Notebook Germany: The Ups and Downs of Rail Travel

In June, I needed to travel from Amsterdam in the Netherlands to my hometown of Ulm in southern Germany—a distance of a little more than 700 kilometers. Had I chosen to travel by air, I most likely would have ended up connecting via Frankfurt, Paris, London, or some other continental hub, given that direct flights to nearby Stuttgart cost about twice as much as flights with stopovers, and may not be available on relatively short notice. Needless to say, most of these options add hundreds of unnecessary travel kilometers.

I chose the high-speed Intercity Express (ICE) train instead. The journey took exactly six hours and involved several stops at major cities, as well as a change of trains—walking from one side of the platform to the other in the city of Mannheim, with a wait time of less than five minutes. (Boston to Washington, D.C. by Amtrak, about the same distance, typically takes anywhere from 7 hours and 50 minutes to as much as nine-and-a-half hours.)

An ICE high-speed train sitting at Amsterdam central station. Photo: Michael Renner

The ICE proved to be the superior choice in every regard. It not only cost less than the available flights (not always true given the predatory price practices of discount airlines), but it also took less time and got me much closer to my final destination than any airplane could. The seats were more comfortable and offered considerably more leg space. Even at top speeds, the train was gliding along the tracks with barely a nudge or vibration.

Boarding involved none of the security chicanery to which we are now routinely exposed at airports. Each seat offered a handy printed schedule (see picture) that specified departure and arrival times at each stop, the distance between stations, and an extensive list of available connections at each stop. And I felt good knowing that my choice involved far less energy use, and far lower greenhouse gas emissions, than a plane trip would have.

ICE schedule offers detailed travel and connection information to passengers.

All in all, my journey was thoroughly enjoyable—and there was a gratifying element when my train swooshed past highway traffic jams. It reminded me of equally smooth trips on Spain’s AVE in 2006 (riding from Sevilla to Cordoba) and on Japan’s Shinkansen in 2008 (traveling from Tokyo to Niigata). These trains—along with France’s TGV and China’s CRH series trains—offer a glimpse of what a modern transportation system that is far less dependent on car and air travel might look like.

Still, recent news stories suggest that some kinks need to be resolved. Had I traveled a month later, my experience might have been very different. When temperatures soared to near 40 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit), the air conditioning on several ICE trains failed; more than 40 trapped passengers required emergency medical attention; and some 1,000 passengers were forced to switch trains when three ICEs broke down.

These troubles were a reminder that not everything is well in German rail. There have been a number of problems over the past decade or so. In June 1998, an ICE crashed near Eschede; 101 people were killed and 88 injured. The accident was caused by a fatigue crack in a wheel. Deutsche Bahn, the national rail operator, has since struggled to ensure the safety of wheels, axles, and brakes. In April 2010, a door came off an ICE at top speed, hitting a passing train and injuring six passengers. For years, DB and ICE manufacturers Siemens and Alstom traded accusations over the source of these problems—faulty materials and manufacturing or inadequate upkeep—before the companies agreed to replace low-quality axles.

Beyond the high-speed service, delays have become commonplace in a system once renowned for its reliable connections. Local and regional lines serving less populated areas have been closed or reduced in frequency. The government has long-standing plans to privatize Deutsche Bahn. Domestic critics [linked article in German] argue that corners are being cut in maintenance to squeeze profits out of operations and thus make the company a more lucrative takeover prospect for private investors.

When it comes to investments, critics also feel that the government is shortchanging rail, lacking the sort of vision that is leading both France and Spain (see the earlier post ”A Revolution in Transport Priorities?”) to invest in ambitious rail expansion programs. A German parliamentary inquiry revealed that from 2006 to 2010, Germany’s federal road investments of €24.2 billion surpassed rail spending of €17.1 billion. The highway-rail imbalance is far worse, however, when it comes to new project funding: €13.2 billion to a mere €4.3 billion. That seems hardly the right policy for reducing the transportation sector’s climate impacts.

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