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Germany

Deutsche Bahn blames heat nightmare on climate change

Rail operator Deutsche Bahn blamed global warming for the air-conditioning problems on its older ICE trains on Friday. But critics have pointed the finger at misfiring plans to float the company on the stock market.

Deutsche Bahn train in the sunset

The DB boss suggested global warming caused the air conditioning failure

Travelling on Germany's high-speed ICE trains has often been a harrowing experience recently. Horror stories circulated in the German media throughout the week, following an incident Saturday when the air-conditioning broke down in a train travelling from Berlin. Temperatures reached 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees F) inside the train, and several people were hospitalized in the western German town of Bielefeld.

"A conductor came into our compartment with a doctor because a young boy was lying on the floor numb," one anonymous passenger told reporters. "His mother was really worried. Then she tried to smash a window, but thank God someone stopped her. It was like in a disaster movie."

Ruediger Grube, Deutsche Bahn boss

Grube has just sanctioned a hugely expensive foreign takeover

After initial claims that the air-conditioning breakdowns had only affected three trains on that day, reports have since emerged that Germany's current heat wave has disabled the air conditioning on as many as 50 trains this week.

Finally coming clean

As a result Deutsche Bahn has been forced to admit that the cooling systems installed in some high-speed trains are simply not equipped to cope with the current heat. When outside temperatures breach 32 degrees Celsius, the systems on ICE 2 trains routinely fail to keep the interior cool. Deutsche Bahn chief Ruediger Grube was quick to apologize for the mess, but pointed the finger at climate change.

"We have of course analyzed the weather situation in connection with the air conditioning system," he said. "And we found that in the last 20 years, only five days were hotter than 37 degrees. Three of those days happened last weekend."

Deutsche Bahn's argument is that air conditioning standards - last set in the early 1990s - simply do not predict the kind of weather that has scorched much of Europe in the last two weeks. The company quickly added that the newer ICE trains already had an air conditioning system that could cope with 35-degree heat, and that the next generation of ICE's - planned to start running next year - would take up to 40 degrees.

Cutting corners to boost stock market value

Medics tend to passengers on a train platform in Bielefeld

Dozens of people needed medical attention at Bielefeld railway station

But Winfried Wolf, a transport industry expert and long-time critic of Deutsche Bahn, said he believes the problem is part of an endemic drive to cut maintenance corners.

"You know it's going to be warmer than 32 degrees in the summer," he said. "And if you then do things like invest over a 100 million euros ($128 million) in a general overhaul but leave the air conditioning systems in, then that is simply irresponsible. This morning Grube just said they are considering putting in new systems."

Wolf said he believes the maintenance problem is a direct result of the failed plan to float the company on the stock market. This idea has been mooted for many years, and has led to expensive foreign investments to boost the image of the company.

"A week ago, Grube made the decision a week ago to buy European bus and rail operator Arriva," Wolf said, "for nearly 3 billion euros and not to invest this money in the improvement of the domestic rail service."

According to the coalition contract the German government made last October, Deutsche Bahn is still intended for the stock market, as soon as market conditions improve. Meanwhile, German rail passengers are bracing themselves for another hot weekend.

Author: Ben Knight

Editor: Sean Sinico

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