The sleek high-speed train is 10 minutes behind schedule when it slides into Cologne’s main station before continuing its journey north to Dortmund. The delay is now such a common occurrence that the train manager does not even both to mention it to disembarking passengers.
In late afternoon on an unremarkable weekday in this western German city, holidaymakers are hauling suitcases through the station, workers are commuting home, and the late arrival of Deutsche Bahn’s IC 118 from Innsbruck is no surprise.
It does cause annoyance, though: a glance at the departures and arrivals board prompts one middle-aged man carrying a backpack to swear loudly as he enters the station.
It’s hard to blame him: on the afternoon the Observer visited, the arrivals board showed that eight out of the next nine trains due into Cologne were behind schedule. The degree of lateness ranged from minutes to several hours, and a lengthy queue had formed at the entrance hall’s information desk.
“The situation has severely deteriorated in recent years,” said Detlef Neuss, chair of the passenger lobby group Pro Bahn, standing outside Cologne’s main station, in the shadow of the city’s gothic cathedral with its distinctive twin spires.
“They tried to keep the trains running on time, so some building projects were postponed,” Neuss continues. “That was a big mistake, and the rail network has been run even further into the ground.”
For travellers in the UK, this may sound familiar. Earlier this month, after weeks of speculation over the future of Britain’s planned HS2 high-speed rail link from Birmingham to Manchester, the prime minister finally announced that the northern leg was to be scrapped. But the UK’s train passengers are far from the only ones in Europe facing rail problems.
Germany’s railways, once a source of national pride, have become something of an embarrassment in a country with a reputation for efficiency and engineering prowess. And this comes amid a time of economic anxiety, with Europe’s largest economy stagnating amid weaker global growth.
Deutsche Bahn has been described as being in “permanent crisis” by Germany’s national audit office, the Bundesrechnungshof, which is usually known for its sober language.
In an excoriating special report published earlier this year, the public audit body did not mince its words as it sounded the alarm, warning that the company responsible for running the national rail network, its stations and signals, along with many long-distance and local trains, risked becoming a “bottomless pit” for taxpayer money.
It said debts at the company – which is wholly owned by Germany’s federal government – were growing at the rate of more than €5m (£4.3m) a day, and its total debt was now more than €30bn.
Worsening reliability, including delays, cancellations and lengthy closures of large sections of track during upgrade work, have become a popular topic of conversation across Germany. Meanwhile passengers in neighbouring Austria are complaining about the knock-on effect of hold-ups across the border, and Switzerland’s famously punctual railways have stopped waiting for the arrival of connections from Germany.
It was not always thus. Teacher Max Winter, 43, did not think twice about accepting a job at a school in the city of Wolfsburg, despite it being more than 140 miles from his home in Berlin, because Wolfsburg was on the line between the capital and Hanover, and there were regular rail services.
“I didn’t consider it a big distance,” he says. “At the start I never thought about it, or even considered moving to Wolfsburg.”
When he began his daily commute in January 2016, he had few problems with the hour-long journey on a high-speed intercity train, bookended by cycle rides. The trip would have taken three times as long by car.
“In the past few years it has really changed, and I can’t defend Deutsche Bahn any more,” he says.
Despite paying some €4,400 for an annual season ticket, in recent months Winter has had to put up with a weeks-long closure of the track between Wolfsburg and Berlin for upgrades, coupled with delays, cancelled trains and lack of staff. At one point, the father-of-one even had to temporarily rent a room in Wolfsburg to ensure he could make it to work.
Back in western Germany Birgit Schmitt-Janssen, 61, also feels let down. “You can 100% count on Deutsche Bahn to be late,” she laughs. “It’s the same daily misery.”
She does not have a driving licence, and describes herself as “dependent” on Deutsche Bahn for the daily 13-mile commute from her home in Mönchengladbach to her office in the town of Krefeld.
Schmitt-Janssen, who volunteers with passenger group Pro Bahn, says the journey, which she has made for the past nine years, has been unreliable ever since the staffing shortages that followed the pandemic. “I get really annoyed when I’m standing on the platform and it becomes clear there are lots of delays,” says, adding that rail replacement buses could double the length of her commute.
“You get the feeling they run through a catalogue of excuses. Today it was damaged signal boxes, tomorrow they’ll say it was defective train doors, and the following day it’ll be an earlier train running late. Everyone on the platform says, ‘oh, not again.’”
Frustrated passengers regularly take to social media to share complaints or joke about the most improbable reason they’ve been given for a disrupted service.
The extent of Deutsche Bahn’s problems is not just anecdotal. Official figures showed record delays in 2022, when more than a third of long-distance trains ran late, and delays to regional and freight trains became more frequent.
But things have got worse in recent months: more than 36% of long-distance trains were delayed in August, along with almost 9% of regional trains. This was blamed on the high volume of building work across the rail network – despite the company giving itself the buffer of saying passenger trains are on time if they are less than six minutes late.
Germany may be the home of an ever-powerful carmaking lobby and an autobahn which includes some sections free of speed limits, but it is also heavily reliant on its extensive rail network.
It connects the country’s major cities – Hamburg to Munich, Frankfurt to Berlin – to each other and to the rest of the continent, although the track network has in fact been shrinking for years.
Many believe that decades of chronic underinvestment have now come home to roost, with the railways becoming a symbol of Germany’s creaking infrastructure – alongside motorways and bridges – at a time of economic malaise. The IMF and OECD have warned that the country will be a laggard among the world’s leading economies this year.
It also comes as many are reassessing the priorities pursued during the Angela Merkel years, including the country’s energy policy and its dealings with Russia.
Deutsche Bahn is in its biggest crisis since its creation almost 30 years ago, in the 1994 “rail reform” that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification.
The company, formed from the existing West and East German railways, was freed from previous debts with the idea that it would be able, in time, to become profitable, with the goal of boosting Germany’s GDP and floating on the stock market.
Except it did not quite work out that way. Unlike other similarly privatised companies such as Deutsche Telekom and the postal service Deutsche Post, which successfully went public, Deutsche Bahn remains in government hands.
Its company structure is unusual in that it has one sole owner, shareholder and financial backer: the German state. Indeed, the German constitution requires the government to retain majority ownership of the national railway infrastructure.
Critics have blamed this arrangement for what they see as Deutsche Bahn’s major failings, such as its decision to expand its global operations while ignoring its main objective and responsibility to German taxpayers: the operation of Germany’s rail network.
“It is very clear that the company’s core business, rail in Germany, has to be its focus,” says Kay Scheller, the president of Germany’s federal audit office, from his office overlooking the Rhine in Bonn. “We have all the disadvantages of this company structure, without the benefits.”
Since 1994, Deutsche Bahn has ballooned into an international transport giant: passengers in 10 European countries ride on buses run by its Arriva subsidiary, which also operates London Overground trains for Transport for London, while its Schenker division handles international air, land and sea freight.
The German transport ministry, which has responsibility for Deutsche Bahn, stands accused of years of failure to get a grip on the company’s management and operations, all while stumping up funding.
Scheller says: “The German federal government needs to coordinate the company more, and steer it more. That means if things don’t work, it has to intervene.”
He adds: “All criticism rolls off the back of Deutsche Bahn’s management, because they don’t have to fear any sanctions or reforms which would fundamentally change the system. However, these are necessary and I’m not confident that the situation will improve otherwise.”
Indeed, the company’s most recent financial results, for the first six months of 2023, illustrate a worsening situation: Deutsche Bahn made a net loss of €71m in the first half, compared with a profit of €424m for the same period a year earlier.
As a result, Germany’s current three-way coalition government will not be able to achieve some of its loftier ambitions for rail during this decade, according to the federal audit office.
The governing agreement struck by the Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals in late 2021 committed them to doubling the capacity of passenger services by 2030, while setting a target for 25% of freight to be carried by rail by that date, and electrifying more railway lines amid attempts to meet climate goals.
Contrary to the view of the country’s audit office, Neuss and passenger representatives believe more investment is the answer to many of Deutsche Bahn’s problems.
At a recent rail summit organised by the government and Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s transport minister, Volker Wissing, called it “unacceptable” that rail infrastructure had been “neglected for decades”.
Despite a “tight budgetary position”, he promised €40bn of additional investment in the railways to 2027, as part of what he called “the largest refurbishment and modernisation agenda in the history of this country’s railways”.
A Deutsche Bahn spokesperson told the Observer that the country’s rail infrastructure had not kept pace with increased passenger and freight traffic, and admitted that the network was “in parts too old, too overloaded and too prone to faults”.
The company has vowed to expand the most intensively used stretches of track, while replacing sleepers, track beds, rails, signal boxes and stations.
While this plan may be music to the ears of Neuss and passenger groups, who have been calling for significantly more investment, it received a mixed response from the country’s frustrated rail passengers, many of whom took to social media to decry the announcement as “too little too late”.
Scheller, the audit office president, also remains unconvinced. “So poor performance leads to even greater investment from the government,” he says. “This strengthens our argument: it won’t work without fundamental reform. Lots of money on its own isn’t a panacea.”
Germany’s transport ministry did not respond to the Observer’s repeated requests for comment.