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Mainz train station idled

John Blau
August 12, 2013

Rail company Deutsche Bahn - a symbol of German punctuality and reliability - is struggling to maintain that reputation. Pressure to deliver profits, at the expense of sufficient personnel, is partly to blame.

Regional train in Germany (Copyright: eyetronic)
Image: Fotolia/eyetronic

Deutsche Bahn operates freight trains as far away as China and the United Arab Emirates and is the largest international operator of passenger services in Central and Eastern Europe. But the state-owned railway company appears currently unable to navigate trains in and around Mainz, a booming economic center close to Frankfurt, and the capital of the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

For more than a week, the operator has been forced to cancel numerous regional trains to the city because of a shortage of personnel in its local control center. Of the 15 traffic controllers normally manning the center, four are sick and three are on vacation.

Not just a local incident

How, angry commuters are asking, can a company that employs more than 290,000 people not be able to man a critical traffic hub?

Mainz train station (Photo: Fredrik von Erichsen/dpa)
Platforms at the Mainz central station are usually packed with peopleImage: picture-alliance/dpa

What at first glance may look like a minor local incident actually highlights a much larger problem. Critics point to an organizational structure that has become too focused on profits. The incident in Mainz, they say, is just one of a growing serious of mishaps that Deutsche Bahn is experiencing because of many belt-tightening measures aimed to deliver positive financial results.

The German government fully owns Deutsche Bahn AG, which consists of various units, including passenger, cargo and network infrastructure. Profits generated by these units flow into a holding which, in turn, passes on a chunk to the federal government.

DB Netz, the infrastructure unit, is one of the more profitable departments. Although the unit receives money from the federal government to maintain and operate the costly network, it is also expected to give money back in the form of profits generated from network usage fees.

Pressure to be profitable

"This is a strange construction and a problem because there is too much pressure on the infrastructure business to be profitable," said Otmar Lell, a transportation expert with the Federation of German Consumer Organizations in Berlin. "We believe it would be far more effective for the infrastructure operations to be removed from the holding and put into a separate government entity," Lell told DW

Lell isn't alone in that view. "We believe the infrastructure unit should be directly converted into a state company, totally separated from the railway operator, to end cross-subsidies," said Jörg Bruchertseifer, a board member of the passenger interest group Pro Bahn. "Profit-driven enterprises are always under pressure to rationalize, and sometimes they go too far," Bruchertseifer told DW.

Ruediger Grube (Photo: Michael Gottschalk/dapd)
Deutsche Bahn CEO Rüdiger Grube needs to find some solutionsImage: dapd

DB Netz employs more than 34,000 people - down from more than 41,000 in 2006. The traffic control center is just one of many aspects of network operations that require skilled people, according to Alexander Kirchner, chairman of the railroad and transportation trade union EVG.

"You can't put just anyone into a traffic control center - and that's why we have the problem in Mainz," Kirchner told DW. "Too few people are trained for this work. After years of hiring hardly anyone, Deutsche Bahn is now hiring again - but just enough to replace the many older employees who are retiring. Our criticism is that the Deutsche Bahn is responding too late, and with not enough new hires."

Possible measures on the way

Kirchner also criticized the pressure on DB Netz to churn out profits. "There is way too much focus on the personnel budget and not enough on the budget required to maintain and run the network," he told DW.

Deutsche Bahn appears to be listening. A spokeswoman confirmed that a roundtable discussion with Bahn executives and government representatives will take place on Tuesday. "We expect to announce some measures after that," she told DW.

ICE train (Copyright: imago/imagebroker)
Premium service ICE trains race ahead, while regional trains often face delaysImage: imago/imagebroker

Frank Sennhenn, chairman of DB Netz, said in an interview with German public broadcaster ARD that the unit is "doing everything it can" to keep all traffic control centers in similar situations up and running.

Limited options

Local train commuters in Mainz, however, will still need to find alternative ways to get around. Deutsche Bahn has confirmed continued constraints in regional rail transportation through the end of the week.

Over the past couple of years, the German rail giant has had to respond to a steady flow of criticism over problems encountered in cold winters, as well as in hot summers. Again this year, for instance, the air-conditioning failed in a number of prestigious - and pricey - ICE long-distance trains.

Delays are another big gripe. Many routes are congested at peak times - but adding new tracks or increasing the number of trains is often not possible due to noise concerns from nearby residents.

Railroad intersection (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
Deutsche Bahn operates a complex networkImage: AP Images

Still, many long-distance ICE passengers - unlike regional commuters - appear fairly content. "I've encountered some small incidents over the years but the service has been good, by and large," said Bernd Hussmann, who has been traveling from Düsseldorf to Berlin and back about every three weeks for the past five years. "But when something does go wrong and there is a delay, Deutsche Bahn could do a better job of informing us."

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