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Business

Consumer Group Gives New Train Fare System Poor Marks

On Dec. 15, Germany's national railway will introduce a new pricing system. Deutsche Bahn claims its new fares will make travel cheaper, but a prominent consumer organization says that's not the case.

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Deutsche Bahn's Berlin headquarters

In a report released this week, consumer group Stiftung Warentest, which is Germany's answer to "Consumer Reports," gave the new pricing system mixed reviews, saying Deutsche Bahn failed to deliver the savings it promised. Warentest workers compared a total of 1,600 fares from the new system with the lowest-possible fares available under the current system. The organization found that, for many, Bahn's new system will result in higher fares.

Deutsche Bahn's new price structure is modeled after the airlines, which offer travelers considerable savings if they book early. Bahn hopes the system will enable it to better plan its revenues, meet demand and fill trains.

The biggest losers: families

In its statements about the system, Deutsche Bahn has said that families will be the biggest winners under the new fares, but Stiftung Warentest's researchers countered the claim. Warentest found that prices will actually rise for families with older children. Currently, families can purchase a "Family Bahncard," entitling every member of a family up to the age of 27- to a 50-percent discount on rail travel within Germany. However, the new system lowers the age limit to 17. Deutsche Bahn is also eliminating the ICE Family Saver ticket, which offers a considerable discount on Germany's high-speed trains to families traveling together.

Expensive changes

The price changes will also make train fares higher for single travelers, especially on short journeys. With the current Bahncard, holders receive a 50-percent discount on all trains -- both regional and intercity. Under the new system, however, Bahncard holders only receive a 25-percent discount -- unless they book well in advance.

Additionally, Stiftung Warentest criticized Deutsche Bahn for applying excessive new regulations for discounts and special offers and implementing exorbitant fees for making ticket changes. For example, travelers who take a train other than the one they have reserved will be subjected to a ticket-change fee running as high as 45 euros ($44.80) in each direction.

Winners

But Stiftung Warentest did manage to find praise for at least a few aspects of the new pricing structure. For example, small groups of up to five people traveling together can take advantage of both group discounts and an early booking discount. The result is fares that can run 20-40 percent lower than current group ticket prices. Warentest also praised savings for families traveling with children between the ages of six and 14, who can now travel more cheaply. The organization said Deutsche Bahn had made a wise choice in the new structure by allowing passengers to combine any available discounts together -- be it through a Bahncard, a special offer or group travel.

Stung by the overall poor marks from Stiftung Warentest, Deutsche Bahn CEO Hartmut Mehdorn said the criticism was unwarranted. He accused the consumer organization of issuing an unbalanced report. Mehdorn said Stiftung Warentest researchers pulled out just a few fares that were designed to give a distorted and negative image of the national railway.

Mehdorn is also standing behind the company's statements that train travel will be cheaper for millions of people under the new pricing system and not just a few bargain hunters. Furthermore, he said, no changes are planned for the system.

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