Many Germans have a love-hate relationship with their national railway operator.
In my home country of Australia, long-distance train travel is a bit of a joke and high-speed rail is a fantasy confined mostly to election promises.
With this in mind, I’ve always admired the excellent rail infrastructure in places like Japan and Germany. I know that Deutsche Bahn is often loathed by Germans, but I’ve generally found the trains to be efficient, affordable and (more or less) reliable.
That’s not to say that Deutsche Bahn hasn’t tested my patience. I’ve used German trains enough times that I’ve come across many of the common frustrations of regular commuters.
For example, on one trip my ICE (InterCity Express) train from Amsterdam to Frankfurt made it as far as Cologne and was then suddenly cancelled. It was late at night, but we were all thrown off the train without warning at Köln Hbf, an intermediate station, and told to wait for the next train. The promised compensation for the delay still hasn’t arrived either, and this was over three years ago…
I also had issues with Deutsche Bahn on a more recent trip to Germany. The problems began when I simply tried to buy a ticket — the machine charged my credit card, but then didn’t print out a ticket or a receipt. With no station staff available to speak to and my train coming imminently, I had no choice but to pay again for another ticket. (Of course, that train was also later delayed.)
The following day, I had quite a comfortable trip on an ICE train. My seat reservation appeared on the display (it doesn’t always, even though you pay €4.50 for the privilege), the on-board wifi worked well and the train departed right on time.
It would have been a perfect journey, except for the unscheduled 40-minute stop at the first station while we waited to find out whether the train would be able to continue its journey. (Apparently there was an issue with the line ahead.) I have to say though, the conductor communicated clearly and regularly about what was happening, and I did still get to my destination, so I can’t really fault Deutsche Bahn here.
Many frequent Deutsche Bahn customers will have experienced a plethora of other inconveniences such as cancelled or overcrowded trains, delays, missed connections, and my personal favourite, the good old “umgekehrte Wagenreihung” — where the train has been reversed into the opposite direction and your pre-booked forward-facing seat at the front of the train is now a rear-facing seat at the back of the train.
It’s little wonder that Deutsche Bahn bashing seems to be a national sport in Germany. In fact, there are even entire books dedicated to complaints about the company!
Are German trains really THAT bad, though?
There’s no doubt that German trains can be frustrating at times. The problems are real and sometimes Deutsche Bahn really does mess up majorly.
But many of these issues seem to fall very much into the “first world problem” category. If a small delay or an issue with a seat reservation are worth complaining about, it’s likely a sign that the whole system is pretty good overall.
I sometimes wonder if the rail infrastructure in Germany is just so good that people have come to develop unreasonably high expectations — and are therefore easily disappointed if something doesn’t go exactly to plan.
As a foreigner, I observe in awe how easy it (generally) is to travel from one side of Germany to the other — comfortably, and in just a few hours on modern high-speed trains that offer free wifi.
I recall a trip once from Hamburg to Berlin in which Deutsche Bahn apologised for a 10-minute delay caused by track speed restrictions which limited us to 180km/h. The trip still took less than two hours.
In Australia, it takes over four hours to travel by train from Sydney to Canberra — a busy route covering a shorter distance than Hamburg-Berlin. There are only three trains per day, each with only three carriages, and the trains are around 30 years old. In fact, the Australian Xplorer trains plying this route barely even offer power outlets, let alone wifi. (At least the on-board staff are always nice, though!)
Meanwhile the trip from Sydney to Melbourne, which happens to be the second-busiest air route in the world, takes over 11 hours on 40-year-old XPT trains.
Even Australia’s fastest commuter train, the Tilt Train running between Brisbane and Rockhampton, has a top speed of only 160km/h.
Want to swap?
Germany, if you’re sick of Deutsche Bahn, I would gladly swap it for Australia’s extensive high-speed rail network.
Oh, wait… ;)