Deutsche Bahn is much admired by foreign travellers and internationally renowned for its comfort and reliability. The reputation of the national rail company’s engineers secured it a €17bn deal late last year to build a new high-speed network in Qatar. But at home Deutsche Bahn is not as popular as you might expect. In the winter freeze, brand-new ICE trains ground to a halt because of the cold weather. And frequent travellers complain of delays, overstuffed trains, cancelled connections, malfunctioning toilets and closed buffet cars. At the same time ticket prices have been rising steadily. “There is no doubt that there’s a lack of quality now,” says Karl-Peter Naumann, chairman of Pro Bahn, which represents passengers. “There have been too few investments and too many budget cuts.”
Deutsche Bahn has been trying to improve punctuality and staff friendliness in recent years. But at the same time, management has been cutting costs to get the federally owned company into shape for investors. In 2009, Deutsche Bahn made €1.5bn. The company aims to shave €2bn off its outgoings by 2014 and cutting 14,000 jobs is included in the measures.
“Since 1990 the federal rail network has shrunk by 16 per cent,” says Dirk Fiege, a spokesperson for Allianz pro Schiene, which campaigns for better rail services.
Peter Ramsauer, German minister for transport, has promised “massive investments” in the country’s railway network but he has not said where the money will come from. Massive national debts and a tight budget will not make it easy for him to raise the €1bn a year that Allianz pro Schiene has calculated to be the minimum amount necessary.
Experts say that by mid-century goods traffic in Germany will increase by 50 per cent. If most of this is on the roads even the famous Deutsche Autobahn will be overburdened – not to speak of the strain on the environment. Now the minister doesn’t rule out a highway toll for cars but it’s unclear whether he has the power to push this through and whether Deutsche Bahn will keep on improving its service as promised.
In a future that will be characterised by more traffic, increasing safety concerns in air travel and looming climate change, the role of train companies is a crucial one. It seems that neither German politicians nor Deutsche management have really grasped the extent of the transformation needed. Granted – already Deutsche Bahn is moving more people in two days than Lufthansa does in a year. But to significantly increase this figure it needs to improve the reliability of its technology and, above all, it needs to take customers seriously. If more Germans are to be tempted out of their cars and on to the trains, they need to be treated with respect, transparency and a certain amount of pampering. Here Deutsche Bahn can still learn a lot from Lufthansa.