Germany shrank over the weekend thanks to a new rail link that cuts the 623km journey from Berlin to Munich from six to under four hours.
Chancellor Angela Merkel boarded the maiden ICE Sprinter train from Munich for its final lap though Berlin, a €10 billion final piece of Germany’s unification puzzle.
However joy turned to schadenfreude when, after several stops and starts, the returning train limped into the Bavarian capital after 1am on Saturday, two hours and five minutes late.
“This is not what we wish, nor our customers either,” said a chastened rail spokesman of the service.
Despite the teething problems, state-owned rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) is optimistic the new rail link will revolutionise travel in Germany.
Improving the line between the German and Bavarian capitals was one of several projects proposed after unification in 1990. As part of a long-term north-south European route from Scandinavia to Italy, the first stretch was introduced 20 years ago. Political rows and planning stops meant the final 107km stretch was only completed this year at a cost of €3.8 billion.
It runs from Erfurt through the central Thuringian Forest, a remarkable feat of German engineering with 22 tunnels and 29 bridges.
DB hopes the new connection – tickets cost €150 one way, though discounts are available – will woo people into their carriages. Currently just one in five trips between Berlin and Munich is by rail, with 30 per cent by car and one in two by plane.
However, the bankruptcy of Air Berlin – leaving a Lufthansa monopoly on the route and fares of €300 one way – may help change Germans’ minds.
The German rail company aims to double its share of the market to 3.6 million passengers annually, offering what it calls the fastest and most convenient link from one city centre to the other. “This is a serious alternative to flying,” said Richard Lutz, DB chief executive.
On the maiden journey, racing at 300km/h through the snowy German landscape, not all passengers were impressed by the effective speed limit of 150km/h on the new ICE train. After all 15 years ago France introduced a new TGV high-speed line bringing Parisians to Marseilles – 775km in three hours.
“I travel a lot in France where 320-340 km/h are standard,” said Patrick Bohlmann, aboard the first ICE sprinter.
The big difference with France’s non-stop TGV services: Germany’s decentralised federal system allows state governors intervene in the planning process of the state railway. In the 1990s a Thuringia governor lobbied Helmut Kohl to ensure the train line takes a 90km detour via the state capital Erfurt.
“It was a political decision as to whether the line would take the direct route or take a detour through Thuringia,” confirmed a DB spokesperson
German politicians call it intelligent regional planning, ensuring dozens of trains stop daily in the eastern cities of Erfurt and Halle. For them the new rail network is a crucial contribution to overcoming old Cold War divisions.
Yet rail planners complain that political interference has pushed the journey time well beyond three hours, the magic cut-off point to lure business travellers onto the rails.
German business travellers are already wary of taking the train because of plummeting reliability. Despite massive investment in the Munich-Berlin route, cost-cutting elsewhere has come at the cost of punctuality. Since May the monthly punctuality rate – trains that arrive less than six minutes’ late – has dropped to 79 per cent.
Lutz blames the poor performance on a series of serious storms during the summer. Yet regular DB passengers can sing a dirge of broken-down trains, broken Wifi, blocked toilets and out-of-service dining cars. Though a long way behind Swiss rail heaven, and falling behind, Germany still remains a rail travel dream compared to Ireland.
But on Sunday the DB curse struck again on the new high-speed line. The first regular day of service ended in confusion, with one train halted for 20 minutes in Nuremberg, then diverted onto the old line. Other trains were diverted to Fulda. Some 24 years and €10 billion later, the journey time from Munich to Berlin was back where it started again: six hours.