On a typical day there are three direct InterCityExpress (ICE) trains from Frankfurt to Kiel, but none of these left at a time that was convenient for me, so I booked an ICE to Hamburg-Altona with a connecting Regional Express (RE) to Kiel. As so often happens, the ICE arrived half an hour late, so I missed my connecting train and had to wait nearly an hour for the next one.
Fortunately the next RE to Kiel was already waiting, on the other side of the same platform, and the air-conditioning was turned on, so at least I had a comfortable wait. And I was in no real hurry, in any case.
After thirty years and several overhauls, these first-generation ICE trains are still in service, particularly on the north-south routes. You can spot these first-generation trains by the bulges on the roofs of their dining cars. I still think these bulges are aesthetically pleasing, though they were a waste of energy from the start, because of increased air resistance. None of the later generations have these bulges, and some don’t have dining cars at all, only “Bord Bistros” with one overworked attendant manning a microwave, a coffee machine and a cash register.
Visitors from places like the USA and Australia continue to be impressed by the German railway system, which does still provide hourly connections to and from most major cities.
Those of us who live here and travel regularly by rail are less impressed, first because we can remember how much better the system used to be (in the 1970s and 80s, for instance) and second because we have an example right next door, in Switzerland, of how brilliantly a rail system can function if it is properly staffed, organized and funded.
In my view, the decline of the German railways was a side effect of the reunification of Germany. After the collapse of Communism, the prevailing ideology of the 1990s held that public services would work better if they were structured like profit-making corporations. Accordingly, the re-united East and West German railway systems were entrusted to a caste of unscrupulous millionaire managers who came from other industries such as automakers, airlines or printing machine companies, and had no prior knowledge of railroading. Their goal (which sounds grotesque in retrospect) was to make the railways so profitable that they could be sold to investors on the stock market, and their method was to cut costs by reducing what they considered to be excess infrastructure and excess personnel.
Although their stock-market fantasies failed to survive the financial crisis of 2008, they have left us with a diminished railway system — which, however, is still best way to travel, since cars, buses and planes are just as unreliable and cause unacceptable levels of damage to the environment.
By the way, on my return journey from Kiel to Frankfurt both trains were very nearly on time, within two or three minutes of their scheduled arrival times in Hamburg-Altona and in Frankfurt. This also happens (more often than not, in fact) but often goes unmentioned.
My photos and text in this post are from 2019.
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