David (Bus) v. Goliath (Train)

I recently covered here the Deutsche Bundesbahn’s troubles this year with operating their trains satisfactorily in extreme-ish weather, both hot and cold. But – How could I forget? – there has always been a bigger problem with the German trains, one that shows its ugly face year-round: they’re damned expensive! Now, anyone familiar at all with transportation and/or public-sector economics will have already known about this, whether s/he has ever travelled on the Bundesbahn or not, for this is an affliction shared by most public monopoly transportation systems requiring substantial prior capital investment (therefore also e.g. for city public transport systems): since it’s generally messy and often even politically unpopular to play the Grinch and show any resistance to escalating wage-demands from unions representing the labor required to keep these systems running, the costs and therefore ticket-prices inevitably rise higher than the rate of inflation. For myself, then, as much as I otherwise like the German trains, I tend to only travel on them as a result of some special offer and/or early booking which offers considerable savings.

No, if I had to get somewhere in Germany at short notice I would probablly take the bus. (Or perhaps I might use instead one of those new-fangled car-sharing services – but owning a car myself is simply out of the question.) Yes, it’s the bargain-basement option, not only in price but in the travel experience and amenities as well, but Eurolines does just fine by me. But now – as we are alerted by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – there’s another bus option opening up inside Germany as well. It’s called DeinBus.de (dein bus = “your bus”), based out of Frankfurt-am-Main. As Melanie Amann, writer of the FAZ piece, tells us, DeinBus will take you from Cologne to Frankfurt for around €12, while the Deutsche Bahn charges €64, one-way!

But there’s never any free lunch, and there at least two flies-in-the-ointment that must also be mentioned:

  1. Cologne-to-Frankfurt is about the only route that exists at this point. You see (and admittedly it’s hard to figure this out from the DeinBus.de site, even if you can read German), the company runs no fixed, permanent routes but instead accumulates via its site requests from potential customers to be taken from city A to city B at such-and-such a time; if the volume of those requests surpasses a certain threshold (apparently that is 20; clearly this is best for group excursions), then the trip is on. From the looks of the present selection, it looks like they’ve got a certain momentum going with Cologne-to-Frankfurt (and presumably the other direction as well) but not for anything else as of yet.
  2. This is Germany, remember, where unbridled competition is hardly part of the national DNA. So yes, the Deutsche Bahn has sued DeinBus.de for infringing on the monopoly for transportation services it holds by law – from a Hitler-era law, in fact (1934), which allows exceptions to the Bundesbahn monopoly only where it can be proven that the new service offers a substantial improvement (wesentliche Verbesserung) over the trains, and simply offering a lower price over the same route does not count.

That’s actually also why the DeinBus.de service now takes that “route-of-opportunity” form, where you have to make a request and see if enough people will join you to make it happen; the set of three young DeinBus.de founders chose that deliberately as another gesture to try to demonstrate no intent of infringing on the Deutsche Bahn’s commercial turf. (You can click on the article’s link if you want to see a group picture of them, all in their twenties, playing with their model bus and train.)

But to no avail, as the dreaded letter-from-the-big-corporate-lawyer arrived at their company HQ anyway. On the other hand, they just didn’t throw in their hand and go on to something else – it’s safe to say there wouldn’t be this great FAZ coverage today for them if they had. No, they’re fighting back in court, among other reasons because it seems that bus transportation is scheduled to be open for general competition anyway from next year (that’s 2012, people). Ironically, even as it wields its lawyers, the Deutsche Bahn is making clear preparations of its own to be ready to offer bus lines along routes not presently covered by rail. In fact, in some locations it’s already doing that – at low prices similar to those of DeinBus.de! As one of the founders remarked, “It wants to make a second monopoly for itself in time” – and you can also be sure that the DeinBus.de site takes care to let visitors know, in red links, about the Deutsche Bahn suit!

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