"If you're looking for German efficiency, go to Switzerland" – a joke well-worn with native-born Germans and immigrants alike as they watch their train delays tick upward from 15 minutes, to 45, to over an hour.
Harried conductors are reluctant to offer help, and any attempt to rectify traffic dilemmas is slap-dash at best (such as putting an entire high-speed train's worth of passengers into taxis during a recent technical failure). Hordes of angry customers, who have come to rely on the German rail's vastly overrated self-image, sit around and bemoan how "in Italy and India the trains were more reliable."
A single small accident, like the recent one near the southwestern town of Rastatt, is enough to disrupt one of Europe's busiest rail routes for months, costing millions, throwing tens of thousands of travelers into chaos and disrupting the delivery of necessary goods like food and medicine, which are largely carried on cargo trains.
Not to mention bloated, overambitious projects like the now infamous "Stuttgart 21" - a plan to turn the city's train station into an underground high-speed hub – which, after decades of political haggling and going 2 billion euros over budget, is still far from finished.
So what happened to the perfect punctuality we were promised, and why are politicians of every ilk busy trading blame over funding with the Deutsche Bahn (DB), the company that runs the country's national rail system?
For a balanced budget, the price is progress
"The government has simply invested too little in the railway," said Philipp Kosok, an expert on rail policy for Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD), an NGO that promotes environmentally friendly transportation, "and where it has been invested, it's gone into overblown projects like Stuttgart."
"You can see now in Rastatt how a problem with just a few meters of tracks can have such widespread consequences. This is because the number of trains has risen to meet growing demand, but the track network has not grown with it," Kosok added.
Part of the problem, according to the experts, is the administration of Christian Democrat (CDU) Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the obsession with a balanced budget, which has been achieved at the cost of German infrastructure.
But there are also other, more sinister political causes for the train chaos.
Berlin in bed with the auto lobby?
"The auto industry is an important part of the German economy, but what the current government and past governments have shown is that the opinion of the auto lobby is more important than thinking about how people who can't afford cars can get to work or to the hospital…or to the voting booth," said Dirk von Schneidemesser, a mobility researcher with Berlin's Hertie School of Governance.
Both Kosok and Schneidemesser laid part of the blame at the feet of Merkel's government, especially the unpopular transport minister, Alexander Dobrindt, who hails from the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU.
"Dobrindt comes from the land of BMW and has made it clear that he prioritizes cars, trucks and roads," Schneidemesser explained, alluding to how the Dieselgate scandal has highlighted the close and sometimes dubious ties between the German government and the car industry.
Kosok holds a similar view, explaining that "the government likes to say it's promoting clean transport, and will happily help the railway as long as it doesn't hurt the automakers."
Turning reputation back into reality
So what about the joke of looking for German punctuality in Switzerland? Well, that may not be a bad idea. Germany's southern neighbor is able to run a train system so efficient that it feels the need to apologize, profusely, for two-minute delays—and achieves this on a rail budget a fraction of the size of Berlin's.
"Germany can become, like Switzerland, the role model it's made itself out to be," Kosok said. "We just need a government that can make good on their promises. And hopefully, disasters like the one in Rastatt are going to make the disconnect between the country's reputation and reality more difficult to ignore."
Both Kosok and Schneidemesser were, however, critical of the heat facing DB, suggesting that it perhaps betrays the viewpoint of a somewhat spoiled public.
"It's interesting that the German railways have such a good reputation abroad, since I'm used to defending the trains here. But the truth is that I've never had a car and been able to get everywhere I've needed to go in Germany," Kosok explained.
"Delays and detours in Germany are a problem, but a bit of a luxury problem. Service is on the whole pretty exemplary," said Schneidemesser, allowing that "politicians and DB leaders playing the blame game" had exacerbated the frustrations of a public that has been given pretty high expectations by both parties.
In a few months' time, Germany will host COP 23, the latest iteration of the UN Climate Change Conference. If Berlin wants to hold on to its long-cultivated image as a moral leader in all things relating to environmentalism and social justice, the first step might be to put its money where its mouth is – and give DB the funding and planning it deserves, rather than shoveling cash into flashy projects and blaming DB alone when things go wrong.Elizabeth Schumacher