Deutsche Bahn’s Meltdown and High-Speed Rail

A seven-hour rail trip from Munich to Berlin – four and a half on the timetable plus two and a half of sitting at and just outside Nuremberg – has forced me to think a lot more about the ongoing collapse of the German intercity rail network. Ridership has fully recovered to pre-corona levels – in May it was 5% above 2019 levels, and that was just before the nine-euro monthly ticket was introduced, encouraging people to shift their trips to June, July, and August to take advantage of what is, among other things, free transit outside one’s city of residence. But at the same time, punctuality has steadily eroded this year:

It’s notable that the June introduction of the 9€ ticket is invisible in the graphic for intercity rail; it did coincide with deterioration in regional rail punctuality, but the worst problems are for the intercity trains. My own train was delayed by a mechanical failure, and then after an hour of failed attempts to restart it we were put on a replacement train, which spent around an hour sitting just outside Nuremberg, and even though it skipped Leipzig (saving 40 minutes in the process), it arrived at Berlin an hour and a half behind its schedule and two and a half behind ours.

Sometimes, those delays cascade. It’s not that high ridership by itself produces delays. The ICEs are fairly good at access and egress, and even a full train unloads quickly. Rather, it’s that if a train is canceled, then the passengers can’t get on the next one because it’s full beyond standing capacity; standing tickets are permitted in Germany, but there are sensors to ensure the train’s mass does not exceed a maximum level, which can be reached on unusually crowded trains, and so a train’s ability to absorb passengers on canceled trains as standees is limited.

But it’s not the short-term delays that I’m most worried about. One bad summer does not destroy a rail network; riders can understand a few bad months provided the problem is relieved. The problem is that there isn’t enough investment, and what investment there is is severely mistargeted.

Within German discourse, it’s common to assert superiority to France and Southern Europe in every possible way. France is currently undergoing an energy crisis, because the heat wave is such that river water cannot safely cool down its nuclear power plants; German politicians have oscillated between using this to argue that nuclear power is unreliable and the three remaining German plants should be shut down and using this to argue that Germany should keep its plants open as a gesture of magnanimity to bail out France.

Rail transport features a similar set of problems. France has a connected network of high-speed lines, nearly all of which are used to get between Paris and secondary cities. Germany does not – it has high-speed lines but the longest connection between major cities allowing more than 200 km/h throughout is Cologne-Frankfurt, a distance of 180 km.

Red = 300 km/h, yellow = 250 km/h, blue = 200 km/h, gray = <200 km/h; the Stuttgart-Ulm line will open later this year

The natural response of most German rail advocates is to sneer at the idea of high-speed rail; France has genuine problems with punctuality, neglect of legacy rail lines, and poor interconnections between lines (it has nothing like the hourly or two-hour clockface timetables of German intercity rail), and those are all held as reasons why Germany has little to learn from France. Instead, those advocates argue, Germany should be investing in network-wide punctuality, because reliability matters more than speed.

The problem is that the sneering at France is completely unjustified. A French government investigation into punctuality in 2019-20 found that yes, French intercity trains suffered from extensive delays – but in 2019 intercity trains were on-time at the terminus 77.4% of the time, compared with 73.8% in Germany. Germany did better in 2020 when nobody was riding, but went back to 75% in 2021 as ridership began to recover. High-speed trains were the most punctual in Spain and the Netherlands, where they do not run on classical lines for significant stretches, unlike in France, Germany, or Italy.

Moreover, German trains are extremely padded. Der Spiegel has long been a critic of poor planning in German railways, and in 2019 it published a comparison of the TGV and ICE. The selected ICE connections were padded more than 20%; only Berlin-Munich was less, at 18%. The TGV comparisons were padded 11-14%; these are all lines running almost exclusively on LGVs, like Paris-Bordeaux, rather than the tardier lines running for significant distances on slow lines, like Paris-Nice. And even 11-14% is high; Swiss planning is 7% on congested urban approaches, with reliability as the center of the country’s design approach, while JR East suggested 4% for Shinkansen-style entirely dedicated track in its peer review of California High-Speed Rail.

Thus, completing a German high-speed rail network is not an opposed goal to reliability. Quite to the contrary, creating a separate network running only or almost only ICEs to connect Berlin, Hamburg, Hanover, Bremen, the main cities of the Rhine-Ruhr, Frankfurt, Munich, and Stuttgart means that there is less opportunity for delays to propagate. A delayed regional train would not slow down an intercity train, permitting not just running at high punctuality but also doing so while shrinking the pad from 25% to 7%, which offers free speed.

Cutting the pad to 7% interacts especially well with some of the individual lines Germany is planning. Hanover-Bielefeld, a distance of 100 km, can be so done in 27-28 minutes; this can be obtained from looking at the real performance specs of the Velaro Novo, but also from a Japanese sanity check, as the Nagoya-Kyoto distance is not much larger and taking the difference into account is easy. But the current plan is to do this in 31 minutes, just more than half an hour rather than just less, complicating the plan for regular timed connections on the half-hour.

German rail traffic is not collapsing – quite to the contrary. DB still expects to double intercity ridership by the mid-2030s. This requires investments in capacity, connectivity, speed, and reliability – and completing the high-speed network, far from prioritizing speed at the expense of the other needs, fulfills all needs at once. Half-hourly trains could ply every connection, averaging more than 200 km/h between major cities, and without cascading delays they would leave the ongoing summer of hell in the past. But this requires committing to building those lines rather than looking for excuses for why Germany should not have what France has.


  1. Phake Nick

    How can timed connection and clockface schedule and takt be implemented if trains have almost half the chance of delaying more than 5 minutes? Do they plan to have every trains waiting at every terminals fpr 5+ minutes so that delayed trains can catch up?
    > Hanover-Bielefeld
    I doubt Bielefeld will get serve by more than 1 high speed line? In such case wouldn’t it be okay to just determine which minute in each hour the train will be coming, and time local transit feeder/connection services based on such train arrival time? this can be arbitary x minute after the train depart Hanover and thus probably have no need for such time to be exactly 30 or so minutes after the train leave Hanover. The train can arrive at :22 :52 after the train leaving Hanover at :00 :30 and transit connections around the station can still be timed around :22 :52?

      • Phake Nick

        Do regional trains need to connect to more than one high speed train station throughout their route, or can’t they be redesigned in a way to radially expand from each regional center cities high speed rail station, thus also timing according to the time table of that particular station?

        • adirondacker12800

          If they are parallel, why wouldn’t they? In very busy markets like Japan or the NEC could be, it’s okay if there are trains that make a few stops and trains that make all the stops.

          • Phake Nick

            The speed of such parallel line is going to be slower than the high speed rail, but it is very unlikely for the travel time differences to be exactly one or two units in takt

          • Phake Nick

            *And even if you can tune the travel time differences to be exactly the time difference you want, why not make the high speed train go as fast as it can, and only tune the travel time of the slower train on parallel track to match it?

          • adirondacker12800

            The regional rail lines that aren’t parallel to the intercity tracks won’t be sharing stations with it. The regional trains can’t all arrive at the same time or you need too many tracks. Taking a 20 minute trip to the central station isn’t faster than making a 15 minute connection at the suburban end of the regional line.

          • adirondacker12800

            If the high speed rail line crosses my metro area going east/west and I’m on a north/south regional line, my line doesn’t have any suburban station on the east/west regional line or the high speed line. Big cities have more than two suburban lines. The people lucky enough to be near the high speed line don’t have to go into the city to get on one.

          • Phake Nick

            > If the high speed rail line crosses my metro area going east/west and I’m on a north/south regional line, my line doesn’t have any suburban station on the east/west regional line or the high speed line. Big cities have more than two suburban lines.
            Then your line isn’t even relevant to the discussion? We are talking about connecting transit at high speed rail station, if your line doesn’t interact with any high speed rail station then there are no point in talking about timed connection. You can still time the line to connect with the line that actually connect to the high speed rail station, but it can be done separately.

            > The people lucky enough to be near the high speed line don’t have to go into the city to get on one.
            Why? Unless in very special circumstances, high speed stations usually only exists in city.
            And even in the few exceptional cases, they are usually the only station in the metropolitian area, and in such case it will be necessary to form local transit network of bus and such around the train station that sit in your non-city area. Timed connection from the train station can still be formulated.
            And these out of city stations are usually minor stations and won’t be considered as a node for takt system anyway, no matter with or without takt.

          • Phake Nick

            It do appears like adirondacker12800 is mixing multiple different scenarios together just for the sake of argument instead of elaborating on why, sometimes trains with different stop patterns were mentioned, sometimes trains that parallel high speed line, then sometimes trains that do not intersect high speed lines at all.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Eurostar only manages 1-3tph and while including the tunnel costs I’m sure it’s a failure, the service itself is profitable.

            I’m sure if they ran an all stations slow London to Paris service in one of their unused slots through the tunnel that was €15 a trip cheaper that that would make enough money to at the very least cover the incremental costs of running the extra train.

            Outside Eurostar there are plenty of lines with low numbers of trains – the Bordeaux line seems to have up to 3 trains per hour, perhaps 4. If you ran a fifth train that stopped three times at small villages and each stop cost you a train slot they’d still have several slots per hour that are completely unused.

        • Matthew Hutton

          We discuss a lot on this blog all the problems getting projects approved and NIMBYs.

          Well if you want people in the countryside to support High Speed rail getting the high speed trains to interchange well with the regional trains at both ends (and not just in the big cities) is an important part of the package to get that support.

          • Phake Nick

            Countryside can interchange with highspeed train at their nearest city. Why would option for interchanging to HSR at two different cities/stations be demanded/desired?
            And even if the countryside really want their train to connect to have timed connection to two different HSR stations, it should be much easier and impact much less people to tune the travel time of the slow train, than to slow down high speed train. This will only require clockface schedule at each individual high speed rail station, and no need to form a takt and tune the speed across entire network, allowing best possible travel time between major destination pairs while rural people can still make connections.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Ok that’s fair, probably the connection in the countryside should exist but not be timed.

          • Henry Miller

            Making high speed rail work at all requires enough demand for 15 minute headway. Maybe 20. Either way, you can make a time transfer work because you figure out where the trains are going to meet on the HSR and make your regional connection in the nearest town.

            If you are running 20 minute headways (and not planning on increasing it), then you should be stopping the trains every 20 minutes: you don’t have enough demand to afford double track, so you stop the trains every 20 minutes to pass. Put that stopping place in a small town (even if only 500 people) and open the doors on the cheapest station you can build – you have saved money on dual track and thrown a bone to some rural folks. The only way to make HSR work with headways this long is if you have carefully pre-planned the entire network, and so getting regional rail to stop and transfer is part of planning.

            At 15 minute headways or better you can afford double track the whole way, stops are a trade offs. Every stop slows the train down, but on the other hand every stop also is a place more people to get on and/or transfer. There are often political and social concerns. If you should have a stop in a rural area is about the various compromises. However the nature of HSR means nobody is more than about 40km from a easy place to put a takt while still maintaining your takt on both end cities, so one you decide to put in a rural station so long as you are willing to move it 40km the takt is easy. Unless you expect to upgrade frequency again, in which case the stations would have to be in a different location, though we are now into frequencies show up and go frequencies (if you want to run your HSR that way)

            In short rural regional rail to a HSR is mostly about if a stop is worth it at all.

          • adirondacker12800

            They can’t share tracks for long distances. The fast trains catch up to the slow trains.

          • Phake Nick

            @Henry – I read a Japanese government report a while ago that claim if future lower demand Shinkansen line is to be single tracked, it can only support max 2tph, although sufficient capacity can still be provided by using 16-car trains, and one of the two trains can be of express type.
            As for regular double tracked line, I don’t understand why timed connection need takt. You can time the connection as long as you have a fixed schedule of knowing which minute in the hour will a train arrive your station, and this wouldn’t require anything network-wise to achieve.

          • Henry Miller

            @Phake Nick
            Running on single track requires you plan where the trains do their take over. 2TPM means you have those every half hour, 3 means every 20 minutes. Each takeover costs you about 5 minutes, you could save a bit of time by not opening the doors, but since you are stopped (or at least very slow) anyway it only costs a few seconds to open the doors while you are there. Since this is a low demand route (otherwise you would run more trains!) you may as well buy trains with lots of doors do loading/unloading is fast.

            Some of this depends on your route – at some distances your trains will get to a station, and the amount of time to turn around is exactly when you need to leave for a particular overtake, while other distances you will need to leave a few minutes before the other train would arrive to make the overtake (this of course is impossible as the trains will collide)

            I think you can make 2TPH work, but you are marginal just because there isn’t enough demand, 3 TPH is just a little more convenient and so should attract a few more riders, and frankly if you are not already borderline to needing 3PTH you probably don’t have enough ROI.

            The importance of a takt depends on local service. If local service is every 15 minutes, you can force people to arrive early and wait for their connection. However if local service is less frequent you have to figure out what to do with all those people who are waiting, and they will be annoyed about the wait where they can’t get anything done, so you should time the connection.

            Takt also depends on the trip. If the next station is 10 minutes away (I don’t think anyone runs this, I just noticed on a map some cities are large enough that a station 10 minutes away from downtown is still in city limits and started wondering what would happen if you ran it), then you need a takt because people can reasonably make HSR part of their daily commute if the transfers always work.

          • fjod

            Why would you want to stop HSR trains for 5 minutes every 20 minutes at settlements of 500 people? Firstly: just double the track. Secondly: this is not in any sense high-speed.

          • Phake Nick

            @Henry the 2TPH estimation was under the condition of not having significant impact on the travel speed. They estimated the scheduled speed for 2TPH trains on single line will have ~160km/h schedule speed in a few different scenario, compares to ~180km/h for regular Shinkansen currently in operation, while in case of 3TPH the schedule speed would need to drop to ~140km/h

  2. Matthew Hutton

    How much of this is the Germans stopping lying about how many delays they have. Because that was my experience of the German railways a few years ago “on time” but pretending we were further up the line than we were.

  3. VG

    Everyone looking at France claiming it a better solution has never used It. France train system is simply an extension of the metro, it’s perfect if you want to go to Paris. But TGV from Grenoble to Lyon? Taxi ride from Lyon airport to Lyon main station.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, the coverage in France is pretty bad, but on the eve of corona France still had higher intercity rail ridership than Germany per capita (but not by much and Germany was closing the gap), and TGV ridership looks 10% higher this summer than 3 years ago. But the point is that if Germany completes the NBS network with an all-300-km/h route between Berlin and Munich, a 300 km/h branch from Erfurt to Frankfurt, etc., then this won’t imitate the problems of France, only its successes. Building such lines isn’t going to make Germany capital-dominant, or force it to only run a few trains per day to each city – the Takt is fully compatible with running at higher speed.

  4. Henry Miller

    > because reliability matters more than speed.

    I read that as “You should fly your own private jet. If you can’t afford a private jet, then you are one of those poor people we don’t care about.”

    Time is important to everyone. Most of us are not rich enough to afford our own jet, but time still matters to us. Sometimes my destination doesn’t require me to transfer to something else on the clock face schedule, I just want to get there. Even when I must transfer, I have no interest in the transfer itself.

    • Eric2

      Reliability is also time. An unreliable train is sometimes an hour late. A slow train is always half an hour late. It boils down to the same thing except that one is predictable. One or the other may be preferable, but to answer that you need to numerically specify how unreliable and how slow we are talking about.

    • onodera

      You can take two different trains to two identical jobs:

      – if you take train A that takes 50 minutes, you will always arrive 5 minutes before you have to clock in
      – if you take train B that takes 30 minutes, you will arrive 5 minutes before you have to clock in 80% of the time and 15 minutes too late 20% of the time

      You either waste 100 extra minutes of your life traveling, or there’s a two-to-one chance you will be late at least once per week.

  5. plaws0

    If you consider the minimum track speed for “real” HSR to be 300 km/h, as I do (obvs), then that’s a really disappointing map.

    Of course, the USA has 0 km of 300-km/h track so even more disappointing, of course – at least Germany has *some*! We do have a bit of “yellow” on our map, I guess. Not enough but will expand in NJ soonish, I guess.

      • Jonathan Burggraf

        What changes would be required to actually operate these lines at 280 km/h? Does this underclocking also apply to the 300 km/h segments on the Berlin-Munich route, or even the Köln-Frankfurt line?

        • Alon Levy

          The 300 km/h segments are just 300, and Cologne-Frankfurt in particular stretches curve radius to the minimum possible at this speed.

  6. Mark N.

    The question that stands out to me when looking at that map is this: What cost difference is there between building a new 250 km/h line and a 300 km/h one? As you point out, Alon, the Stuttgart-Ulm line is a totally new connection that’s currently under construction, but according to the map, it will only be running trains up to 250 km/h when it opens. It’s hard for me to imagine that all the expense and trouble already needed to build its impressive tunnels and bridges would have been that much higher to instead have built a line with capacity for just 50 km/h higher maximum speed. Sure, I understand how faster speeds require curves with larger radii, which very possibly result in a need for longer tunnels, but is the cost really that different? Or does my lack of engineering knowledge simply deprive me of appreciation for the complexities (and expense) of building faster tracks?

    • Alon Levy

      Very little. Much more important is the cost difference between a passenger-only line built to 3.5-4% grades and high superelevation, and a mixed passenger-freight line with 1-2% grades and lower superelevation (=wider curves). That long 250 km/h line between Hanover and Würzburg is about one third in tunnel, which is more tunnel than all domestic LGVs combined.

      • Matthew Hutton

        Why would you want to run freight and passenger trains on the same line?

        Sharing standard express 200km/h trains and high speed 300km/h makes a lot more sense than sharing high speed trains with 100km/h freight.

        • Alon Levy

          Hanover-Würzburg has an excuse – West Germany needed a north-south freight mainline east of the Rhine, the Inner German border having cut off the old one. Freight runs at night to avoid a capacity mismatch, with exactly the maintenance problems you’d expect.

          The other lines are built with freight-friendly grades for a much sillier reason. Germany is hobbled by BCA much like Britain, and much like Britain, there’s a lot of gaming of the system based on what is counted; benefits to freight are counted, even for lines that for operational reasons don’t even run freight after opening. Area NIMBYs also demand that new lines be built to accommodate freight so that DB can get the freight trains off their backyard, which they moralize as “but we don’t benefit from HSR between major cities,” and this again is counted as a benefit even if for operational reasons the freight trains stay on the slow lines.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Beetroot parkway stations would seem a far more sensible way to give people who don’t live in major cities a benefit from high speed lines.

          • Matthew Hutton

            And frankly even if it doesn’t meet a classic cost benefit analysis spending €50m each for a station every 75km in rural areas that only make sense if the benefits are multiplied by even 10 and that would merely break even on running costs would be far less dysfunctional than spending billions to pretend to run freight on the line.

            And there would be a benefit in having some passing tracks every 75km, and you’d get to do price differentiation by charging less for the train that stops at all the rural stops compared to the non stop express, and it’d be far less bad than stopping at some out of town stop like the budget TGVs do.

            And I suspect saying that rural stations get built with a cost benefit of 0.2 or even 0.1 would be politically viable.

          • Onux

            I hesitate to be too critical since W Germany was dealing with Cold War issues not all of us can appreciate from 40 years later, but it is still very surprising that they built Hanover-Würzburg as a high speed line, instead of building Koln-Frankfurt-Stuttgart-Munich as a continuous high speed line. Even today it would connect 4 of Germany’s 5 largest metros, and while Germany is very poly-centric compared to France, W Germany was much less so and the route would have included Bonn, the capital at the time.

        • adirondacker12800

          Because arithmetic is hard and explaining to most people that the 300 kph train catches up to the 100 kph train 20 minutes and the 200 kph one in 40 minutes, where there is another 100 kph train clogging the tracks, is difficult.

          • Matthew Hutton

            True, but you’d expect the civil servants and politicians to realise that. The maths isn’t that hard.

          • adirondacker12800

            People tell them “your arithmetic doesn’t add up” and they insist that you just don’t understand. Fairly often.

        • Phake Nick

          Why would one even operate a standard 200 km/h train on a line where there are 300 km/h high speed train in operation? It cost more due to manpower needs, and the speed difference also mess up the schedule. At least with freight that is different type of traffic

          • Matthew Hutton

            Because (for example) with the west coast mainline north of Preston you want to run high speed 300km/h trains to Glasgow, plus 200km/h standard express trains that will call at Lancaster, South Lake District, Penrith, Carlisle, and the Scottish Borders plus freight trains.

            And the simplest way to separate that out so you can run more freight trains would be to split off both the 300 and 200km/h trains onto a passenger dedicated line where they could pass each other at Carlisle (and perhaps other places).

          • Phake Nick

            Would be simpler and more convenient to passengers if they also use 300km/h train on high speed segment, and only slow down to 200km/h when it reach old segments. Passengers can reach their destination faster, manpower cost will be lower, and fleet will be simpler, and no need to deal with trains with different speeds when scheduling time table.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Possibly, not sure what the right approach is!

            Still the 200km/h trains would get a speed up from being able to actually do 200km/h on that section.

          • adirondacker12800

            300 kph trains don’t cost a lot more than 200 kph trains.

    • Phake Nick

      China have tons of lines with design speed of 250 km/h, and also tons of lines with design speed of 350 km/h. I don’t think they have the cost difference is something like single digit percent.
      All new Shinkansen built in Japan since 1990s are operating at max 260km/h to save money, yet are still constructed to a standard that would allow 300+ km/h traffic.

      • CA

        In France, all high-speed lines since LGV Nord have the route geometry for 350 km/h despite usually running at 300 or 320. Has DB built in any margin like this? If not, why do they design for lower speeds?

        • Phake Nick

          The longest new built high speed line German have constructed so far is like 190 km long if I am reading correctly. I would make a guess that at such distance, speed of 300 or 350 make only minimal difference. Merely 5.5 minutes time saving with the most ideal condition.

          Hence the problem can be better worded as: Why are German only building high speed tracks that are so short that doesn’t justify high speed operation?

          A number of their NBS new built high speed track are even less than 100km long, that is even shorter than the distance of what Japan originally intended to build 160km/h urban commuter Shinkansen, and are roughly in line with the distance of 180 km/h GTX lines Korea is now building for urban commute. From this perspective it is really not a surprise that the ICE trains imported into China encountered problem when they were first introduced where China tried to run them on high speed line that actually need to keep operating at constant high speed throughout the entire trip. And no surprise that Germany cannot find a use case for maglev inside their country.

      • Eric2

        At least some of China’s 250km/h lines are built in mountainous regions where I imagine a 350km/h line would be much more expensive.

        • Phake Nick

          The longest new built high speed line German have constructed so far is like 190 km long if I am reading correctly. I would make a guess that at such distance, speed of 300 or 350 make only minimal difference. Merely 5.5 minutes time saving with the most ideal condition.

          Hence the problem can be better worded as: Why are German only building high speed tracks that are so short that doesn’t justify high speed operation?

          A number of their NBS new built high speed track are even less than 100km long, that is even shorter than the distance of what Japan originally intended to build 160km/h urban commuter Shinkansen, and are roughly in line with the distance of 180 km/h GTX lines Korea is now building for urban commute. From this perspective it is really not a surprise that the ICE trains imported into China encountered problem when they were first introduced where China tried to run them on high speed line that actually need to keep operating at constant high speed throughout the entire trip. And no surprise that Germany cannot find a use case for maglev inside their country.

        • Phake Nick

          The main criteria in China to justify a line to be 250 or 350 is not geography but rather the role of the line. Except maybe segments that connect Sichuan. Trunk lines get 350 while peripherial lines and lower demand lines get 250. Those who were built in the years after Wenzhou accident also got loweor design speed. There’re rumor that on a few lines there are curves being artificially tightened in order to meet the lower speed target spec.

    • Paul

      There’s also a maintenance cost to running higher speeds. Tolerances for gauge and alignment get tighter the faster trains run, so a 300 km/h segment would need more frequent inspection and maintenance than a regional rail line, and so on. At the other extreme, freight branch lines can get pretty neglected because a few bumps don’t make that much of a difference when the train is only running at 40 km/h.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.