Well, Â winter wonderland is officially here. And with that, we have a massive problem with regards to being underprepared and overwhelmed with frustrated rail passengers and commuters. Yesterday and last night, traffic in Germany grinded to a complete halt as the second and most powerful storm to date this season left hundreds of thousands of daily commuters and travellers stranded in cars, hotels, and even train stations. Especially hardest hit was the northern two thirds of Germany, where many villages in Schleswig-Holstein were cut off from the rest of the world, trees were down in the forests of Bavaria and Hesse, and train service in Thuringia literally halted.
The Deutsche Bahn (EN: German Railways), overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of complaints made by stranded travellers and dealing with delays of up to 4 hours, decided to kyrillize the entire network, resulting in many trains stopping at the next available train station and many train stations, including that of Erfurt shutting down for the night. The term kyrillize comes from the name of the hurricane Kyrill, which wreaked havoc in January 2007, resulting in the Deutsche Bahn shutting down all services across Germany. The problem with that was the fact that the stranded passengers and even the personnel at the stations in Germany were misinformed of the trains being shut down. In fact, the information on the website of the Bahn was also false, as trains scheduled to arrive at stations 15-60 minutes later did not run as some rail lines were no longer able to run because of snow drifts and downed trees. In Jena at Westbahnhof (West Railway Station), no trains were running after 7:00pm last night in both directions, even though data on the computer stated that many were to arrive either late or punctually!Â Since this morning, many trains are running, but with either delays of up to 2 hours, replacement trains running on abnormal train schedules, and some services being cancelled. And with another storm pounding places like Kiel, Flensburg and other towns, one will have to figure in delays and cancellations through the weekend throughout all of Germany.
While kyrillizing the entire rail network was the only viable option in a situation like this, one has to start getting used to the concept of disaster management, because transportation agencies, like the Deutsche Bahn are operating based too much on long-term planning and little on spontaneous planning to accomodate passengers in times like these. This is one of many complaints the passengers have against the railway company, which is mostly owned by the German government. Â Other complaints include lack of availability of trains, overcrowding, and unnecessarily cutting lines that serve many passengers to cut costs. One should also figure in cutting down on personnel and shutting down smaller train stations. However, when it comes to disaster planning, as one person stated, the Deutsche Bahn is behaving like it is living on the Mediterranean coast. In the past few years, we have seen an increase in the number of massive storms, including those like we witnessed last night and into today. Yet there is not enough personnel and trains on call to mobilize the passengers and get them to their destination. Worse is that there is no communication between train stations resulting in personnel and passengers making assumptions on what was going to happen, let alone some personnel trying to calm down passengers by offering sweet lies, like promising bus services, when the roads were blocked off completely, when they could have said “Sorry. But you may want to look into a place to stay overnight and we’ll try again to get you home tomorrow.” Better to taste the bitter truth than to drink a sweet lie and suffer from it, huh?
I have to give the German railways some credit for improving their services. Their ICE-trains are one of the best in Europe, which includes the ICE-T and ICE 3, the most modern of the trains. New tracks are being laid to better accomodate the passengers, which includes the stretch from Leipzig to Nuremberg via Erfurt and Illmenau, which is scheduled to be completed in 2018. The plan to expand the service from Schleswig-Holstein to Denmark through the Fehmarn region is in full swing as a bridge is being planned to connect Fehmarn Island with mainland Denmark, scheduled to be completed also in 2018. And customer service has improved where personnel are more helpful and flexible to meet the increasing needs of the customers; especially those with children. However, despite all this, the one big improvement that is needed in general is with disaster management; this goes way beyond shovelling snow off the platforms of the train stations and kyrillizing the entire network because of a massive snow storm. What is needed is improved communication among all train stations including the smaller stations. This means all technological means have to be utilized to the exponential degree, including online and through electronic signs on the platforms and in railway station buildings. This also means designating regional train stations as the main contact points to distribute the news to all stations at the quickest possible convenience. In addition, extra trains should be available in case if one (of them or a line) is not running, they can get the passengers to their destinations more quickly than it would be when it sticks to its long-term planning. Â And finally, more information on lodging possiblities should be made available even in small to medium-sized cities like Weimar, Bayreuth, Fulda or Flensburg. Currently one can find this option in the big cities, like Berlin, Frankfurt, and Hamburg, just to name a few.
Only some small changes, plus having more personnel, will make the Deutsche Bahn more efficient and prepared for disasters like this. By sticking with the old plan, the railway will run the risk of losing more passengers than necessary. It has lost quite a few because of the increase in ticket prices. It may not want to excaberate the situation by sticking to the old ideology. It is time that the Deutsche Bahn think short term and react to disasters to better accomodate the passengers. It may be tough at the beginning, but in the end, the company will benefit in terms of profits and the passengers will be spared the headaches like we had last night with this snow storm.
Useful links: http://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/schneeeuropa102.html