburg, Dessau, Eberswalde, Stralsund, Rostock and Cottbus with the capital are running reduced services.

Frankfurt

The German finance capital is also seriously affected by strikes on both its S-Bahn and regional services.

A full list of the lines that are not running reduced services can be found in German here.

Be careful to check for updates, as the page is updated every day at 11 am for the following day. 

Here are the current services for Thursday and Friday: The S2, S4, S7 and S9 are not running at all. Other lines are running on basic services but often only every hour.

NRW

A large number of regional and S-Bahn services in the west of the country have been completely stopped. These include the RE8 over Mönchengladbach, Cologne and Bonn, the RE9 between Aachen, Cologne and Siegen, and the RB33 between Essen and Aachen.

The S4 through Dortmund, the S8 through Düsseldorf and the S68 to Wuppertal have also been completely stopped. See here for further details.

Updates will be posted daily at 10:30am on the www.bahn.de website.

Bavaria

In Munich, a replacement S-Bahn timetable has been put in place for the duration of the strikes, with long delays expected on most lines.

The S1, which normally runs between the city and the airport, will be running every 20-40 minutes, but won’t go as far as the airport. The S2, S3, S4 and S6 will equally be running a partial service every 20-40 minutes and won’t stop at all stations. 

The S7 will only be running on an hourly basis, while the S8 will be running every 20 minutes between Pasing and the airport, and will also be running every 40-60 minutes to stations further along the line.

The S20 will not be running at all during the strike.

DB has not yet published a detailed list available of which regional trains have been affected in Bavaria, but cross-border services into Austria, Italy and Hungary and likely to be heavily impacted.

However DB say that they will update the travel planner website for Bavaria every day at 12:00 for the following day. You can plug your departure point and destination into that site here or check for general travel updates on here.

Other areas of the country

Various other parts of the are facing impediments to travel due to the strike. The east of the country is particularly affected. For an exhaustive list of all of the regions of the country where lines are not running according to schedule you can peruse this web page (in German).

READ ALSO: Germany’s train strikes: What rights do you have as a passenger?

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