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'A disaster': How did train travel in Germany get so bad?

Aaron Burnett
Aaron Burnett - [email protected] • 20 Aug, 2022 Updated Sat 20 Aug 2022 10:04 CEST
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A sign informs travellers of a cancelled train in Duisburg, North Rhine-Westphalia. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

Germany has a reputation for efficiency and punctuality - but for anyone who has taken the train recently, that couldn't feel further from the truth. So how exactly has German rail travel gone downhill so fast, and what is being done to solve it?

Even before first moving to Germany in 2011, I myself was no stranger to the German rail network—having used it extensively on trips here before to sightsee and visit family. The experience was almost always pleasant, relaxing, reliable, and yes—efficient.

That was a long time ago.

Almost a quarter of German inter-city trains, including the inter-city express (ICE) didn’t make it to their destination on time in 2021. In April 2022, just 69 percent of these trains were on time. That marked the lowest rate since July 2015.

READ ALSO: Why so many long-distance trains in Germany were delayed in April

Horror stories

The state of train travel in Germany in 2022 leaves me wistfully nostalgic for the days of years ago when it all seemed to work better—and I’m not alone.

A few weeks ago, Brian Melican wrote of his recent trip on Deutsche Bahn (DB)—Germany’s state-owned rail company—from Cologne to Hamburg on the way home from his holiday in the UK. It came complete with a lack of air conditioning during Germany’s hot July, a closed bistro car, and a two-hour delay.

Police and Deutsche Bahn employees direct travellers on a crowded platform at the main station in Cologne on Monday.

Police and Deutsche Bahn employees direct travellers on a crowded platform at the main station in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Henning Kaiser

“It says a lot that, during two weeks’ holiday traveling around the UK – a country assumed both at home and abroad to have deplorable trains – the worst of the journeys were here in Germany,” Melican wrote. “Sure the services I took in Britain were delayed, but the rolling stock was better maintained, refreshments were reliably available, and the ‘Delay Repay’ scheme far more generous.”

READ ALSO: OPINION: The shocking state of German trains exposes the myth about punctuality

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'Never taking the train again'

The article hit a nerve, with readers writing long and detailed accounts to The Local Germany of their recent frustrating experiences on DB.

“We lived in Germany previously and felt the train system was the best in the world,” wrote Local Germany reader Debra Grace, noting how she and her husband were impressed by DB’s punctuality, comfort, and customer service.

That was until they moved back to Germany recently.

“We decided to take a train trip to central Austria to meet friends. It was a disaster. Our departures both going and returning were so delayed that we could not make our connections [in Munich],” Grace wrote. “My husband has sworn never to take the train again. It’s a shame. It used to be fun and 100 percent reliable.”

Commuters queue at a helpdesk of German rail operator Deutsche Bahn at Berlin's Hauptbahnhof main railway station on August 11, 2021, as train drivers stage a strike. (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Local reader Karl Wilder wrote to us about a train trip from Berlin to Paris via Mannheim. Such a trip would normally take eight hours, but ended up taking 20 instead.

Wilder’s trip was interrupted twice, once in Hanover and once in Frankfurt, with no explanations given. DB rebooked him on four separate connections—none of which had a seat.

The delays and changes also included an abrupt and unexpected overnight stay in Frankfurt in which DB ran out of hotel vouchers, telling him to find a hotel for less than €80—in typically expensive Frankfurt and at a moment’s notice—and send in the receipt later.

Reader James Derheim booked a Rail and Fly offer to take the train from Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria to Frankfurt airport. In Würzburg all trains were stopped due to a fire near Aschaffenburg. He asked customer service for a possible alternative.

“How can I get to Frankfurt airport?” Derheim asked.

“By taxi,” came the reply.

READ ALSO: Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying – even with kids

How did it get so bad?

“This summer has seen a bunch of problems – some short term, some much longer term – all come to a head at the same time,” says Jon Worth, the Berlin-based founder of the #CrossBorderRail project and experienced European train traveler.

Both Worth and DB itself have highlighted pandemic-related staff shortages, as well as 2022’s hot weather making it harder to maintain infrastructure. The €9 ticket has also affected the reliability of regional trains due to overcrowding, with a knock-on effect for inter-city services.

But the problem goes deeper.

“Germany has not been investing enough in its network for two or three decades. Bridges, tracks, signals are all in a bad state in many places. DB has been pretty good at making the best of a bad situation for the past 20 years, but it seems this is reaching its limit,” says Worth.

“For financial reasons, rolling stock has been cut back to the bone – there’s simply no spare capacity. So it’s hard or even impossible to put on an extra train if one fails. A better resourced railway – Austria or Switzerland for example – can handle something like this better.”

Photo: dpa-Bildfunk 

When might the situation improve?

Unfortunately for avid rail travellers, it's not likely to get better soon.

Part of that is because DB plans on making some improvements over the next few years.

The new traffic-light government has committed over €60 billion for infrastructure improvements over the next decade, as part of their goal to promote more environmentally friendly transportation.

Of this, €1.5 billion is going towards purchasing 43 news high-speed trains, bringing DB’s high-speed fleet up to 450 trains. But other improvements require construction and maintenance on the line itself.

READ ALSO:

That work is likely to delay trains in the meantime.

DB says it also plans to simplify the booking system to discourage passengers from booking particularly tight connections in case there is a delay, and make some tickets more flexible so that people can take an earlier train if they do make a tighter connection on time.

The operator also plans to deploy an extra 1,000 staff to its currently 8,000 employees working its long-distance service. Of these extra staff, 750 will work onboard the trains themselves, and 250 will be assigned to particularly crowded platforms.

DB is aiming for an 85 percent punctuality target by the time many of these improvements are ready in 2030. 

With an eight-year delay on the cards, it seems that once again travellers will need to have something that's in increasingly short supply on the German rail network: patience. 

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Aaron Burnett 2022/08/20 10:04

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