A sentence that Germans have recently become accustomed to hears over the platform's public address system: “We ask for your understanding.” Bad. Another train is late. Nothing that surprises Monika Wolf, 53, a stopover at a spare parts company, who is waiting at Mannheim train station in the southwest of the country for her transport to Berlin: “A train being supported is now less common than …” it is. on the contrary. When planning any trip, you have to keep in mind that if it is a connection, the probability of missing it is very high, and you know that you will have to allow several hours for each appointment in a different city “I have to,” he says with more resignation than anger.
The land of efficiency has seen its once-admired rail service, with its enviable, punctual and safe area coverage, deteriorate in recent years to the point where almost half of long-distance trains arrived late last November. The annual statistics are not quite as striking, but almost: 2023 ended with a punctuality rate of 64%. That means only two out of three trips stuck to the planned schedule. Deutsche Bahn recognizes the disaster and, according to a spokesman, attributes it primarily to the “numerous repair work on the tracks”. No cancellation data is offered.
After decades of neglect, the railway infrastructure is downright dilapidated. For years, the land of cars preferred to invest in roads rather than rails. And now the result is visible. “In the 1970s we were very proud of our trains, but the lack of investment gradually eroded the infrastructure. What we feel now is shame; “This is a catastrophe,” complains Andreas Schröder, spokesman for the rail users’ association Pro Bahn. “If we look at our neighbors Switzerland and Austria, they have excellent service, but that is because they invest much more per capita than we do,” he adds in an interview with EL PAÍS.
German trains have become a breeding ground for memes and ridicule on social networks. Users tell their stories of failures, delays and missed connections, sometimes with mockery, sometimes with annoyance. The reasons for delays are very diverse: work on the tracks, delay of a previous train, technical failures, lack of staff – sometimes the cafeteria closes in the middle of the journey without warning because the workers are overstaying their working day -, bad weather… Bad service increases the high ticket price. A high-speed Berlin-Munich trip (just over 600 kilometers) can cost 150 euros if purchased last minute (Flexticket, which allows you to change).
German trains banned in Switzerland
Germans' wounded pride suffered a particularly painful blow a few months ago when their Swiss neighbors publicly complained that the constant delays of German trains entering their territory were affecting their own network. Switzerland is proud that its railways work like clockwork. According to an analysis by the media group CH Media, eight of the ten trains with the most delays began their routes in German cities in 2022, with a punctuality of 92%. The 8% delay was not caused by the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), but by Deutsche Bahn.
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The company decided to cut corners. The least punctual German trains would no longer travel into Swiss territory. As SBB spokeswoman Sabrina Schellenberg confirms, there are now three routes where you have to change directly after crossing the border in Basel or Zurich, whereas previously you continued directly to popular Alpine destinations such as Chur near Davos. The SBB even made an ICE (high-speed train) available as a replacement train in Basel throughout the day in order to “minimize the negative effects of cross-border train delays for travelers in Switzerland”.
The coalition government of Social Democrat Olaf Scholz is well aware of the rail transport catastrophe. Last September, the company announced a plan to inject an additional 24 billion euros over the next four years into Deutsche Bahn, which is run as a private but state-owned company. In total, the railways need an estimated 88 billion to get the network back up to speed. The chancellor attributes the deterioration of infrastructure to the failures of previous governments, as he said last week during a train drivers' strike that paralyzed long-distance passenger services for three days.
Despite the budget cuts imposed by a devastating ruling by the Constitutional Court, which have brought German rural areas into a war situation due to the abolition of agricultural diesel subsidies, the trilateral group of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals is not thinking about cutting the railways. The Greens are even calling for these items to be increased and, if necessary, to take on new debts, and recall the coalition agreement signed by the three parties in December 2021: “The railway must become the backbone of mobility, even in rural areas.”
Urgent and annoying work
Christian Böttger, a railway expert at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences (HTW), praises the current government's efforts to correct past mistakes, but warns that after 20 years of delays it will now have to pay a huge toll in the form of traffic problems. Financing and accumulation of improvement work. Schröder from Pro Bahn agrees: “The situation has deteriorated so much that the renewal of some busy routes is now urgently needed.” “Years of work await us, which will be very annoying for passengers.” The most congested ones Routes and those that cause the most delays run primarily along the Rhine, the Ruhr area and around Frankfurt in the west, where a few late trains cause a spate of tardiness in the rest.
Deutsche Bahn called its own infrastructure “mediocre” in a report on the state of the network this week. More than half of the sections are in “normal, poor or deficient” condition, the text says. “The condition of the railway infrastructure has deteriorated in recent years because there were insufficient funds for the renewal of the systems,” writes the president of the subsidiary that wrote the report, InfraGo, Philipp Nagl. The analysis assumes that more than a quarter of the tracks would have to be replaced in the medium term.
The Ministry of Transport in the hands of the Liberals is ready for this. Important corridors will be completely closed for months in order to repair tracks, overhead lines and train stations at the same time. In return, its owner Volker Wissing promises that the routes will be free of work for many years. The first experiment will take place in July, as soon as the European Championships end, with the so-called Riedbahn between Frankfurt and Mannheim, which will be closed for at least six months. As Schröder reminds us, half of the German ICEs pass through there, having to take detours and taking between half an hour and 45 minutes longer. Work on the Emmerich-Oberhausen corridor will begin at the end of the year. The Hamburg-Berlin route will begin in 2025.
So the Germans still have a few more years of inconvenience and delays waiting for them. It will take some time for long-distance trains to return to the punctuality of previous decades. It will be more difficult to achieve the goal that Berlin has set itself to achieve its climate goals: to double the number of rail users in the near future.
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