No holidays, no bridging days, no nine-euro ticket. It was a normal May weekend. Nevertheless, last Sunday at Munich Central Station there was a crowd like at the Oktoberfest. On platform 19, hundreds of travelers scrambled across the platform to get onto the late and wrongly deployed ICE 586.
This train was still the best way to make it to Hamburg that day. All other connections were marked in deep red in the Deutsche Bahn booking system and with three crossed-out passenger symbols. This means “extraordinarily high utilization”. This highest rail warning level was previously reserved for absolutely special situations. For a few weeks now, it has been part of everyday life for train drivers on many routes.
Transporting more people and goods by rail is a central goal of German climate policy. By 2030, the traffic light wants to double traffic performance. This is intended to resolve the conflict of objectives between the CO₂ balance and the increasing need for mobility.
In practice, however, the political growth plans come up against an overly complex and rigid system that reacts highly sensitively to any change. And that is already operating in the dark red area. After the Corona doldrums, the number of passengers on the Easter days skyrocketed and stayed there.
Where distance was once valued, there is a tight squeeze, and the number of delays and cancellations is increasing. In this situation of all places, the railways are facing a large-scale construction site program – and a politically desired cheap ticket that is intended to attract millions of additional passengers. The rail system is threatened with a hell of a summer.
Passengers in the ICE 586 experienced what the yellow early warning level (“high utilization expected”) can mean. 20 minutes after the scheduled departure, the train was standing on the track with the doors open and passengers were still pushing.
Inside, more people seemed to be standing than sitting. The smell of sweat spread and annoyance. So to Hamburg? A single journey in second class costs 172 euros, plus reservation. At some point the train manager reported over the loudspeaker: “This train is overcrowded and cannot leave like this.” Nothing works anymore.
Even before the pandemic, rail transport in Germany was experiencing a decade of growth. The transport performance measured in passenger kilometers increased from 84 billion in 2010 to 100 billion in 2019. Now the numbers are rising steeply again.
“It’s already fuller on some long-distance routes than before the pandemic,” says Karl-Peter Naumann from the Pro Bahn Federal Association. “Now it’s taking its toll that too little has been invested in maintaining and expanding the German rail network for decades.”
The overcrowded trains lead to delays. Complaints from unnerved travelers are piling up at the association. Punctuality in long-distance transport fell to 69 percent in April. Deutsche Bahn is aiming for a rate of 80 percent this year. May may have been even worse. And in June comes the nine-euro ticket.
There are many reasons for overcrowded trains. There is a lot of pent-up demand for travel and visiting relatives. Fuel and flight prices are high. In addition, there is apparently a change in mobility behavior. “Many routes on which people used to fly are apparently increasingly being traveled by train today,” observes Naumann.
The French railways, for example, announced this week the introduction of a TGV connection between Berlin and Paris, seven hours without changing trains. “A few years ago we would have found it too long and worried that nobody would use it,” said SNCF boss Jean-Pierre Farandou, but not anymore. “We are finding that people are willing to take longer train journeys.”
Currently, however, many customers would be happy to arrive at all. Anyone who wanted to travel from Cologne to the Hanover Fair in a climate-friendly manner on this Sunday, for example, was unlucky. Practically all trains had been fully booked for days.
“Currently, the utilization of long-distance traffic is around 50 percent,” says a railway spokeswoman and at the same time admits that the trains are usually fuller on Fridays, Sundays and Mondays.
The ICE fleet has grown by almost 60 trains since 2019, and 50,000 more seats are currently being offered per day than a year ago. How the nine-euro ticket could affect long-distance traffic “cannot yet be said exactly”.
The complaints of overburdened train attendants also seem unjustified. According to the company, 70,000 hiring commitments have been made in the last three years. “We don’t have any staff shortages among the train staff.”
A video to the workforce that became public a few days ago shows that the situation is sometimes judged differently within the railway than is officially presented. “We are in a situation that is almost indescribable,” says Ralf Kloß, Head of Production at DB Cargo. In his almost 40 years with the company, he has never experienced a situation like this.
“We are the people affected by construction work and disruption events that we can hardly control anymore,” explains the board and thanks his employees for their commitment with which they are fighting “the complete meltdown on our production systems”.
If the situation in passenger transport is already bad, it is apparently simply disastrous in freight logistics. Last week, DB Cargo informed major customers about significant restrictions in freight transport in a crisis call. The reason for this is probably various construction measures in the entire rail network.
“The situation is obviously dramatic,” says a company that is one of those affected. It is said to have gotten loud in the group, not everyone showed understanding for the apparently self-inflicted capacity losses. “In the middle of a global supply crisis – do we still need this now?”
DB Cargo does not want to comment on the specific content of the crisis talks, just as little as on the video. “There’s a lot of construction going on, and there’s also a lot of driving going on,” says a spokesman. “We currently have 1,000 to 1,100 construction sites per night instead of 800 at the peak.”
Because passenger transport has priority over freight transport on rails, freight trains usually run at night. But that is exactly when the work on the rail network, which has been delayed for decades and is now overdue, will take place. This now leads to “the system starting to jerk”.
Up to 400 freight trains are said to have been stuck in the past few days, but the railways have neither confirmed nor denied this. Together with industrial customers, attempts are now being made to draw up priority lists in order to get the most urgent deliveries to the plants.
Customer enthusiasm is low. The chemical company BASF welcomes the fact that Germany is investing in its railway infrastructure, but at the same time complains about “a major lack of punctuality, which presents us with a number of challenges,” according to a spokeswoman. Attempts are being made to avoid failures, among other things, by using more tank wagons, postponing deadlines and using a railway company owned by BASF.
The situation is also causing headaches for the steelmakers in the Ruhr area. “For Thyssenkrupp Steel, the railway is an indispensable transport route, both between the individual plants and for deliveries to our customers,” says a spokesman. The company has few alternatives to bring its steel strips, which can weigh up to 30 tons, to the plants of its industrial customers, who in turn use them to manufacture cars, refrigerators and other products.
A disruption at this point in the supply chain would have a significant impact on many businesses. Thyssenkrupp is correspondingly alarmed. “The current abundance of construction work by DB Cargo and their spatial distribution present us with major challenges.”
More drastic days of chaos are still to come in passenger transport – with the launch of the nine-euro ticket. The pre-sale alone paralyzed the Deutsche Bahn booking system for hours this week. It is to be feared that confusion in regional traffic could quickly spread to the entire network.
Even DB Regio boss Jörg Sandvoß warned in advance of weather-driven spontaneous trippers: “Even a maximum of available trains ultimately marks a limit.”
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