There are a lot of things we need to fix before we can get everyone on more climate friendly modes of travel, like trains. This was proven yet again by Deutsche Bahn.
I like train journeys. They’re times where there is literally nothing to do but enjoy myself. There are no chores I can do, no work I have to do, nothing. Just free time. And in contrast to a couple of years ago, there is even decent Internet connectivity. So I get to do what I enjoy. Sometimes just leaning back and reading a good book or listening to a couple of episodes of my favorite podcast, sometimes writing blog post or researching the next steps for my Homelab.
My main regular train ride over the years has been going from southern Germany to eastern Westphalia to visit family. This ride can take anywhere from 6h to 7:30h, depending mostly on my willingness to switch trains and have rather short changeover times between trains. Over the years, I settled on a connection which has me changing trains just once, from the fast ICE train bringing me most of the way to a regional train which delivers me to the train station in my family’s home town. I prefer that approach over being faster, but having to change trains more often. It reduces the risks, because I need to catch only a single connection. I’m also always having a 35 minute changeover for the single train switch on the journey, specifically to avoid any problems with late trains.
This made today extremely frustrating. I’m already planning with 35 minutes to switch trains, to insulate myself from train delays as much as possible.
For the first leg of the journey, in the regional train, I was supposed to board it at 10:30 AM and arrive at Dortmund train station around 12 PM. That train arrived about 25 minutes late at my origin station, so it started out with 25 minutes of delay. Which was still fine - I had planned for this, and I still had 10 minutes to switch trains. But of course, that’s not how delays work. Once you get above a certain threshold, the lateness accumulates, because the assigned tracks will be blocked by other trains which are on time. So the train needed to wait for a couple of minutes in two train stations to let trains which are still on time pass by.
But, seasoned traveller that I am, I started looking up alternatives. The very next connection, two hours after my intended one, was already full and wouldn’t let me reserve a seat, so it was out. My original plan was then to kill three hours in Dortmund and take the next connection, for which I still got a seat.
But after finishing my nice, three course meal at the restaurant with the golden M, I found another connection via Düsseldorf. Excellent, I thought. 15 minutes to switch trains was a bit dangerous, but should still work out. Düsseldorf is the next station right after Dortmund, so what could possibly go wrong?
Well, a lot, it turns out. The train left Dortmund perfectly on time - and then stopped five minutes later. There was a problem with the tracks up front around Wuppertal. So it took me, in the end, almost two hours to get from Dortmund to Düsseldorf.
As those knowledgeable about Germany’s geography might notice, by this point, I hadn’t even managed to leave the German state where I started today’s journey.
Having killed another hour at Düsseldorf, I finally boarded an ICE train which would stop at my final destination. At this point, I was at least confident that I would be reaching my destination. That’s the point where I stopped being really annoyed.
But it didn’t end there. The train was supposedly not booked out at all, but neither the official DB app nor the DB website let me book a seat. But then I got lucky for a change: When I finally set down in the train, it was announced that there’s a problem with it too: Due to a planning error there was no “train boss” aboard, so the train couldn’t leave. The subsequent additional 41 minutes of delay meant that a lot of people down the line chose another train, so I’m reasonably sure that I will get to keep my seat.
I had also spend some time considering whether I should walk over to the Autobahn and flag somebody down. Because I’m definitely cursed today, and it would have been a kindness to my fellow train travellers to not let them suffer from the same curse.
As I write these lines, I have been delayed for about 3.5h at my destination, provided that the train doesn’t gather any more delays.
But at this point I also don’t really care anymore, because I don’t need to catch any connections anymore.
Let’s define “arriving late” as arriving 15 minutes after the scheduled arrival time. Going by this metric, I’ve had 10 journeys where I was late, in 11 journeys total. In most of these, it was luckily nowhere as bad as today’s journey.
What’s even worse is that out of those 11 journeys, I only arrived with the train I was supposed to arrive 6 times. During the other 5 journeys I had to switch trains away from my planned itinerary. And that’s bad. Luckily it doesn’t induce any additional ticket costs, because when you miss a connection, you are allowed to use your ticket for any train which brings you home. No, the problem are seat reservations. I like to have a seat to sit down in. And those reservations cost 5,90 € now, and they are not refundable.
Now, I’m a pretty relaxed traveller. When I go on a longer journey, I plan to do nothing more than ride the train on that day, with only very few exceptions. But I also know that this is a privilege that I have, because in my job, I can take a day off just with the overtime I’m prone to gather relatively quickly. So taking off an entire day for travelling is not a problem.
But other people actually have to be somewhere. They might not be able to just take a day off. Even in today’s situation, if I had somehow stranded somewhere, and could only have arrived home on Monday, I could have just called my boss and took another day off. An embarrassing thing for me, but not at all something which would impact my career, let alone my employment, even one bit. But I’m also in a pretty privileged situation here. Other people aren’t even remotely as privileged. Their bosses are going to say: Well, you could have started your journey a couple hours earlier!
So what is the average train traveller supposed to do? One couple I sat with, who were trying to reach Frankfurt Airport, told me they were totally relaxed because their flight was only leaving the next day. They said they did this because of experience. The same reason I take connections with as few changeovers as possible, with no less than 20 minutes of changeover, but more often > 30 minutes, just to be safe. So should I now start planning with 1h worth of changeover time? I had already done so in the past, because back then I sometimes took a late train home and I didn’t want to risk missing the last connection and being stranded.
Deutsche Bahn has to do something to fix issues like this. I will be three hours late today. I don’t really care anymore, now that I’m sitting in a train which stops at my destination. But others have far less freedom than I do.
The train boss said it right in my current train: No plan - Deutsche Bahn!