More Trains and More Space, Please!

A busy and chaotic scene at Hamburg Central Station. Taken on 31 July on the busiest day of the summer season as many people took to the highways and tracks to head to their vacation destination.

 

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.

Celebrating the Night of Atlantis in Handewitt

Sunset in Handewitt; photo taken in April 2011

There are many places in the world where different landscapes meet in one spot, and one can take advantage of what it has to offer. Flensburg and the surrounding area is one of them. You have the city that is located on a body of water known as the Fjorde, which leads to the Baltic Sea. About 5km to the north, there are rolling hills and forest. And to the west you have flat farmland surrounded by forests. Coming in from Denmark through the village of Ellund, I biked through one kilometer of forest followed by another kilometer of farmland until I stumbled into a quiet town of Handewitt, located roughly seven kilometers west of Flensburg. The town itself is surrounded by vast amounts of farmland, yet going through the city center by bike, it resembled a city that has long since been modernized, thanks to rows upon rows of red-brick houses lining the streets no matter where you go and upper class families owning high class German cars, like Audi and BMW- not the household name of Volkswagon and Opel, which most middle and lower class families own.

Coming in at sundown, Handewitt was totally asleep. Nobody was on the streets. Even the church located on the hill and providing a blick of the town of probably 4000 stood empty even though the lights were on. And even when the soft white fluorescent street lamps flamed on to provide safety on the streets, no one was driving around on the streets. The only sounds I could carry in were that of the herd of cattle on the west end of town, settling down with its calves for the night and cars traveling along the main highway going to Flensburg, which makes a tangent over the north end of Flensburg. What a good way to describe a town, which can pride itself in partnering with neighboring Flensburg to form the handball powerhouse SG Flensburg-Handewitt.

The church on the hill in Handewitt; photo taken in April, 2011

But silence can be its only beauty. Sometimes towns that are that quiet can also present its true colors which one can enjoy. Many of the towns have suffered from scars as a result of traffic congestion, noise and people who sometimes disregard the wishes of the town’s inhabitants to respect its environment and significance. Tourism has taken its toll on many places to a point where they do not look nice anymore, thanks to too much development and degradation, and too little nature and to a certain degree lack of natural sounds which make them special- not just the voices of the town’s past inhabitants let alone the flora and fauna that exist, but the silence that calms the nerves and makes the places much more comfortable to visit. All one needs is silence, listening to just the wind rustling the trees, the wild animals wandering the streets, and maybe a couple people talking about the past-or the future. This is what made the visit to Handewitt very surreal.

Leving the town for the route back to the hotel, 10 km away to the east, I happened to bike past a couple of restaurants and had an opportunity to eavesdrop on the topic of Atlantis and the end of an era. People were discussing the good times of the past and worrying about what the future holds. The year 2011 was to become the year to end all eras and the start of new ones. Atlantis was the reference to the Space Shuttle program by NASA, which has come to a successful end. With each quote from those talking about it brought back memories of growing up with the Space Shuttle program, how some watched the launch of a Shuttle live in Florida and lit the sky in the wee hours of the morning, how they watched from their tellies how the Shuttles contributed to the development of the International Space Station, which still encircles the Earth and watches over us day in, day out, and how two Shuttle disasters (1986 with Challenger and 2001 with Columbia) raised concerns regarding costs to maintain these vessels and make them safe for travel. The one from 1986 I watched live from the resource center of the elementary school I was attending in MN, but watching the live launch of Discovery at the beginning of 1988 for the first time since the disaster showed the willingness of the US to pick up the pieces and move on, looking ahead to the future. This was the next question that was posed by the group discussing it over Aquavit (a typical local liquor), Pott Rum, and Flensburger beer. Some say the Europeans will take over and NASA will cease to exist. Others say the opposite will be the case. In either case, once the Space Shuttle program is finished, the remaining three shuttles (Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavor) will become part of American history and a plan has to be made to continue flying into outer space, even if the US is hampered by an enormous deficit.

Heading home in the dark; photo taken in April 2011

It is almost like biking without headlights, which I discovered while leaving the conversation and the quiet town of Handewitt for the robust town of Flensburg. Going without headlights can be a dangerous tact, but there was no choice. One has to do it even if it meant following the bright fiery yellow sodium street lamps lining the main highway to achieve that task. Sometimes one has to think about the future and battle through the handicaps in life to achieve the goals, taking advantage of the whatever opportunity that lies ahead. NASA is working on that with hopes to have another person in outer space in 3-4 years, and when that happens, a new era will start and the past will be laid to rest, leaving its legacy that the next generation is expected to follow. And when I head to my destination at the hotel on the east end of Flensburg, I will remember my visit to Handewitt, the Night of Atlantis, and how I managed to make it back in one piece, preparing for the next day of adventures ahead of me.

 

THE AUTHOR OF THE FLENSBURG FILES WOULD LIKE TO DEDICATE THIS IN HONOR OF THE ASTRONAUTS OF ATLANTIS, DISCOVERY, ENDEAVOR, CHALLENGER, AND COLUMBIA WHO RESHAPED THE WAY WE SEE THE WORLD BEYOND OUR BOUNDARIES. YOU MADE A GREAT DIFFERENCE FOR CIVILIZATION AND PAINTED THE PATH FOR FUTURE SPACE FLIGHTS WHICH WILL TAKE PEOPLE TO PLACES NOT SEEN YET, EMBRACING THE UNKNOWN AND MAKING LIFE BETTER FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS TO COME.

Munich loses 2018 Olympics bid to Pyeonchang: A critical analysis

Katarina Witt: She was the face of the East when the two Germanys were divided and she won gold in figure skating in 1984 and 88 respectively. She was the face of Germany when she became a celebrity both on and off the ice rink. She was the face of Munich, with a potential to host another Olympiad in the Bavarian capital located at the foot of the Alps. Now she is the face of defeat- after finding out that the South Korean city of Pyeonchang will host the Winter Olympics game in six years time, she wept in disappointment. This disappointment goes beyond the fact that the city spent over $300 million for advertising campaigns in order to attract the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to this charming city and consider it the host. After all, Munich last hosted the games in 1972 and it had hoped that the Winter Games would make the city, let alone the region more attractive. Yet, the officials of the committee whose headquarters is located in Lausanne in Switzerland decided it was time for another city to prove its worth and decided for an Asian city. Pyeonchang is the first Asian city outside Tokyo to host the Winter Games, and while the South Koreans are joyfully looking forward to hosting their second Olympics since Seoul in 1988, many people- especially those in Germany- are wondering why.
Germany has lucked out for the fifth time in its bid to host the Olympics (Garmisch-Partenkirchen for 1960, Berchtesgarden for 1992 (Winter), Berlin for 2000, and Leipzig for 2012 (both for Summer) were the other failures), yet it has hosted the Olympics three times- twice in the same year alone- Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Summer Games in Berlin both in 1936. So the question is why is Germany not having much luck in hosting the World’s most prestigious sporting event that occurs every other year alternating between the Winter and Summer Games?
A couple of points come to mind when trying to answer this question. The first one is the fact that Munich (and its partner cities Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Königsee) wanted to join the likes of London, Athens, Stockholm, Innsbruck and Lake Placid, New York (among them) in becoming the cities that hosted the games more than once. The advantage of hosting the games more than once is that the infrastructure to host the Olympics is there, which makes arranging the events relatively easy. Munich has the infrastructure with its Olympic Stadium and other complexes from the 1972 Games and it would have been a matter of modernizing the facilities to fulfill the number of athletes and fans. The same applies to Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Königsee. Yet there are two problems in attempting this feat that the City of Munich, let alone Germany should be aware of.
First and foremost, Munich’s population has exploded in the last decade as many firms have their facilities in and around the city, and due to its extreme attractiveness to college graduates and expatriates alike, the city is having problems housing the people without having to charge them high rent and other expenses. Already this problem exists in other cities in southern Germany, like Stuttgart, Nuremberg, and even Frankfurt and the city planners are having extreme difficulties finding accommodations for people trying make a living for at least a few years, without having to face confrontation from the opposition because of the impact the expansion of housing would have on the environment, the historic significance of the city and the quality of life in the city. With that in mind, there are some concerns about trying to house thousands of athletes from 192 countries, the number that has increased with every Olympiad regardless of which season. Furthermore, the IOC is looking at other regions that have yet to host the Olympics, after many years of living in the shadows and being considered a third world country, a (under-) developing country, or even a second class country. Already, we saw China host the Games in 2008 in Beijing, which was the country’s first. And Brazil will host its first Games in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. Both countries were stained in the past because of its inability to compete with the highly industrialized countries that kept hosting them again and again, like those in the US and Europe mainly. Pyeonchang’s hosting of the Winter Games in 2018 will be the second for South Korea, and with other countries coming about to compete with the rest of world, it would not be surprising if more countries and unknown cities will bid for the next Olympiad regardless of season for two reasons: 1. The IOC wants to make the Olympics more global than it is now and 2. The up and coming countries and cities are becoming attractive for business and commerce and hosting the Games would serve as a boost in their confidence and ability to compete on a global scale both in the short term because of the success they would have as well as the long term because many business would like to invest in these areas and provide jobs to those who need it. This is what we saw when Sochi (Russia) won the bid for the Winter Games in 2014 and we may see that from other regions, even in Africa, where the continent has yet to host the Games, although it would most likely be the Summer Games because of the climate down there.
But Germany should not hang its head in losing out in the bid for the Winter Games. After all, it has done its bet for king and country regarding hosting international events, one of which is the FIFA World Cup of Soccer, which the men hosted five years ago and the women are hosting even as this column goes to the press. The country does have high class athletes and sports teams they should be proud of, regardless of which sport. This is part of the stereotype that makes the country special, which is being high class and high quality in whatever the country produces.
The one caveat that maybe people like Ms. Witt should consider is that maybe the next time the country bids for the Olympics that it should veer away from the most popular cities, like Berlin and Munich. It has nothing to do with the historical standpoint, as both cities did have their share of dark stains. Berlin was host of the Summer Games in 1936 during the Nazi Regime, which Jesse Owens, an American sprinter, stole the show by winning many gold medals, angering the Führer Adolf Hitler, who wanted to show the superior race of the Germans, something that neither Owens nor other athletes from other countries agreed with (although Owens later befriended a German athlete Luz Long and they became lifelong friends thereafter). The 1972 Games in Munich was even darker when 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and later killed, creating a wider rift between Israel and the neighboring countries in the Middle East. Both cities have walked away from their dark past and have become popular places to do business, let alone tour. Perhaps Germany should look at places outside the big cities that are worth hosting the games. It does not necessarily have to be big cities, like those in the Ruhr Area or Hamburg as they are too industrial. But it should not in areas where the people would definitely not welcome it as it would pervert the landscape and annoy them with conflicts. This would rule out places like Flensburg, as the city has already maxed out in its development of the city without having a negative environmental impact on the city and its surroundings. Besides, I’m sure the Danes on the northern side of the border would not appreciate loud obnoxious athletes invading and “plundering” the villages lining up along the border, like Sondernhavn and Padborg for example.
But if one looks at it carefully, there are some nicer but underdeveloped places where the Games would be beneficial in terms of attracting businesses, improving the current living conditions and introducing the athletes to other regions worth seeing and the people worth meeting. While I would definitely put Leipzig in the running for the next Summer Games, as the city has suffered from a lack of sporting talent in recent years, including losing two of its elite soccer teams in the past 9 years-  VfB Leipzig (folded in 2002) and FC Sachsen Leipzig (in the process of being liquidated), other candidates worth considering for that aspect could be Frankfurt, Cologne, Rostock or even Bremen. For the Winter Games, there is Erfurt and the Thuringian Forest to consider, as the facilities are present and the region is being developed to make it more attractive; esp. with regards to the infrastructure with the newly built autobahn and a rail line going through the forest. Then there is the Black Forest and the area near Freiburg im Breisgau in Baden Württemberg to consider and then there’s Kati Witt’s hometown of Chemnitz and the region near Dresden to consider, as they are mountainous and attractive for tourists and athletes alike. And Dresden owes it to the world for losing its World Heritage Site along the Elbe River for building a BRIDGE through that area- something that still has left a bitter taste in the mouths of half the city’s population who wanted a tunnel to begin with.
So Kati, if you are still crying over Munich’s loss, don’t. Smile just like you have smiled in the past. You still are the face of Germany and look at this defeat from a positive aspect, where other places deserve a chance to shine and Germany is still shining from its success as a host of all the other international sporting events. There is still a chance to host the Olympiad in the future, but look at the sides of Germany that definitely deserves a chance to shine and not those that are still shining (and will still shine). Only then will Germany will have a chance.

 

ʃ FLENSBURG FILES FAST FACT:  Athens (Greece) is the only country that has hosted the Olympic Games more than twice. It has hosted all the Summer Games three times (1896, 1906 and 2004). The city will be joined by London, as the city will host its third Olympiad in 2012. Previously, it was host in 1908 and 1948.

 

 

Flensburg Flyer Files July 2011

There are a lot of events that have happened since the last entry that is worth mentioning. Some are worth mentioning even though you won’t find it in the newspapers in the US (or if it’s from the US, vice versa). Others are follow-ups of previous entries in the Files. Some are interesting and worth knowing. Others we probably don’t want to know but we should since it will eventually affect us. And there are some that one could write a column about but because of the time and space issues, they have to be compacted into the small entries that are presented below as the Files presents some events that you need to know. So here we go:

  1. Flensburg Point System to be Reformed. German Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer  directed an initiative to make the point system easier and more transparent. Effective beginning in May of this year, the points will be collected and stored for only a year, instead of two years, like it was with the old system. That means violators can be freed of the points a year after they commited a traffic violation. Furthermore, one can  now lose his/her driver’s license when receiving a total of 20 points, instead of 18, as is in the old system. Yet by the same token, people can earn more points for committing traffic violations, such as reckless driving or distracted driving. In the latter case, this includes one receiving two points for driving and talking on the cell phone, something which is a common concern among law enforcement agents.  In the US, pending on which state a person is in, one can be slapped with hundreds of dollars in fines.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     For more on the German traffic law system, please refer to an earlier article on the Flensburg Point System, which you can click on the link below:    http://flensburgerfiles.areavoices.com/2011/04/04/flensburg_points_system_60/;             Other News links available here: http://www.stern.de/politik/deutschland/flensburger-punktedatei-ramsauer-will-verkehrssuender-besser-erziehen-1582124.html; http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/deutschland/flensburger-punkte-bald-verstaendlicher/1475944.html
  2. Germany without Nuclear Energy beginning 2022. The German Parliament (Bundestag) unanimously approved a bill that would shut down all nuclear power plants by 2022 and would force the country to rely on other forms of energy sources, such as renewable energy. In response to the March 11th disaster at Fukushima in Japan caused by the earthquake and tsunami which contributed to the rise in the Greens and the Dream Coalition (CDU and FDP) to change its policies towards nuclear energy, all parties in the Bundestag approved a measure on 1 July  where the power plants will be phased out one-by-one so that by 2022, there will be no more nuclear power plants in operation. In addition, the government has forced an immediate shut down of eight  power plants, some whom are up for inspection.  Environmentalists welcomed the plan despite their pleas of shutting them down earlier, while the nuclear power companies, Eon and RWE are opposed to the plan, fearing the massive loss of profits and a possible shut-down. More details as they come.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Link:  http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,15201262,00.html
  3. German radio station serving the northern part of the country turns 25 years old. Radio RSH, serving Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg and points along the North and Baltic Sea coasts celebrated its 25th birthday on 1 July with an all day celebration at its studios in Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein’s capital. The station, which started operations in 1986, was the first private radio station in Germany and set the tone for more stations of its kind to start their business during the late 80s and 90s. The station serves music from the 1980s to today and  is famous for its Breakfast Club morning talk show held on weekdays, and Politics on Sunday Morning between 10 am and 12pm, which analyzes the current political stories covering Germany, Europe and the rest of the world. The Flensburg Files would like to extend its birthday wishes to the radio crew and may it continue to produce high quality programs for another 25 years and beyond.  A link to the site is below.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Link:   http://www.rsh.de/
  4. Light at the End of the Tunnel in Blessberg (South of Thuringia). As part of the new ICE Rail Project connecting Berlin and Nuremberg via Erfurt and Suhl, the drill crew completed its tunneling of the mountain on 29 June. The 8.3km long tunnel, one of the longest in Germany, became a focal point of controversy as drill crews discovered icicle caves near the now completed south portal resulting in confrontation with researchers wanting to undertake their project in that region. Nevertheless, the drilling still commenced due to lack of funding on the part of the researchers and arguments deemed unsubstantiated. The tunnel and the new stretch will be open to traffic beginning in 2017, but not without some painful consequences from areas affected.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Link: http://www.mdr.de/thueringen/sued-thueringen/artikel121700.html
  5. Jena, Weimar and Naumburg(Saale) without ICE Trains beginning 2017. One of these consequences of the new rail stretch going through Erfurt and Suhl will be the fact that three cities will be without ICE trains beginning 2017. Jena (known as the hub for science and technology), Weimar (known as the Classical City because of Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) and Naumburg (Saale) (known for its Cathedral) will be completely cut off from ICE Services as the German Railways (Die Bahn) want to make Erfurt the main hub for long distance travel. This has caused much anger among the mayor and the residents as they fear that the cities would lose their attractiveness if they no forms of high speed service that people working in these regions rely on. Furthermore, the Jena City Council pointed out that their train station, Jena-Paradies, was newly constructed in 2004 as an ICE railway station, and its bus depot across the street from the station, reconstructed in 2010, was supposed to provide commuters with better access to the trains from the city and surrounding areas.  However, pleas and protests have fallen on deaf ears of Die Bahn as it plans to use InterCity and Regional Express trains on these routes. Part of the reason for this planning is the fact that the population along the current stretch of rail line is decreasing significantly. Of the north-south line where the ICE stops in Naumburg, Jena, Saalfeld, Lichtenfels, and Bamberg, and on the east-west stretch (Frankfurt to Dresden) which includes stops in Naumburg, Weissenfels and Leipzig, Jena and Weimar are the only cities with a growing population.  Die Bahn uses the population factor to determine which types of trains should stop at which station. Furthermore, Die Bahn wants to compete with its competitors, such as the French railway SCNF for faster, more efficient service. Sadly however, moves like these come at a price of cities, like Jena and Weimar that are on the move and have a potential of competing with the likes of Erfurt, Leipzig, and Halle (Saale) in terms of population and attractiveness for business and commerce. Hope has not been given up yet, for it will be five years until the ICEs no longer stop in Jena and Weimar, and despite being in service since 1992, many people do not want to see their trains be replaced with something that is second class. In other words, Die Bahn might change its mind if the people act and petition to the politicians in Berlin, to allow both ICE lines to continue through Jena and Weimar….                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Link: http://www.mdr.de/thueringen/mitte-west-thueringen/artikel121898.html
  6. Mitteldeutschland on the horizon? In response to the decline in population, the states of Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt are seriously considering merging into one German state. This is in connection with the plan by the state parliament to have a unified constitution that will serve them. Already many institutions in the private sector have been consolidating their services to better serve the customers. This includes the health insurance AOK Plus, which consists of the AOKs in the three states and have been in service since 2008. Also a fusion of the Evangelical Churches took place in 2008. The first agency up for consolidation is the office to protect the state constitution, which will require possible changes to the states’ constitutions- something that has already been met with skepticism. The other government offices may follow as well, although such a consolidation will not happen for many years as many issues have to be resolved; among other things, where to place the capital and sorting out the pros and cons of such a consolidation.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Link: http://www.thueringer-allgemeine.de/startseite/detail/-/specific/Matschie-will-Verfassungsschutz-Aemter-zusammenlegen-485913072
  7. Denmark to reintroduce border patrols. Politicians in Berlin and Brussels are fuming at the Danes, as the Danish government has reintroduced border controls at the German-Danish and Danish-Swedish borders in an attempt to put an end to smuggling and other cross-border activities deemed illegal. Border patrolmen will check for items of those passing through the borders to determine whether they are legal to carry through the country. This affects the city Flensburg as it is located at the border to Denmark, for as many as 16,000 cross the border daily to their workplaces. The Germans find the measure a hindrance to free travel while the Danes find the measure a good measure to keep to the Shengen Agreement the country signed with Germany in 1995. How long the controls will take place and how effective they will be will be determined as it was introduced on 1 July. More details will come soon.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Links: http://www.shz.de/nachrichten/lokales/flensburger-tageblatt/artikeldetails/article/218/wenig-kontrolle-zwischen-dosenbier-und-rasenmaeher.html;      http://www.shz.de/nachrichten/top-thema/article//daenen-haben-mit-neuen-grenzkontrollen-begonnen.html ; http://www.shz.de/artikel/article/2099/daenen-und-deutsche-neue-grenze-auch-im-kopf.html
  8. Another US State shuts down- Anger comes to a boil. (Includes author’s commentary to this report) Germans and other Europeans alike are shaking their heads to another US state being shut down due to lack of finances. This time, it is the State of Minnesota,  and it came at the worst possible time. Governor Mark Dayton, in response to the perpetual impasse with the Republican-controlled legislature, took an unprecedented move and shut down all but the most essential governmental services on 1 July, putting as many as 23,000 state employees on furlough (temporary unemployment). This includes shutting down all the state parks and rest areas, as well as institutions where the state has most of the influences in, including gambling casinos, a state zoo in Bloomington (south of Minneapolis), and a race track Cantebury Downs (in Shakopee, southwest of Minneapolis) . In addition, construction projects were also halted. This angered many Minnesotans to a point where politicians were booed and heckled at the 4th of July parades taking place all over the state with chants of “Where’s the Compromise?” being shouted by the crowds.  A special panel to investigate the state of the budget has been organized to find a reasonable solution to the problem, yet it may not bear fruit as the shut down is mostly politically and ideologically  motivated and unlike the last shut down in 2006 that lasted only eight days, this shut down might linger through September.

UPDATE: The state-run Minnesota Zoo reopened on 3 July to the public after the court ruled that it could use the profits from the tourists to keep the operations open. Bad  news however is that Cantebury Downs may close for the season if the shut down persists for a week or more. The decision will be made on 8 July at the earliest. But the state park shut down did invite vandals to lay waste to the facilities, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. This includes damaging log cabins, driving around barriers  and breaking locks, and spray painting on anything physical and in the way.

AUTHOR’S COMMENT TO THIS EVENT: As a Minnesotan residing in Germany and is planning on visiting the US, one has to say that with a Republican-dominated legislature  and a Democratic governor, there will never be any measures passed that anyone will benefit because the two sides in general have hardened their stance to a point where the   state and to a certain degree, the US is on the road of repeating the events the occurred in Spain in the 1930s, which unfortunately culminated into a civil war that lasted 3 years  and put Francisco Franco into power. He would rule the country with an iron fist from 1939 until his death in 1975. While the US has not gotten that far yet, if it is unable to get  its financial and political matters in order soon, the country may end up in a revolution for the first time since 1865, when the Civil War ended. In Germany, the last debate over  the budget that led to an impasse ended in early elections in 2005, when then Chancellor Gerhardt Schröder was replaced by the current Chancellor Angela Merkel and the SPD  was forced to a Grand Coalition with the CDU. In the case with Minnesota, if an impasse does not end by the end of July, then the most viable solution is to do what the Germans  and even officials in California did: dissolve legislature and start over with new elections involving every one responsible for the shut down, governor and Republican   lawmakers included. But it should be done not only in haste, meaning end of September at the absolute latest, but also  in a way that the majority controlled legislature should  be  entitled to elect the governor to run the state.  This has been done  successfully in Europe and has been the primary reason for its success, especially in the last four decades. I believe recall elections with a new and orderly legislature will satisfy  everyone affected by the shutdown, which goes beyond the state workers- including                              the needy, children and the unemployed.

Links: http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2011-07/minnesota-zahlungsunfaehig; http://www.rfi.fr/ameriques/20110702-faillite-le-gouvernement-minnesota-cesse- activites; http://www.startribune.com/politics/statelocal/125040619.html

 

9. Flensburg Files and Bridgehunter’s Chronicles on the Road beginning in August to Denmark and the USA. During the month of August, the author of the two  columns will be on the road touring some of the places in America’s Heartland as well as Denmark addressing some of the themes and places to visit that will be posted in both columns. This  includes a tour of the bridges in St. Louis, Kansas City and the Twin Cities to name a few places that will be bridgehunted. In addition to that, an in depth  look at the Danish  culture beyond the tour of Kolding in April, including the city of Copenhagen, and the current state of America’s Heartland will be included as part of the road trip. The columns  will be posted as they come.

 

 

Single and Businessman Bahn: No Children Allowed!

ICE Train on the Berlin-Munich route at the Saale River Bridge near Grossheringen (Thuringia)- Photo taken in June 2011

 

 

 

 

After getting bombarded with non-column-related commitments in the last weeks (which explains my reason for my absence from the Flensburg Files) and almost losing it in the entire process, I decided to flee the world of academia and all the proliterian politics that went along with that and spend my Pentecost weekend at the Baltic Sea again, this time in the northeast corner of Germany on the island of Usedom, where I was able to enjoy a good dip in the water and a good bake in the sun for the entire time I was there, no matter where I went.

Going roundtrip by train to this destination was a bit of a challenge, though. While I had to put up with crowded people going north to my destination, feeling scrunched after being surrounded by women sitting across from and next to me on the first leg going from Erfurt to Berlin via Halle and a bit displaced sitting in the supposedly good carriage provided by the Deutsche Bahn on the EuroCity to Züssow (where I got off to board my train to Usedom), even though the Czechs provided more luxurious and sexier coaches and food, going back to Erfurt was an experience not worth forgetting, but worth writing about.

On the stretch from Berlin heading south via ICE, I saw an incident which if one has a child like I do, one can relate to it. In the children’s compartment of the train, which was a small room about 4m long and only 1 meter wide, a mother with a 2 ½ year-old daughter were boarding the train and wanted to move the baby carriage to the Bord Restaurant, which was next door, as there was some free space there and the little one wanted to play around in the child compartment. The ticket personnel, who saw this, ordered the mother to bring the carriage back into the compartment claiming that it was not allowed to park it in the Bord Restaurant and that there was enough space to store it- IN THE CHILDREN’S COMPARTMENT!  Why do I have the last ones in capital letters? Well, to elaborate more about the children’s compartment further, I should provide you with a further but brief description so that you have an idea what I’m talking about:

  1. Over half the space in the children’s compartment consisted of seating, which is almost impossible to reserve in advance- unless you book half a year in advance; almost like booking your plane ticket for a Trans-Atlantic flight.
  2. There was limited possibilities for children to play with their toys, let alone use the playground equipment provided on the train- there was one rocking horse and a puzzle board, whose pictures were missing. By the way, one should mention that it was made by a very popular puzzle company named Ravensburger.
  3. Most irritating was the fact that the armrest was all made of wood and NOT padded. That combined with the fact that the seat was right next to the rocking horse, it provided less space for the child to move around and more risk of a child bumping his/her head against the armrest, even if it is adjusted.

It was at this point that I concluded that the German railways should change its name from the Deutsche Bahn to the Single and Businessman Bahn (SBB) for its lack of sensitivity to the increasing needs of families with children. While one cannot use SBB, as it has been taken by the Swiss, they and some of the neighboring countries have done much better in terms of accommodating the needs of families.  Since the German government has introduced incentives to encourage parents to have children in 2006- by providing more financial incentives for mothers to stay at home to care for their children for 2-3 years as well as allowing fathers to stay home while the mother is working- the birth rate in Germany has increased in the last three years to its current rate of 8.3 out of 1000, up from its lowest rate in history in 2009 at 8.18 per 1000. While that puts the country still near the bottom of the rankings (the USA has a birth rate of 13 for every 1000, ranking it at 153rd), it does not reflect on the difference in regions where the baby boom is taking place. In the eastern and northern parts of Germany, the rates are much higher than those in the western part. Aware of the fact that the German population is slowly dying off (with one statistic from 2006 claiming that this far-fetched prediction will happen in 2080), there has been an attempt to try and increase the birth rate to offset the aging population.

Yet still, when looking at the current situation and the ICE incident as an example, it shows that Germany is not ready for change and more so for encouraging families to have children, despite initiatives by the government. For instance, jobs are going to regions in the western part of the countries, in places like Frankfurt, Munich, Stuttgart, and the Ruhr Region (where Cologne, Duesseldorf and Dortmund are located), where housing is scarce and expensive and the environment is child-unfriendly. More women are choosing a career over children, fearing that maternity leave would mean being a stay-at-home mom forever.  And when it comes to even the tiniest conveniences, like travelling by train for example, Germany falls flat on its face, although the country does a very good job in providing as much green as possible for children to go out and play, such as parks and other natural places along certain bodies of water.

It is logical that a train should not be converted into a jungle gym for children. But by the same token, more space for families with children is needed; especially on long trips when children become bored and ancy to a point where they do not sit still in the end. Children should be allowed to walk around and play with other children while they endure many hours of travelling. In order to do that, I do have a few suggestions that might be useful:

  1. Replace the wooden armrests with those made of cloth for more protection against head injuries

  2. Fewer seats and more space in the children’s compartment of all ICE trains, while at the same time,

  3. Add another compartment in the ICE train making each one have two of them

  4. Provide more space for baby carriages so that the children’s compartment is not used as a parking lot

  5. Empower the families to ensure that the train crew keep to the rules and respect the wishes for more space for the children.

The problem with these plans is the fact that many of these trains will be replaced with the new InterCity trains, which will be larger, with half of them being double-decked. The first ones will be rolling out by 2013. Other ICE models, like the one in the picture above will be modernized to prolong its service life even more. Whether these suggestions will be considered remains to be seen. But it is a foregone conclusion that should the Deutsche Bahn continue with its current policies, then families will resort to the last form of transportation that is really expensive (because of gas prices), which is the car. Then the DB can change its name to SBB, for after all, most of the passengers are either single, a couple with no children, or businessmen who love to travel in comfort. This will make neighboring countries shake their heads; especially the Danes in the north, as their trains are more spacious and more child-friendly than that of the Bahn. Perhaps a trip with their trains to Copenhagen and points to the north and east will testify to that argument. If not convincing enough. then I’m sure the French, Swiss, and even the Englishmen can help in that department.

 

Now that I’m finished bashing the Bahn, it’s now time for some rum……

 

Some useful links:

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,3804991,00.html

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,4527195,00.html

http://www.indexmundi.com/germany/birth_rate.html