“Germany runs a lot of trains on old and decrepit infrastructure.”

Lee Heidhues 5.16.2023

Are the trains still running on time? Not all the time these days.

The ceiling of the multi-level Berlin Hauptbahnhof

Liz and I have spent time riding the trains in Germany going back to the early 1970’s.

The once vaunted German rail system Deutsche Bahn is in the crisis mode. Aging infrastructure has severely impacted the efficiency of the German transportation network.

Now the German government appears to be pouring resources into the transit system. It remains to be seen whether the investment will pay off in the near future.

Deutsche Bahn passenger train heads into a station

Excerpted from Deutsche Welle 5.16.2023

It remains one of the most enduring cliches about Germany for those who don’t live there: the trains run on time.

Except they don’t, and haven’t for quite some time. Last year, one-third of trains from Deutsche Bahn (DB) ā€” Germany’s state-owned rail company ā€” were late. That figure has been steadily rising for years.

It’s not just passengers who are affected. Some of Europe’s biggest logistics companies have repeatedly called out DB’s freight and cargo business in recent years for its persistent delays.

Tardiness is not the only problem. The company has been consistently posting losses in recent years and is currently more than ā‚¬30 billion ($32.6 billion) in debt. Passengers routinely complain of overcrowded trains and expensive tickets. 

Bellevue Station in Berlin

The company has also been beset by industrial disputes. A 50-hour strike by railway workers, due to begin on May 14, was called off at the last minute the day before. EVG, the union behind the strike, says negotiations on wage increases are ongoing. Strikes in March and April already caused significant disruption.

The company itself has no illusions about the scale of the problem. “The current operational situation is not acceptable for us, travelers or railway companies,” a DB spokesperson told DW.

Jon Worth, a railway transport analyst resident in Berlin, says Germany’s railways are in a “delicate situation.” He says the main problem is widely acknowledged: a lack of investment in infrastructure.

Night time train travel in Germany

“Railways in Germany are at the limit,” he told DW. “Germany runs a lot of trains on very old and decrepit infrastructure and has simply not been investing in the tracks, the bridges and the signals as much as would be necessary in order to manage to run things with a stable and reliable service.”

Karl-Peter Naumann, the honorary chairman of the public transport advocacy group PRO Bahn, agrees that outdated infrastructure is the main problem. “For customers, that means punctuality and, as a direct result, missed connecting trains,” he told DW.

Responsibility for the lack of investment goes back a few decades, according to Worth. “Ultimately the problems stem from decisions made a good 20 years ago,” he said. Naumann agrees: “Too little has been invested in the expansion and maintenance of the rail infrastructure in the last 30 years.”


Train heading out of the station
Another form of German transportation. Bicycles by the thousands

Photos – Lee Heidhues

Top photo – Liz at the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof – October 2018