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Posted by Sarah Brown on 28 Jul '22

Lessons from my holiday

I have recently had a rail holiday to Germany, which in many ways I enjoyed but, as with many of my trips abroad, also got me thinking.

Here is what I found curious and thought-provoking:


  1. The German reputation for efficiency - do their trains run on time?
  2. How tall/able do you have to be to be German?
  3. Is cheap rail travel a brilliant strategy?

1. The German reputation for efficiency - do their trains run on time?

I am not a railway buff and the only rail holiday we had been on before was some years ago in Japan, which was amazing. All the trains ran on time, you knew exactly where the train doors would be, and they made it easy.

I hadn't consciously thought about it, but I assumed German trains would be efficient - that is my image of Germany. Brand Germany equalled efficiency - imagine my surprise when almost every train was late and we caught quite a few. Worse, they cancelled every ICE train (German Intercity) listed on the last day of the holiday without notice or explanation. Consequently, it took over 17 hours to get from the Rhine to Doncaster; I could have travelled to Japan in the same time!

Additionally, many station lifts didn't work; there were weeds and decay, and it jarred that smoking was allowed in stations and on platforms.

After researching, I found that rail companies and passenger lobby groups have demanded more money for the publicly owned German rail operator and network. After nearly two decades of underspending, the punctuality of German long-distance trains has dropped to below 80 per cent. I can add that local trains are also late from my experience.

The moral of the story

I would not have been surprised if the UK trains we caught had been late (the day after a strike), but they were all on time. However, because of my expectation and understanding of 'brand' Germany, any delay or inefficiency stood out, even if it was a few minutes. I have shared my surprise, for example, in this blog, and would not recommend anyone to use german trains for a stress-free time.

If you create an expectation about your brand, you must maintain it and, if possible, overperform. With the current pressure on costs, the temptation to 'adjust' what you offer must not affect your core values as an organisation, or you will disappoint people like I was let down by german trains.

2 How tall/able do you have to be to be German?

Taller than me!

My legs were just too short for German trains. The high steps often made getting on and off stressful (National Express trains were a notable exception, with a brilliant step coming out from the train at a level with the platform).

Even more bizarre was that inside the trains, there were also steps to seats, to toilets, and oddly some trains had slopes up and down.

I could cope just! Though I did slip off the step getting off the Eurostar and lose a leg between the train and the platform - not a great start to the holiday. But I assume there are no disabled people or people with mobility issues that want to travel on the majority of german trains. We did see a ramp being used for one train, but for many of the train designs, the angle would have been about 90 degrees, just not possible. It was striking, the lack of accessibility and quite shocking.

The moral of the story

"the measure of society is how it treats the weakest members".

I like Germany, but its trains illustrate that it has a long way to go to be inclusive, and this is not what I would expect in the 21st century in a leading economy.

3 Is cheap rail travel a brilliant strategy?

For 9 euros, you can travel throughout Germany on local/regional trains for a whole month in June, July or August. The 9 Euro Ticket gives unlimited travel on local/regional transport services. Germans and tourists can buy it.

Press reports seem unclear whether the main goal is to help people with the energy price rises or to reduce petrol consumption to help with the reliance on Russia. It is likely to cost the Federal Government €2.5 billion in compensation to the rail companies for lost revenue.

After just one week, Germany's Deutsche Bahn (DB) rail company reported having sold nearly seven million tickets — one for almost one in 10 Germans. That didn't include tickets sold by regional transport authorities; Berlin's BVG alone had sold one million tickets, meaning nearly every third Berliner had bought a €9 ticket. By the end of June, 21 million tickets had been sold on top of the roughly 10 million subscribers who automatically received the discounted ticket.

The pass has led to a drop in road congestion in 23 out of 26 cities examined as part of a preliminary analysis by traffic data specialist Tomtom for the German Press Agency.

"Commuters lost less time driving to and from work in June than in May in almost all cities surveyed," said traffic expert Ralf-Peter Schäfer, including those in Hamberg and Wiesbaden.

It is clearly a success or is it?

It was agreed by the Federal Government shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, but DB and local German transport companies had little time to secure additional vehicles or staff. My experience is that the trains were uncomfortably packed with standing room only, and there are reports that some were dangerously full. We met an English couple who had been coming to Remagen where we were based for 20 years and had always used the trains. They were not using the trains on this holiday because they were too full.

Another impact was in Sylt, the North Sea island favoured by the luxury-loving German jet-set. Cheap travel means it has been overrun at weekends by bargain-seeking 'punks' and their dogs.

The local police on Sylt reported "several deployments with disturbances of the peace … and further misdemeanours related to alcohol consumption".

The moral of the story

Big thinking like this can work. Petrol consumption has gone down, but it is clear that the existing network cannot cope, and I wonder if it was why the ICE trains were cancelled on the day of our return.

I think this is a case of a lack of systems thinking. By this, I mean not thinking about the interconnectedness of the elements. The public has liked it and now wants an extension of the scheme, which will cost money, but the infrastructure has struggled, and there have been some unintended consequences, such as the impact on tourists, which may have longer-term consequences.

I hope there will be some objective analysis of how positive it has been so that other countries could maybe copy it. Austria now has an annual scheme for cheaper rail travel, reducing car travel.


Travel broadens the mind, and I learned a lot in Germany. It would be great if the best practice could be shared more worldwide, particularly in these challenging times. It would be wonderful to hear what you learn from your trips either in the UK or abroad.


Further feedback from someone who read the blog

"A German friend in Berlin told me there has been yet another problem recently, and it certainly applies to the ICEs, as high speed trains can have terrible accidents. After the terrible derailment near Garmisch-Partenkirchen a few months ago, attributed not to human or mechanical error, but to failure of the track through old age, all those Km of aged track are being checked. An impossible task, also requiring more staff, as does the running of trains. They have just left it too long."

More learning from travel:

An unexpected tale

What we can learn from South Africa

Seeing opportunities rather than problems

And one which involves trains and travel

Does a niche always give you success?

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Tags: travel strategy