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Tardy trains: Germany pledges major rail network upgrade

September 15, 2023

Germany's reputation for good trains that run on time has been suffering for some time now, to the extent it even endures. The government has announced a major, near-term upgrade to the rail network.

A passenger at Koblenz main train station looks at an information board telling him that the next train headed for Mannheim is canceled. Archive image from June 2023.
'Construction work, train canceled,' the information board in Koblenz tells this passenger, probably referring to track repairs, in a message familiar to many around the countryImage: Panama Pictures//picture alliance

Germany's Transport Ministry and the state-owned rail service provider Deutsche Bahn (DB) on Friday laid out plans for a major modernization of the country's rail network, to be completed by 2030. 

The government in Berlin plans to make a total of €40 billion (roughly $42.5 billion) available, around one-third of that in the form of a capital injection for DB itself, for renovations in the next few years.

The plan will focus on the rapid upgrade of the country's busiest rail lines, where delays and disruptions affect the most people and often where they are most common.

"Now we know the order in which the whole thing will be realized," Transport Minister Volker Wissing said on Friday in a meeting with rail industry officials in Frankfurt, at which he went into more detail on the schedule.  

Wissing, whose neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) are the party in Germany's coalition government currently pushing for cuts to several existing spending plans, said this project was going ahead "despite the strained budgetary situation." One source of financing would be increased tolls for foreign heavy goods vehicles on the German highways, he said.

The "Schienengipfel 2023" (Rail Track Summit 2023) panel discussion in Frankfurt, September 15, 2023, showing a number of the participants on stage together. These include a German minister responsible for digital and transport affairs, Susanne Henckel (third from left), and Deutsche Bahn's chair of infrastructure planning and projects, Ingrid Felipe (second from left).
The plan was published on Friday to coincide with this panel discussion at the so-called 'Rail Track Summit 2023' in FrankfurtImage: Lando Hass/dpa/picture alliance

Hasty upgrade means things could get worse before they get better

The plan aims to focus on 40 particularly busy stretches of track. 

Between now and 2030, each of these will be shut down entirely for periods of around five months to permit thorough renovation and maintenance work. 

The idea constitutes a conscious decision on the part of the government and Deutsche Bahn to accept extended periods of major disruption. 

Hopefully, this should be in exchange for no longer having recurrent minor disruptions as such work is tackled on an ad-hoc basis when problems present themselves on the aging and deteriorating rails. 

The plan's authors hope this will both drastically reduce costs and also eventually improve the quality of the repairs and upgrades. 

"It's all the more important that the planned closures are communicated promptly, that those affected are kept closely in the loop," Wissing said. "It's important that we tell people: This is a hassle, it is a struggle, so that we can travel better on the rails afterwards." 

Truly revolutionary? Germany's €49 public transport ticket

German 'Pünktlichkeit' increasingly in question

Germany's reputation for punctuality and a fast and well-funded nationalized rail service has certainly suffered domestic setbacks in recent years and there's some evidence to suggest international travelers had also started to take note

The DB cargo train station in Halle in Germany, September 4, 2023.
Like many countries, Germany is trying to encourage freight transporters and commuters alike to consider the railways rather than the roadsImage: Jochen Eckel/picture alliance

In 2022, almost one in three rail passengers in Germany reached their destination with a delay of 15 minutes or more. Just over 70% of travelers reached their destination on time or with a smaller delay, according to answers to a query submitted by a member of the German Bundestag and published by the Transport Ministry. 

These figures constituted a 10% deterioration in punctuality in 2022 compared to the previous year.  And that's despite Deutsche Bahn considering a train delayed by less than 15 minutes to be on time, a more lax benchmark than some other countries.

In Japan, for instance, more than 60 seconds' delay constitutes a late train, and 5 minutes' delay entitles passengers to a document proving they were delayed through no fault of their own — because employers might otherwise doubt their story. 

One issue often raised when seeking explanations for declining punctuality in Germany is the deteriorating rail network, which critics say has been crying out for investment for years. 

German, and global, climate-driven push towards trains

The upgrades also coincide with efforts by the government in Berlin to actively encourage new generations of rail users and to increase traffic on a network that's already overburdened on its busiest stretches of track. 

Germany introduced its flat-rate monthly €49 (just over $50) ticket earlier this year, that enables people unlimited travel on slower, regional trains all across the country. 

Using public transport rather than a private vehicle considerably reduces the environmental impact of travel, and many environmental campaigners have long advocated increased spending on rail infrastructure and services to provide a better and more reliable alternative to cars for commuters and other travelers.

msh/wd (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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