Germany’s national railway operator Deutsche Bahn has already lost many long-distance customers to discount airlines. But now the Bahn’s railway rival Connex has slowly begun expanding its own cross-country service.
The new Connex route will run from the Baltic Sea to the river Rhine.
Private rail company Connex, a subsidiary of French conglomerate Vivendi, began its third major German route on Friday. Two InterConnex trains will travel from Rostock to Cologne via Berlin in either direction once daily. The 912 kilometer-stretch from the Baltic Sea port to the metropolis on the Rhine River will be the operator’s first long-distance service.
Though the Connex service is infrequent and slow – the trip from Rostock to Cologne takes 12 hours – it could prove to be stiff competition for the beleaguered Deutsche Bahn if it is deemed a success.
Despite running a railway network that would be the envy of many countries, Deutsche Bahn has come in for heavy criticism for being inefficient, expensive and inflexible. It’s new pricing system introduced late last year was so hated by passengers, that half a year later the former state-run rail operator was embarrassingly forced to admit the initiative had been a disaster.
In an attempt to get travelers to commit themselves to taking the train, the Bahn in December instituted a system that rewarded those who booked early with cheaper prices. But the scheme backfired by overlooking one of the most attractive aspects of train travel – it’s spontaneity. Tickets on some heavily-traveled routes, such as the line between Cologne and Berlin, rose by as much as 25 percent, hitting spur-of-the-moment, business and tourist travelers particularly hard.
To attract customers, Connex has taken a completely opposite approach. With fixed fees at significantly lower levels than Deutsche Bahn – Cologne to Rostock will cost €50 – Connex also allows passengers to buy their tickets on board at no extra charge. Its motto is "Climb aboard and Go!"
"The Deutsche Bahn has cut many regional direct connections," said Joachim Kemnitz, a spokesman for the rail travel passenger association Pro Bahn, according to German news agency DPA. "That Connex is trying to fill gaps in service is being well received by customers," he said.
Connex boss Hans Leister told NDR public television that the company’s success on its two previous shorter routes in eastern Germany had convinced management to slowly expand its service into a nationwide long-distance network.
Though Deutsche Bahn was originally happy to see Connex step in where it could no longer offer cost-effective regional service, a rival nationwide network could undercut the Bahn just as it is competing with discounted airlines for customers.
Bahn spokesman Uwe Herz said last week that the cheap air carriers were costing Deutsche Bahn approximately €80 million a year. As an example, he cited the Cologne-Hamburg business service, which has lost a quarter of its passengers since discounted airfares had become available.
"Customers will only be convinced to travel by rail with alternative offers and attractive prices," said Connex’s Leister.