Rail travel chaos looms in Germany’s most populous state

Construction works and staff sickness mean rail passengers in North Rhine-Westphalia are in for a difficult few weeks. Here’s what you need to know.

A regional express train enters Cologne central station.
A regional express train enters Cologne central station. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Oliver Berg

Two major construction projects in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia are about to give a lot of rail passengers a hard time in the coming weeks.

This week, 3.8 kilometres of track between Dortmund and Bochum will be renewed, with construction works due to begin at 9pm on Monday 21st and ending on Thursday morning at 5am.

In the meantime, the National Express (RRX) trains on the RE6, RE1 and RE11 lines will have to be rerouted from Dortmund and the stops at Bochum central station, Essen central station and Mülheim central station will be cancelled. The trains will be diverted between Dortmund and Duisburg via Gelsenkirchen, Herne, Essen Altenessen and Oberhausen.

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A modernisation project at the Cologne Messe/Deutz station has been causing numerous cancellations in the greater Cologne area too since November 18th and is set to continue until December 12th.

Eight new switches and 100 sleepers are being installed at the Cologne Messe/Deutz station in several construction phases, which will result in train cancellations, skipped stops and several detours, which in turn may lead to delays.

“The effects will vary depending on the construction phase and the line,” explains Deutsche Bahn, and the only thing that is certain is that almost all lines that run in Cologne will be affected. 

A full overview of the current restrictions affecting these lines can be found here (in German).

Restrictions due to staff shortages

As well as construction projects, staff shortages due to illness are also leading to delays and reduced services in NRW.

Deutsche Bahn and the Rhine-Ruhr Transport Association (VRR) have announced various restrictions on local transport until Christmas, due to “high sick leave” among the employees of the rail operator.

A sign for rail replacement services hangs at the train station in Rösrath, North Rhine-Westphalia. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Oliver Berg

“Of course, we first tried to solve it in other ways, i.e. with overtime or even getting people to come back from holiday, but at some point, we reached the end of the line,” DB spokesman for NRW, Dirk Pohlmann, told RP online. 

The situation meant that recently, trains were being cancelled at very short notice, so, instead, VRR reached an agreement with DB to reduce services on some lines in order to ensure reliable service on others.

READ ALSO: What are my rights if a train is delayed or cancelled in Germany?

As a result, the S3 is currently cancelled between Essen Steele Ost and Oberhausen, the S68 service between Langenfeld and Wuppertal-Vohwinkel is also cancelled and there is a slightly limited service on the RB 32 (Duisburg – Oberhausen – Gelsenkirchen – Herne-Dortmund) and RB 40 (Essen via Witten to Hagen) lines. 

DB has set up a rail replacement service with buses for the S3 and the RB 32.

“As with almost all companies in Germany, the level of sickness among our employees is currently high. Due to the tight staff situation at DB Regio NRW, there will therefore be minor regional restrictions on train services from Monday, November 21st, up to and including December 23rd,” Deutsche Bahn announced. 

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UPDATE: When will Germany’s €49 ticket start?

Germany announced a €49 monthly ticket for local and regional public transport earlier this month, but the hoped-for launch date of January 2023 looks increasingly unlikely.

UPDATE: When will Germany's €49 ticket start?

Following the popularity of the €9 train ticket over the summer, the German federal and state governments finally agreed on a successor offer at the beginning of November.

The travel card – dubbed the “Deutschlandticket” – will cost €49 and enable people to travel on regional trains, trams and buses up and down the country.

There had been hopes that the discount travel offer would start up in January 2023, but that now seems very unlikely.

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

Martin Burkert, Head of the German Rail and Transport Union (EVG) now expects the €49 ticket to be introduced in the spring.

“From our point of view, it seems realistic to introduce the Deutschlandticket on April 1st, because some implementation issues are still unresolved”, Burkert told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland on Monday. The Association of German Transport Companies, on the other hand, said on Wednesday that they believe the beginning of May will be a more realistic start date.

The federal and state transport ministers have set their sights on an April deadline, but this depends on whether funding and technical issues can be sorted out by then. In short, the only thing that seems clear regarding the start date is that it will be launched at some point in 2023. 

Why the delay?

Financing for the ticket continues to cause disagreements between the federal and state governments and, from the point of view of the transport companies, financing issues are also still open.

The federal government has agreed to stump up €1.5 billion for the new ticket, which the states will match out of their own budgets. That brings the total funding for the offer up to €3 billion. 

But according to Bremen’s transport minister Maike Schaefer, the actual cost of the ticket is likely to be closer to €4.7 billion – especially during the initial implementation phase – leaving a €1.7 billion hole in finances.

Transport companies are concerned that it will fall to them to take the financial hit if the government doesn’t provide enough funding. They say this will be impossible for them to shoulder. 

Burkert from EVG is calling on the federal government to provide more than the €1.5 billion originally earmarked for the ticket if necessary.

“Six months after the launch of the Deutschlandticket at the latest, the federal government must evaluate the costs incurred to date with the states and, if necessary, provide additional funding,” he said. 

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

Meanwhile, Deutsche Bahn has warned that the network is not prepared to cope with extra demand. 

Berthold Huber, the member of the Deutsche Bahn Board of Management responsible for infrastructure, told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper that a big part of the problem is the network is “structurally outdated” and its “susceptibility to faults is increasing.” 

Accordingly, Huber said that there is currently “no room for additional trains in regional traffic around the major hub stations” and, while adding more seats on trains could be a short terms solution, “here, too, you run up against limits,” Huber said.

So, what now? 

Well, it seems that the federal states are happy to pay half of whatever the ticket actually costs – but so far, the federal government has been slow to make the same offer.

With the two crucial ministries – the Finance Ministry and the Transport Ministry – headed up by politicians from the liberal FDP, environment groups are accusing the party of blocking the ticket by proxy. 

According to Jürgen Resch, the director of German Environment Aid, Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Transport Minister Volker Wissing are deliberately withholding the necessary financial support for the states.

Wissing has also come under fire from the opposition CDU/CSU parties after failing to turn up to a transport committee meeting on Wednesday. 

The conservatives had narrowly failed in a motion to summon the minister to the meeting and demand a report on the progress of the €49 ticket.

“The members of the Bundestag have many unanswered questions and time is pressing,” said CDU transport politician Thomas Bareiß, adding that the ticket had falling victim to a “false start”.