The World from Berlin Deutsche Bahn Is 'Soft Boiling its Customers'

Since Saturday, air-conditioning systems have broken down on 50 high-speed trains run by Deutsche Bahn, leaving passengers to swelter inside. Commentators blast the company for its treatment of customers and many accuse it of cutting corners ahead of a planned IPO.

A young man at Düsseldorf train station.

A young man at Düsseldorf train station.

It seems to defy logic: An air-conditioning system that stops working when it gets too hot. But that is exactly the misfortune that has befallen many German train passengers this week. As temperatures soared to 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit), the cooling system on many ICE high-speed trains simply switched off, leaving passengers to swelter amid inside temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

On Thursday, the company admitted that on older ICE trains, the air conditioning could only be guaranteed to work up to 32 degrees Celisus (89 degrees Fahrenheit) while on the newer trains it could only be expected to function up to 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). With the country in the grip of a heat wave, this means effectively that passengers cannot be certain their train won't turn into an unbearable sauna.

Since Saturday the problem has occurred on 50 ICE trains. While a company spokesperson told the DPA news agency on Friday that new air-conditioning units to be installed on the trains would work amid up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) that will be small comfort to those facing train journeys in the coming days.

'Days of Chaos'

Nevertheless, the head of the parliamentary transport committee, Winfried Hermann, welcomed the news. The Green party member told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung newspaper that he was happy that there had been a result after the "days of chaos."

At the same time Hermann argued that the debacle could be blamed on the fact that under former CEO Hartmut Mehdorn, the company had exclusively concentrated on preparing for a planned initial public offering. That IPO was supposed to have taken place in 2008 but was cancelled in the wake of the financial crisis. "Only the minimum was invested, as anything else would have messed up the accounts. Now ... the new management has to pay a bitter price," Hermann said.

On Friday, Deutsche Bahn CEO Rüdiger Grube rejected accusations that the company had been penny-pinching. He said spending on long-distance trains between 2004 and 2009 had risen from €298 million ($386 million) to €405 million ($524 million.) "Naturally there is no excuse here," he said, adding that the air conditioning breakdowns were "not acceptable."

With the heat wave set to continue unabated into next week, he said he couldn't promise that there would be no more problems, though the company was making "every effort to ensure that it did not happen again."

On Friday the German press is scathing of the debacle at Deutsche Bahn and many argue that the company has failed its customers in favour of cutting costs.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Climate change is not a completely new phenomenon. Yet for Deutsche Bahn it seems to come as a surprise that temperatures here can surpass 32 degrees Celsius. What other explanation can there be for the former state company buying trains whose air conditioning gives up the ghost in a heat wave?"

"Even without climate change, 32 degrees Celsius in the shade doesn't seem to be a particularly ambitious maximum. Common sense seems to have been trumped by cost considerations. After all, who can't remember boiling hot summer days that reached these kinds of temperatures in the past?"

"A company that has aspirations to be a high-tech firm, but one which soft boils its customers instead of bringing them comfortably to their destination, has more than a small technical problem."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The broken-down air conditioning is not the last technical problem that passengers are likely to face. After all, Deutsche Bahn has been cutting spending for years on care and maintenance. At some stage the sloppiness was going to catch up with them."

"Critics of plans to float the company on the stock exchange foresaw exactly this development: In order to present good figures in the short term the DB board repeatedly lengthened the intervals between maintenance controls and delayed individual repairs."

"The company has tried to shift the blame onto the suppliers. Yet during earlier warm periods the cooling systems did not see massive failures. And it is up to the client if the air conditioning systems it orders are only intended to work up to 32 degrees Celsius. After all, trains travel regularly in much hotter countries without passengers having to worry about their health in an unwanted sauna."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"The negative headlines that have accompanied the ICE since its inception have not let up. The ICE, introduced with so many hopes, is now threatening to kill Deutsche Bahn's image. Ever since the politicians and former CEO Hartmut Mehdorn blindly rushed toward their aim of an IPO, the company has had to live with the accusation that because of the efforts to prepare it for the capital market, the maintenance of the tracks and trains and even safety considerations were pushed into second place. Never mind the passengers' comfort and customer service."

"Customers are at the mercy of the Deutsche Bahn system. There is simply no sensible alternative to this mode of transport. The federal government, as owner of the company, has to finally realize this. It has to keep the company more closely in line and, if need be, reprimand it. And it has to invest much more in the railway system than it has until now."

-- Siobhán Dowling


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