Is doubling Germany's rail traffic the answer?

Today I’m talking about Germany’s state rail company and wondering how on earth it can be trusted to cope with all the people who are supposed to give up their cars in the coming years.

There is a general consensus among the centre-left parties that trains are the future. Get people off the autobahn and onto the Bahn and Germany can fulfill its destiny as saviour of mother earth... or so the thinking goes.

The Greens want to invest so heavily in rail infrastructure that domestic flights will soon be made redundant. (They’re careful to say that trains will replace flights and not that flights will be banned. The word Verbot, which conservatives use to beat them with every election season, is strengst verboten on the campaign trail.)

The SPD promise to build “the most modern and climate-friendly transport network in Europe” by the end of the decade. They plan heavy investment in electrifying regional trains and bringing back Nachtzüge that connect Germany to the wider continent.

Even the CDU, while clearly wedded to the car industry, vaguely promise “massive acceleration” of new track builds.

On paper, these plans sound great. 

The new high speed line between Berlin and Munich is an engineering marvel (if such a thing still exists in 21st century Europe). Passengers are swept between the two metropoles at speeds of up to 300 km/h; coffee is brought to your roomy seat as you tap lazily into your laptop and gaze out at the Thuringian Forest.

That’s civility!

Offering fast, punctual train services across a country that is essentially a patchwork of medium-sized towns makes sense, not just from an environmental point of view, but for quality of life. With finance in Frankfurt, government in Berlin, media in Hamburg, and business in Munich, Germans are constantly on the move.

And there is certainly room for improvement on the current state of affairs.

Two thirds of all new cars last year were company vehicles. A tax rule called the 1% Regelung encourages firms to give staff cars instead of a pay rise. As the employee can use the car privately and often doesn’t pay the petrol himself, he loses nothing by pushing the pedal to the metal in a blaze of C02-heavy exhaust.

Nudging people away from VW to DB sounds sensible. But one wonders whether the numbers will ever really add up.

Most fundamentally, are trains ever going to be anything but a drain on state resources and/or private finances?

If two people drive from Berlin to Munich they will share the cost of a tank of fuel (currently at roughly €70). Of that, 45 cents per litre goes into the state coffers. That’s good business for the taxman - €40 billion comes in every year through the fuel tax, easily covering the entire budget of the Transport Ministry.

If the same two people were to travel by train they would pay at least €70 each for their tickets. But Deutsche Bahn revenues don’t even nearly cover their expenditures. The rail network currently sucks around €5 billion out of the federal budget annually in infrastructure repair.

I’m no expert in the laws of propulsion, but encouraging people onto the tracks would appear to mean favouring an inefficient and expensive form of mobility over an efficient one. In the long run that’s going to drag on the economy.

But even if we ignore the laws of physics, there is another elephant in the room - the bloated state-owned company entrusted with running the majority of train services.

Deutsche Bahn is currently €30 billion in the red. The problem has been exacerbated by the pandemic, but the company has been struggling for years. Repeated changes to its top personnel have failed to turn things around.

Once famed for its efficiency, DB has had to change the official definition of a delay in order to hide its sins.

Gerald Traufetter, business editor at der Spiegel, describes a company culture in which the DB board feels comfortable using the state as guarantor for risky business ventures while “millions are spent on consultants, including ex-board members and politicians without being checked by the advisory board.”

In other words, cronyism and mediocrity are part of the DNA of Deutsche Bahn.

Traufetter believes DB can turn things around by selling off its loss-making subsidiaries abroad and slimming down its management structure.

Others think a more radical solution is needed. The Greens and the liberal FDP want to break up the company, creating a new public company for the tracks that would open them up to competition.

As a native of the UK, where privatization has only created new headaches, I can only say: be careful what you wish for!

And then there are the strikes that are currently crippling the entire rail system. There is almost zero public sympathy for the train drivers’ demands for a ‘corona bonus’ (unlike doctors and nurses, train drivers performed no pandemic overtime). But the GDL union are still showing no willingness to discuss an improved offer brought by the Bahn on Wednesday.

A future in which twice as many commuters’ lives rest on a badly run company keeping aggressive unions happy is one in which few people crammed into carriages this morning will want.

So, as much as I would love a future of punctual and affordable ICE trains zipping across the country, I can’t see it happening. What do you think? Let me know below the line.