Grube in the Hot Seat German Rail Boss in Crisis Talks with Politicians

Deutsche Bahn boss Rüdiger Grube met with Transport Minister Ramsauer and other politicians on Thursday to discuss the company's disastrous air-conditioning break-downs. He assured them that older trains would be overhauled, but wasn't able to explain the exact cause of the problem.

The Deutsche Bahn headquarters with a view of the Bundestag in the distance.
dpa

The Deutsche Bahn headquarters with a view of the Bundestag in the distance.


Deutsche Bahn boss Rüdiger Grube entered the lions den on Thursday, hauled before the German parliament's transport committee to explain exactly why the state-owned company had subjected some of its passengers to tortuously high temperatures this month.

Thousands of passengers were left to swelter in recent weeks after air-conditioning systems broke down on a number of high-speed ICE trains. Just as Germany was in the throes of a heat wave, with temperatures soaring to 38 degrees Celsius (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit), the cooling systems switched off on many older ICE trains, causing the temperature inside to soar to above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit.) To make matters worse, restaurant cars on those trains ran out of drinks.

On Thursday Grube assured the politicians that the company was doing everything it could to fix the problem and said that there had only been two further air-conditioning breakdowns over the past six days, compared to over 50 last week. "Every train that has to be cancelled is a train too many," he told a news conference after the meeting.

In an interview published in this week's edition of SPIEGEL, Grube said "if I were to say that no further air conditioning systems would fail this summer, I would be lying. But I can promise that we are working day and night to get the problem under control."

Yet, he didn't seem to be able to enlighten the politicians as to what exactly caused the problems, stating the company had not been able to determine any failings when it came to maintenance. After the meeting the committee chairman, Winfried Hermann of the Greens, said that it was "in the end, not possible to resolve the issue."

Too Many Savings Measures?

Grube did, however, announce that 44 of the older ICE2 trains would be overhauled at a cost or more than €100 million ($128 million.) The Deutsche Bahn boss said that the company would in future make sure that the trains' air-conditioning systems could cope with up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). The current ones had only been designed to function to maximums of between 32 and 35 degrees Celsius (89 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit).

Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer, who attended the talks, had voiced criticism of the company ahead of the meeting, saying that it had cut costs too deeply in order to prepare for a planned initial public offering in 2008. He argued that this had been one of the causes of the technical problems on the trains. "Every potential saving that existed was made," he said, in order to make sure that the company was in good shape ahead of the IPO, which had to be postponed due to the financial crisis.

Grube has been vehement in his rejection of such accusations. Speaking to SPIEGEL, he said "you can forget about that. Each ICE goes to the workshop 100 times every year. Material costs alone associated with the inspections of our fleet have risen from €298 million annually to €405 million between 2004 to 2009."

Speaking to Deutschlandfunk radio on Thursday morning Ramsauer said it would be "too simplistic" to make a direct causal link between the savings measures and the broken-down air conditioning. It was more likely that there was a concurrence of extremely high temperatures and technical problems with older equipment.

We 'Don't Produce Trash'

It is still not clear who is to blame for the defective equipment. Representatives of the railway manufacturers have been angered by Grube's attempts to pin the blame on suppliers. Grube told SPIEGEL: "Let's be honest, every ICE series so far delivered by the industry has had its problems. That is annoying. But what can you do? We have to find a solution as quickly as possible." He repeated the accusations in an interview with the newsmagazine Stern, saying suppliers had "almost never delivered trains that performed the services for which we paid."

Ronald Pörner, head of the German Railway Industry Association, told MDR radio that the industry was "very surprised and annoyed," by the "unjustified" allegations. He said that the air-conditioning units on the ICE2 trains had met the norms of the time. "Customers can of course choose to order air-conditioning units that achieve more than the norm. That, however, costs more money." Pörner also told the Berliner Zeitung that the industry "did not produce trash or any trains with any system malfunctions" and he pointed to likely maintenance failures at Deutsche Bahn itself.

Meanwhile, those who were forced to endure the sauna-like conditions on the trains are going to be compensated. Grube told SPIEGEL that those affected by the overheated trains were to be given travel certificates worth 150 percent of their original tickets. The company has since upped the offer, pledging to give €500 ($640) to each passenger who required medical treatment after their ordeal.

Joachim Kemnitz of the rail passengers association Pro Bahn has, however, slammed that offer saying that "it won't even cover those people's ambulance costs."

smd with wire reports

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