Firefighters had to rescue about 1,200 passengers onboard a regional express train that broke down south-east of Berlin at the weekend, in the latest in a string of failures and mishaps to befall the national rail service, Deutsche Bahn.
The firefighters had to force open the train’s doors to free passengers, some of whom were suffering from heat exhaustion after a lengthy holdup in the train in which the air conditioning failed.
Footage showed passengers, including some in wheelchairs and children in prams, being brought to safety along a forest track by firefighters. Thermal cameras were flown over the forest to ensure that no passengers had been left behind while other train traffic in the area was brought to a standstill amid fears of passengers on the tracks.
The incident was the latest in a series of reports of malfunctioning trains, cancelled and delayed services and faulty rail infrastructure. Deutsche Bahn puts the problems down to a chronic lack of investment and a personnel shortage, which has worsened since the pandemic.
Germany’s three-way coalition government, which includes the Greens, believes rail transport is key to efforts to reach net zero targets, but experts say the country’s trains are in such a parlous state these goals will be almost impossible to reach.
A groundbreaking plan to synchronise long-distance and regional transport so trains would run every half-hour in both rural and urban areas, was recently put back from 2030 to 2070.
Calling it the “project of the century”, Michael Theurer, of the pro-business FDP and government ombudsman responsible for overseeing rail transport, admitted the Deutschlandtakt or “Germany Rhythm” was more appropriately to be seen as a “programme for the next 50 years”.
Marissa Reiserer, of Greenpeace, has said the government’s failure amounts to a “climate crime” that will do grave damage to its own goals to reduce CO2 emissions in the next seven years by 65% compared with 1990 levels.
The railway system is in need of about €60bn of investment but even that figure is said to be an underestimate as costs rise with inflation.
Michael Peterson, the chair of Deutsche Bahn’s long-distance transport arm, admitted in a recent interview in Die Zeit that too little had been invested in the rail network over years.
“Since the 1970s, Germany has been investing far too little in rail. The Swiss invest five to six times more per resident, in Austria, it’s three times more … Already 10 years ago, these investment deficits were publicly said to be up to €50bn,” he said.
“Everyone can see it for themselves that lack of investment has led to the current infrastructure now being at a tipping point, which is why we’re drastically trying to turn things round.” He said many works were taking place simultaneously, in which everything from overhead lines to tracks, signal boxes, stations and level crossings were being repaired and modernised, which was also having a detrimental effect on services.
At the same time, Peterson said, train travel had become more popular than ever, prompting plans to double passenger capacity by 2030, with longer trains, double decker inter-city expresses and smaller inter-cities away from major destinations.
“Guaranteed, by 2029 the situation in the whole of Germany will have improved,” he said.