1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Germany: What's wrong with the Deutsche Bahn train operator?

Insa Wrede
January 26, 2024

As the rail operator deals with yet another strike, there's renewed focus on the firm's track record of delays and cancellations, an unenviable record that has made it a source of national embarrassment for many Germans.

The front view of an ICE 4 train
Deutsche Bahn's problems go much deeper than delays and cancellations Image: Volker Emersleben/Deutsche Bahn

Germany's state-owned rail operator Deutsche Bahn has been hit by an unprecedented six-day strike, paralyzing its passenger and freight services. The industrial action is the fourth in the current wage dispute between the rail company and the train drivers' union GDL.

The latest strike, which could cost Deutsche Bahn about €1 billion ($1.01 billion),is the latest headache for a firm that's been plagued with multiple issues ranging from creaking infrastructure to underinvestment.

In 2022, every third long-distance train was more than six minutes late. The situation was better on regional services, where nearly one of every 10 regional trains failed to reach its destination on time.

The issue of punctuality is a major grievance for passengers. Factoring in delays means they must adapt their travel plans accordingly to avoid missing connecting trains or appointments. That puts off a lot of potential passengers at a time when Deutsche Bahn needs to find ways of squaring the circle to attract more customers and increase train freight volume if it wants to achieve its climate targets by 2030.

Berlin's Central Station is nearly empty amid a six-day train driver strike in January 2024
The latest train driver strike for higher wages has significantly reduced passenger travel in Germany, especially in usually busy BerlinImage: Rainer Keuenhof/Manngold/IMAGO

Deutsche Bahn: Too little investment

"Today's unpunctuality is the result of 20 years of misguided transport and rail policy," said Christian Böttger, professor of industrial engineering at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences. Over the last 20 years, investment in rail infrastructure has been cut back. At the same time, more trains have been running.

"The network is simply overloaded," said Böttger. In contrast to Luxembourg and Switzerland, which invested around €575 (about $625) per capita and €450 per capita in rail infrastructure respectively, the figure in Germany is just €114.

For the majority of Germans, mobility means traveling by car, and that has guided politicians' policies.

In addition, for the past 15 years, Deutsche Bahn has steadfastly maintained that its rail network infrastructure is in good working order. A recent report, however, struck a different tone, observing that the network was "old" and "prone to faults."

"That's a huge scandal," said Böttger. "The federal government has spent millions to check these figures again and has always confirmed that the network is in great condition."

He pointed out that there is no inquiry committee and that no one is asking whether the management and supervisory boards should be held accountable.

6-day train strike paralyzes rail transport in Germany

In an effort to improve its image, Deutsche Bahn is planning a refurbishment program worth billions of euros, with the aim of restoring heavily used sections of the rail network. Ultimately, Deutsche Bahn wants to have a high-performance network in place by 2030. This would involve improving 40 routes to ensure more reliability and a higher frequency of trains.

2030 refurbishment plans still lacking

"We are now facing a historic turning point," said Pro-Rail Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy organization for the improvement of rail transport. The government coalition in Berlin plans to significantly increase investment in rail infrastructure.

"There is significantly more money than before; that is the good news," said Böttger. However, a large part of this money is needed to mitigate the impact of high inflation, he added.

In addition, the government had promised an extra €45 billion by 2027 "and now only around half is being provided by the federal government from the budget and climate protection fund," said Böttger.

The money will be used to renovate the high-speed railway lines, but will not be enough to build new lines. Böttger does not expect these measures to improve punctuality, as they don't tackle the basic problem of overloaded networks.

Germany's rail workers, farmers block transport

The government has earmarked €90 billion as a priority to build new lines. In addition, a further €50 billion is needed for the so-called Deutschlandtakt, a project that would connect Germany's major cities with trains running at least every hour. Another €30 billion would have to be pumped into freight transport, which has long been running a deficit.

"But there is no overview of the actual figures," said Böttger. "And I don't think the government wants there to be an overview either, because the result would be somewhat embarrassing, as it would show that the political goals are not financially viable."

To make matters worse, there aren't enough planners and construction companies to carry out the refurbishment work, he added.

Is Deutsche Bahn too big?

For years, experts have recommended splitting up Deutsche Bahn so that the rail network and operations are managed by different companies.

However, Transport Minister Volker Wissing, of the neoliberal Free Democrats, isn't impressed by the idea. He's planning a new infrastructure company that would focus on the maintenance and expansion of the rail network separately from rail operations, due to start work this year.

Other countries, such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and the UK, have found a way to make the separation of network and operations work. "But it's not a magic solution," cautioned Böttger.

Rail customers should not expect an improvement in rail travel anytime soon. On the contrary, things will get worse before they get better, as busy routes will have to be shut down completely at times for maintenance and refurbishment.

"In view of the list of problems and the visible solutions, I doubt that the railroad's accumulated problems can really be resolved in the next 10 years," said Böttger.

This article was originally written in German.