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German travel chaos blamed on lack of investment in railways

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Decades of underinvestment in the German railways have been blamed for chaos in parts of the country after heavy snow led to much of the network grinding to a halt.

Snowfall of up to half a metre in Bavaria, southern Germany, led to numerous breakdowns and prompted the cancellation of scores of trains, with signalling systems and electronic information boards frequently malfunctioning.

Across the country, both rail and road passengers were advised to cancel any unnecessary journeys amid the chaos, after Munich’s main station was closed on Saturday and the national rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) warned that “massive disruptions” would continue into the start of this week.

A display board at Munich’s main station informing passengers, ‘Onset of winter: rail transport in southern Germany severely affected – massive restrictions in Munich.’ Photograph: Louisa Off/Reuters

The head of the Railway and Transport Union, Martin Burkert, said DB was ill-equipped to deal with the weather as a result of years of underinvestment.

“The DB slogan ‘we travel in all weathers’ has lost its credibility,” he told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper, calling large parts of Germany’s rail infrastructure “creaking and dilapidated”.

Detlef Neuß, the chair of the non-profit Pro Bahn, which represents public transport users in Germany, said Deutsche Bahn had been better equipped in the past to deal with harsh winter conditions. “Instead of concentrating its attention on turning a fat profit, Deutsche Bahn needs to focus its attention on ensuring that the operation functions on a day to day basis,” he said.

The railway company, which is wholly state-owned, has been described as being in “permanent crisis” by Germany’s national audit office, with debts at €30bn.

The criticisms came on the back of figures published at the weekend, which showed that last month DB’s long-distance services fell to their least punctual level in eight years.

According to a report leaked to the Bild am Sonntag, almost half of DB’s fast ICE and IC trains were delayed in November.

Partly to blame are extensive construction works being carried out across the network, a response to years of neglect of bridges, tracks and general infrastructure. In addition, a lack of personnel coupled with a high sickness rate among its workforce in recent weeks, has compounded the situation.

A woman walks along a train platform during heavy snow in Munich
A woman walks along a train platform during heavy snow in Munich on Saturday. Photograph: Anna Szilágyi/EPA

“In November, 52% of ICE and IC trains reached their destinations punctually,” a DB spokesperson told Bild. “About 75% of long-distance trains were slowed by at least one construction site during their journey,” he added.

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He said that the punctuality performance was under par, and “does not reflect our own standards or satisfy the service that our travellers justly expect from us.”

Trains less than six minutes late are not included in the statistics.

The figures show a drop in punctuality of almost 10% compared to the previous year. At the same time the number of construction sites is up by 11% compared to last year.

A seven year, multi-billion major rail network overhaul was announced by the government together with DB in the autumn, amid rising consternation over the poor reliability of the service, which experts say is having a considerable impact on Germany’s economy and negatively impacting attempts to persuade people to ditch their cars for more environmentally friendly alternatives.

The upgrade itself would lead to an increase in delays until the planned completion of the works by 2030, DB warned.

At the same time passengers have faced considerable, often above inflation increases, in fares.

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