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How does Deutsche Bahn compare with European rail firms?

Deutsche Bahn, one of Europe's largest rail companies, has seen a steady decline in performance over the last decades

Deutsche Bahn, one of Europe's largest rail companies, has seen a steady decline in performance over the last decades

For the second time in a month, a nationwide strike has forced German commuters to choose between being stranded at a train station or stuck in a traffic jam. Deutsche Bahn (DB) employees have been on strike since Wednesday, leading to disrupted train schedules and congested roads in what's planned to be Germany's longest rail strike to date.

While not uncommon in Germany, these rail strikes are only one facet of the many challenges facing the national railway service. Passengers regularly grapple with prolonged delays and cancellations for a variety of reasons that go beyond labor disputes.

Frequent cancellations

DB operates the majority of Germany's railways and is responsible for approximately 95% of long-distance transportation, 67% of local transit and 42% of freight conveyance. In 2023, just 64% of long-distance trains reached their destination on time, meaning less than six minutes late, according to a DB spokesperson. These numbers, however, do not include instances where delays are so long that journeys are canceled.

In a 2023 study by the nonprofit Consumer Choice Center, Germany accounted for six out of the 10 worst stations for passenger convenience in Europe. The index, which assessed factors like network connections and the frequency of delayed services, indicated that the German railway system is trailing far behind its neighbors in terms of service and efficiency.

Where did Germany's train network go wrong?

Though owned by the federal government, DB operates akin to a private company. This involves outsourcing to private subcontractors through competitive tenders and pursuing profitability. Despite this, the company also receives public funding and exhibits characteristics of a monopoly.

Andreas Schröder, an economist with the German nonprofit passenger advocacy association Pro Bahn, told DW that opinions on the challenges faced by the Germany's railway giant are divided along political lines, mainly due to DB's dual public and private structure.

"On the left side of the political spectrum, critics attribute the issues to privatization, drawing comparisons with the efficiency of state-owned companies in countries such as Switzerland," he said.

On the other hand, he added, "fans of more liberal economic policies might argue that the root cause lies in a lack of competition, pointing to examples in countries like Italy, where the presence of at least two major companies has resulted in improved performance."

Observers on either side of the political spectrum can widely agree, however, that DB's woes stem from years of inadequate investment. The initial cuts date back to 2004, when the annual budget allocated to DB for the construction and upgrade of railway lines was drastically cut from €4 billion ($5 billion) to €1.5 billion.

"We've invested in the car industry and our highways instead of our railways. It has worked, making Germany a hub for road transit, but it's time to do the same for our train system," said Schröder.

Labor shortage and outdated infrastructure

Decades of underfunding have translated into a variety of other issues. In a report published in January, Deutsche Bahn described its existing rail network as "old" and "prone to failure," unable to keep up with the rapid growth in traffic.

There is also a shortage of new track. In countries with efficient train systems such as Japan, Switzerland and the Netherlands, where 90-99% of all trains arrive on time, high-speed trains usually have an exclusive line. In Germany, high-speed trains like the Intercity Express (ICE) share a track with regional and freight trains. Only a few routes are reserved specifically for the ICE.

With over 7.6 million daily passengers, DB employs approximately 200,000 individuals, solidifying its position as one of Germany's largest employers. France's SNCF boasts a workforce of about 275,000 personnel managing some 10 million daily passengers. The Spanish firm Renfe Operadora has 1.4 million daily passengers and 40,000 employees. Swiss Federal Railways, SBB, which employs 34,200 individuals, handles around 1.2 million passengers each day.

In contrast to its more technologically advanced European counterparts, which benefit from a greater degree of automation, DB has grappled with chronic understaffing, leading to delays attributed to a shortage of train drivers or signal operators.

"Unions are pushing for better working conditions for their staff, hoping it will incentivize people to work in the sector and keep them from leaving for other jobs," Lukas Iffländer, Pro Bahn chairman, told DW. "They do have a point, even though their demands might take some time to realize."

Will Deutsche Bahn get back on track?

Germany has already initiated efforts to bolster DB's budget. However, Schröder expects the planned expansion, modernization and maintenance of the railway network to require substantial construction work.

"The process could take years to bear fruit," he said, adding that it's likely to cause further disruptions along the way. "We probably need to brace for more delayed and irregular trains."

Schröder also pointed out that modernizing the railway system in a densely populated country like Germany would be more challenging that in less densely populated nations.

"Countries such as Spain or Switzerland have plenty of space to develop new railways. In Germany, one major difficulty lies in charting out new rail routes through towns, communities and areas already allocated for public or private purposes," he explained.

According to Iffländer, reforms, especially organizational ones, are necessary. He argued that DB must shift away from the management model of one giant company overseeing every single project.

"Take our eastern neighbor, Poland, for example, where construction projects finish faster because they are carried out by smaller companies," he said.

Iffländer also advocated for greater government supervision, highlighting that DB has traditionally enjoyed a high level of decision-making power.

The German government should also provide stricter guidelines, Iffländer added, prioritizing quality service and strong infrastructure.

"Basically, the management can decide where to invest their funds," he said. "They have focused on profit-making, which benefits the company but leaves out the passengers."

Edited by: Lucy James