The World from Berlin 'German Rail Desperately Needs to Be Modernized'

Delays, cancellations and breakdowns: German rail passengers have faced no shortage of trials this winter, both on long distance routes and on commuter trains in Berlin. German commentators say the company badly needs to invest in modernizing both its fleet and its tracks.

"Do Not Board": Berlin's commuter train system has not coped well with severe weather so far this winter.
AFP

"Do Not Board": Berlin's commuter train system has not coped well with severe weather so far this winter.


The good news is that the weather in Germany has warmed up in recent days. Gone is the snow and ice that had plagued the country in the weeks prior to Christmas. And trains in the country -- both of the commuter variety in Berlin and the high-speed ICEs elsewhere -- are back to running more or less on time.

But the bitter aftertaste following weeks of travel chaos remains. After a hot summer which saw Germany's vaunted train system unable to cope with the heat, this winter has once again demonstrated German rail's apparent inability to deal with the cold. In the week before Christmas, hundreds of long-distance trains were hopelessly behind schedule as snow and ice put some trains out of commission and limited the speed at which others could travel. The situation became so bad that national railway Deutsche Bahn even warned people to avoid taking the train.

In Berlin, the city's S-Bahn commuter train network, likewise operated by Deutsche Bahn, came to a complete standstill on many lines while passengers faced long waits on most others. Due to ice build-up and resulting maintenance difficulties, just 213 of 562 trains were available in the first week of January. At one point, the company even consider paying for taxi rides for people living along lines that had been temporarily closed.

'Lots of Money for Infrastructure'

The German capital, not surprisingly, was unhappy. And on Monday, Deutsche Bahn head Rüdiger Grube was in Berlin for meetings with both Berlin city-state officials about the commuter train problems and with state transportation ministers regarding the issues encountered by the national train system.

Grube's message was one of chagrin. "We have to become much better," Grube said. He also admitted that Deutsche Bahn "still needs lots of money for infrastructure" improvements.

On the national level, state transportation ministers proposed suspending Deutsche Bahn's payment this year of a €500 million ($646.5 million) dividend to the German government, which owns German rail -- a payment mandated by the country's austerity package passed in 2010. Instead, supporters of the proposal said, the money should be used to invest in extra trains that could be used as replacements in future extreme weather situations.

The difficulties with Germany's high-speed trains have been compounded by the fact that the most recent generation of ICE trains must be inspected 10 times more often than planned due to axle problems and other shortcomings -- including trouble operating in frost and snow conditions -- that came to light after their delivery.

Catastrophic Results

With opposition to the proposal coming from the Federal Transportation Ministry, however, it seems unlikely that Deutsche Bahn can expect help in solving its high-speed woes. On Tuesday, German Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer told the newspaper Passauer Neue Presse that Deutsche Bahn's recent savings measures -- embarked on ahead of a planned IPO in 2008 (indefinitely delayed due to the financial crisis) -- were to blame.

The problems facing Berlin's commuter train system could prove to be even more expensive to solve. Deutsche Bahn embarked on a far-reaching savings plan in 2005 that foresaw annual expenditure reductions of €70 million for Berlin's S-Bahn system. Recent years show that the results have been catastrophic. In 2009, the German Federal Railway Office discovered that Berlin city trains had not undergone sufficient inspections for years and maintenance had likewise suffered. The mandated checks that followed led to months of reduced service in Berlin.

This year, despite Grube's claim that the commuter train system was "more comprehensively prepared" for winter than ever before, substantial delays began on the very first day of snow. There have been some 1,200 breakdowns in the trains' drive motors since early December, heating systems have balked and brakes have failed. Taken together, the problems with Berlin commuter trains in the last two years have cost the company €370 million and caused major embarrassment in the German capital city. Grube said on Monday that he expects those costs to rise to €700 million by 2014.

Even worse, there would appear to be no end in sight to the Berlin chaos. According to documents seen by SPIEGEL, the Berlin city-state government declined an option in 2008 to put parts of the commuter train system to tender, a move which would have broken Deutsche Bahn's monopoly. In exchange, Deutsche Bahn agreed to extend the S-Bahn to Berlin's new international airport, which is due to open in 2012. Now, the German capital must wait until the current contract runs out in 2017 before it can be put up for a bidding process that would include competitors.

Grube, for his part, has promised to make improvements. But he shied away from making any promises on Monday. "When it comes to trains, there are no guarantees," he said. German dailies on Tuesday take stock of the country's rail shortcomings.

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Following years of deep cost cuts, German rail is economically healthy enough that it can easily afford to pay a half-billion euro dividend to its owner each year. Had Deutsche Bahn been forced to make the payment in 2009, it would have had €300 million in profits left over. For 2010, the profit is likely to be even higher. And yet, German rail boss Rüdiger Grube needs every euro of that profit. By 2014, he plans to invest €40 billion in improvements."

"The sum shows just how desperately German rail needs to be modernized. New generations of trains must be ordered. The elimination of infrastructure shortfalls, for which the federal government has no money, must be addressed. ... Recent weeks have also shown that, should problems arise, Deutsche Bahn has no slack -- neither in terms of personnel nor of trains available. ... Given such a situation, it would be irresponsible to withdraw money from Deutsche Bahn."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"The one-time Deutsche Bahn marketing slogan 'Everyone talks about the weather. But we don't.' has not been forgotten. The point was clear, no matter what, we'll get you to where you want to go. It was an element in the confidence Germans had in their government as well. Along with the German central bank, German rail was a pillar of the faith citizens had in their country. Now, should the state-owned company Deutsche Bahn become a symbol of a country which cuts corners, malfunctions and constantly comes up with new excuses, it is not just a problem for the rail system. ... Germany's good reputation is at stake."

The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Have you heard this one before? German rail has four enemies: spring, summer, fall and winter."

"A short reminder. Dozens of high-speed ICE trains were removed from service in the summer because their air-conditioning systems failed. Now, in winter, dozens of trains failed and the Berlin commuter train system, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn, is operating on an emergency schedule. Still, the government is demanding an additional dividend of a half billion euros per year. That is absurd."

"The German national railway has to invest -- in tracks, in switches and in robust trains. In addition, a change in strategy is necessary. It is time to move away from the stock exchange and international markets and toward its core business in Germany. The company must renew its focus on moving people and goods reliably, quickly and as cheaply as possible from A to B."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The federal government would be well advised to insist on the payment of the planned dividend this year. The problem at Deutsche Bahn is not that the company is in financial trouble. Rather that the company has proven too profligate with the money that it does have."

"German rail splurged this summer in its purchase of the British commuter train operator Arriva -- the most expensive acquisition in the company's history. Arriva, however, is not worth the €2.8 billion Deutsche Bahn paid. As with previous acquisitions made by German rail, write offs are a virtual certainty. Deutsche Bahn should have been tougher at the negotiating table. Stuttgart 21 (eds. note: the controversial €4 billion train station reconstruction project) is another example of a project where the company has spent billions for questionable returns."

"The company should not be rewarded with gifts after being so wasteful with its money. And it likewise should cease complaining that it doesn't have the money for investing in trains and maintenance."

-- Charles Hawley

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