How Germany Works: Deutsche Bahn
If there was one thing I knew for certain before I moved to Germany, it was that the trains always ran on time. I had no way of proving it, but like many British people, I knew that Germany was a land of efficiency and as such it would surely have a rail system that could ensure punctual trains. I had experienced the “delights” of British rail transport, with its temperamental Wi-Fi, expensive tea and sandwiches, and lenient interpretation of quiet carriages. I had seen trains cancelled, delayed and on one terrible day, stuck in the middle of the countryside for hours. Before moving, I had not learned to drive and on arrival in Germany I knew I would probably never need to, the trains would get me where I needed to go. Fortified with this knowledge, I began my working life commuting from a small village outside Nürnberg.
For the first few months, my expectations were proven correct and my life was the model of effective, efficient commuting. The regional trains may have looked old and rough around the edges, but they could get a person from A to B and, in comparison to the UK at least, at something close to a reasonable price. Granted the trains did not run very late and I found myself awaking in empty carriages travelling in the opposite direction more than once, but I was hardly going to blame Deutsche Bahn for that.
Then came the day when I realised I had been duped, I had bought into the idea that Germany was the most efficient country in the world, when in fact what was meant by “efficient” was actually just ‘more efficient than the UK’. Ask a German about efficiency and they will point you to the Lean process loving Japanese or their neighbours Switzerland. Many Germans will openly laugh at your naivety, scoffing at the very idea that the German rail system is the best in the world. The day in question was in the middle of January, during a particularly harsh cold snap. With temperatures at -10 degrees, I had hurriedly walked to the station, all the while wondering if buying a balaclava was a sensible purchase as each bit of exposed skin was overwhelmed by the numbing cold. As I reached the station, I noticed a larger amount of passengers than the usual Thursday. While buying my ticket, I heard the familiar ding-dong of the tannoy system and a male voice explain something in incomprehensible German. It was not that my German was so poor that I could not understand, but rather that for some inexplicable reason, all train announcements, in any country, must sound like the person speaking is doing so from beyond the grave, through a tin can, while chewing a sock.
Not understanding what had been said, I politely asked a fellow commuter what was going on. Recognising my remedial German skills, they switched to English and simply said, “The rails are too cold, the train will be late”. I looked at him, confused. I had heard of cows on the line, leaves on the line, but never cold rails being a valid reason for delaying a train. I asked whether this was normal, especially with such an efficient system in place. “Efficient?” he asked, “where do you think you are, Zurich?”.
It is with deep displeasure that I must inform all non-Germans that, despite the German predilection for punctuality, Deutsche Bahn is frequently late. Perhaps not to the extent of the UK, but enough to make a person question their decision not to learn to drive. Germany sits in the first tier of ratings when it comes to train performance, but is behind the likes of Sweden, Finland and France. In a country that is regarded as modern and forward thinking, it is a conundrum that Germany has been unable to ensure punctual trains.
It is especially confusing given that over the last week, the German train network has been praised publicly by those who would hope to see the British rail network re-nationalised. For those advocates of state ownership, the German system of government owned railways is a shining example of what can be done when politicians take control of important state assets. What supporters of rail nationalisation fail to note, however, is that Deutsche Bahn is not strictly a nationally owned network, but is actually a privately owned company, overseen by the government.
This might seem like basically the same thing, but in practice it means something very different. The German government remains the sole owner of the countries rail infrastructure and is the only shareholder within Deutsche Bahn. DB operates as a private company and technically the rail network is open to any private company that can tender an affordable offer. However, the train system is a ‘Natural Monopoly’ which, although I am no economist, means that private companies have a hard time entering the market due to the dominance of DB. The costs of entering the market are exorbitant for any private company, allowing DB and its subsidiaries to maintain a strong grip on the industry.
My assumptions about German efficiency is perhaps still relevant, but in the sense that German companies are very efficient at finding loopholes to boost their profits. For example, DB, as a private supplier to the government, is responsible for maintaining the rail network. However, the German state is responsible for the cost of extending the network and fixing those lines that are outdated. To reduce costs, DB appear to be operating a policy of ‘use it until you lose it’, which in practice means that the tracks are not always maintained to a high standard. By using the lines to excess, DB can push the costs of repair onto the German taxpayer, by claiming that the most damaged lines are in fact outdated and thus the responsibility of the government. By following this strategy, DB has pushed as much as three quarters of the maintenance bill on to the German taxpayer, despite the ethical qualms caused by a major rail crash in 2011 due to out of date train tracks.
These maintenance savings, coupled with government subsidies for long and short distance travel (cumulatively around €11 billion), allows DB to invest in and profit from transport networks around the world, including in the UK, despite accusations of abuse of funds.
The irony of British commentators singling out Germany and DB as examples of state owned assets is that for German transport experts, it is the British example of rail privatisation under Margaret Thatcher and John Major that has led to the current predicament. Many of the problems that supporters of nationalisation claim will be solved under a new government owned system such as over reliance on subsidies, lack of core investment, and issues of delays and cancellations are the same problems that Germany currently has. Yet, the German system, for all of it’s many faults, still does not suffer in the same way as the UK, partially because of the way the governmental “fudge” is managed by Berlin, partially because of continued support for well paid unionised DB employees and partially because much of the current problems faced by DB are motivated by a desire to improve efficiency not pure naked profit. We might not find all the answers to the UK’s transport problems within Germany, but we might find a functioning alternative that both the political right and left could compromise over.