Are German trains really better than British ones?

Public meets private: DB InterCityExpress trains and a vlexx regional train at Frankfurt. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

In any debate about railway nationalisation, it’s almost certain that someone will eventually say, “Well, what about Germany?” To people in favour of nationalisation, Germany’s rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) is everything British trains should be: fast, punctual, clean and cheap. And yet at the same time, supporters of the privatised status quo point to Germany as a sign of what can go wrong with nationalisation – delays, old trains, strikes.

They can’t both be right, can they?

To get to the bottom of this, here are a few facts about German railways and how they compare to British ones.

Ownership – are German trains really nationalised?

A lot of the time, when someone in Britain talks about nationalisation – whether to praise it or attack it – they’re talking about something like the old British Rail. For most of its existence, British Rail was a monolithic entity, and it was in charge of nearly all trains, track and stations across the country.

DB is not like this. Instead, it’s run as a private company (actually, several companies – under EU law, the same company can’t run both the track and the trains), but with 100 per cent of its shares owned by the German government. This means it’s publicly owned but, like any other company, it has to bid for contracts to operate services from government bodies.

And it’s not only the only bidder: Germany has private train operators too.


For long-distance services – shiny high-speed InterCityExpress (ICE), but also older and slower InterCity and EuroCity trains – DB is the only major operator. There is some competition from a handful of private intercity trains offering low-budget services on routes like Hamburg-Cologne and Stuttgart-Berlin, and some international trains from countries like Austria and Czechia, but DB has a near monopoly here.

On local and regional trains, it’s a lot more mixed. Train franchises are overseen by state governments and local transport agencies, and these often don’t use DB. If you want to travel around the Frankfurt area, for instance, you might want a DB Regio or S-Bahn train, a HLB train (also publicly owned, but by the state of Hesse rather than the German federal government), or one run by the private companies VIAS or vlexx.

Incidentally, VIAS is part-owned by the Danish State Railways, and vlexx by the Italian State Railways. If you go to the north west of Germany, you’ll even see trains run by the British company National Express. So if you ever hear someone say that, because DB owns the UK train company Arriva, British passengers are subsidising German ones, just remember that’s only half the story.

(And in case you’re wondering – freight is a free-for-all, with all sorts of national and international operators competing).

Price – are German trains really cheaper?

Comparing train prices across countries is complicated: British trains are priced in pounds while most European ones are priced in euros. And differences in average wages may mean that, although trains may seem very cheap in poorer countries, they aren’t actually more affordable for the average citizen.

In 2016 the European Commission published a study which adjusted ticket prices according to purchasing power and distance travelled, in order to compare prices across the continent fairly.

The results are almost contradictory. For peak time singles, the UK is by far the most expensive country for intercity trains; it’s more expensive than Germany for regional trains, too. But if you look at off-peak returns, it’s the exact opposite. Germany has more expensive return fares (although booking in advance does cut prices), while the UK sits reasonably close to the EU average.

Which one is cheaper? Well, it depends how you use trains. If you buy singles and travel at peak time, Germany is better. But if you travel off-peak and make return journeys, you’ll get a better bargain in Great Britain.

There’s one other thing to mention: railcards. In Britain, only some people qualify for a railcard – for example, those who are disabled, or are members of the Armed Forces, or who live in the South East. These typically cost £20-£30 and offer 33 per cent off fares.

In Germany, though, anyone can buy a card. The catch is it’s a bit more expensive – €62 (about £54) a year for 25 per cent off, or €255 (£224) for 50 per cent off. Big spenders can splash out €4,270 (£3,776) a year for a 100 per cent discount, meaning you can travel wherever you want in Germany for free. It’s not cheap, but anyone paying over £8,000 for a Swindon to London season ticket will be very envious right now.

Speed – are German trains really faster?

Yes. Next question.

Okay, perhaps this needs a bit more detail. An “average train speed” for an entire country is both hard to calculate and ultimately meaningless – but Germany has built a huge high-speed network spanning the entire country, as well as highly efficient electric rail system around almost all its cities. By contrast, Britain only has a single line that meets modern high-speed standards, and only a couple of cities outside London (Liverpool and Glasgow, for instance) have a suburban network that even approaches a German S-Bahn for frequency or speed.

There are of course slow trains in Germany, too: try to get to a small town away from the main lines, and you’ll probably find it’s a diesel multiple unit on a single track line, stopping at every village it passes. Nevertheless, pick any two German cities, and you’ll probably find a high-speed line between them. In the UK, the only lines that even come close are the main lines into London. London-Edinburgh in 4h20 isn’t too bad compared to Berlin-Munich in 3h55; but Birmingham-Leeds in 2h30 is frankly appalling compared to Frankfurt-Cologne in 1h04.

Punctuality – are German trains really on time?

Your train is about half as likely to be late in Germany, but don’t rule it out. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

You’ve probably heard about the crises on the Thameslink and Northern networks here in Britain. But Germany had very similar problems a few months ago: the opening of the new Berlin-Munich high-speed line in December went catastrophically wrong thanks to a combination of technical problems, driver training, and some bad luck with the weather that caused numerous delays and cancellations.

Comparing British and German punctuality is difficult, because the two countries measure it slightly differently. In the UK, a local train is counted as late if it arrives at the end of the route more than 5 minutes later than planned, while a long-distance train is late if it’s more than 10 minutes behind schedule. In Germany, a train is simply late if it’s more than 5 minutes 59 seconds out. Also, DB only publishes statistics for its own trains, while Network Rail published statistics for all British train operators.

With these caveats in mind, here are the most recent results. In the last year, British trains arrived on schedule 87.3 per cent of the time, while DB trains managed 94.1 per cent. In other words, 12.7 per cent per cent of British trains were late, against just 5.9 per cent of DB trains. One point for German efficiency.

There is however a split. DB’s regional trains managed 94.4 per cent, a feat only matched in Britain by the tiny urban Merseyrail and c2c networks. Long distance trains, on the other hand, were only on time 78.5 per cent of the time. Comparing this directly to British companies isn’t fair, since British long-distance trains are allowed to run 10 minutes late. However, other countries which apply even stricter lateness rules than Germany, like Austria, the Netherlands and Denmark, still manage much better long-distance punctuality.

Still, a late train is better than no train at all. According to the European Commission report, around 2-3 per cent of UK trains are cancelled, compared to less than 1 per cent of German trains.


Satisfaction – are German trains really nicer?

So far, the facts about German trains have been a bit mixed. Better in some areas, worse than in others. But what are they like to actually use?

Here’s where things get really hard to believe.

According to a a 2015 Eurobarometer survey, after taking everything into account (speed, punctuality, cleanliness, and so on), 75 per cent of Brits gave their train journeys “high” or “good” satisfaction scores, compared to just 50 per cent of Germans. This isn’t a fluke, one-off result either – the most recent Transport Focus survey found British passengers rated 83 per cent of regional and 86 per cent of long distance journeys fairly or very satisfactory, while in Germany the equivalent scores are just 77 per cent and 68 per cent respectively. Weirdly, passengers of DB’s British Arriva operations actually rated them more positively, at 80 per cent.

Perhaps this says more about the difference between British and German culture than anything about the state of their actual railways, though. German trains are half as likely to be late as British ones, and yet according to the survey British people are overwhelmingly (77 per cent) satisfied with the punctuality of their trains, while in Germany only a minority (49 per cent) were. This may indicate that Germans have higher standards for their trains, or that British railway passengers still have a “mustn’t grumble” attitude – but certainly, Germans have a fairly dim view of their railway network.

Final scores

So, with all the caveats about comparing data from different countries, here’s a scorecard summarising everything from this article:

Are German trains better than British ones? Who knows – there’s plenty of data to back either side of the argument. But people probably aren’t going to stop holding Germany up as an example of nationalised rail, for better or for worse.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray complains about British and German trains on Twitter at @stejormur.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.