I have always loved travelling by train. One of my grandfathers used to be a train driver, another worked as a guard and took me with him on regional trains when I was a kid. I used to play with a model railway that I had helped to build. As a grown-up travelling on the train became a metaphor for freedom, visiting friends, making acquaintances, working and doing business. To me a car, a bus or a plane will never take the same place as a train speeding through the shifting landscapes of many countries, the opportunity of either working, thinking, watching the miles go by or simply sleep … You may have noticed: I do love going places by train.
As a young student seeing an ICE train from Deutsche Bahn entering a major railway station was a sight to behold, an engineering effort of outstanding quality, a symbol of technological advances in Germany. We are talking early 1990′s here, and I will never forget the moment when I rode on an ICE (InterCity Express) going 300 kilometres an hour for the first time in my life zooming from Cologne to Frankfurt. Why bother flying a plane if you can enjoy the comforts of a decent train?
However, in recent years the outdated ICE trains of all engineering generations have become a burden at the hands of a managing team at DB oblivious to the needs of its customers. Now, let me say in the beginning that I have met many friendly employees of the Deutsche Bahn on trains and at railway stations and things have become much better when it comes to customer service. I have also travelled on trains which were on time and well-managed and fellow travellers who were corteous, entertaining and interesting.
But the technological issues plaguing the old carriages used on long-distance trains have become legion. With some trains the air conditioning does not work at full speed (or not at all) which in recent summers led to people actually collapsing from heat. I am riding on a train from Hanau to Berlin while writing this (it is a Sunday afternoon) and with four carriages there are supposed to be eight toilets – but five are out of order and with a sixth the door cannot be locked. As Deutsche Bahn does not demand advance seat registrations in recent years trains had to be stopped because there were too many people in them (without registrations) – and having to leave a train in the middle of nowhere is not what these people had in mind when boarding the train. On friday long distance trains and on sundays you will see many people standing or sitting in the aisles. Many carriages will not have electricity for a laptop (or not enough outlets) and do not ask about wireless internet.
All in all, the former railway glory of Germany has turned into something that is, at best, second rate. I am not even going to mention the issue of punctuality or the fact that families with young kids have special compartments but not enough of them – which turns some carriages into living hell with infants screaming for two hundred miles.
Now, keep in mind we are talking about second-class travelling. One would assume that with a first-class ticket you would be much better off but in comparison with countries such as Sweden and France things look pretty bleak. Tee, coffee, free wireless internet and other amenities are available as long as you are not travelling Deutsche Bahn. The question is: why bother paying almost double the price of a second-class ticket if the only thing you get is quiet? Yes, I know, people will say that there are first-class lounges in several major railways stations but if you ever have the chance of going to the capital of Germany and have a look at one of the most expensive and biggest railway stations in the world in Berlin you will find a first-class lounge not worth being called ‘first-class.’
The only thing I could do is to hunker down at the ‘board restaurant’, get myself an espresso, put in my earplugs and listen to loud music while writing this at a tall table. You don’t get a seat because you are not supposed to disturb people with your mobile, notebook or other ‘electronical devices.’
We definitely need more competition on long-distance trains. Maybe that’ll help in getting decent trains again. With enough leg room. Affordable prices. And a travelling experience I would love to share with you because it is simple awesome … instead of depressing or disappointing.
Ah well, wishful thinking.
I am looking forward to my next Thalys ride.
Picture source: Deutsch: ICE-Werk München mit ICE 1. Datum: 22. Januar 2005. User: Sebastian Terfloth; Sese_Ingolstadt. Copyright: CC-SA-2.5.