Beginning in January 2013, travelers in Germany will have the option of taking long-distance buses, thanks to a change in long-standing transport laws. A federal bus union views the change with skepticism, however.
Private bus companies are thrilled at having reached their goal: Beginning in January 2013, they are permitted to launch long-distance bus lines. Meanwhile, unions are warning German bus employees that the new regulations will mean worse pay and working conditions for them - a view employers do not share.
The decision to allow long-distance busing marks a positive and long overdue development for both the environment and customers, said Bastian Roet, spokesman for the German Association of Omnibus Operators.
Transportation laws currently in effect date back to the 1930s. They basically guaranteed the then state-owned train system a monopoly on long-distance, public travel.
Through the 1970s, the German Federal Railways as well as the German mail service operated numerous long-distance bus lines. Thereafter, however, most connections were stopped. The laws on the books meant that private carriers were only allowed to open up new lines as long as they did not stand in competition with the train system or with existing bus operations. That's why Germany has scarcely seen new bus lines created for decades.
The new regulations allow for new long-distance bus lines to be established beginning on January 1, 2013. The only stipulations are that the travel time must not be less than one hour and that the start and end points for the trip must be at least 50 kilometers (31 miles) apart. Additionally, the new long-distance buses must be accessible to disabled patrons and passengers in wheelchairs by 2019.
Bastian Roet expects to see completely new structures implemented when it comes to public distance transportation.
"2013 will be the year in which long-distance bussing will come into effect and a country-wide network can develop," he said, adding that the goal among bus operators is not to steal customers from the trains.
"We know from studies that it's primarily car drivers who would initially switch over to bus travel," explained Roet.
Bus companies could target the areas where train connections have been lacking or that require many connection changes. But bus travel could also be attractive for those who simply want to get to their destinations as cheaply as possible. The few bus lines currently operating in Germany offer tickets at prices substantially lower than train fares.
The new competition seems not to trouble Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national railroad, whose sole shareholder is the federal government. Its representatives have said that there are no plans to expand bus lines operated by Deutsche Bahn. Instead, the focus will remain on its core business areas and investing in improvements there.
Criticism of the liberalization of the distance travel market has come largely from unions. The Train and Transportation Union (EVG) of Germany, for example, is displeased with the changes to the travel laws.
"This decision and the manner in which it was made are wrong. It's going to be an obstacle for employment, for competition and for the entire transportation industry," said Michael Klein, press spokesman for the EVG. He believes the new law will distort the relationship between street and rail travel.
"Every train that hits the tracks now has to pay a usage fee. But long-distance busses can take to the streets without any extra charges," he said.
Klein and other union members fear that price competition between trains and bus operators will end up hurting bus employees.
"The prices that are going to be quoted have to be financed somehow. Our concern is that the low ticket prices are going to be financed by poor pay and benefits," he said.