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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: The shocking state of German trains exposes the myth about punctuality

To the outside world, Germany has a reputation for being punctual. But when it comes to the rail system, passengers face shocking delays, as well as underfunded infrastructure, writes Brian Melican.

A traveller walks past a German ICE high speed train.
A traveller walks past a German ICE high speed train. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

This summer, we have the comparatively rare opportunity to watch a widely-held stereotype dissolving in real time: all you need to do is get on a train – or, if you would like to avoid that rather unpleasant experience, simply stand on a station platform as panicky tourists charge through the country’s Hauptbahnhöfe (main stations) from one delayed connection to another, crying out in anguished surprise as the train doors close in front of them: “But aren’t Germans supposed to be punctual?!”

Of course, as the less chauvinistic and more realistic among us well understand, being on time has long been more of a cherished collective aspiration than a national characteristic. Ironically, while countries whose timekeeping we regularly deride, such as France and Italy, have relatively reliable rail networks, Germans, who feel acute embarrassment at every minute of tardiness, must make do with trains which are chronically delayed and now getting worse. Hence the surprise of foreigners caught up in chaotic delays – and our own sense that things are generally going down the pan.

READ ALSO: Why so many long distance trains in Germany were delayed in April

Trains becoming ‘unattractive prospect’

Yes, just as tourists and business travellers return after Covid, Deutsche Bahn and the country’s other operators are doing their level best to bust one of the few remaining myths on which we as a nation trade (“German efficiency”, “German engineering”, and “German preparedness”), having already been caught with their proverbial pants down on numerous occasions in recent years…

The official Deutsche Bahn statistics may state that around 70 percent of its IC and ICEs are still punctual, but there are two things about this: firstly, taken on its own terms, this is an appalling admission, meaning as it does that almost one in three long-distance journeys suffers a delay or more than six minutes (and that an unnamed number are delayed by up to 5:59 minutes, enough to miss a tight connection). Secondly, whatever the statistics say, I personally as a regular rail traveller have never experienced chaos as extensive and sustained as over the last 12 months – and I’m not alone.

People queue to get on an ICE train at Berlin Hauptbahnhof.

People queue to get on an ICE train at Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

I’m not, by the way, challenging the accuracy of the DB statistics: it’s just that the delays seem to be affecting the most strongly frequented lines. Having a train run punctually, but empty or on a quiet route will not do much to dispel the now widespread impression that rail travel in Germany has gone from being a continuing, yet reassuringly predictable disappointment to resembling one of the outer circles of hell. And while punctuality is the main issue, a range of other factors – from on-board comfort to passenger information and compensation for delays – are making what should be the backbone of Germany’s switch to carbon-neutral transport into a horrifically unattractive prospect.

READ ALSO: How to find cheap train tickets in Germany

Two hours behind schedule

Take last weekend, when I returned from a holiday in the UK via changes at Brussels and Cologne. Things got off to a bad start when my Eurostar was delayed by half an hour: theoretically, I would have missed my onward ICE from Brussels, yet – somewhat fortuitously for me – it left 50 minutes late due to a technical defect in the unit; at Cologne, too, I should have missed a connection due to this delay, yet the IC to Hamburg was also running late, by around a quarter of an hour… 

If that sounds like getting lucky twice, it wasn’t: after around 40 years as the workhorse of the north-western route, the IC rolling stock on the Cologne to Hamburg services is in a parlous state, of which a lack of air-conditioning in several carriages was the most obvious manifestation; and as so often, the BordBistro was first closed, later able to serve drinks only (lukewarm due to a broken fridge). Then, as minor delays are want to, this one slowly increased to almost an hour by Bremen, where we had to stop for another 50 minutes due to trespassers on the line. We were then held for a further few minutes because, as the audibly exasperated guard explained, we were unable to get moving again until the people in coach 3 agreed to put their masks on. That’s Germany these days: holding up an already severely delayed train on a petty point of Pandemic-related principle while actually creating conditions which will make the spread of Covid considerably more likely.

Eventually, we arrived into Hamburg just shy of two hours behind schedule – masks, t-shirts, and everything else drenched in the kind of sweat you can only get into as a result of failed on-board air-conditioning and prolonged concern about whether you will reach your destination. I personally was exhausted, but at least close to home; spare a thought for the plucky Greta-inspired teenagers heading from Amsterdam back to Stockholm who, already several hours behind schedule due to a delay on their previous IC, went on to miss the last sensible connection northwards… 

Passengers on the train platform in Hamburg.

Passengers on the train platform in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bodo Marks

It says a lot that, during two weeks’ holiday travelling around the UK – a country assumed both at home and abroad to have deplorable trains – the worst of the journeys were in Germany. Sure, the services I took in Britain were delayed, but the rolling stock was better maintained, refreshments were reliably available, and the “Delay Repay” scheme far more generous. The latter kicks in after just 15 minutes, whereas Deutsche Bahn’s compensation is only available for delays of one hour of more – a telling yardstick. And interestingly enough, as our IC approached the two-hours’ delay mark just ahead of Hamburg, it accelerated markedly and, suddenly, the passengers removing their masks around me as they gasped for oxygen in the fetid miasma of coach 10 didn’t seem of particular interest: from 120 minutes on, the amount of compensation due doubles…

READ ALSO: Delayed train? Germany’s Deutsche Bahn to give online refunds for the first time

All of this is especially tragic in that, between the nadir of 2015 (the last time Germany’s trains were this unpunctual) and 2021, train travel actually improved somewhat. New units ordered by Deutsche Bahn and various other operators began to come into service, staffing was improved, and the first of the many long-overdue works to expand capacity, upgrade damage-prone components, and prevent unauthorised access were undertaken. By the arrival of the Pandemic in 2020, punctuality had gone up, as had comfort (on-board WiFi; refreshments on longer journeys). 

Why are trains in Germany getting worse?

Yet now, the same old disruption of yesteryear has returned – as has the rail industry’s tendency to blame poor performance on external factors. This time, it’s apparently the resurgence in passenger numbers after 2020/2021 and a lack of staff that are the cause of all our woes, despite the fact that traffic is still slightly below the pre-pandemic peak and that, in the intervening period, Deutsche Bahn and other operators have had a field day poaching out-of-work air-industry workers… 

So what actually is behind the chronically poor and fast-worsening performance of German rail? I don’t know for sure, but 15 years of up-close-and-personal experience tell me that it’s most likely a combination of three overarching factors: decades-long network underinvestment so sustained that even the various gazillions announced in recent times will take years to make a dent on the infrastructure problems; vastly increased complexity since privatisation along with a weakened, yet still dominant national operator (Deutsche Bahn) whose internal structures and corporate culture combine the worst inefficiencies of the public with the worst short-termism of the private sector; and a populace and political class which only shows sporadic interest in rail (“9 Euro ticket!”) and is otherwise still obsessed with personalised motor transport. 

Car-crazy penny-pinchers? Now there’s an enduring stereotype about us Germans unlikely to be dispelled any time soon…

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TRAIN TRAVEL

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying – even with kids

Hoping to do his bit for the planet, perhaps save some money and avoid spending any time in airports, The Local's Ben McPartland decided to travel 2,000km with his family across Europe by train - not plane. Here's how he got on on and would he recommend it?

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying - even with kids

Summer 2022 has seen the return of people travelling across Europe en masse whether for holidays or to see family, or both.

But it’s also seen chaos in airports, airline strikes and more questions than ever about whether we should be flying at all as Europe bakes under consecutive heatwaves caused by the climate crisis.

But are there really viable alternatives to travelling 2,000 km across Europe in a short space of time – with young kids?

The predicament

We needed to get from Paris to Portugal, or to be more precise the western edge of the Algarve in southern Portugal, for a week-long family holiday.

We didn’t have that much time to spend travelling there and back so the dilemma was how could we get there, fairly quickly?

“We” in this case being a family of four including two children aged 5 and 7, one fairly easygoing mum and a dad (me) who increasingly comes out in a rash when he goes near an airport.

Normally we’d have flown – as we did when we went to the same region of Portugal in October – but the stories of airport chaos, delays, cancellations, strikes and never-ending queues around Europe at the start of the summer made the prospect of taking the plane far less appealing.

Then throw in the climate crisis and the growing feeling that we, as a family, need to make an effort for the cause.

So the thought of flying, during what forecasters say was one of the hottest Julys on record in Europe and as rivers dried up and wildfires burn, just didn’t feel like an acceptable option – to me anyway – when there are alternatives.

There was the option of driving from France to Portugal, as many French and Portuguese nationals living in France do every summer. But driving nearly 2,000 km there and back for just a week’s holiday with two kids strapped in the back for hours on end would have been asking for trouble – either a breakdown or lots of meltdowns.

So that left taking the train. But would it be viable?  Would something go wrong as my colleague Richard Orange had warned on his own rail trip across Europe with kids this summer?

READ ALSO: What I learned taking the train through Europe with two kids

Planning the route

With the help of some really knowledgeable European rail experts like Jon Worth and information from the excellent The Man in Seat Sixty-One website we looked at the various rail routes through France and Spain to southern Portugal.

One problem was the line from southern Spain to the Algarve no longer runs which meant the best we could do was get to Seville and then hire a car.

At one point the best option looked like a night train (fairly cheap with a whole cabin reserved for the family) down to the Pyrenees (Latour-de-Carol) and then a local train to Barcelona before onwards travel to Portugal.

But in the end we settled on the direct train from Paris to Barcelona, spend the night in the Catalan city before taking the train the next day to Seville and picking up the car.

READ ALSO 6 European cities less than 7 hours from Paris by train

It would be mean Paris to Portugal in two days – or to be precise 7 hours to Barcelona, one night in a hotel, before a five-and-half-hour train journey to Seville and a three-hour car journey. It was the quickest way without flying, as far as we could see.

We were about to book the tickets when friend who was travelling by rail through Europe mentioned the Interrail option.

I did Interrailing as an 18-year- old and it was a great way to spend a month travelling around Europe (and Morocco) but had never thought it could be an option for a quickish trip to Portugal and back.

But Interrail has changed a bit since 1996 and indeed since 1972 when it was first launched for under 21s.

Now it offers passes that can be used for 4, 5 or 7 days a month – perfect for travel to a few destinations in a short space of time.

And, this was the clincher – Interrail passes for under 11s are free if they are with an adult.

Well almost free, because in certain countries like France and Spain you still need to pay for seat reservations for anyone travelling.

But the cost of the passes for two adults, plus seat reservations were cheaper than just booking direct trains and much cheaper than flying (more on costs below).

The high-speed train from Barcelona to Seville. Photo: The Local

The Upsides

Let’s start with not having to wake up at 4am and arrive at the train station three hours before the train leaves just to check in a bag and then spend the next three hours queuing in various lines – bags, passport, security, boarding etc..

We arrived at Gare de Lyon around 30 minutes before the train left and boarded without queuing and the train departed on time.

Compare this with having to get a taxi or the RER train to Charles de Gaulle airport and then still find yourself in Paris three hours later as you queue to board. (I know this is not always the case but this summer the advice was to arrive three hours before your flight to check in bags.)

Plus there was no luggage limits on the train and no having to empty your bags at security because you left an old roll-on deodorant at the bottom of your bag.

Although rail stations in Spain do have airport style x-ray machines to check all luggage, they were very rapid and didn’t result in any long queues.

Add to this comfortable seats with leg room, a bar you can walk to and spend hours watching the beautiful French and Spanish landscape whizz by.

You arrive in the centre of town – in our case Barcelona – so there’s no need to get public transport or taxis to and from out of town airports. 

Spending a night in Barcelona was a great way to break the journey – albeit a bit expensive (see below).

And it all ran pretty much on time. Over five train journeys in four days we had 15 minutes of delay. Spain’s high-speed trains were fantastic.

To sum it up: when flying your holiday only really begins when you arrive at your final destination because these days the day spent travelling is one big headache, but with the train the holiday begins as soon as you leave the station.

It’s just far, far more relaxing.

heading back to Barcelona Sants station after a night in the Catalan capital. Photo: The Local.

The Downsides

But what about the kids, you say?

Yep this can be an issue. Travelling for 7 hours on a train is not easy with two young kids but if you come prepared and can think of 75 different ways to occupy them from drawing and playing cards to I-spy and “count my freckles slowly” then it’s possible the journey will be tantrum free. (Playing hide and seek on a train with 12 carriages isn’t advisable.)

And kids adapt, so the following day’s five and half hour journey from Barcelona to Seville was a breeze because they settled into the pace of life and by that point had worked out the code to get into my mobile phone.

One complaint was how long the TGV train took to get along the southern French coast. Does it really need to stop at Nimes, Montpellier, Beziers, Agde, Sete and Perpignan? Can’t local trains serve these stations and the TGV just head straight to Spain?

Another little gripe was the train food. Whilst buffet cars on SNCF and Renfe trains are great for a coffee or a beer they don’t really offer a selection of healthy meals, so you need to come prepared. We weren’t and spent a lot of money on crap food and drink during the trips.

But if you know this in advance you can bring whatever you like onto the train, with no nonsense about 100ml limits on liquid.

Cost comparison

Working out cost comparisons are hard and anyone looking to do a similar trip will need a calculator at hand. 

It’s hard to do a direct comparison between flying and taking the train because so much depends on what the prices are when you book, the route you want to take and how quickly you want to travel and whether to go first class or standard.

But for us at the time of booking (roughly two months in advance) flights from Paris to Faro were about €1,500 for four people, train tickets booked directly with SNCF and Renfe (not interrail) for four people were around €1,200 (this probably could have been much cheaper further in advance), whilst the Interrail option – 4 day passes plus seat reservations was around €810.

So on the face of it travelling by train, especially using Interrail passes, was cheaper – but then add on the cost of two nights in hotels in central Barcelona and there was no real financial benefit of going by train.

But then it was never all about money – what price on not having to spend three hours at Charles de Gaulle airport?

How easy is it to Interrail?

Interrail proved a great option for us, even though it was only a relatively short trip. It’s more suited to those looking to do multiple journeys through various countries, perhaps at a slower pace. But the kids being free was crucial for us, so other families should definitely explore the option.

The one downside to Interrailing through France and Spain is the requirement to book seat reservations for the high-speed trains.

Whilst this sounds fairly straightforward we couldn’t do it through the Interrail app or website so had to be done with Renfe directly. For most countries you can reserve seats through the Interrail app (more on this below).

With SNCF it required a lengthy phone call because we reserved the seats to make sure there were some available before getting the Interrail passes.

For Paris to Barcelona the reservations cost €34 for standard class seats or €48 for first class.

With Renfe it was more complicated although much cheaper (Around €10 to €12 a seat). We were told on the phone that to reserve seats with Interrail you have to do it either at a Spanish train station or by phone but only if you can pick up and pay for the reservations at a Spanish train station within a certain amount of time.

Neither of these were possible when booking from Paris back in May/June. But the helpful website Man at Seat 61 recommended going via the man behind the AndyBTravels website, who charges a small fee. A few emails were exchanged and our reservations for Barcelona to Seville arrived in the post a few days later. 

Renfe and SNCF could make it easier for Interrail passengers.

The Interrail mobile pass on the the Rail Planner app was very easy to use. It was just a case of adding the days when we were travelling and then adding the specific journeys.

This brought up a QR code for each trip but the ticket controllers were always more concerned about the seat reservations we had on paper.

But all went to plan.

 

Conclusion

Those days spent sitting drinking coffee, orange and beer (in separate cups) starring out of train windows at fields, hills, mountains, villages, beach and train platforms were part of the holiday.

I’d say that if you have a day or two to spare then travelling across Europe by train instead of plane is well worth it – yes, even with two young kids.

They might even thank you for it one day if we all help avert a climate disaster. 

Advice

It’s hard to give advice because each person has different requirements that need to be taken into account – whether number of passengers, time needed for travelling, destinations, cost etc.

But plan ahead and do the research to see what’s possible.

One bit of advice if you need to travel quickly is try keep connections to a minimum or give yourself plenty of time to make them.

My colleague Richard Orange had problems on his trip from Sweden to the UK via Denmark, Germany and Belgium because of delays and missed connections.

Useful links and extra info

You can explore Interrail pass options and prices by visiting the Interrail site here. The site offers plenty of info to help you plan your trip and reserve seats on trains if necessary.

The fantastic Man in Seat 61 guide to train travel across Europe is a must-read for anyone planning a trip. It has pages and pages of useful up to date info and can be viewed here.

It also has loads of information on how to use an Interrail pass and calculations to see whether it’s the best option – if you need help with the maths. The page can be viewed here.

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