Everything goes… especially the passenger – Public transport in Germany

“Well, in Germany buses are on time.” This was the famous answer of politician Gregor Gysi, asked about outstanding German qualities. Punctuality, reliability, quality are stereotypical German traits, and who would think that public transport is an exception? Trusting my own experiences and the posts on my Facebook timeline, I tend to believe that Germany still is a country of individual mobility rather than public transport – but the tide seems to turn.

So are the buses on time in Germany? No. They are not. If you want a reliable service in public transport, Germany’s tram and subway systems are by far better than the bus network that can be so bad that some cities consider giving up on time tables for buses altogether. But does that mean public transport is bad as a whole?

Expat- and tourist magazines agree that travelling in Germany without a car is a decent experience. German natives on the other hand generally agree that public transport is overpriced, unreliable and altogether horrible. But then again, Germans do like a good moan and they also love their cars… but maybe these are enough stereotypes for now.

In fact, German local authorities work hard to make their citizens less dependent on cars. They build proper bicycle lanes, huge pedestrian areas, install regional trains and a web of “park and ride” car parks to drop off the car for the daily commute. All this might be a little too late, though, following decades of giving priority to car. German newspaper “Die Zeit” has looked into it in detail and found that far too many cities still give preferential treatment to motorist. One example: While there are considerable price hikes for public transport, parking has become even cheaper.

“Einzelfahrschein” is a single ticket, „Abonnement” a monthly or yearly subscription… and Parkgebühren are parking fees.

Despite all criticism, local travel generally works quite well, compared to other countries – especially those outside Europe. This does not apply for the national railway provider “Deutsche Bahn”. Their long distance trains are reliably unreliable, can get cancelled out of the blue and heavily lack punctuality, resulting in late arrivals and missed connections. The Bahn itself claims that these issues are rare, but even if their own statistics held up, it would already be a nuisance for frequent travellers. Relying on Deutsche Bahn for your daily commute would make you late for work in nearly one of ten cases. Numbers seem even higher if you look at long distance trips:

Punctuality isn’t the only issue the company struggles with. After Germany’s reunification the national railway providers of West Germany (Deutsche Bundesbahn) and East Germany (Deutsche Reichsbahn) were merged to Deutsche Bahn AG. The two letters “AG” already show that this was seen as a chance to privatise the whole organisation by turning it into an “Aktiengesellschaft”, a public company with shares traded in the stock market.

(Source: Deutsche Bahn website)

The venture didn’t quite work out – Deutsche Bahn still is owned by the German government. Yet the initial idea triggered years of failed leadership trying to turn the railway system into a competitor for posh airlines. Train stations were rebuilt into beautified shopping malls with food courts and First Class lounges, flagship trains between big cities were designed to resemble planes and break speed records.

The bread and butter business of bringing normal people to their everyday tasks, cover school run and work commute and connect small towns and villages to big centres of employment and entertainment was neglected.

At the same time, Deutsche Bahn had to open its network for private competitors at small prices who started to run better local services as well as cheaper long distance routes. Prestige projects like the renewal of big railway stations attracted protests and failed. The notorious “Stuttgart 21” met powerful public resistance when its ambitious planning led to costs spiralling out of control. Locals demanded the whole project to be downsized to protect both cultural heritage and green areas in Stuttgart’s city centre. The protesters, not only environmentalists or political activists, but mainly middle classy, law-abiding citizens, ended up in violent clashes with the police.

A full privatisation of the national railway system is not really popular anymore. Deutsche Bahn AG has, however, heavily invested in privatised railroad ventures abroad. Arriva trains and buses in the UK are owned by Deutsche Bahn, and DB Cargo UK is the largest British rail freight operator, also running the British Royal Train, official transport for the British Monarchy. Knowing this, the British arguments about re-nationalisation of the railways seem at times a bit silly.

And what about costs?

Public transport in Germany is not more expensive than in Britain, and if you plan ahead, it can be very affordable. Just as in England, local transport is organised by the regional authorities and can be of different quality in different places. Cologne, for example, is rather pitiful in comparison to Potsdam, if we believe the “Zeit”-report. You will always get from one point to the other, but your trains, trams or buses might be cleaner, more regular, less pricey in some places.

An important thing to take care of are tickets. Buying them from a machine can be tricky, because Germany’s very own debit cards are different from UK ones. You might not be able to pay for your ticket using VISA or Mastercard, so better be prepared by getting some cash money. You cannot, by any means, ever buy a ticket on the train. Riding black (Schwarzfahren) without a ticket is not a minor offence. Expect stubborn, bureaucratic behaviour by conductors who speak little English. Cases of young teenagers being thrown out of trams in the dead of the night have been discussed widely, but the attitude of transport officers doesn’t seem to change much.

If everything else fails, you can always call a taxi. Don’t expect Uber – German law and order makes it difficult for the hands-on American corporation. Only five major cities offer the service, but are constantly under fire from powerful lobby groups.

You are not likely to be ripped off on a German taxi, if you don’t count that prices are high anyway. Taxis aren’t cheap, but as with many things in Germany, regulations are not only an obstacle for entrepeneurs, but also guarantee a high level of reliability. The tradtional German taxi is a beige Mercedes, triggering shirts saying “Wenn ich Mercedes fahren will, ruf ich ein Taxi” (If I want to ride a Mercedes, I call a taxi.)

Or you simply walk, which brings us back to our headline: “Everything goes… especially the passenger” is the direct translation of a German proverb. “Alles läuft, vor allem der Passagier” is what Bahn passengers tell each other while walking from platform to platform. Not a specifically German problem, to be fair. Given that the platform change in England might include a travel from one station to another within the same city, you are definitely better off in Germany.

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