Fine the managers, and the trains won't be late

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It May be premature to talk of national decline, but some downward trends are becoming discernible. Germans, it emerges from the latest statistics, are eating less than half the sauerkraut of their forebears, saving fewer pfennigs than their grandmothers, and - shamefully - working fewer hours than Italians. Now we hear that German trains no longer run on time.

Whether any of these are related, no one can tell, but the rail crisis is grave. "We have an unacceptably high level of unpunctuality," thundered Johannes Ludewig, the chairman of Deutsche Bahn, the privatised monopoly. "The saying 'punctual as the railway' must become again the trademark of Deutsche Bahn."

The company gives no figures - some things don't change - but matters are getting worse. They talk of a "domino effect": late arrivals delaying connecting services, and so on. Before you know it, everyone is late for work, the dentist and dinner parties. That would really be the end.

Fortunately, it has not come to that yet. German trains are slower than their French - and even British - counterparts. But they're clean, the connections are good, the food edible and cancellations virtually unheard of. "We are not saying we are worse than others, but we are not good enough," says a spokeswoman. She sees slackness everywhere. Old rolling stock and work onmain routes do cause unavoidable delays, but attitudes are not what they used to be. Some employees prepare the trains too slowly. Drivers mess about. "We are late because colleagues do not start in time."

Don't even mention leaves or snow of any kind. "It is the duty of all staff to carry out their task precisely," she declares. How, precisely? How late can the train be from Bonn to Berlin, a distance of 400 miles, before it is "unpunctual"? Ten minutes? Five? In Britain, trains are "on time" if they are more than 10 minutes late at their destination.

The spokeswoman is ruthless: "A train is unpunctual if it arrives at or leaves any station en route one minute later than scheduled." So the Berlin train 10 minutes late at Hannover but back on time later is an offender.

Disgrace for the driver, and worse for bosses. Deutsche Bahn has declared war on delays with a "punctuality offensive" that will hit managers in their pockets. Unless "unpunctuality" is halved by next year, all foremen and managers will lose part of their end-of-year bonuses, which in happier times amounted to 15 per cent of their salaries.

The company is sure this will work. Whatever else is changing, preoccupation with money remains - reassuringly - an enduring national trait.