By British standards, Deutsche Bahn seems a paragon of efficiency. The publicly owned company claims to have a "punctuality rate" of 91 per cent. A German train is defined as being on time if it arrives within five minutes of its schedule at all its destinations. Thus, if the Berlin-to-Munich express turns up more than five minutes late at just one station during its seven-hour journey, its tardiness is logged in the official statistics.
In practice, German trains are generally reliable but slow. Years of under-investment have left a legacy of antiquated carriages and rickety tracks. The dilapidated network in the former East Germany swallowed much of the available funds. The average age of rolling stock exceeds 20 years, some of the 38,000km-long track has wooden sleepers, the points are wobbly and the signalling downright dangerous.
Germany slept through France's railway renaissance and is now hurrying to catch up. Last week the government in Berlin pledged investments of DM26.4bn over three years, to bring the service closer to the expectations of its demanding customers.
Like Britain, Germany had its share of train disasters that could be traced back to sloppy maintenance. On Friday, three people were killed and at least 18 injured when a US army truck and a regional train collided at a level crossing in Bavaria. Three years ago, the derailment of an intercity express train at Eschede claimed 101 lives. That, in turn, was followed by a dozen smaller accidents, most of which could be attributed to cutbacks in maintenance.
The new three-year investment programme, financed in part from the windfall of Germany's third generation mobile phone auction, will pay for a complete overhaul of the network. Two-thirds of the money will be spent on the tracks. Most of the 3,000 places where trains have to slow to a crawl will be refurbished. The signalling and points will be replaced with an automated digital system, and the tracks renewed.
The remainder of the money will be spent on new rolling stock. "We are saying goodbye to the model railway enthusiast's favourite toy trains," promises Hartmut Mehdorn, the new boss of Deutsche Bahn, brought in two years ago after the string of accidents.
The company is also planning to bid farewell to 50,000 of its workers. The new trains, it is argued, will be easier to maintain and quicker to turn around. Station staff will also be pruned back, as ticket counters are replaced with self-service machines and booking moves into the internet age. An as yet unspecified number of lines will also be abolished or leased out to private companies or local authorities. Regional governments, which already subsidise some services, will be asked to pick up a bigger proportion of the tab if they want to keep remote stations open.
By 2005, most of the high-speed lines now being built will be open. All trains should be faster, more comfortable and punctual. The network, so the government hopes, will also be in better financial shape, fit perhaps even for privatisation. That, after all, is the politicians' ultimate goal, and one which is already provoking heated debate in Germany. How it is to be achieved has still not been decided. But most protagonists agree that the British model should be avoided.Reuse content