Public transport in Germany is about to undergo a major overhaul as the govenrment moves to lift a special law favoring the national rail network over long distance bus lines.
Buses are set to give Deutsche Bahn a run for its money
In Germany, there are few national bus services with the exception of those operating to and from Berlin. Anyone who wants to travel by public transportation from Stuttgart to Munich, for example, can only do so by plane or train. That's in keeping with Paragraph 13 of the Public Transport Act of 1931. The clause permits national bus routes only in exceptional cases - and only if the national railway company, Deutsche Bahn, has no objections.
This privilege is set to come to an end by 2011 at the latest, in accordance with an agreement between the members of the ruling coalition. New countrywide bus services could be launched soon, adding to the few routes that already exist, like the Hamburg-Berlin route, which is a relic of pre-unification days.
A brief peek into the waiting room of Berlin's Central Bus Station gives visitors a sense of the significance, or insignificance, of long distance bus lines in Germany. Travelers trickle into the building looking for the one ticket counter that is actually open for business, before sinking into orange plastic bucket seats to read magazines or eat the candy they bought at the tiny kiosk in the waiting area.
The ambience is not very different outside: a few buses come and go as a handful of travelers wait under gray corrugated iron roofs. Those who've been to modern bus stations in the United States and Latin America are bound to think they are in an underdeveloped country, not the central bus station of the German capital.
The waiting room at Berlin's Central Bus Station is not befitting of the capital
The bleak atmosphere doesn't seem to bother Anne Kuenne and her daughter Petra Niessen. The two women stand hugging each other next to a bus as its engine roars noisily. The older woman is traveling back to Hamburg, and has become a habitual bus traveler.
"It's so much cheaper compared to the train," Kuenne says. "If I know exactly when I'm leaving, then I can buy the ticket even six weeks ahead."
Taking advantage of an early-bird discount, Kuenne paid 19 euros for her round trip - the normal price would be 43 euros. By rail, the same trip would have cost more than 100 euros.
Niessen is equally enthusiastic about bus travel. “The baggage charges are also cheaper,” she points out, adding: “On trains, you have to carry the luggage around. Here, you arrive with the suitcase and it is lifted in and lifted out for you."
Driver wins over customers
Niessen is so pleased with the price and service that she regularly sends her two children, aged 11 and 14, on bus trips on their own.
“When they visit their grandmother in Hamburg, they travel on their own," she explains. "We put them on the bus here and sign a document, and my mother can then pick them up in Hamburg - but only after adding her signature. So, it's safer than the train."
Bus driver Angelika Bartels says the youngest child to travel with her regularly is about five. Like many of the regular commuters, she knows the boy well.
“I take them with me to the front of the bus," she says. "We always entertain and look after the children quite well. It's safer than on a train, you have to be quite honest about that.”
Stepping on the gas
Buses are the cleanest and safest means of transport in Germany, according to a government-funded study conducted by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. The modern vehicles consume less than 30 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers, and emit less carbon dioxide and other pollutants per passenger than trains. There is however one disadvantage: buses are generally slower than trains. And that means bus line operators need to select their routes very carefully if they want to obtain a permit.
Some say the amendment to the law is long overdue
Entrepreneur Constantin Pitzen launched his Autobahn Express bus service at the end of 2009, linking Potsdam, the state capital of Brandenburg, with the Halle-Leipzig airport and other cities in central Germany.
His service is much faster than any comparable route the rail network can offer, but Pitzen still had to fight a year-long battle to win his operating permit. The 39-year-old is therefore delighted that the federal government intends to amend the law dating back to nearly eight decades.
"From a business perspective what we want is that the law has clear and transparent rules. And currently it's so poorly organized that you do not know exactly how long the process will take,” Pitzen says.
“There is so much legal uncertainty that in every region where an application for a permit is made, there are different interpretations of the same law. And this has ensured that hardly any companies are willing to operate in the long-distance bus service sector."
But Pitzen believes all that is about to change once the privilege accorded to Deutsche Bahn is withdrawn. He points to the growing passenger numbers and says he's convinced that his long wait for the national passenger transport market to open up will pay off.
Author: Svenja Pelzel (rb)
Editor: Sam Edmonds