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.

 
 
 
 

How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.