'Third World' Conditions Commuter Chaos in Berlin until December

Berlin has had to take two-thirds of its commuter trains out of service due to safety issues. It has resulted in angry locals, crowded platforms, confused tourists, near accidents, a multi-million-euro bill and political fallout. And it's going to go on until the end of the year.

Public transportation chaos in Germany's capital continued to worsen this week, disrupting commutes for hundreds of thousands of passengers. What started as a routine check of train wheels and brakes on Berlin's S-Bahn suburban rail network, has resulted in one of the worst public transport fiascos the city has ever experienced. Entire routes have been temporarily shut down on a system that transports up to 1.3 million passengers on a single day.

The city's once model public transit system in recent days has been plagued by empty tracks, cancelled trains, hoards of confused tourists roaming central Berlin seeking directions and platforms so crowded they have at times become dangerous. This week the Berlin Morgenpost newspaper reported that a two-year-old child had been pushed onto the train tracks in commuters' rushed attempts to get aboard.

The fiasco is expected to cost the city's S-Bahn operator anywhere from €50 million ($71 million) to €100 million, depending on which estimate one goes by. It is also being reported that every second S-Bahn customer has abandoned the system in favor of cars, bikes or buses.

Not Enough Safety Checks, Not Enough Wheels Replaced

The mess began in early May when safety measures were tightened up after an S-Bahn train derailed at the Kaulsdorf station in northeast Berlin. Upon investigating the incident, the German Federal Railway Office told the S-Bahn, which is operated by German national railway operator Deutsche Bahn AG, that they would need to check all of their wheels and brakes properly. The wheels were supposed to be checked once a week, the agency said. But in June further inspections showed that the weekly checks had not been carried out and that many of the S-Bahn trains, which had been in service since the 1990s had not had their wheels replaced.

Initially, S-Bahn officials thought only a few trains would need the extra safety checks and wheel replacements. But upon closer inspection, those "few" became many. During normal service, the S-Bahn has about 1,104 trains running, but currently only about 330 are operating.

Since Monday, two-thirds of the S-Bahn trains have been out of service. Affected stretches include the main east-west service between the Ostbahnhof and Zoo stations, two major hubs, as well as the line linking the city to Schönefeld airport. A major route connecting the eastern and western centers of the city will be completely closed for two-and-half weeks, as will a number of shorter routes.

While locals, who are used to getting a seat on clean trains that run on time, have been angry and upset, it seems that visitors to Berlin have had an even harder time. Berlin is the third most visited city in Europe after Paris and London, it is hosting the World Championships in Athletics in August and gearing up for celebrations commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this November that is expected to be a major tourist draw.

'It's Almost Like the Third World'

S-Bahn officials said that they were taking measures to inform tourists of the problems and that they would have prepared announcements in English by Wednesday. But the Tagesspiegel newspaper reported Friday that English signage was still missing at the central Zoo train station, where a lot of tourists arrive, and that S-Bahn "staff who had been there on Monday to provide information had disappeared by lunchtime on Tuesday."

"If I didn't know a little German," New Yorker Elise Wagner told a German news agency, "It would have been impossible to find my way around."

Are locals faring any better? That seems to be a question of perspective. "There really isn't much for us to do," a company employee stationed on a train platform to assist passengers said. "The situation is a lot calmer than we expected." Some passengers disagreed, however. One train traveler mused: "It's almost like the Third World. For some, it's a real catastrophe."

Meanwhile, the question of who's to blame for the chaos also seems to be a matter of opinion. Political leaders and some union officials have railed against DB's ongoing efforts to privatize the S-Bahn via the stock market, saying that the wheels, axles and brakes should have been checked a long time ago and they were not because of cost cutting and the desire to make a profit. Some politicians have called for the early cancellation of the city's €225 million contract with DB, which is up for renewal in 2017.

Bombardier, which manufactures the wheels, says that although it is ready and willing to help out, it is not responsible for the problem. The guarantee on the Canadian company's wheels expired in 2007. Bombardier has dispatched 17 extra engineers to assist with the wheel replacement and is also sending all suitable wheels straight to Berlin.

And, while politicians and Deutsche Bahn executives argue about who is to blame, what of the commuters and hapless tourists? The BVG, the organization that runs Berlin's massive and highly efficient public transport network incorporating subways, trams and buses, has cancelled its summer holiday schedule and added extra services to help offset the outtages on the S-Bahn, which is a different company. BVG is estimating is already has between 10 and 20 percent more passengers on the U-Bahn (subway), where trains are currently longer and running every five minutes. The transport has also added special shuttle buses for those traveling to Schönefeld airport.

In the meantime, Deutsche Bahn is promising the situation will improve in time for August's major sporting event. But normal services across the city aren't expected to be fully restored until December.

jtw -- with wire reports

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