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In Germany, The Trains Suffer From Punctuality Problems


Nothing's more punctual and efficient than a German train, right? Apparently not anymore, as NPR's Daniel Estrin discovered in Berlin.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: In Germany last year, one out of every four long-distance trains ran late.

EBERHARD BRANDES: I'm waiting for a train. And I just missed the train. And I will miss a very nice dinner at this evening. So I'm in a very bad mood about the Deutsche Bundesbahn.

ESTRIN: Eberhard Brandes is a commuter at Berlin's central station. His train to Hamburg was cancelled. The next one comes in an hour. He says this happens all the time with German railways - the Deutsche Bahn.

BRANDES: And its so shaming because you as guest from Germany, you see this unreliability. But it's unbelievable. The Deutsche Bundesbahn was a model in earlier days for reliability, high quality. And it's not today.

ESTRIN: It kills him because he's a huge believer in trains. He heads the German office of the World Wildlife Fund, the environmental group. And he doesn't let his employees fly for work trips. They take the train on principle to reduce CO2 emissions.

BRANDES: We want to support the Deutsche Bundesbahn. But under these conditions, it's very difficult to do so.


ESTRIN: At a different platform, I meet two more disgruntled commuters - Shahin and Sara Schneider.

Are you waiting for a train?

SHAHIN SCHNEIDER: Yes. And it's 10 minutes late. As a German, I expect it to be on time, of course.

SARA SCHNEIDER: It's horrible. My time is so good. And I wait every time.

ESTRIN: Your time is precious.

SARA SCHNEIDER: Yes. It's precious.

ESTRIN: It's become common for trains to be delayed by at least an hour. Andreas Schroder from a commuter advocacy group called Pro Bahn says the state-owned railway was under pressure to deliver profits, so they cut down on staff and didn't invest in backup systems.

ANDREAS SCHRODER: As soon as there's something happening, like bad weather or so, the whole system is breaking down. Or as soon as one bridge on a major line is falling apart, well, the whole system is suffering. And that brings us all the delays that we see.

ESTRIN: There have been lots of complaints and media coverage. So in January, the German railway appointed a punctuality czar. Railway CEO Richard Lutz told reporters they've got a five-point plan.

RICHARD LUTZ: (Speaking German).

ESTRIN: He's promising to hire more employees, purchase new trains and ensure timely departures. The public transportation advocate, Schroder, thinks it will be years before passengers feel a real difference. Political scientist Rupert Strachwitz says all of this points to something bigger.

RUPERT STRACHWITZ: We have a real problem with our infrastructure. And it's not just the railways.

ESTRIN: For instance, Chancellor Angela Merkel recently missed the opening of the G-20 international summit because her plane malfunctioned.

STRACHWITZ: That they can't put the head of government on a plane within a couple of hours to send her to a conference is absolutely ridiculous.

ESTRIN: And a new airport being built in Germany's capital keeps getting delayed with reports about cables installed incorrectly and escalators too short. The government has a policy called black zero - no increasing the national deficit. Sounds responsible. But some say that means under-investment in infrastructure. Strachwitz thinks foreign investors are taking note.

STRACHWITZ: Are you reliable? Is the stuff you're offering really as good as everybody says it is? Look at your railways. You know, it's this kind of a conversation that goes on. And that's doing terrific harm to the reputation of German efficiency and things.

ESTRIN: He says even in Italy, the trains are running better. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.