Here is a sight that I hope that I will never see again: An ICE train departing Hamburg enroute to Copenhagen becomes overcrowded the second the doors open. You try and find a seat you had reserved at a train station in Jena three weeks before, only to find that it is occupied by a mother with two children. It is not a problem considering the fact that the announcer informed the people waiting at the platform that reservations made on the train were considered null and void. That would make a world of sense if learned that all schools in Germany were out for the summer and that every family with their dog or cat would hit the road or track for their destinations to the Alps, Turkey, or parts of Scandanavia. However the situation becomes unbearable when people are standing side by side in the aisle and on the seats and too close together, resembling a typical ride on the Tokyo subway. To relieve the congestion, the conductor of the train forces the people to take the Regional Express train to Lübeck, which is also the stop on the ICE. It makes sense for only a short time, but does not alleviate the problem when you see a person who makes his spot in one of the closets next to the Bord Restaurant, sitting on top of his luggage. When asked whether he comfortable in that very narrow encasement, he replies with “At least I can sit.”
There are two pet peeves I have with the German Railways (Die Bahn). The first is its customer unfriendliness, especially when it comes to parents with children (please see my article on Single and Business Bahn). Others would disagree with me and say that trains arriving late would be their pet peeve. In a way I would agree if I was one of those commuters going to work at the university as an English lecturer and had an early morning class at 8:30 in the morning, meaning I have to be off to work at 7:00 in the morning in order to make it on time. However, a delay may work as a blessing if there is something very important to do for work before a certain deadline.
There is the other pet peeve which both the Germans and I would have a fun time talking about and that is overcrowded trains. No matter where you go, which train you use (ICE, InterCity or Regional Services), what time of year you travel by train, or what you have for luggage or people travelling with you, Die Bahn has a chronic problem with overcrowding trains. And no matter how hard they try to alleviate the problem, it seems that the problem has worsened within the last five to ten years because of the preference for trains over automobiles- and this goes beyond the increasing price for gas and compulsory automobile inspections taken annually.
If we look at the train demographics for a second, we can see two main north-south arteries (Munich to Berlin and Basel to Hamburg via Frankfurt (Main), three east-west arteries (Dresden to Frankfurt (Main), Berlin to Cologne via Magdeburg and Dusseldorf and Passau/Vienna to Basel via Munich, Ulm and Stuttgart), plus numerous important blood vessels going to key cities, like Cologne from Frankfurt, Copenhagen/Flensburg from Hamburg, Rostock from Berlin and Kaiserslautern/Saarbrücken from Frankfurt(Main). If a major shortcoming was to take place, such as a storm shutting down the stretch, a train stalling due to a malfunctioning airconditioner, or even a delay of 20 minutes due to overcrowding because of people getting on or off the train (all of which have occurred countless times), then the situation is like a person having a massive heart attack with minutes away from keeling over and expiring if help is not sought in blitzschnell speed. When that happens, pretty much everyone suffers, regardless of whether a passenger misses a flight to Africa, or misses an important meeting with clients and his job is therefore on the line, or if he misses an exam for one of the subjects at the university and he fails the course. If one lives in Germany as long as I have (twelve years come September 2011), then he/she will have been late at least twice a month- one of which would have consequences as far as meeting deadlines and making appointments are concerned.
The hardest hit areas are the stretches starting in Munich heading north: one heads to Hamburg via Nuremberg, Würzburg, Frankfurt (Main), Göttingen and Hannover; the other heads to Berlin via Nuremberg, Jena and Leipzig. Barring the landscape the two lines have to go through (in particular the latter stretch as it has to go through mountains between Nuremberg and Jena), when boarding the train- in particular the InterCity and ICE, it is always full and despite reservations head of time, there is no guarantee one can sit down in his reserved seat unless he is as aggressive as Happy Gilmore. And when the seat is reserved, then one has to deal with a lack of space as his passenger sitting next to him also needs space to breathe. The worst is when having luggage and one has no choice but to place them either on the steps or in five different areas of the train. This has occurred with me many times when travelling along this stretch heading to Flensburg and recently to Copenhagen to catch my flight to the USA. If you count the other persons who are travelling with you and are really agitated at the overcrowding, then you can be sure of some potential fireworks going off right there….
Fortunately, measures are being taken to ensure that travelling by train is easier. First and foremost, new tracks are being laid so that one set is designated for ICE service and the other for regional train service. This was done with a stretch between Freiburg (Breisgau) and Karlsruhe and has alleviated the overcrowding a bit. On the Frankfurt-Hamburg route, some stretches are being built north of Göttingen as well as in the metro areas of Hannover and south of Hamburg even as this article is being written. Another is constructing newer, faster stretches so that passengers can reach their destination quicker and more comfortably. While that has worked on the Hamburg-Frankfurt route between Göttingen and Würzburg, this is being done with the new route between Berlin and Munich, detouring through Ilmenau, Erfurt and Halle (Saale) enroute to Leipzig. However one has to take into consideration such projects should not be done at the expense of sacrificing original routes, as is the plan by Die Bahn with the new route being constructed- after 2017 no ICEs will pass through Jena and its neighbor to the north, Naumburg (Saale). Instead both routes should be open and the two types of services (InterCity and ICE) should take turns using the two routes, while respecting the other available services at the same time. This has been done in Hesse with the routes connecting Frankfurt and Cologne as well as the stretch between Mannheim and Karlsruhe. For the stretch between Frankfurt and Cologne, there are two routes one can take: the ICE route via Limburg and Montabaur and the InterCity/ICE route via Coblence. For the other, one can go straight to Karlsruhe from Mannheim or take the route through Heidelberg and Heilbronn with ICE. Why should it not work for the two stretches going through the state of Thuringia? It would be a win-win situation for Die Bahn as well as the cities of Erfurt and Jena.
This brings me up to two suggestions that are worth considering to ensure more efficiency and less hassles for passengers. Apart from building new stretches and ensuring that the old ones maintain their services to the customers, one should consider utilizing stretches that are less travelled and used by regional services. There one could add some long-distance services to the routes to ensure that passengers have the same satisfaction in service as the ones travelling along the heavily travelled routes. The other is building more trains and reinventing/ reusing types of trains for use on the least travelled routes. While Die Bahn is working on building more InterCity trains to replace the ones that have serving passengers for 20-30 years, the success of the ICE-diesel trains connecting Hamburg and Denmark via Lübeck and Flensburg should force the German train concern to reconsider the idea after they discontinued the service between Dresden and Nuremberg via Bayreuth in 2003. While that stretch is rife for the reintroduction in the ICE-diesel, the stretches between Chemnitz and Göttingen via Gera, Jena, and Mühlhausen and between Cottbus and Berlin are examples of many where the ICE diesel trains could benefit the people in those areas.
The overcrowding of trains and the sometimes overutilization of the routes is a sign that more and more people are using the trains and leaving the cars at home. It is understandable because of the high gas prices combined with the taxes and annual compulsory inspections that have to be paid. Therefore Die Bahn has to react accordingly to accommodate the increasing numbers, even if it means having to put more trains on the existing routes and build new ones so that one will not have to deal with the pet peeve of overcrowding and being forced to stand for long stretches. More trains and better service is better, even if trains come more often and have to keep to a slower speed limit. Passengers will understand and plan accordingly. It is better than finding a place to sit for three hours at any cost, which was the case with the passenger who sat on his suitcase in the small closet on the ICE to Copenhagen.