Coronavirus: German passenger rail demand plummets, but freight services key | News | DW | 06.04.2020

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Coronavirus: German passenger rail demand plummets, but freight services key

Empty trains are a common sight in Germany just now, but national rail operator Deutsche Bahn says it will keep its passenger services running. Its freight trains are delivering much-needed products like toilet paper.

Long-distance and regional passenger train usage has slumped to around 15% of normal demand during the coronavirus restrictions, the head of national German rail operator Deutsche Bahn, Richard Lutz, said on Monday. 

Meanwhile Deutsche Bahn's freight division — deprived of automobile sector contracts — has switched to unusual priority deliveries like groceries as it too faces a reduction in demand.

"Whether pastry wares, toilet paper or flour: in recent days we've been able to assist many enterprises with logistical services," Lutz told journalists during a telephone conference focused on the pandemic's impacts on the state-owned company.

The loss of freight, also from abroad, had left goods trains loaded to around 70% of their normal capacity. DB was shifting "everything — and that means everything — that customers want transported," Lutz said.

A goods train in Brandenburg, pictured on March 15, 2020.

Freight services are in far more demand than passenger trains, and the freight itself is changing to fit the times

Although the virus risk had deterred passenger usage, Deutsche Bahn was running its long-distance passenger trains about 75% of its typically-scheduled long-distance trains, and about 65% of normal for short-distance services — something very similar to their weekend schedule.

Lutz said the goal behind this was to ensure that trains were available for the few people who still needed them, when they needed them.

"Whoever works in systemically relevant professions and is dependent on rail travel should be able to do so without drawbacks," said Lutz, stressing "stability" as DB's motto — after years of public dismay over train delays and shoddy stations. 

Read more:  Flight shaming is working, but will Europe's railways buckle under the strain?

Bookings for Easter were flat, Lutz also said, showing that many had waived family visits: "Our customers are acting unmistakably responsibly in the current situation."

"We are keeping things running," he said, although warning earnings would be mauled.

"The coronavirus pandemic will, like many others, hit us hard," he said, and given DB's €24 billion ($26 billion) accumulated debts, once the situation was somewhat clearer, Lutz said DB would have to "talk to" the government, the company's owner.

Read more:  What you need to know about the coronavirus

Last year, DB notched a record volume of more than 150 million passengers on its IC and ICE long-distance trains, an annual gain of 2.8 million. But its freight dropped 3.7% despite what was then a stable economic outlook.

Earnings in 2019 rose by just under 1% to €44.4 billion. Profit before tax sank 13% to €1.8 billion.

Tasks in the future have priority in the coming years," said Lutz at the time, adding: this would be reflected in lower profits.

ipj/msh (dpa, AFP, Reuters)

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