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.

 
 
 
 

The media scumbag’s route of choice: A personal history of London’s C2 bus

A C2 bus at Parliament Hill. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

London’s C2 bus route, which runs from Parliament Hill, by Hampstead Heath, down to Conduit Street, just off Regent Street, is one of the bus routes recently earmarked for the chop. It has oft been noted that, of all the routes recently pencilled in for cancellation after a consultation late last year, it was the one most likely to survive, for the simple reason that it links liberal suburban north London with BBC Broadcasting House and Soho; it’s thus the route most likely to be used by people who can convince someone to let them report on its imminent demise.

So it would come as no surprise that former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger took to the Camden New Journal when the consultation began, arguing that it would be a disservice to the local community to discontinue a route where you can always get a seat – seemingly missing the point that the fact you can always get a seat is not a great sign of the route’s usefulness.

It wasn’t always that way. When I left university in 2000, and moved from accommodation near college to up to a rented shared house in N6, the C2 was my bus. I commuted to Soho for sixteen years: for more than a decade from flats around the Swain’s Lane roundabout, and for five years from Kentish Town. While my place of work bounced around from Golden Square to Lexington Street to Great Marlborough, it was always the most convenient way to get to, and from, work; especially given the difference between bus and tube prices.

So when it comes to the C2 I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, and bought the bus pass. And by bus pass, I mean those little paper ones that still existed at the beginning of this century. Not just before contactless, but before Oyster cards.

More importantly, it was before London buses operated a single zone. There was an outer zone, and an inner zone, with different prices. To travel from one zone to another cost £1.30, meaning an all cash commute was £2.60, whereas a paper bus pass was £2.00. That made it worth your while to divert to an early opening newsagents on your way to the bus stop (GK, in my case), even if you only got two buses a day.

It’s a measure of how greatly London’s buses have improved over the last twenty years, since first brought under control of the mayoralty, that pretty much everything about this anecdotage, including the prices, seems faintly mad. But there’s more: back when I started getting that bus down to Stop N, literally at the very end of the route, the C2 used single decker buses with a single door. It’s an appalling design for use in a crowded city, which meant most of any journey was, for most passengers, spent fighting your way up and down the middle of the bus to find a seat, and then back again to get off; or – and this was more likely – fighting your way up the bus to get into standing space the driver insisted was there, before fighting your way, etc.

Such buses – and in my former life in the English Midlands I went to school on one of these buses every day – are perfectly functional where bus stops are infrequent and buses rarely standing room only. But running through Camden Town at rush hour, they’re wholly unfit for purpose.

A Citypacer. Image: RXUYDC/Wikimedia Commons.

It could have been worse. I didn’t know this at the time, but a few years before the C2 route had been run using Optare City Pacers. Those are, let us be frank, not really buses at all, but minibuses. That’s something the reveals the C2’s origins, as a hopper route to the west end largely intended for the daytime use of Gospel Oak’s pensioners in the years immediately before bus privatisation. (The C11 has a similar origin, taking the same constituency from Archway to England’s Lane.)

Once responsibility for London Buses was moved to the newly established mayoralty, things improved dramatically. Under Ken Livingstone it went double decker in 2005, and 24 hour in 2007. Under Boris Johnson it was extended from its once, and future, terminus of Conduit Street to Victoria Station, swallowing up the cancelled sections of the 8 bus; this extension was quietly disposed of a few years later, once it was clear no one would notice. (I did.)


In those years I must have taken a C2 the best part of ten thousand times; but for all the years when I wouldn’t have been able to live without the C2, times have reduced its utility, and not just for me. I’m now a 214 sort of guy: these days the top chunk of the C2 route is duplicated exactly by that other bus, which starts up in Highgate Village and, once it gets to Swain’s Lane, follows the same path until the fork of Kentish Town Road and Royal College Street, opposite the long defunct South Kentish Town tube station.

From a few hundred metres below that point, at Camden Gardens, stop C, the 88 starts. That duplicates the rest of the C2’s route, with the exception of the run down Albany Street and onto Great Portland, for much of which the C2 is the only bus.

So the C2, old friend that it is, is pretty redundant in the age of the hopper fare, which allows you to change buses without paying a second fare. That’s even more true now the C2’s otherwise un-serviced stops are being giving over to a re-routed 88, which will pick up the C2’s most northern leg, by not finishing at Camden Gardens anymore and instead going all the way to Parliament Hill Fields. Which will be nice for it.

All this, however, ignores the best reason for getting rid of the C2 (or rather for merging it with the 88, which is what’s actually happening): that first character. The letter. Who wants a bus route with a letter in front of it when even half the night buses don’t have the N anymore? It’s relic of the route’s aforementioned origins as a ‘Camdenhopper’.

That C is twenty five years past its own utility. It’s just untidy. City Metric hates that sort of thing. Get rid.