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.
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.