German railways are not what they used to be – The Post

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Abroad, Germany has a reputation as an extremely efficient country, where everything, or almost everything, works better than elsewhere. However, there is one area in particular where things don’t fit this stereotype: that of the public rail system.

German citizens have complained for years about daily train delays, both regional and high-speed, and constant reports of blanket apologies from the public company that runs them, Deutsche Bahn. It is not uncommon for the same delayed train to be blamed on track problems and then weather conditions, causing confusion among occasional passengers and resignation among commuters.

Over the past month, several German and international newspapers have returned to reporting on railways in Germany due to a series of events that have had some significance in the German public debate. At the beginning of December, many trains were delayed or canceled in southern Germany’s Bavaria due to heavy snowfall. The snow caused a number of disruptions to tracks and local trains, affecting the national network, despite the fact that German railways have historically been among the best able to withstand this type of snow, which has always been common in Germany.

The problems were exacerbated by frequent strikes by train drivers and railway staff. The Gewerkschaft Deutscher Lokomotivführer (GDL) union has been calling 24-hour strikes for several months, but especially in December, as part of negotiations to renegotiate sectoral contracts. The main demand of the GDL is to reduce the weekly working hours from 38 to 35 hours without reducing wages and to increase the salary of some categories of employees by 555 euros per month plus a single bonus of 3 thousand euros to prevent “inflation”.

Deutsche Bahn submitted counter-proposals that were deemed insufficient, and just before Christmas the union announced that from 8 January 2024 staff would go on indefinite strike. The mobilization is expected to cause serious problems for the operation of the line.

Frankfurt station with only one person during one of the last 24-hour strikes by rail staff, 8 December 2023

Frankfurt station during one of the last 24-hour strikes by train staff, December 8, 2023 (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

However, the critical situation of the German rail network does not depend only on the weather or strikes: staff shortages and poor infrastructure maintenance over the past thirty years also play a role. These two factors were compounded by the fact that more and more people started traveling by train to reduce their environmental impact, pushing the national rail company to add routes and trains to a system that was already considered outdated. Therefore, it very often happens today that a failure on one line causes consequences on other lines, which cannot rely on replacement lines and have to wait for the problem to be solved.

According to the latest official figures published by Deutsche Bahn, roughly a third of trains arrived at the station more than six minutes late in 2021, and this percentage is increasing every year.

Hundreds of people wait for their delayed trains at Hamburg station on December 21, 2023

People wait for delayed trains at a station in Hamburg on December 21, 2023 (Bodo Marks/dpa via AP)

To improve the situation, in March 2023 the government announced that it would invest 45 billion euros in Deutsche Bahn in 2027. In the autumn, Transport Minister Volker Wissing officially started work on various lines, which will last until 2030. However, the construction site has worsened the situation in the meantime: according to data not confirmed by DB, but published according to a German tabloid Bild in early December, by November 2023 only half of regional and high-speed trains arrived less than six minutes late.

These slowdowns have also had an impact on train delays in other neighboring countries that have taken action: Swiss railways, for example, recently decided to stop their trains waiting for connections from Germany to arrive so as not to build up too many delays.

According to several experts, including Jon Worth, a Berlin rail traffic analyst interviewed by German public television Deutsche WelleThese problems can be attributed not only to the lack of attention and funding from governments over the past thirty years, but also to the strategy that Deutsche Bahn has adopted since its inception. In recent years, the company has been recording constant losses and is in what the German Federal Audit Office has defined as a “permanent crisis”: it currently has a debt of over 30 billion euros, which has been growing by an average of 5 million a day since 2016. .

A departure board at a Munich station shows how 8 out of 10 trains are late (Roland Freund/dpa via AP)

A departure board at a Munich station shows how 8 out of 10 trains are late (Roland Freund/dpa via AP)

Deutsche Bahn was born in the mid-1990s from the merger of the West and East German railways, the sole owner, shareholder and financier of which was the German government. A few years later, it decided to expand its activities and quickly became an international company: today its subsidiaries manage London Underground trains, a bus company covering 10 European countries and international road, air, land and sea freight transport.

However, according to many, these activities led to the company neglecting its main goal, which is to develop an efficient rail network in Germany. In addition, the situation last year also seems problematic from a financial point of view: in the first six months of 2023, Deutsche Bahn recorded a total net loss of 71 million euros, compared to a profit of 424 million euros in the same period of the previous year. It is also for this reason that the Court of Auditors argued that the current government will not be able to achieve some of its most ambitious targets to bring back the railways by 2030.

In mid-December, public opinion and the German media returned to talking about Deutsche Bahn also because, despite the company’s crisis, it was announced that board members would receive bonuses worth around 5 million euros. Although these bonuses were awarded in categories that had nothing to do with the efficiency of the transport service, but rather with the presence of women in the company and the contribution to the reduction of the country’s emissions, many found it ironic that a company in these financial conditions would give bonuses to its board of directors: case article bonuses published on Der Spiegelleading German weekly newspaper, was named “Deutsche Bahn, satire in real life” in mid-December.

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