The Berlin S-Bahn Meltdown

German magazine “Der Spiegel” today includes a huge article about the current chaos on Berlin’s S-Bahn system. In case you haven’t heard about it, less than half of the EMUs of this important commuter rail system are available for service, due to technical defects,, so DB had to make drastic cuts to the timetable, including stopping some lines completely. This has been going on, with various amounts of problems, since the middle of 2009, and has now hit a new low after it was better during the summer. A detailed article about this in one of Germany’s leading magazines should really be something, right? If you regularly follow railroad news, then of course you wouldn’t expect any new information, except perhaps background stories involving key persons, but at least a good summary. You get… nothing.

In the first column, the article quotes the speaker of the FDP party in the Berlin city council with the words, “Your report, Mister Grube, is highly disappointing. Lots of technical stuff. But that does not interest the people of Berlin”, and you get the impression that this is the mission statement for the entire article. The “technical stuff”, which is after all the basis for the meltdown, does not interest the Spiegel. Instead we get lots of interviews with people who can’t solve the problem either and are sad about it.

Of course there is some research into the causes, and the cause is easily found: DB wants to go public, has bought Arriva, helps build high-speed railroads in Qatar, so consequently Berlin’s S-Bahn has to bite the dust. The precise relation of those things as well as for example why the S-Bahn Hamburg, an isolated system just like Berlin (but incompatible, so they can’t share EMUs), still works, is left as an exercise for the reader. As long as the popular word “kaputtgespart” (meaning saved money until it broke) has been used, the cause has been found.

But it’s not as if there is nothing to say about the topic. For example, there is the report commissioned by DB that proved, that processes at S-Bahn Berlin GmbH were absolutely horrible compared to the rest of DB. Similarly, the debate whether Bombardier delivered defective trains, or whether DB explicitly ordered trains so cheap that they would have to be defective, would be relevant. Even more so considering that DB may soon run into the same trap again with their delayed order for new Intercity trains (Siemens refuses to guarantee that trains built as cheaply as DB wants them will work correctly, so no order has been placed yet). Finally, one could try answering the question why the trains worked more or less well from 1996 to 2009, but suddenly not anymore. Not an easy task, to be sure, but Der Spiegel does not even ask the question.

One cannot end such an article without asking about the future, which for Der Spiegel means: “When will the S-Bahn run normally again?” As answer, they seem to be happy with “No idea”, or at least they don’t follow up with any questions. How about the recently announced plans to maybe buy new trains? How might that affect future tenders for parts of the network? Irrelevant. New trains and tenders are mentioned in passing, without any relation to each other, and mainly to note that they would not be short-term solutions. Der Spiegel apparently does not care about long-term solutions.

Oh well, it’s all just “technical stuff” that the people of Berlin do not care about anyway, right? They, or at least Der Spiegel, only want to know why the trains aren’t running and when they will again, and the only answers they are happy with is “Mehdorn and Grube” (the previous and current CEO of DB) and a specific date.

Written on January 17th, 2011 at 01:08 pm


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