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Record train delays bury Germany’s reputation for efficiency

Faced with passenger fury, Deutsche Bahn and the new federal government are scrambling to get things back on track

Berlin’s steel-and-glass central train station is, depending on your perspective, either a far-sighted vote of confidence in rail travel or an early portent of looming disaster.

Visiting a few years ago, an Irish friend says her father, an engineer by trade, wept at the sight of this cathedral of rail travel: six floors, 14 criss-crossing train tracks, glass lifts and escalators all held together by massive steel girders.

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It is a remarkable feat of German engineering but look closely and you’ll see it is also lopsided.

To ensure it was completed in time for the the 2006 World Cup, 130m (427ft) of the original 450m (1,476ft) station roof over the east-west tracks was never installed. As a result, first-class train passengers arriving in Berlin are exposed to the elements.

The missing roof is perhaps the most visible corner cut by Deutsche Bahn (DB), Germany’s state-owned rail operator, but it was just a taste of what was to come.

“They’ve scrimped and saved us to death,” says a friend who works as a DB conductor but who would prefer to remain anonymous. “We have a staff shortage and too few trains doing too many journeys, with no time to service them between trips.”

On Thursday, the arrivals board in the Berlin central’s main hall told the now usual story: trains from Cologne-Bonn between 25 and 101 minutes late; from Kiel in the north, 40 minutes late; from Amsterdam and Wroclaw, 30 and 90 minutes late respectively.

For its seven million daily passengers, German rail travel is now a frustrating, traumatic and chastening experience. Their national rail operator, once known and admired for its precision, now struggles with just 58 per cent train punctuality.

Like many passengers, my DB conductor friend points the finger of blame at the federal governments of the last 20 years as well as Hartmut Mehdorn. DB chief executive for a decade from 1999, his short stature, bulbous nose and penetrating voice earned him the name “Rumpelstiltskin”.

While the imp of the Grimm fairy tale spins straw into gold, Mehdorn was hired to polish up DB for a stock exchange flotation in 2008.

Going public was to be the last lap of a transformation that began in 1994 when politicians reconfigured DB from a near-bankrupt public utility with €24 billion accumulated debt into a hybrid public-private commercial enterprise.

The philosophy of the pre-IPO Mehdorn years was simple: invest as little as possible to make the DB bride appear pretty and profitable for potential suitors.

The public-offering plan was eventually cancelled due to the 2008 financial crisis and Mehdorn departed a year later. But the austerity culture persisted, sustained by a Merkel-era focus on balanced federal budgets.

Trapped between competing demands – to maximise profit and provide a public utility – DB was, over more than two decades, forced into sticking-plaster solutions instead of serious investment. This summer, DB’s austerity-hobbled house of cards came crashing down.

“People used to be proud of Deutsche Bahn,” said my conductor friend between trips in Berlin. “Now they expect the worst and take out their frustrations on us. The frontline staff are the nation’s whipping boys and girls.”

Faced with a torrent of passenger fury and refunds (for delays of more than an hour), DB and the new federal government are scrambling to turn things around.

DB chief executive Richard Lutz has gone on a PR offensive, insisting that this year’s meltdown is down to special factors. For one, a surge in passengers thanks to a €9 ticket that allowed countrywide travel all summer on the local public transport and regional trains (excluding high-speed lines).

Another reason for train delays and cancellations: the challenges of squeezing traffic around the 38,400 km rail network amid a record number of building sites to reverse €60 billion under-investment in tracks, signals and trains in the last 20 years.

“We can’t catch up on that in just two or three years,” says Mr Lutz.

As part of a new quality offensive, DB is hiring 1,000 additional train and platform staff and introducing a simplified pricing (and delay refund) system.

Already 40 per cent more high-speed trains are operating compared to five years ago, while additional rolling stock worth €10 billion will come on-stream by 2029. Among the new arrivals: 13-carriage XXL trains with room for up to 1,000 passengers.

With a quarter of Berlin’s central station roof still in storage, however, longer trains mean hundreds more arrivals in the capital left out in the rain.