Deutsche Bahn passengers on crowded train

Deutsche Bahn: Germany in crisis?

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Leigh Turner

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.

Deutsche Bahn Chaos in Bunde

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 carriages, 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.

Deutsche Bahn: Bad Bentheim

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.

Deutsche Bahn: Schienenersatzverkehr

“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

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.

Leigh Turner books

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12 Responses

  1. That has to be really frustrating. Hope there is some way that the railways can be fixed and that what ever is wrong with the tracks, signalling, scheduling, operations and rolling stock can be remedied. Berlin not looking so bustling is also disappointing. The area around the Alexanderplatz seemed so vibrant years back. You seem very persevering in the face of difficulty so that is a very excellent example of how to be in whatever we are doing despite anything and everything.

    1. Thanks! I didn’t get to Alexanderplatz this time. I’m now in Cologne, which is packed with people. Maybe central Berlin has a particular problem, post-Mauerfall.

  2. Trains seem to be a popular proxy for people’s views on the state of their nation. Touring Sweden by train in the summer of 2022 I heard the same kind of declinist comments – the services themselves did not justify them. Having recently moved back to Britain, the myth that train fares are astronomical isn’t borne out by those I’ve actually paid. But I travelled by train across Germany for work for many years and what you say rings true. For example, I had a list of restaurants and hotels to go to in Aachen ready for when DB would fail to get us back to Belgium on the last train. I think, as you imply, that there are things to learn in particular from Spain, where trains have gone from being coaches’ poor relation to being a classy and reliable way to travel over the past decade or two.

    1. Thanks. Good point about trains as surrogates for the economy or the country as a whole. I haven’t yet had many people arguing that actually the Deutsche Bahn is fine.

  3. Much of the solution I feel lies in matching the currency union with more infrastructural union. A cogent case for new high speed lines from Germany to its euro zone neighbours. For a high speed direct line from Berlin to Brussels would be of benefit to that process. At present one has to change in Cologne.

    New high speed lines would free up much of existing network for the lucrative rail freight sector.( And that’s why I am pro-HS2 in the UK context. Manchester should have HS2 connections not just to Euston but also to Glasgow / Edinburgh).

    Finally I like the point about parts of Berlin coming across as somewhat dowdy. A little dowdiness can have a peculiar charm…..and that’s perhaps why I quite like Berlin…..

    1. I like Berlin too! But swathes of the city, from the centre to suburbs such as Westend, are eerily deserted. Maybe it’s partly because unlike eg Munich or Hamburg Berlin has a rather deserted hinterland? I can’t work it out.

  4. And just one more thing. I rather miss the Tegel Flughafen. All had a peculiar charm. / simplicity. One could have a cigar or cigarette and cherry brandy in the London lounge. The lounge was quite open to the open air. And staffed by some very nice people.

    And closer to the centre compared to the new airport. Would have been good to have retained Tegel – and Templehof. Would have been ‘back up’ to the new airport and avoided putting all eggs in one basket.

    1. Ha! I’ve yet to fly into Berlin since Tegel closed but rather dread it! Cities with tiny old Mickey Mouse airports may be awkward but they are often very convenient to use.

  5. Well if it gives you some hope I do have some positive news. I relocated from Berlin to Amsterdam this year. As my grandchildren live in Berlin I have travelled back four times. I know that very same 0700 arriving 1325 train. We always start with the Dutch engine and staff and change the engine and the staff at Bad Bentheim. Down to two languages then. Apart from once having to get off at Ostbahnhof I have always departed and arrived on time. Your journey sounded like a nightmare!

    I enjoyed the description though and could picture all those stations on route.

    My next trip to Berlin in early December and I am now pretty nervous!

    1. That is indeed encouraging! Actually 50% of my trips to and from Berlin last week were fine. Surely the bad 50% was in many ways exceptional. Let’s hope…

  6. Deutsche Bahn transports passengers in wagons now? At least we still have carriages in the UK and it’s some time since I’ve had to stand. But Finnish railways are perhaps the best way to travel – long-distance trains offer splendid views from the spacious upper deck and serve draught beer in the restaurant car.

  7. Your outward journey was on a par with one I made from (London) Brussels to Berlin in August 2022, whence I travelled to Oberammergau and back to London via Paris. The only punctual German ‘trains’ were bus replacement services on the Oberammergau branch. My friend in Berlin suggested this was typical. The causes for the delays on the outward journey were a major signalling failure between Cologne and Hamm followed a fault on a train at Hamm. On the return I allowed an extra hour changing at Stuttgart, which was needed. I enquired whether the onward train to Paris would be French or German and whether it would be on time, to which a passenger in the queue commented ‘If it is French it might be on time.’ The train started at Stuttgart and entered the platform 1 minute before the timetabled departure time and, inevitably, left late, losing more time to Strasbourg. Given the causes of the delays (technical signalling, technical rolling stock and, presumably, operating), this indicates a deep malaise in Deutsche Bahn. However, the ‘Bord Restaurant’ service was ideal for my purposes and reasonably priced. By the way, ‘Wagen’ in German means ‘coach’.

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