DB: BAHN.

With almost endless daily ranting about the poor level of service provided by the UK rail companies, it almost seems a shame not to join in. But I ought to keep my mouth shut, as the railways in my own country, far from a vast nation-wide network covering every place worth-living-in, are little more than rusting scrap. Even then, one can’t help but stand on the sideline and observe the spectacle.

So what on earth is all of this about then? As a New Zealander who grew up in a culture barely knowing of the existence of trains, the offering in the UK is impressive: It’s fast, efficient, comfortable, effortless, fairly expensive (but worth it). What on earth is there to complain about?

After living here for a few years, I’m starting to see what people are complaining about. The most common complaints generally seen to be centred around overcrowding, overcomplicated ticketing systems, punctuality, cleanliness, and so on. When we lift the lid just a little on the British railways, we see a highly dysfunctional mess with many private companies and state owned enterprises generally just “not getting along”. Everyone’s got their own little patch within the nationwide system and they couldn’t give a darn about anything other than profits. So what on earth is the solution to all this mess? The United Kingdom government has been trying to figure that out for the last 50-70 years, with varying combinations of full state ownership, partial privatisation, largely privatised and so on. They’ve all (eventually) fallen into some form of dysfunction, requiring government intervention. Every time this comes up in the media, one name is always mentioned, which is also the subject of this post:

Deutsche Bahn. Ah yes. Those pesky Germans again. When you first arrive in Germany, you’re immediately smitten by its presence: The super-giant public transport “Machine”. Its logo can be seen on almost anything that moves. It’s efficient, reliable,  clean, punctual, comfortable… and it’s also owned 100% by… The state. So how is it then, that this state owned railway in Germany has been so successful, when the same recipe failed so spectacularly in the UK? Politicians of this country have been trying for a long time now to “Bottle up” some DB and bring it back here.

Is that really possible? to somehow create a whole new transport body, which I’m going to cheekily call  “Großbritannien Bundesbahn”, or GBBB for short. Let’s say we pass every necessary piece of legislation, and 100% copy the DB “operating manual”, Could this monster possibly succeed and even come close to the level of efficiency as its German counterpart? Not a fucking chance.

When you ride on German public transport, there’s something different about it, something “intangible”. You could try and bring DB’s body here, but its soul will always remain in Germany. When you’re building a Bismarck sized entity like DB, there’s a few very-difficult-to-get-right things that are absolutely essential to its success:

  • Objective. A public transport system should be a service to a country, not a profit generating machine. It’ll always run at a loss, the profits will be made on taxes from the economic activity it generates.
  • Jiggery-pokery. People like tradition and familiarity. If you’ve got a brand set-up, working and successful. Leave it alone. Even if operations are a bit complex behind the scenes, always present the same simple and unified face to the public. Transport for London at least, manages to do this.
  • Repeatability. Use the same ticketing system, same fare structure, same ticketing machines, same everything nationwide. If people think a system is too complex to figure out, or that they have to re-learn it every time they use it, they’re not going anywhere near it.
  • Engineering efficiency. If you’re running hundreds of different types of vehicles in a system, this severely reduces efficiency, as many skill-sets, workshops and parts inventories are needed to service them.
  • Brand acceptance. The staff will treat your brand exactly the same way in which the public treat it. If the public hates your brand, your staff will trash it from the inside out.

Sure, DB does all of the above, and the UK railways largely do none of it, but the last point, to me, is the most important and most difficult. No legislation or operating procedure can immediately create this. I also feel that it’s the one the UK would struggle with most of all. The British public hate the railways, and the staff working on them could care less. As far as I can see, there might be 2 ways to solve this:

  • Fix the symptoms: Sure, if you throw enough subsidy at the system, the level of service will eventually become satisfactory, but this would take far more money than the Government can currently spare, so we can pretty much forget this option.
  • Fix the problem: This would require a fundamental restructure of the current system, basically bringing everything back under the control of the state, or a single central (properly) managed private entity. For this to succeed, everyone involved would have to be working not just for money, but also for dignity and gratification. In a culture were people would rather a hand-out, this has little chance of success.

Notwithstanding all of the above, I’m not sure I can actually see any way out of this at all.