Mary Dejevsky: Rail chaos puts the brakes on Berliners

Berlin Notebook: I know this is Germany, where these things are not supposed to happen, but Berlin's S-Bahn has been out of action for a month
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The Independent Online

It's a good thing for Berliners that the mid-autumn weather has been mostly clement. Cyclists and walkers have taken to the streets and pavements in their thousands, but not entirely for pleasure. An especially crowded route has been the half-mile or so between Tiergarten and Zoological Gardens stations, a wide pathway through the park alongside the zoo, from where, at one point, you can glimpse a cluster of healthy-looking camels.

One reason why this thoroughfare has been more like Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon than its generally pastoral self, is that Berlin's main transport artery, the above-ground S-Bahn, has been out of action for the best part of a month, and there was no direct alternative for this particular route. I know this is Germany, where these things are not supposed to happen, and so did Berliners – who were furious, but powerless to do anything about it. Serious faults were found with the trains' braking systems, and they were all taken out of service, just like that. It has been said that the brakes were defective for years, but were signed back into service at the annual inspections. The whole saga is not without a whiff of corruption.

Last week the trains started returning to the lines, and the heavy chains and officious red no-entry notices were being moved. The few trains that were running were greeted with joyous surprise by the passengers, as old friends who had finally returned. Just goes to show you don't appreciate something until it's not there.

The rise of 'nappy valley'

The East-West disparity in wealth and infrastructure standards remains stark, even 20 years after the fall of the Wall. But one region of the former east, where Angela Merkel and her husband used to live, has bucked the trend. Prenzlauer Berg, an inner north-eastern suburb, is now a thoroughly gentrified enclave. It has trees, trendy restaurants, fashion boutiques and small art galleries. Most of all, though, it has playgrounds, with lots of complicated wooden apparatus, and hosts of children to enjoy them. Germany's population may be ageing and in decline, but not in Berlin's "nappy valley". This is probably the only part of the city where you are less likely to be knocked down by a speeding car than a baby buggy steered by proud parents.

A vote for spin

A footnote from the elections that swept Angela Merkel back as Chancellor for another four years. Germans were somewhat taken aback to learn their voting procedures were being monitored for the first time by election observers from the OSCE. Almost like Uzbekistan, said a huffy newspaper headline. It was then put about that the observers were there less to criticise than to learn. Ah yes, that would be it, then. Clearly, the spin game isn't unique to Westminster.