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Stuck between public service and a for-profit company, Deutsche Bahn is not benefitting passengers

db-chamaleonI travel a lot on German railways. Barely a week goes by without me making a long distance trip from Berlin to Brussels (via Köln), or somewhere further afield. I paid the company more than €2000 in the calendar year 2013, and the sum will be roughly the same in 2014. I rely on DB.

But Deutsche Bahn, the company, I simply fail to understand. It strikes me that DB manages to bundle up the worst of monolithic state-run-operator thinking about railways, and the worst behaviour of a capitalist company, into the very same entity.

Take last week’s news story as an example – HR reported that DB was thinking about abolishing its BahnCard, an accusation that was rubbished by DB itself, but HR stuck to its guns. The basic problem, from DB’s point of view, is that the flat-rate price reductions that a BahnCard offers mean that DB cannot price-maximise on trains that are close to capacity at peak hours – i.e. it wants to move to a system that is more market driven to determine its prices. DB, so HR and Spiegel reported, needs to reduce its costs in its Fernverkehr (long distance) business by €1.5 billion per year by 2019, but do not report why this is the case. This is on top of the stark reduction in the number of cities even still served by DB’s long distance services since 1999, as reported by Tagesspiegel.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 17.50.27DB, it seems, wants to profit-maximise, and not to maximise the number of people travelling by train, and for the sake of the environment the latter needs to be a vital priority.

Its response to the new competition from long distance bus operators is… for DB to run its own buses (the kleinen Bruder der Bahn apparently – flyer for the DB bus to Copenhagen (PDF)), and to look at profit maximising the long distance rail routes it runs, cutting back international connections and night trains, and also talking of cutting back unprofitable long distance routes within Germany (although it refuses to say which routes those are).

The point that is seldom raised in these sorts of reports about DB is what is its role?

DB, remember, is a private joint-stock company (AG), with the German government being its majority only shareholder. The idea to privatise Deutsche Bahn was quietly dropped by the German government in November. So, essentially, if DB has to make savings in its long distance business it is the state that will win, financially, if they do so. Yet debate about what role there should be for long distance rail services in German politics seems to be more or less non-existent. The grinning Bayern-hipster transport minister Dobrindt was drawn into the debate on whether the BahnCard should be axed, but otherwise seems to stay away from this issue as far as possible (and when he talks it’s unclear anyway).

In theory the long distance rail market in Germany is open to competition, but Veolia has found it cannot make a profit against DB and the long distance buses and is stopping its long distance rail services next week. Hamburg-Köln Express (HKX) continues to exist, but is restricted by the lack of availability of rolling stock for its service… because Deutsche Bahn will not lease any carriages to it. If the German government really wanted competition on its railway it would split the ownership of rolling stock into a separate entity as Spain is doing. When it comes to the night trains that DB is to axe, a private rival to DB taking over these routes would have the same problem as HKX – trying to lease stock. DB has previously scrapped locomotives in Poland to stop them falling into the hands of a competitior.

If DB still runs a publicly-owned railway, it needs to start behaving like one – serving passengers on the basis of need, and ensuring as many towns are connected to long distance railway services as possible. If some services are unprofitable, but judged to be socially necessary, then they should be maintained and subsidised.

Conversely, if DB is to be viewed as a competitive player in a liberalised market, then the rules of the game need to be changed to give competitors a fair chance, and to give rail a fair chance versus other transport modes (as the Greens in the Bundestag have been arguing). Innovative and nimble operators might be able to see opportunities that DB itself does not judge to be important.

As things stand, DB is neither a proper public service operator, nor is it a competitor in a liberalised market. Its half-way position most definitely does not suit the passenger, and does not encourage modal shift to railways.

The summary below comes from @grauhut on Twitter:

The future of channel tunnel long distance passenger railway services

Screen Shot 2013-06-15 at 13.10.18A small step forward step in the prospect of long distance high-speed train services using the channel tunnel was taken this week, with Deutsche Bahn granted a ‘Certificate B’ to operate trains through the tunnel. This has been a long time coming – in 2010 DB was talking of running trains in time for the Olympics! However this week’s decision is only step towards eventual through services from London to destinations such as Amsterdam or Geneva. Here are a series of the other hurdles to overcome.

Channel Tunnel Safety (train length)
The current Eurostar trains are 387m long, composed of a locomotive at each end, and 18 short carriages in between, and can be split in half if necessary. The idea is that in case of an accident or a fire in the tunnel, at least one door of the Eurostar trains would be close to an escape passage into the safety tunnel – and those escapes are at 250m intervals. DB proposes to run two 8-carriage ICEs coupled together through the tunnel, but passengers cannot pass between the two halves of coupled ICEs (see the coupling in a pic here). So would the ICEs get the safety permit to run? However at no time has a Eurostar ever been evacuated into the safety tunnel through one door. In short: not too complicated to solve.

Channel Tunnel Safety (distributed traction)
Current Eurostar trains have a locomotive at each end, and unpowered passenger carriages in between. Were a fire to break out in the traction or electrical components this would easily be isolated from passengers areas. ICEs, and the new Eurostar e320 sets being procured, both use another system – distributed traction – where all traction and electrical components are under the floor below the carriages where the passengers sit. This could theoretically pose a greater fire risk, and the trains not be granted permission to operate in the tunnel. However Eurostar was itself ready to procure such trains, so must have been confident of approval. In short: not too complicated to solve.

Procurement and approval delays
Both Eurostar’s new e320 trains, and the DB’s new Velaro D ICEs are essentially the same trains, just with Eurostar’s being a 16-carriage version, and DB’s an 8 carriage version. The problem is that procurement of these trains has been beset by delays – Eurostar now admits it will see its first trains only in 2015, rather than 2014 as hoped, while DB’s 16 new ICE were due to be running in 2011 but still are not approved fully, even in Germany. That’s before we come to the issue of approving them for at least Belgium and France, and possibly also Netherlands too. Approval of ICEs has been a nightmare before – current DB ICEs are only allowed to travel at 250km/h in Belgium due to concerns with flying ballast, and approval for the older ICEs on French high speed lines took 7 years to complete. Meanwhile signalling problems continue to beset the Belgium – Germany ICE connection. In short: a nightmare all round. Whatever the companies and manufacturers say, expect timetables to slip.

Security control
Bags of all passenges boarding Eurostars in London, Lille, Brussels and Paris are scanned as passengers enter a secure terminal. This is why passengers are required to arrive 30 minutes ahead of departure. While one might quibble as to whether this security paranoia is necessary, it is nevertheless here to stay. The question then arises how DB, or Eurostar for its through services, could scan bags in different stations? While it might be possible to get a secure platform arranged in Frankfurt(Main) Hbf or Genève, I cannot see how this could easily be done in Köln Hbf, Rotterdam Centraal or Amsterdam Centraal. In short: could be complicated, and may necessitate services not stopping in some stations, or disembarkation (see below).

Passport Control, and the UK Border
The UK is not in Schengen, and this issue has already posed significant problems with the Lille Loophole. The basic idea with Eurostar is that passport controls should be conducted in Paris, Lille and Brussels (so-called juxtaposed controls) and not in London, because if an illegal immigrant gets to London (before a check there), then there is no obligation for Eurostar to transport them back to France or Belgium. The result of this is that for Eurostar’s through service from Aix-en-Provence to London, all passengers are required to disembark at Lille Europe for passport checks (and presumably a security control too), making the France-London journey take 55 minutes longer than the outward trip. DB has proposed that UK border checks be conducted on board the train, but I would imagine that Eurostar also proposed this for its Aix service and was refused. In short: this is the biggest headache, and could – on its own – kill the prospect of cross border through services. But a system of passport checks on arrival would require political will to deliver.

So if you’re waiting for your ICE to Frankfurt(Main) or your Eurostar to Geneva, you might well be waiting a while.

The demise of CityNightLine

A goods train derailed in southern Jutland on Friday last week and, as can be seen from the picture from the local newspaper, it was on a single track line section between Padborg and Kolding, meaning the whole connection between Hamburg and Jutland is blocked. The wagons were dragged between 5 and 6 kilometres while off the track, meaning there is a lot of mess to clean up. It is currently thought the works will take at least one week.

All of this means that the CityNightLine night train Amsterdam+Köln/Basel/Praha – Copenhagen cannot run the full route at the moment. The solution? Run the train as far as Hamburg Hbf and throw the passengers off onto a bus – at 0356 in the morning – and then onto a ferry at Puttgarden, and then to get a regional train at Rødby, arriving in Copenhagen in who knows what state of mind in the morning.

OK, yes, shit happens on the railways, and I’m ready to be flexible and to travel during the day instead. The daytime ICE takes a different route – via the Puttgarden-Rødby ferry – so there is a train I could take. Am I allowed? NO. Rebooking my CNL ticket onto a ICE is not allowed, although both ICE and CNL trains are operated by Deutsche Bahn. I’m told that because there are replacement buses available there is no need for rebooking onto trains.

This is just the latest in a long line of experiences that seem to demonstrate to me that taking DB CityNightLine trains is just not an adequately reliable option. This autumn I was turfed off in Odense on the way to Copenhagen with the train already 90 minutes delayed, and I have been delayed 60 minutes a couple of other times. I’ve also in the past been thrown out in Dortmund and told my train would simply not go as far as Köln.

Also the CNL couchette / liegewagen carriages are old and noisy, and many CNL routes no longer have a dining car allowing you to escape the bedlam in the compartments if you need to (although the dining car still thankfully exists on the Copenhagen route). All of this however is such a stark contrast with the Hamburg – Wien night train operated by ÖBB I took a few weeks ago, with neat, modern and smart couchette cars, and a morning breakfast provided even for the cheapest ticket holders.

Now while high speed rail may be the future of public transport for journeys of up to 500km, what about for trips longer than that? A 12 hour night train, if it is reliable and comfortable, and you can arrive at your destination fresh enough to work the following day, should be a viable option. If my CityNightLine experience is anything to go by then that is simply not the case just now, and indeed seems to be getting further and further away from being the case any time soon.

(and of course the Brussels night train headache has not been sorted… but that’s another story)

A little Nordic rail trip

I will be making what should be a reasonably simple rail trip in early December – the 600km journey between Copenhagen (station: København H) and Oslo (station: Oslo S). So how do I do it? Well, it turns out that it is all nowhere as simple as it should be.

First of all my departure date – 9th December – is the day of the timetable change across Europe. So DB, my normal solution for all timetable queries, does not work as some rail companies seem to not have given DB their new data yet (even though the trip is just over a month away). This is just simply not acceptable – data must be available for ALL journeys at least 3 months ahead of time – I think Öresundståg is at fault (see below).

So then, having worked out how the journey will work (using older timetable data), I then see that the trains I need to take are operated by 2 different companies – Öresundståg for København H – Göteborg C, and NSB for Göteborg C – Oslo S. So how do I book these trains?

I start, sensibly enough, with the websites of the national rail companies of the countries I will be travelling through – DSB for Denmark, SJ for Sweden, and NSB for Norway. But it’s clear from the outset that there is a problem, for the solutions I am given route me via Linköping (just look at that on a map and you’ll see I don’t want to be there for a Copenhagen-Oslo journey!) and all solutions cost a lot and take upwards of 9 hours. Meanwhile DSB’s Øresund page only allows bookings within Denmark (very handy, when most of the trains go to Sweden), so I instead end up with the Swedish language Öresundståg page, but here I can only book until 8th December but, somehow, their other booking page works from 9th December onwards… So I can get myself as far as Göteborg booking this way, and Öresundståg e-mails me tickets that I have to print myself that cost SEK 418 each way.

But then onwards from Göteborg… the problem here is that the train is run by NSB and yet I am going from Sweden TO Norway. When trying to book on NSB’s website (which, it must be said, is at least more clearly designed than any of the others!), I am directed to this page about Göteborg station. It tells me that there is no ticket machine in Göteborg station, and that I can somehow get this ticket in the train itself, but only if I book a single ticket, and that this will not work for a return. The other option, I deduce, is to use a mobile ticket on NSB’s iPhone app which – after downloading it and registering it and having to reboot the app after the station search failed – I finally managed to get my mobile tickets for this part, NOK 299 to go, and NOK 199 for the return.

So there you have it folks. All the detective work needed just for one single return rail ticket between two capital cities. And then we wonder why people fly instead…

In praise of @DB_bahn (not the railway, but the Twitter account)

This is for you Torsten, Simon, Norman, Marc, Kai, Danny, Janice, Matthias, Maik, Filiz, Jana, Christian, Christian and Nicole: a huge thanks from a regular DB traveller for helping to make my journeys a little more manageable and pleasant.

For those of you reading this that are not regulars on either Twitter or German railways, the Twitter account @DB_Bahn is the place where travellers can ask for advice and assistance about anything and everything relating to Deutsche Bahn. Info on service updates, delays, suggestions, you name it they can provide it, and provide it fast. While they (sadly) cannot actually make sure the trains run on time, they do at least provide more information that it is sometimes possible to glean in the station or on DB’s website, and do it in a cheery way.

Here’s a small example from this week, courtesy of Maik (/mi) when I was stuck in Köln awaiting a delayed CityNightLine train:

In the past I’ve received help a number of times from them concerning replacement trains, what to do when a storm blew trees onto the line, how to book tickets for an Austrian Railways train that started in Germany, and information about whether my train would manage to pass a bridge that had been hit by a truck.

Above all @DB_bahn helps provide the information and reassurance so often lacking when travelling by train. They are there to help and – in my experience – really strive to do so. Vielen herzlichen Dank!

Cheap rail tickets through Germany

Screen Shot 2012-12-14 at 17.36.31So you want a one-off rail ticket through Germany, and you want it as cheap as possible. You’re doing a journey like Belgium (- Germany -) Austria, or Denmark (- Germany -) Czech Republic, but you’re not going to stop* in Germany. Here’s how to do it.

1. Search for your rail connection on DB’s website, putting in your final destination (for example: København and Wien)

2. This will give you timetable information, but it will tell you ‘Preisauskunft nicht möglich’/’Fares not available’

3. Don’t despair. Click on ‘Zwischenhaltestelle einblenden’/’Show intermediate stops’ and take note of the route.

4. The trick is to look for the first and last stations in Germany AND the first and last major stations in Germany, where you’re likely to change trains. For the main borders to and from Germany these are as follows, explained for journeys into Germany:
Denmark (ferry route): First – Puttgarden, Major – Hamburg Hbf
Denmark (Jutland): First – Flensburg, Major – Hamburg Hbf
Netherlands (south east into Germany): First – Emmerich, Major – Duisburg, Düsseldorf or Köln
Netherlands (east into Germany, towards Berlin): First – Bad Bentheim, Major – Osnabrück Hbf
Belgium: First – Aachen Hbf, Major – Köln Hbf
France: First – Kehl, Major – Karlsruhe Hbf
Switzerland (north into Germany): First – Basel Bad, Major – Freiburg/Breisgau Hbf
Switzerland (north east into Germany): First – Lindau Hbf, Major – München Hbf
Austria (from Innsbruck/Brenner): First – Rosenheim, Major – München Hbf
Austria (from Salzburg): First – Freilassing, Major – München Hbf
Austria (north west into Germany, from Wien): First – Passau Hbf, Major – Passau Hbf
Czech Republic (north into Germany): First – Bad Schandau, Major – Dresden Hbf
Poland (west into Germany): First – Frankfurt/Oder, Major – Berlin Hbf
This list is not exhaustive. You might also get a hint from the DB’s website if it says something like “Übg.: Emmerich(Gr)” – Übg stands for Übergang – i.e. crossing

5. This means that for any journey through Germany you will have a list of 4 stations – 2 at your entry point, and 2 at your exit point.

6. You now need to do 8 separate DB searches. So, for example, for a København – Geneve journey you would search:
Københaven-Puttgarden, and Puttgarden-Geneve
Københaven-Hamburg, and Hamburg-Geneve
København-Freiburg/Bresigau, and Freiburg/Breisgau-Geneve
København-Basel Bad, and Basel-Bad Geneve
You should make sure the trains you are allocated are the same ones you found in step 2 above. Sometimes you may encounter night trains that have set-down stations only (so København-Freiburg/Bresigau might work for example, but Freiburg/Breisgau-Geneve does not on the trains you want). There are some tricks to get around this, but those are too detailed for this blog post!

7. Total up the price of each of your four options from point 6., and book the cheapest of them. The main gain is that each of these legs of the journey should involve a ‘Europa-Spezial‘ ticket, which can cost as little as 19 Euro, but each Europa-Spezial ticket must start or end in Germany.

8. Sometimes you might need a connection (especially if travelling south through Austria to the Balkans) that will always refuse to give you a price – in those circumstances you will have to call DB.

9. That’s it – simple, eh? :-)

Doing this in the past has saved me more than €100 per single journey.

* – there is the ‘Zwischenhaltestelle’ option for DB that can be used for stopovers – see more on that here.

In its quest for market share, Deutsche Bahn has forgotten about technology and service on their Frankfurt-Brussels route

The Intercity-Express (ICE) connecting Brussels with Frankfurt/Main via Köln is probably the least reliable train I’ve ever experienced. The catalogue of problems I have had with this service stretches back years, right from when the service was first introduced. I do at least 4 return journeys a year on the ICE between Brussels and Köln, and sometimes as far as Frankfurt, and the problems are so common so as to have become a pattern.

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Topic 1 for NL-UK dialogue: rail tickets (London-Bruxelles-Rotterdam)

I’m lucky enough to have received an invite to The Apeldoorn Conference on UK-Netherlands dialogue, taking place 6-8 March in Rotterdam. An easy and high speed train journey – perfect!

The route is Eurostar to Bruxelles Midi, then Thalys on the new HSL-Zuid to Rotterdam Centraal. Total journey time is just over 4 hours, making it comparable to the plane from London to Schipol and then the train to Rotterdam. It’s a journey that anyone should be willing to contemplate.

So how do you book?

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