More Bike Space Needed, Please.

This Easter kicks off the start of the biking season over here in Germany (and parts of Europe). After months of having the bikes in the garages for many months due to a rather wintry season with more snow than what the continent is used to, cyclists, like yours truly are taking advantage of the warm and sunny weather by packing the bikes and whatever they can use for on the way and head hundreds of kilometers away from their homes to their destinations, so that they can see many new places and pedal many kilometers, whether it is a nice 20 km scenic tour or a marathon of over 110 km long. It all depends on preference mainly, although some people go to extremes only to pay the price physically in the end.

For many who are taking their bikes with to their destinations, it is not unusual to load them up on the trains and take off with them. It’s easier than having to load them up on top of their cars or in the back of their trucks, and one only needs to pay for train fare for himself and the bike. Sadly though, as you can see in the picture, the German Railways (Die Bahn) are trying to indirectly discourage that possibility, as there are too many bikes clogging up the train. Now why would railway services, like Die Bahn would want to do that?

Photo taken by the author enroute to Hamburg on the IC

 

 

The explanation is cause and effect. In Germany (and you can also include the rest of Europe as they have the same issue), it is too expensive to own a car. Apart from the very high gas prices (please refer to my last column on dictating our driving habits), one has to worry about paying taxes for the car- let alone car insurance which is twice as expensive as in the United States (in most cases). Furthermore, it is obligatory to have your car inspected annually to ensure that it functions properly. The so-called TÜV inspection ensures that cars that do not meet strict requirements, such as reducing carbon dioxide emissions and eliminating harmful gases produced by the exhaust system, the car engine making minimum noise while in operation, and the outer body looking like brand new, are taken off the roads unless the problems are corrected. In a way, it encourages more business on the part of the car dealers and law enforcement agencies and safety on the part of the drivers. But by the same token, it discourages many drivers from purchasing a car and use alternative forms of transportation instead, such as bus, streetcar, bike, and the train.

Problem with the alternative with train and bike is  not just the overcrowding of bikes, but the lack of availability of coaches to store the bikes. While one can take their bikes onto a regional service train at no cost (most of the time, that is), these trains stop at every single train station at every town, big or small, resulting in the travel time being three times as long as it would be, if one would use long-distance train services, which travels faster and stops at only the big and most popular stations, like in Frankfurt (Main), Dresden, Berlin and Hamburg, for example.  The fastest long-distance train service in Germany is the ICE, which travels up to 300 km/h. The second quickest is the Inter City, which can clock in a maximum speed of 250 km/h. Yet the IC is the only one that provides the cyclists with the possibility to take the bike on board, even though they have to reserve a spot at a small price.  The problem with this possibility is the fact that the bike reservations on the ICs are as limited as the number of these trains that are still running on the tracks. And it will only get worse in the next decade, as many changes by Die Bahn is forcing many to either adapt to the changes or consider alternatives. First and foremost, the ICs are retiring, as many of the coaches have been in operation for 30-40 years and despite consistent renovations, they are approaching the end of their useful lives. At the same time however, the newest version of the ICE, the ICx will make its debut as early as 2017, which will make the ICs and the first two generations of the ICE trains obsolete. There are currently four types in operation: The ICE I, which has been in service since 1990, the ICE II (since 1993), the ICE T (since 2000) and the ICE III (since 2004). All four of these types cannot accommodate the bikes and are therefore forbidden to take aboard unless one wants to face legal action.  Also disturbing is the possible elimination of ICE routes as they are either considered non-profitable or are being bypassed with more efficient routes. This includes the weaning of the route Stralsund- Berlin-Leipzig-Weimar-Erfurt-Kassel-Dortmund-Cologne off the ICs and replacing them with regional services, which has caused some massive protests from those who want a quick route to either the Cathedral in Cologne and points in the Ruhrgebiet (an industrial area where Dortmund and Cologne are located) or the Baltic Sea, in places like Stralsund, or the islands of Rügen and Usedom [Oooh-se-dome]. Another route, the Berlin-Leipzig-Erfurt-Nuremberg route is getting a new route, which would go through Suhl instead of Naumburg, Jena and Lichtenfels and with that, the treacherous mountains located between Saalfeld and Lichtenfels. While it may cut down the amount of time because the trains will go through a series of bridges and tunnels, there are concerns that Jena and Naumburg may end up without long-distance train services, a discussion that was brought up last year in Jena, as the city of 120,000 inhabitants is the center of its optical industry and has two renowned universities that are focused on the sciences.

Regional services do have three advantages. First it better serves the communities as the trains stop at all stations and towns, big or small. People are more connected as they meet and get to know each other, and one can load their bikes on the train and take them to their destinations, no matter where they go, for free. But this privilege will not last for long. Already in some places, like Hesse, the trains now have limitations for the number of bikes allowed on board. And in Bavaria, bike fees are being imposed on certain routes. One wonders whether these restrictions will actually do more harm to Die Bahn and its profits, let alone the customers; especially those who do not want to resort to the car to load their bikes and go to their destinations, if they can help it.

Inside a regional train service enroute to Flensburg. Photo taken by the author.

 

 

While the situation is still bearable, it will be a matter of time before the frustration between the customers with the bikes and Die Bahn come to a boil and that solutions offering flexibility will have to be found. This includes looking at neighboring countries for references, as their systems are more complex but more logical than what Die Bahn is offering. This includes the rail service in Switzerland (the SBB), where bikes are allowed on any train regardless of whether it is the regional services or the quickest service, the ICN, which runs services between Basel, Geneva, and Zurich. The reintroduction of InterRegio services, which was discontinued in 2006, would provide passengers with better connections to medium-sized communities and more space for the bikes. This is one service that the SBB still retains alongside its InterCity services. And lastly, to better serve the customers, having more train services running regularly- namely three per hour in the more populated areas- would provide the passengers with more opportunities to travel and trains with more space for the bikes. This is being practiced in Switzerland; especially in the corridor of Geneva-Montreaux-Bern as well as Montreaux-Sion-Lugano, for example.

Whether Die Bahn will look to other sources for references or find other creative ideas on their own depends on the costs, let alone the supply vs. demand- namely what the customers want and what the rail service can provide them in order for them to be satisfied. No matter what the case may be, many people are not going to let any train service put them down. They will do whatever it takes to travel by train; especially now because of the increasing oil prices, which shows no signs of slowing down at all. And on a beautiful weekend, like Easter, with temperatures between 20 and 30°C and mostly sunny skies, many people, like myself, are taking the bikes into the trains and travelling to their destinations, where they will hit the trails and see the places that they want to see, but without the use of a set of wheels that has guzzled one liter of gas too many.

 

LINK: http://www.bahn.de/i/view/GBR/en/trains/overview/ice.shtml (All the information on the trains of the German Railways Die Bahn can be found here).

http://mct.sbb.ch/mct/en/reisemarkt/services/wissen/velo/veloselbstverlad-schweiz/veloselbstverlad-icn.htm (Info on the SBB’s ICN train and it’s availability to bikers)

 

 

 

Thanks for telling us how to drive, (….)!

It is a site that none of us wanted to see after 2008, the year of the economic collapse. At about this time last year, we were dealing with $4 a gallon gas in a time span between Easter and Labor Day, with some cities dealing with prices at or over $5/gallon, like Chicago, New York, and Dallas. It was a site where everyone was fighting the windmills in cutting costs, just so we could keep the cars in the garages as often and as long as possible. We took whatever forms of public transportation needed if we didn’t have a bicycle. We focused on vacations that were more local and did not even bother with a trip to places far and away. And last but not least, since the oil prices went as far as $147 a barrel, resulting in prices of other commodities spiking as well, we had to go on a diet in terms of our shopping habits, as everything was way too expensive- food included.

While prices did go back down to $2.50/gallon by the middle of last year, guess what?  Have a look at the picture below:

Photo taken by Kari Lucin of the Worthington Daily Globe

 

 

Yep, gas prices are back on the rise again, and this time, there seems to be no stopping the trend. We’ve seen gas prices increase by an average of 70 cents a gallon since this Christmas and it would not be surprising if the entire US faces $4/gallon gas by the time Memorial Day comes around. Already, six states have broken the mark with many more yet to follow, including Minnesota (where the photo was taken). By the time July comes around, travellers will be dealing with prices never seen before- $4.50 to even $5.50/gallon gas!  There is no doubt in the minds of many that many highways will be at half-full capacity at the most when this happens.

If you look at the European shores now, a lot of Americans would feel a lot of sympathy if they saw how much we usually pay on average- that is if the situation is normal and not what it is right now. It is usual to pay 1.30 Euro/Liter unleaded gasoline in Germany, and at a time back in 2006, diesel was less than that. Converting the figures into the English measurements, that would mean about $7 a gallon. However, as you can see in the picture below, we’re also feeling your pain. While travelers normally pay more for gasoline than in the US, gas prices are skyrocketing to levels never seen before in modern history, even though the country invests more in other forms of infrastructure, like passenger rail and busses.

 

Typical gas prices in Germany- TODAY! Photo taken by the author.

 

 

So who do we have to blame for all this? Many people would blame Moamar Gaddafi in Libya for torturing his  people through a civil war, something that the allied troops are trying to put an end to by toppling his regime. That would be a first reaction given the fact that the country has been supplying 20% of the world’s supply of oil. But other countries in northern Africa and the Middle East have been trying to keep up with the growing demand for oil plus Big Oil has been working on finding new supplies. We can blame Big Oil for dictating the gas prices and for quashing other forms of alternative energy, like hydrogen cells, wind, geothermal, and even solar energy. Highly conclusive argument since it has been destroying the environments around the world with reckless oil drilling, and despite regulations passed by the Obama administration and other governments to restrict deep water drilling, in light of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the companies are finding ways to circumvent the laws through perverted measures, like cozying up with the politicians.

But what about us?  Perhaps we as a society should rethink the way we have been using energy resources and not pay attention to the external influences that have been governing our way of life for at least three decades. In the past three decades, we have been consumed by all kinds of stuff that we have been told what to do or what to buy and not think about the long-term consequences of our actions. Whenever there is an SUV that is big enough to fit eight people and eight cupholders, we buy it without knowing the consequences of using it (namely paying more for gas and maintenance). Instead of borrowing a cup of brown sugar to make a sweet potato casserole, we commute 30 km to the nearest supermarket to purchase a package.  If a highway is too narrow and a bridge too light for traffic, we replace it with a six lane freeway and a bridge that is bland but serves as its only function: to be 100% “free of maintenance,” not knowing that it would encourage more driving, more wear and tear, and in the end more money for maintenance. Yet we still continue this process as if there is no tomorrow, and it is not surprising that we are all in a fix that may no longer possible to break out of.

End result? We are cutting back on what we enjoy the most, like photography tours, long distance travelling to various exotic places, and running separate errands individually, embracing our neighbors like we knew them for many years (even though we don’t know them at all) taking advantage of whatever public transportation is available and doing some things differently in order to cut costs wherever needed. In one case, an American student living in Germany recently decided to fly from Copenhagen to Minnesota instead of flying out of Frankfurt as flight costs are much cheaper in the Danish capital, a city that is worth seeing and accessible by train. While the last part may be a bit crazy, these measures show the willingness to people all over the world that there are alternatives to using the car which costs a lot of money. It’s more of a question of how to do it without hurting their own interests, and this is exceptionally hard, given the current circumstances.

While we may have seen gas prices fall in light of the economic crash in 2008, it is highly unlikely that this will repeat itself again. And like the Europeans who have done this already, we need to rethink the way we travel, and politicians need to rethink the concept of expanding public transportation, instead of cutting funding for many projects, as more people are demanding alternatives to the car. It may be expensive at first, but in the long term, it will save households much money by reducing the costs for travelling by car, and families will benefit from these alternatives in many different ways.

It is highly unlikely that the debate over high gas prices will be the focus of the next elections in 2012 (US) and 2013 (Germany), but it will hang around the chambers of the two houses of parliament, to a point where politicians will be so annoyed by it that they will investigate this and ask the public about htis topic. Nine times out of ten, they will be due for a shock…..

 

Note: Thanks to Kari Lucin for providing the photo of the gas prices in the US at present.