The Christmas season and waves of sickness brought the German public transportation system, Deutsche Bahn, to the edge of collapse this year, frustrating millions of Germans. At the same time, it delivered record numbers of passengers for their holiday travels, mostly at very reasonable cost and in comfort and safety. This was a fitting end to a year filled with new possibilities and also strains on a system that has taken great strides in technology and infrastructure, while remaining inadequate and unreliable for many. The Bahn needs far more investment in the face of climate and social challenges.
The Promise Of Deutsche Bahn
This year highlighted the strength and promise of public transit in Germany. Deutsche Bahn — “German Rail,” the already-embattled conglomerate of companies that carry billions of passenger trips and a great bulk of German cargo — has shown great resilience. A record 3.2 million Germans traveled long-range with the Bahn for Christmas, rounding out a year that saw transit numbers surge past their pre-Covid highs. New models of high-speed trains and electric buses continue to proliferate, improving technical reliability and commuter experiences.
Deutsche Bahn showed the powerful role of public transit in addressing energy and social crises. The Bahn sold 52 million 9€ tickets this summer that — a pilot offering giving full access to buses, trams, and short and medium-range trains, nationwide. Germans vacationed and commuted at almost no cost, steeply reducing energy consumption and strain on public systems during a crisis and allowing tens of millions of Germans and visitors to try out the public transit system without making a major investment. For Germany´s poor — hit hard by inflation, war, and energy costs — the ticket brought respite and the chance to enjoy summer traveling. Deutsche Bahn also offered free travel to around one million displaced people from Ukraine as they came to Germany to escape war. This flexibility helped relieve strain on Ukrainians and Ukraine´s social and physical infrastructure as people were able to get away.
The Bahn has proved an environmental and social wonder. The climate and energy record is clear. Rail travel is far less energy intensive than personal vehicle travel and is essentially completely safe. Partly because of their public transit use, the lower income 50% of Germans actually produce nearly-sustainable levels of carbon emissions by some important measures, less than 1/4th as many emissions as the average US American. Under war and pandemic conditions, public transit allows for better conservation of energy and insulates vulnerable and lower-income communities from inflation and shortages of vehicles or vehicle parts that characterize recent years. With fully electrified trains powered by green energy and surging supplies of electric buses, the Bahn is moving Germany’s climate agenda forward.
The Bahn also helps Germany’s disproportionately migrant background, non-white, lower income communities. It is accessible for a fraction of the cost of a vehicle and the accompanying insurance and fuel costs, and can be very comfortable and allow for work during commutes and travel. Public transit use reduces air pollution — far higher in non-white, migrant areas — and does not require a drivers license, which is expensive and complicated to get in Germany — a major challenge for migrants.
Deutsche Bahn At Risk?
Sadly, this year has seen brutal difficulties. The 9€ ticket delivered excellent value for most travelers, but for those who were unlucky or regularly reliant on mid-range trains for essential travel, waves of cancellations and delays were frustrating. And the train system has experienced nearly unprecedented strain this December. With much of the German workforce sick, countless lower-priority, largely commuter routes nationwide were paused. With students on vacation and most adults taking advantage of Germany’s 6-week vacation norm, a systems collapse of the commuter trains at the end of December is not a worst-case scenario. Nonetheless unreliability deters switching from cars. Thankfully through both the 9€ ticket and the winter collapse, local buses remained reliable and inexpensive, a great asset for students and commuters.
The Bahn has not only suffered through cancelled trains this holiday season. With workers also missing in administration and information systems, the Deutsche Bahn App and train station displays have been unable to accurately report what rides are and are not running — a logistical nightmare for travelers. The Bahn app is a usually-reliable and globally exceptional tool that incorporates train, bus, tram, and ferry systems, and accounts for delays better than Google Maps or other competitors. In comparison to the non-integrated, clumsy systems in the US or transit systems in smaller countries with less access to economies of scale in developing information infrastructure, the app is an information wonder and a breeze to use. But for the first time in years it has not been effective for tracking travel options, as overstrained personnel have been unable to report and maintain correct information.
2023 For Deutsche Bahn?
Since the positive reception of the 9€ ticket, the German government coalition has planned a Deutschlandticket — a ticket for all Germany, starting at 49€ per month. At 588€ per year for full access to the local and regional German public transit systems, the ticket may entice occasional travelers and offer tourists a safe and low-cost way to get around, and also assure Germans who are considering giving up owning a car a valuable tool, possibly along with carsharing or other local, mostly electric options. The Deutschland Ticket is planned for late-spring 2023.
If implemented, the ticket could be a historic development for German transit. For over a thousand years — well back into Holy Roman Imperial history — current day Germany was divided into various small political entities, and complicated tolls and transport regulations worsened German life. German rail transit today remains a fragmented service for the end user. Right now, Germany is covered by a patchwork of local and regional transit associations that operate rail traffic, and each sell their own variously and often confusingly structured tickets, subscriptions, and special offers. Simplifying this structure to be one ticket is a huge asset.
The Bahn will no doubt continue to face difficult challenges, above all chronic under-investment. Germany invests little per citizen compared to other more successful European countries in public transit. This is certainly a legacy of centrist rule, which also saw the timeliness of trains collapse from 95% of trains arriving on time to one-third in 2018. This is unacceptable. Germany wants to take dramatic steps to address the climate crisis. Germany also needs to address homelessness — second highest in the EU, historically due to the destruction of housing stock during World War II — and staggering home prices. Air pollution and limited land availability are also major issues. These challenges demand dense, apartment-based housing development networked in by public transit. An equitable future for Germany depends on housing and transit development that dramatically strengthens buses and rail. This future is possible — Germans have the choice for how they want to live. Steps like the 9€ and 49€ tickets could make 2022-2023 hopeful mileposts on the way forward to a brighter future, with much still to be done.
By David Lapp Jost
About the author: David Lapp Jost works for a peace organization. He is conscious of ways that fossil fuels exacerbate racial and economic inequality, war, and climate change. He devotes much of his spare time to promoting solar power and sustainability initiatives.
Other articles by David Jost:
Featured photo courtesy of PxHere, CC0 public domain
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Source: Clean Technica