Does the chaos at Deutsche Bahn – German railways – show Germany in crisis? What is happening to Europe’s largest economy?
At the tiny station of Bunde (consult your atlas) hundreds of angry passengers try to board the tiny regional train that is our only way out. We pack in like sardines. A Russian woman next to me who speaks no German timidly asks my guidance on what is happening. At Herford, for the third time today, the conductor announces that the train will go no further and everyone must get off. Having set off at 7 a.m. from Amsterdam, I have already missed my 15.00 speaking engagement at the Humboldt University in Berlin.
Angry scenes: the train at Bunde is too small for the passengers
Deutsche Bahn: a symbol of Germany?
I recently travelled from Amsterdam to Berlin on a tour to promote my diplomatic and life guide The Hitchhhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy – Wie Diplomatie die Welt erklärt. I thought I’d be green and go by train – a six-and-a-half hour trip, on which I could write, admire the view, and relax.
German friends told me I must be mad. Didn’t I realise Deutsche Bahn was terrible? How could I rely on a mere 90 minutes between my scheduled arrival time and my first appointment?
I countered that I knew Deutsche Bahn. I cited my rail journey from Munich to Berlin in 2001. On that occasion I had been astonished to find the on-board clock showing us arriving 120 seconds late after a 6-hour journey. I then learned that the on-board clock was 120 seconds fast.
My doom-mongering German friends were right. I arrived at Berlin Hauptbahnhof at 18.15, after a nightmare eleven-hour journey. I hadn’t realised the depths to which the once-proud German railway network had sunk. Later, after looking around Berlin and chatting with friends, I wondered to what extent the decline of Deutsche Bahn reflected a wider German malaise.
Deutsche Bahn: how badly can a rail journey go?
Rail wonks and masochists may enjoy the following account of my journey from Amsterdam to Berlin on 26 October (scheduled to depart at 07.00 and arrive at 13.25). Or you can skip this bit.
Go on, you want to know how much I suffered, right?
Deutsche Bahn Part 1: Amsterdam to Germany
06.40: I arrive at Amsterdam Central Station to see no sign of the my 07.00 Deutsche Bahn “Inter City” on the departures board. I trek to a distant ticket office where they tell me it is delayed to 07.10. I return to the boarding gate. My Deutsche Bahn in-app ticket QR code will not open the gate. Lots of other passengers mill around, also stuck. I return to the distant ticket office, where they give me a QR code that will open the gate. This works. Others stream off to get their vouchers.
07.10: the train arrives. We board the elderly Deutsche Bahn wagons, pulled by a Dutch locomotive. At 07.15 we depart and trundle uneventfully through the Dutch countryside.
We leave Amsterdam at 07.15 in a romantic haze
08.20: A Deutsche Bahn notification appears on my phone saying the train will not stop at my destination, Berlin Hauptbahnhof. I calculate I have plenty of time to reach the British Embassy from the terminus, Ostbahnhof.
09.00 As we approach the German border, the conductor announces that our train will not terminate at the Ostbahnhof in Berlin as planned but at Bad Bentheim, a tiny station just over the border. We should catch a 09.56 regional train to Osnabrück. Hundreds of passengers crowd onto the platform and wait in the rain. The train returns to Holland.
Bad Bentheim is not a big station
Deutsche Bahn Part 2: Bad Bentheim to Bunde
09.56: At Bad Bentheim, the train to Osnabruck arrives and we pile on board. From there, I catch the 11.17 train to Hanover. At this point it still seems I might make my 15.00 presentation at the Humboldt University. There is liquid soap in the loos, but no water: a bad combination.
11.25: The train stops at Melle, outside Osnabruck, “indefinitely” (“auf unbestimmte Zeit”). We are told the track is damaged. Around mid-day, we are told the train will terminate at Bunde, the next (minuscule) station, and return to Osnabruck. We should (deep breath) wait for a train to Herford; take a rail-replacement service to Minden; catch a train to Hanover; and from there, travel to Berlin. I discuss with the Humboldt whether I might do my 15.00 event in Berlin on-line from a Deutsche Bahn carriage. They say, wisely, they’d prefer to cancel.
Deutsche Bahn Part 3: Bunde to Hanover
12.12: A regional train heading to Bielefeld via Herford stops at Bunde. It is too small. Everyone pushes and shoves on board, jamming in like sardines. Debates rage among passengers about whether we should get off at Herford or Bielefeld, and whether the Hanover-Berlin line is actually open. In the event, the train terminates at Herford and we all have to get off.
12.32: At Herford, the replacement bus is so packed that it cannot move for 20 minutes as the driver cannot close the doors. As he speaks no German and little English, he cannot tell the passengers when or if another bus is coming. Nor does his microphone work. At last another bus arrives and we move off. The journey takes over an hour, stopping everywhere, most people standing. I have fun chats with other passengers.
“Schienenersatzverkehr” is as scary in German as “bus replacement service” in English
13.50: We arrive at Minden. Confusion reigns. Many enormously delayed fast ICE trains to Hanover show on the departure boards, but none actually appears, despite frequent announcements (“stand back from the platform edge”). After much debate, I and a few fellow-sufferers catch an S-Bahn, like a glorified tram, to Hanover. Another hour’s journey.
Some of the stages of my journey on 26 October, as described here
Deutsche Bahn Part 4: Hanover to the British Embassy
16.00: After the tiny stations of the past hours, Hanover feels a metropolis. Again, countless delayed fast trains to Berlin show on the departure boards. Eventually a slow train actually appears; I decide to take it. I sit next to a Dutchman who has been on this train since Amsterdam – he left at 09.00, two hours after me. Their train was diverted via Hamburg and is “only” two-and-a-half hours late. The conductor announces that the on-board restaurant is open but they have no food or drinks. Free water is available.
18.15: I arrive in Berlin Central Station, nearly five hours late. Can I make my 18.00 appointment at the embassy? I take the U5 tube and reach the embassy at 18.35, just in time to give what was to have been my second talk of the day.
Happy to be on the U5 in Berlin
Deutsche Bahn: what they said
I mentioned my experience to German friends and contacts during my visit to Berlin. Without exception, they said this was typical. They described Deutsche Bahn as a disaster; a scandal; hopeless; unusable; and, most telling, unreliable (‘you used to be able to set your clock by it’). Several described their shame that countries such as Italy and Spain now had better railways than Germany. Others pointed to decades of low investment, and cost-cutting ahead of a privatisation that never happened. At least, they said, I Deutsche Bahn paid generous compensation in the event of delay.
Deutsche Bahn: the compensation
Following my experience I completed an on-line form requesting compensation, setting out the delays including arriving in Berlin five hours late. In response I received this compensation document from Deutsche Bahn:
Brilliantly, Deutsche Bahn somehow concluded that my train had not been delayed at all! “Verspätung am Zielort 0 min” (“delay on arrival 0 minutes”). Fantastic. How could I have got it so wrong? Thank you, Deutsche Bahn, for pointing out my mistake.
Germany in crisis?
My experience over the past 51 years, since I first visited Krefeld-Uerdingen as a schoolchild, has been that Germany generally appears more prosperous, and to work better, than the UK. But from time to time, as during the 1990s, the UK grows more quickly. This often leads British governments to lecture their German colleagues on how to run their economies. The reverse rarely occurs. According to the World Bank, in 2022 Germany’s GDP per capita was $48,432 and the UK’s $45,850 (NB currency fluctuations can affect these comparative figures markedly).
Source: World Bank
Germany in crisis?
It is customary for citizens of country X to proclaim that their country is going to the dogs; was better in the past; and that the government has no idea what it’s doing. Germany is no different from the UK in this respect. Visiting a single city isn’t a good way to judge a country’s economic or political health.
Set against this, I know Berlin well: I lived there from 1999 to 2006. Visiting for the first time for years, I was struck by how:
- many of the buildings that were new or newly restored in the year 2000 are now being rebuilt or repaired. Much of Potsdamer Platz, the government quarter (including the rebuilt Reichstag, scene of my Berlin thriller Blood Summit) and the Gendarmenmarkt is hidden behind building fences. People told me that post-COVID, visitors had not returned to the city centre;
- I spotted few new buildings in the centre of Berlin, with the exception of a fine museum at the former Gestapo HQ (“Topography of Terror” – recommended); and another in the smartly restored former East German border control point at Friedrichstraße (the “Tränenpalast” or “Palace of Tears” – also recommended);
- the centre – including much of Mitte, Potsdamer Platz and the government quarter – always felt rather deserted even in the early 2000s. Now, post-COVID, it feels like the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. This is not true of vibrant urban zones such as Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzberg;
- everyone complains about labour shortages and the collapse of basic services such as Deutsche Bahn and the health system. But as noted above, such complaints are a national sport in many countries and should be treated with caution.
Germany: new challenges
The apparent collapse of Deutsche Bahn shocked me. It made me realise I had lost touch with what was happening in Germany since I last lived here, in 2006.
Swathes of Berlin have been somewhat dowdy since reunification in 1989. But 34 years on, I was left with an uneasy feeling that the German capital is far from booming. Taken together with the state of the railways, I wondered to what extent the country as a whole is grappling with new challenges as small, extremist parties proliferate and the post-war consensus loses its way.
I would welcome others’ views on this.
Deutsche Bahn: the return
On the morning of 31 October I boarded an Inter City direct train to Amsterdam at 08.33. Several kind friends had advised me to take the plane. But since I had no pressing engagements, I thought I’d take the risk.
Deutsche Bahn: how it should be
The journey was straightforward. Delays were minimal; I got some writing done; and we arrived in Amsterdam just ten minutes late.
What to do next
I’d welcome your thoughts on Germany and Deutsche Bahn. If you like reading books when you’re on a train, do check out mine.