Deutsche Bahn: Incorrigible?

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

Those (like me) who like to travel through Germany by train every so often were displeased last summer to hear about the misadventures involving malfunctioning on-board cooling units during warm days leading, in some cases, to passengers even being evacuated due to dehydration. (Indeed, I experienced something like that personally – i.e. air conditioning clearly not operating within a number of cars making up a packed long-distance train – but fortunately, although it was June, the day was not that hot so that at least no one actually became sick, to my knowledge.) The German government wasn’t so happy, either, and let the semi-private national railroad company, Deutsche Bahn, know that it needed to up its performance.

Now European weather has flipped the challenges it presents from hot to cold, and an article out now from the newsmagazine Focus shows how Deutsche Bahn is faring: Problems were partly internal: Winter chaos on the rails. Don’t worry: we’re not talking here about passengers suffering frostbite or hypothermia – “Entschuldigung, ve haff no more zeats affailable, ve must schtrap you zu de train-roof!” – but during the difficult spell of winter weather a few weeks ago there were apparently many trains canceled or at least running late – according to one report, up to 80% among long-distance service.

The piece features up top a grim-looking head-shot of Rüdiger Grube, Deutsche Bahn’s chairman, and it’s main message is yes, he acknowledges (once again) the performance deficiencies: “We have to get even better. Not the least for that reason we plan billions in investments in a new fleet of IC and ICE [trains – the IC are long-distance within Germany, ICE are that plus some international routes but are the high-speed trains].” The piece’s secondary message comes from German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer, who threatens “consequences” and rejects the German winter as any excuse.

So could the fault really lie in the equipment, i.e. the trains, as Grube maintains? On the one hand, that could be an understandable explanation of why rail service there can’t handle extremes of heat and cold. On the other – this is Germany, and we’re talking about German technology! Top standard, by definition, exported to eager customers throughout the world!

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