A Brit in Bratwurstville: I love the German trains

Bonn. In this column, the author looks at life in Germany, as a Brit who is living in Bonn for years. In this edition, he actually admits to be admiring the Germans’ pet peeve on a regular basis: The train services…

Von Bangers and Mash

I can’t remember when I first spotted the blue and white train chugging down the tracks from Bonn to Cologne.

Emblazoned with the name National Express, I always wondered if the driver has taken a wrong turn at Dover or, like some role reversal of the Cold War, is helping friends and family make some great escape from pre-Brexit Britain.

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Perhaps it is some demonic Fat Controller of Thomas the Tank Engine fame having a laugh.

Because surely the railway regulators here can’t be so daft as to let British train operators loose on the fine, super-fantastic, Deutsche Bahn (DB) system.

Now before any reader thinks I have been puffing on something stronger than a cheroot, let me acknowledge that I might be in the majority of one in Deutschland when I praise German railways.

Everyone from Koblenz to Kessenich moans about the service, stares grimly at the yellow, glass-mounted timetables; and shuffles around platforms like disconsolate, extras from the opening shots of Woody Allan’s 1980 Stardust Memories (If you want to check that out, here’s a link).

Every time a train is ten minutes late I have visions of hordes of disgruntled passengers rushing round the front to stone the driver or tearing up and flinging around a few sleepers just to relieve the tension.

But for someone who has, for large periods of his life, suffered the indignities of British railways, not least under its post-privatisation persona, German train travel is like a holiday every time I hop on board.

Let’s face it I am one of the happy people in the DB ads like the Endlich Zeit advertisements:

Take your pick, the proud dad with the little boy peering out of the window saying ‘When will we get their Daddy?’.

Or the smug guy with the cute girl whose hands are resting on his face in a semi-provocative way, ‘cause she isn’t clutching a car’s steering wheel instead on a grid-locked B9.

My joy is also that German trains actually go somewhere — a few weeks ago I went with my girlfriend to the Harz Mountains for skiing and sauna.

Bonn, Hannover and finally Goslar right in the heart of where you want to be — not half a lifetime away from your destination.

If British railways had been handling this, you would have been kicked off at Hannover with a compass; a clap on the back and someone with a clipboard asking which member of the family to notify when your decomposed body is eventually discovered in some Alpine-like forest, slightly gnawed by a pack of wild boar.

Bismarck may have been a naughty boy, but we had another B called Beeching and he was far worse — Beeching was to railways what cow pats are to hill walking or pigeon poo is to car metallic paint.

Almost single-handedly in the 1960s when Carnaby Street was swinging, our visionary transport planner was swinging the axe on some 2,000 railway stations — roughly half — and around 8,000Km of track.

Fast forward to the 1990s, and to the re-privatisation of state-owned British Rail under a right-of-centre government.

All the public really got was the emergence of once great names like Great Western railways, echoing to the long-gone days of steam-engines and that jolly-old Empire.

Yep, the Brits are great at branding and do the old nostalgia gig par excellence — running rail service is another thing.

At privatisation, government subsidies for the railways was running at around 14 per cent, now I am told they are much higher — some bargain and there is more.

Last year my son, commuting from southern England to London to do his Master’s Degree, almost abandoned his studies so many services were cancelled often with no notice due to industrial action over further cuts.

And what about the cost — a recent survey estimates a monthly season ticket in the UK is three times more expensive than in Germany.

Many Britons are paying close to 15 per cent of their monthly wage on trains services and facing an over three per cent increase in fares in 2018.

Some things have improved, let’s be honest — coffee on British trains was once a by-word for torture.

Somehow, somewhere, someone perfected not only a muddy solution that had lost any connection to Ethiopia but a liquid whose boiling point out-performed any known law of physics requiring an asbestos-reinforced palate just to handle a secret sip.

Mercifully that has gone.

Some years ago, trains were sometimes rendered immobile and services cancelled because of what officials described as ‘the wrong kind of leaves on the line’ and at least once, ‘the wrong kind of snow’.

Yes, when it comes to excuses, railways in the UK are far more creative than in Germany for sure.

In parts of the North of England, they are still running Pacers — cheap and not so cheerful rolling stocks made from old, 1980s, buses.

With the invention of Stephenson’s Rocket in the 1820s, Britain can proudly lay claim to having invented the train — but it has pretty much been downhill ever since.

Selling off German railways seems to be thankfully on hold right now. But you never know.

There is always clamoring and shunting around in the marshalling yards of public opinion — like the headline in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently with the shrill headline Privatisiert die Bahn!

But be careful what you wish for. Travelling on DB may be to some as pleasant as finding a snail in your underpants.

But I would gladly embrace the occasional gastropod in my private life to having a UK-style privatised train service in Deutschland — no matter how sexy it may seem to the Bundestag bean-counters.

In the 21st century a decent railway system is not just about moving people and freight around. It is a key to wider, future prosperity and a cool way of countering congestion, climate change and health hazardous air pollution.

National Express may be running an OK service from Bonn to local destinations in Nord Rhine Westphalia but precisely because the system here still works.

Even if there are sometimes cancellations, the Wi-Fi goes down; there is only Bitburger left in the Bordbistro and worse still, they are out of NicNacs !

About the author:

The author is British. He has been living and working in Bonn for over 4 years. In this column he takes a personal view of the daily surprises and often astonishing peculiarities he sees between his adopted German home and his native lands.

The author's views are his own.

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