Rarely is the gap between stereotype and reality deeper than when it comes to the German rail system. Foreigners arrive in Germany convinced that trains run like clockwork, arriving and departing within seconds of the scheduled time. A first ride in a high-speed ICE, as it whispers through the countryside at speeds upwards of 250 kilometers per hour (155 miles per hour), is unlikely to alter this image of German efficiency-in-motion.
Those who live in Germany, however, know better. Complaining about Deutsche Bahn's almost chronic delays has become a favored pastime of frequent travellers. Train conductors' rather tortured efforts to make announcements in English ("Sank yoo vor travelling wis Deutsch Bahn") are also a frequent source of mirth.
But for the state-owned rail company, a more worrisome source of critique has come to the fore in recent years. In a country renowned for its engineering prowess, doubts about the technical soundness of German trains have been cropping up with alarming regularity of late. And the company's image is suffering mightily.
Over the weekend, the company suffered its most recent setback. With outside temperatures as high as 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit), the air conditioning system on several ICE trains failed completely, with other trains experiencing temporary problems. Passengers inside initially complained about the rising temperatures and before long, restaurant cars had run out of drinks. Only when guests started passing out amid inside temperatures as high as 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) did the trains stop to let people out. Several required medical attention and emergency IV drips.
On Monday, the German aid group Technisches Hilfswerk rushed eight pallets of water to the Hanover central station for 400 passengers on an ICE train from Berlin. As during the weekend, the train's air conditioning system had ceased functioning.
Political reaction has been prompt. German Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer said sternly that "I expect from Deutsche Bahn that their trains are just as reliable at minus 40 degrees as at plus 40 degrees." Ilse Aigner, Germany's minister for agriculture and consumer protection, said that everything possible had to be done to ensure that "the trains are safe for passengers."
Deutsche Bahn has responded by promising to quickly compensate those who suffered inside the overheated trains over the weekend. Furthermore, technicians are taking a close look at the air-conditioning systems on all ICE trains. "We are taking the events of the past few days very seriously," intoned Deutsche Bahn head Rüdiger Grube on Monday.
One can be forgiven for having a severe case of déjà vu. It is, after all, not the first time that a Deutsche Bahn boss has pledged to examine all the ICE trains in the fleet for defects. As recently as two summers ago, an ICE derailed shortly after pulling out of Cologne's central station. The cause was a broken axle.
Cancellations, Delays and Commuter Frustration
In the weeks and months that followed, the company checked the axles of all the ICE trains in its fleet and was forced to replace many of them. The problem, it was found, came from using the wrong material in the construction of the axles -- it was mere luck that the Cologne train was travelling at a snail's pace when the break occurred. Trains now have to be inspected much more often than before in order to spot hairline fractures in the axles as early as possible.
But it's not just high-speed trains that have created headaches for Deutsche Bahn. The company also operates Berlin's commuter rail system, which was struck last year by months of chaos after it was revealed that safety checks on the trains had been appallingly lax. After an S-Bahn derailed in May 2009, the German Federal Railway Office ordered the Berlin S-Bahn to undertake a detailed check of all its trains -- and several potentially serious problems were found with the trains' brake systems. The result was months of cancellations, delays and commuter frustration.
Winter has likewise been unkind to Deutsche Bahn. As soon as the mercury drops below freezing, train delays and cancellations spike upwards. Last winter, snow caused several electrical shorts on the tracks, partially as a result of poor maintenance, it was found. Last winter, almost a third of all ICE trains were late due to problems created by extreme weather.
Kay Mitusch, from the Institute for Technology in Karlsruhe, posits that Deutsche Bahn can simply no longer keep up with all of the maintenance needs of its fleet. "Once the axle problems became known and technical inspections were increased, maintenance workers could hardly keep up." The result, he said, is increased pressure to get trains back on the tracks as fast as possible. Citing conversations he has had with Deutsche Bahn technicians, he said "maintenance work on equipment that is not directly related to safety is often deferred in order to put the train back into service." Deutsche Bahn has denied such accusations.
'Long Known about the Problem'
Others worry that German rail has gone too far in efforts to save money ahead of a planned initial public stock offering. The IPO was originally to have taken place in 2008, but it was cancelled due to the financial crisis. Still, Deutsche Bahn remains committed to going public and slimming down has long been part of the strategy to make itself as attractive as possible to potential investors.
"The bitter results of the savings measures undertaken by Deutsche Bahn in recent years ahead of a planned public offering can now be seen," Winfried Hermann, spokesman on transportation issues for the opposition Green party, told German public television station ARD on Monday. "Insiders have long known that (some ICE trains) have developed technical defects, that money has been saved on maintenance and that some repairs have been delayed for reasons of cost."
Pro-Bahn, a consumer advocacy group for German rail passengers, has likewise blasted Deutsche Bahn for the laxity of its maintenance efforts. Spokesman Rainer Engel claims that the company knew about problems with the trains' air conditioning systems well before last weekend.
"Train conductors have long known about the defects," Engel said on Monday. "On Saturday evening, one conductor in Berlin was genuinely pleased that only a single carriage in the train had a defective air conditioner and that there was enough room to reseat passengers elsewhere." It would seem, Engel said, that Deutsche Bahn intended to address the problem "all in one go."
German rail has demurred. All trains are checked each morning before they head out, the company insists. Air conditioning systems included.