"Germany is all about order and punctuality," a friend remarked, rather enthusiastically, when I asked him why all shops, big or small, had their shutters down bang as the clock struck 8. At 2000 hrs on a weekday, everything in Germany was supposed to be shut. Everyone in this country of equals had the privilege of enjoying an evening with their family or friends. The only exceptions were F&B outlets, understandably, given that even the Germans needed their famed beer halls to stay open to spend that weekday evening in.
On Sundays, you could die wanting to shop, and the Germans will laugh at you.
One Sunday in Munich and the next in Berlin had taught me enough about Sundays in Germany. If you had a train the next morning, you better had a plan on Saturday (before 6 pm, that is). No one will go the extra milimetre for you. No one cares if you ran out of a pack of tampons at 9 pm on a Saturday. No one cares. It is an egalitarian society and well, "sorry for wanting to spend a day with my family!"
For us third-world folks, the first world is undeniably a world of possibilities. Everything is supposed to be fine here; everything is supposed to be available round the clock. Well, turns out the latter half of that sentence works only for the third world, unequal in its distribution of labour. It is a good thing: an egalitarian society. We can only look at them from afar and sigh: when will India be like this!
So, that sentence on order and punctuality and precision engineering that had been drilled into our heads came to the test one fine day in Germany when we had to take a train.
Deutsche Bahn, or German Railways, I had thought was the epitomy of precision and punctuality. I was in for quite a shock (and so will you be).
Take One: Deutsche Bahn tickets don't have names of all passengers on it. What is that even supposed to mean?
If you've bought a ticket for any train in India, you would know that the ticket has the names of all passengers, plus their gender and age printed on it. You have an ID on you on the day of travel, plus the ticket, and you're sorted.
That's how it's supposed to be, right? Everywhere? Well. Turns out, I couldn't be wrong-er.
On Deutsche Bahn trains, only ONE person's name is printed on the ticket. The other passengers in the group are simply pluses. So, if Person A, B and C are travelling together, only Person A's name will be on the ticket. The others will be called: +2 passengers.
But how does it work? What if Person A is unable to travel on the given day?
"Well, I'm sorry, I cannot be of any further assistance."
So, if Person A cannot travel, neither can Person B or C. You have to re-book the entire ticket.
What about the money? Will you refund it?
"Sorry, your ticket is invalid."
Yes, but will you refund the money?
"Sorry, I cannot be of any further assistance."
Take Two: You have a train from Cologne at 10.18 am. You check your mail and see two emails from Deutsche Bahn. The first, to notify that your train is delayed by 43 minutes; and the second, saying your train is cancelled.
If you're anyone but Indian, you would probably stay home believing DB. But we Indians don't trust Europeans (and hello, can you blame us, after 200 years of being tortured at their hands?). So, we turn up at the Cologne station before the stipulated 10.18 am departure time, and what do we find? The 10.18 train is delayed by 43 minutes, true, but -- hold my mug of beer -- not cancelled!
The ticket checker reconfirms the same. Yes, the train is going, and going right now.
Silver lining: The entire train is empty because, well, haha, Germany is all about trusting your railway operator!
These DB trains are beautiful. They are spotlessly clean, have restaurants on board, travel at 250 kmph... BUT no train that I took in Germany -- and I say this with emphasis -- no train -- was on time.
Now, I was travelling from Switzerland and had taken punctuality for granted. In Switzerland, we were on trains that were a minute late and had profuse apologies blaring out of speakers in compartments. At times, a reason would also be told to us: 'This train is waiting for a crossing.' To our "asuvidha ke liye khed hai"-trained ears, a reason for the delay came across as a pleasant surprise.
In Germany, however, you don't get such explanations. (Yes, the train is late, deal with it. You missed a connecting train because your first train was delayed? Ok, so?)
So, what happened to that order and punctuality that Germans are so famous for? Why is its railway in such a mess?
To summarize my day:— Skye | 27 days until Scara (@IAmGrounde_) November 10, 2022
- train to university was delayed
- pop-up presentations about a random subject
- train home is delayed
- train home is now standing still due to a medical emergency
I fucking love the Deutsche Bahn
Turns out Germany is struggling with its trains. With delays. With passenger rage. With worker strikes and lack of investments from the government. Deutsche Bahn is also governed by a partly-public, partly-privatised business model; and (this is something we Indians are quite aware of) shifting the blame from one branch to another comes quite easy.
When delays on German trains became the norm rather than the exception, DB famously pumped calming scents into train compartments via the AC vents to keep its passengers from coming to the blows!
i rly give more than 200€ to deutsche bahn every month only to be home late almost every day— river⁷💙🌟 (@dykejeongguk) November 9, 2022
The pandemic has not been easy for Germany's railways. Trains did run on time in 2020 when most people were working from home and hardly anyone travelled for leisure; but 2021 showed German Railways the mirror. Also, last year's floods in Germany took a toll on its railways.
Now, to someone visiting Germany from India, these do seem like third-world problems. Floods? Train delays? Worker strikes? What next, mosquitoes and snakes in Germany?
Deutsche Bahn in a nutshell. pic.twitter.com/fgBjWjLrke— j a c k ✦ supportive familiar ₍ ᐢ. ༝ .ᐢ₎♡ (@jackObnuy) November 3, 2022
India sure has a lot to learn from a country like Germany. Some of that precision and punctuality, yes. But here's what Germany can learn from India: better customer service, a better railway ticketing system, and refunding customers when its national railways doesn't know how to have passengers travelling on its trains.