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Posts tagged with: Germany

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:


How to find a flat in Berlin

moving-boxesI moved to Berlin on 26th October 2013, and now, less than 3 months later, I am already living in my second flat. I’ve gathered an enormous amount of knowledge through the two flat searches, and this blog entry is a summary of my learning. Do comment below, or tweet me, if you have comments, corrections or amendments – this blog entry should become some sort of living guide.

Contents
1. Introduction
2. Mieten or untermieten, or a WG (Wohngemeinschaft)
3. Prerequisites for renting a flat
4. Searching for a flat – criteria
5. Searching for a flat – location
6. Searching for a flat – websites
7. Flat visits
8. Making an offer
9. Payments
10. Moving in, and afterwards
11. My own story Continue Reading


So why this affinity for Germany?

berlin-cover

I’m back. Today is my first full day back living in Berlin since leaving here in March 2002. Then I had spent 6 months living in the city as a 21-year old recent graduate from the UK, trying to scrape together a living. I left for Brussels, and resolved one day to return.

Why, I was asked at a party here last night, do you speak German? It’s a reasonable question to ask of a British person, as rather few British people do speak German well. For me the answer to this question is at the root of the reasons why I am always so very content in Germany – because I have, somehow, always been content in Germany, and that goes back to my first experiences here.

My parents were keen that their kids spoke languages more than they did. They had always spent lots of time in France, and from the late 1980s onwards we went to France every summer. This, together with French lessons in school from the age of 11, helped with that language. Then when a second language was offered in school – German from the age of 13 – I suppose I somehow already saw the point of languages. I do not recall whether it was my keenness or my parents’ insistence but after learning German for barely six months I was packed off to Germany for a week on a school exchange in Lahnstein. Here three things came together. Firstly I was lucky to have a super guest family – the Kröck family – and their two sons Florian and Tobias became friends to me. Secondly, Lahnstein was some sort of paradise in comparison to Newport in South Wales – it was spotless and the Rhein was beautiful. Thirdly, it was an escape – my father was a teacher in the school where I was a pupil, and hence knew of everything I did. Not that I was irresponsible in Lahnstein, but I was not under my parents’ gaze.

So that started a series of visits to Lahtstein, at least once a year for 5 or 6 years. My German improved (through to A-Level in school), driven on by a somewhat dour but always thorough German teacher, Herr Kelly, whose attention to the grammar rules of German frustrated me then but benefits me now. Herr Kelly was always willing to push able pupils with texts about things that interested them, so by the time I finished school I was already well aware of many intricacies of German politics. On one of my later visits to Lahnstein I even met the daughter of Rudolf Scharping who was the friend of a friend – I’m not sure how many British teenagers would even have known who Rudolf Scharping was. Last but not least, Lahnstein introduced me to a sport that was just getting big in Germany in the 1990s – inline skating. It’s a sport I still do, and I skate past Lahnstein most summers still in Rhine-on-Skates.

By the age of 18 then, through a combination of parental determination, a good German teacher, and the joy of spending time in Lahnstein I had somehow reached a decent level of fluency in German, and felt content when in Germany. Throughout my studies in the UK, where I first encountered the Young European Federalists (JEF-Europe), this connection with Germany and understanding the rest of the country (not just the Rheinland) increased. When my studies in the UK were done it made sense to move to Germany for some time, not least as my UK university had not allowed me to do an Erasmus exchange.

However my first period in Berlin, between October 2001 and March 2002 – was somewhat fraught. I struggled to scrape together enough money to live, and did two poorly paid jobs. But my boss in the second of these jobs – Bernd Hüttemann – has become one of my closest friends, and I’m sat writing this blog entry at his kitchen table as I’m yet to move into my own flat in Berlin. I lived in a Wohngemeinschaft (WG) with Jan Seifert then, and he and I started our own company together. So while I struggled in that cold, dark winter, friendships made then continue now. My fascination with Berlin started then, and I am looking forward to discovering and understand more about this extraordinary city.

Since 2002 I have continued to visit Berlin (and indeed other cities in Germany) very regularly. I have done numerous freelance contracts in Berlin over the years, and can even make speeches and presentations in German. New connections have been made throughout this period, especially to the many excellent people who work at the intersection of technology and politics in Germany.

In short, ich fühle mich wohl hier. I am content here. And that is why I am here, finally back in Berlin after 11 years. But the roots of why that is so go back to formative years as a teenager.


Berlin. From 26th October.

berlin-alex

At 1747 on Saturday October 26th my train will pull into Berlin Hbf and I will be arriving at the place I hope I will be able to call home. Since a short period living in the German capital between October 2001 and March 2002 I have longed to return, and now I am actually going to finally manage it.

So why am I moving to Berlin?

Berlin is my favourite city. Nothing else comes close. It has the brilliance of a big city, without the downsides of London. It’s liberal and also (relatively) organised. It’s both historic and modern. It’s a city where you can find absurdity and tranquility within a few metres of each other. It’s a place that after all these years visiting still excites me, still gives me a spring in my step.

The move is of course not going to be without its problems. I moved from London to Copenhagen just over a year ago, and to some extent I am now just running away from how Denmark has emphasised my own inadequacies – my inability to find my place in Copenhagen, and to build any sort of personal or professional network there. I cannot look myself in the mirror in Denmark and have any idea what I could contribute that could not be done better by a local, someone better versed in the rules and norms of the society than I can ever be. Even were I to learn Danish to fluency I still have no idea what I could ever do in Denmark, what I could ever be. The fault for that lies with me, and with me alone, and my inability to fit. For personal reasons I am going to be back in Denmark reasonably regularly though.

Somehow as an outsider to Germany I find the challenges easier to surmount than elsewhere. I speak near fluent German already, and through working intermittently in Berlin as a freelancer over the years can call on a big network of people to work with. Many of these people do extraordinary things, they inspire me, and interesting things happen when I talk to these people. Also the whole environment around work is so much better in Berlin – I can go to events and perfectly understand what is going on (so far impossible in Denmark). More than a dozen old friends also live in Berlin, so socially things are going to work out fine too.

I am also fascinated by the prospect of throwing myself into German politics. I found myself behaving more like a typical German than a typical Brit when it came to my reaction to the NSA / Snowden scandal. Also on green energy and EU matters my views are reasonably mainstream in Germany, while I feel I am in a minority of one in the UK, and so far do not have the cultural understanding to be political in Denmark.

I will continue to essentially work freelance, running training courses about online communications and social media for political and governmental clients. That will still mean regular trips to Brussels, but I hope to be able to get more work in Berlin – I have some contracts there already and will actively seek more.

I will stay in a friend’s spare room in Berlin immediately after moving, and will then find my own place to live – trying to use social media to do that will be a subject of a further blog post.


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.


Miliband explains all the problems of the European left – now time for solutions

David Miliband set out his concerns about the predicament of the European left in a speech at LSE this evening. The full text of his speech is available at Labourlist here, and Next Left has a little post from earlier here.

As you would expect from the elder Miliband, the speech is full of references to thinkers in Labour’s past and a compassionate understanding of some of Europe’s main centre left parties. The headline fact is that at no time since World War I has the left not been in power in the UK, Germany, France, Netherlands, Italy and Sweden, and Miliband sums up the predicament this way:

Left parties are losing elections more comprehensively than ever before. They are losing from government and from opposition; they are losing in majoritarian systems and PR systems; just for good measure they are losing whatever position the party had on the Iraq war; and they are fragmenting at just the time the right is uniting.

It’s from this point on that it’s possible to examine Miliband’s words, and also try to propose some first hints of ways forward.

Continue Reading


A new Germany-EU discourse

Ulrike Guérot

Ulrike Guérot

I heard a short speech in Berlin yesterday evening by Ulrike Guérot from the European Council on Foreign Relations at an event organised by Europa Union. The essential gist of her presentation was that, now, 20 years on since the fall of the Berlin Wall (and indeed that’s half as long as the Bundesrepublik existed during the cold war), Germany is on a fast track to escaping from its traditional role as the country that pays for everyone else in the EU. Fair enough, Merkel’s behaviour during the Greece crisis seemed to show that very well, and Germany’s strong growth in the second half of 2010 shows that the economic motor is still doing OK.

But, as Guérot argues in this piece for Open Democracy, Germany’s export strength is not very handy for the rest of the Eurozone, and even as Germany’s own situation improves, the vocabulary used towards the rest of the EU remains much harsher than it used to be.

Continue Reading


Europa ist führungslos cries Helmut Schmidt. He’s right. But why?

It seems it’s the season for high level German politicians of yesteryear to have a go at the EU. Former Bundeskanzler Schmidt is quoted by Euractiv.de (Google translation here) as saying:

Es ist im Augenblick keine Führungsperson da. Das ist eine schlimmere Situation, als wir sie jemals in 60 Jahren der europäischen Integration erlebt haben.

The gist is that at the moment there is no leading person there (in the EU), and that it’s a worse situation that we have seen in 60 years of European integration. Schmidt also goes on to have a rant at the whole enlargement of the EU.

Continue Reading


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