September 04, 2004

Bob the Railway

Guest Writer | Railways - Germany

Alan Little writes about his experiences of Bavaria's railways.

If you're going to live in a over-regulated, overtaxed country, you might as well live in one where you actually get something for your tax money in the form of things like policing, healthcare and public transport that actually work. I live in Germany. A few weeks ago I mentioned to Patrick Crozier that I had seen a headline about Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway company, being privatised. Patrick said he'd be interested to hear about my experiences as a German rail user, so ...

I had a car for my first couple of years here, but then it sold because I just wasn't driving enough for it to be worth the cost and hassle. I was only using it for the occasional weekend trip, and if that's all you use a car for it's cheaper to hire one now and again than to own one. So for the last three years I've been a cyclist and public transport user.

Munich, where I live, has two local rail networks: the U-Bahn, underground, owned and operated by the city (as are the buses and trams); and the S-Bahn, owned and operated by a Deutsche Bahn (German national railway) operating company. From the passenger's point of view they are effectively single network, with a single price structure and ticketing system. The U-Bahn, being built and operated by the city, only extends out as far as the city limits (with one exception in the direction of the under- construction new Bayern Munich football stadium); the S-Bahn goes out about twenty miles. Maps of the greater Munich area show strikingly obvious ribbon development along the S-Bahn lines: basically anywhere close to an S-Bahn station is in easy commuting range of Munich.

Berlin has a similar (but, according to my girlfriend who used to live there, better) system. I believe most other major German cities do too.

Both Munich networks were started in the 1970s for the Munich Olympics - I assume some of the suburban railway lines must have existed earlier, but it was in the 70s that a tunnel was dug under the city centre to link the Hauptbahnhof on the west of town, with the Ostbahnhof on the east that used to be the terminus for the line to Austria, thus making an integrated network possible. (The thirty year old signalling in this tunnel is now a big constraint on the quality of S-Bahn services and is being renovated, meaning several months of severely disrupted weekend services).

Further out than the S-Bahn, most of the services from Munich south to the Alps are run not by Deutsche Bahn but by theBayerische Oberland Bahn, Bavarian Highland Railway, or "BOB".

BOB's website says BOB came into being as part of an earlier privatisation initiative in 1998 when parts of the regional network were hived off. It was originally owned by a consortium including the Zugspitze Railway Company, which runs a mountain railway built in the 1920s from Garmisch Partenkirchen to just below the summit of Germany's highest mountain. The Zugspitze Railway Company is still independent but BOB is now owned by Connex, Germany's largest private rail operator. The website doesn't say since when.

(The line from Munich to Garmisch-Partenkirchen isn't included in the BOB franchise, presumably because it continues from Garmisch over the mountains to Innsbruck and is therefore an international rather than a regional service.)

BOB is great if you live in Munich, don't have a car and want to go to the Alps to go mountain biking, skiing or whatever at weekends. It operates an hourly service to three different areas of the Bavarian Alps, it's cheap, and it has comfortable modern trains with plenty of storage space for bikes, snowboards and similar toys. I suppose theoretically it could get boring always going to parts of the mountains that are close to BOB railway stations, but I have a decade or two to go before that even begins to be a problem for me personally. And coming back in the evening when you're exhausted from a hard day in the mountains is a lot safer and more pleasant if you fall asleep on a train, than if you fall asleep driving on the autobahn.

BOB is presumably also great if you want to live in a nice little town in the mountains and commute to a job in Munich.

BOB has weekend "family" tickets for 20 euros that are actually valid for any group of five people, making it phenomenally cheap for groups to go out to the mountains. Yearly season tickets for weekdays vary depending on the distance from Munich; the most expensive are 1700 euros. (how does this compare to the price of commuter season tickets in England? I suspect significantly cheaper, but I don't know)

I know nothing about the economics of all this. There are many possibilities. Maybe Connex's ultra-modern trains are so efficient that they can make money operating with phenomenally low fares. Maybe they're indulging in clever yield management by filling the seats up cheaply at weekends - this would make economic sense but somehow just doesn't feel like how German domestic businesses operate. More likely they are subsidised by some level of government: the Oberbayern region, the state of Bavaria or the Federal Government. If it's the region, I suspect they're probably more than getting their money's worth in terms of higher property values, more affluent residents, more tourism etc. And if it's Bavaria or the Bundesrepublik, well, then I pay for it so I might as well use it.

BOB1.jpg
The picture shows a BOB train in the station at Lenggries. The mountain in the background is a ski resort in winter, and a mecca for paragliders and hard core mountain bikers (average gradient one in three) in summer. Buses also connect with the trains at this station and run across the border into the heart of Austria's Karwendel National Park - some very spectacular scenery indeed.
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Munich, New York
Copyright
Veritas et Venustas on September 15, 2004

Comments

What I find impressive about the system in Berlin is that it got split in two, had passport checks imposed in the middle of one of the lines, had sections of track that were entirely in West Berlin run by the East Germans for 40 years, had stations sealed because the trains ran from the west to the east and back again, had some sections of the main loop completely closed, and many other such things before being reintegrated, extended and brought back up to speed since 1989. And after all that the city now has a really excellent transport system. (I know that part of the reason the excellent system has been recreated is because "they spent a lot of money", but I can think of lots of cases where plenty of money was spent without the creation of an excellent system.

Posted by Michael Jennings on September 6, 2004

Indeed. Have you seen the new Potsdamer Platz railway station? It's a mainline station intended to serve Dresden, Leipzig & points south, but built underground and looks like a kind of super-giant tube station. Really quite impressive, and bang in the middle of a whole area of other equally impressive modern architecture.

I like Berlin. The Germans have their problems, but they still do some things right. (See also beer, Porsches)

Posted by Alan Little on September 7, 2004

I walked into the station when I was in Berlin about a year ago. If I recall correctly the station wasn't fully open at that point, so I didn't see that much of it.

I had mixed feelings about the development around Potzdammer Platz. I think it was a little too much a government planned and managed projects to square with my libertarian instincts. (As a consequence the new area is almost a city in its own right that doesn't really blend into the rest of Berlin. The new building didn't have the sort of organically grown feel that you get with development that occurs in economically dynamic places, and it felt odd). Or perhaps it is just that the history of Berlin is so weird that nothing is ever going to feel "right" in urban planning terms.

Or perhaps it was just that there is a faux Australian bar in one of the leisure precincts of the new development there, and the sight of Germans drinking Fosters, VB, and Crown Lager in Germany was too much of a violation of the natural order to stand. (There was even fine Bavarian beer on the menu of the establishment in question, but for some reason the customers were going with the theme of the place and drinking the Aussie stuff).

Posted by Michael Jennings on September 7, 2004

You asked how season ticket prices compare. It's difficult to tell without knowing how far out your example was. By the looks of it, I would say the train is similar to what we would describe as outer suburban, in which case the season ticket could easily be about £3,000 a year.

Just looked up an annual season from Brighton-London. £2,880.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on September 8, 2004

The distance would be comparable with Brighton-London: 40 miles or more. And it would be a *long* commute - well over an hour each way. But I know someone who does it, and with a laptop it's not dead time like it would be if you were sitting in a car. And some of those little towns in the mountains are very nice.

Posted by Alan Little on September 8, 2004

wow, that is beautiful. (the story and the picture)

Posted by Ralph Lee on September 10, 2004

Munchen was the first German city that I knew well in the late 1990's for its transport network. The tram system is very well designed, that immediate diversions take place if a service along a particular route is experiencing problems. Points and curves allow the tram to regain its route within a kilometre. On other occasions a bus has been provided from a nearby depot to assist passengers for onward movement to their destination when a tram is disabled. The beauty of the Bavarian Alps is stunning, and I well remember one Saturday when the 05.30 to Garmishe Partenkirchen had well over 200 young people using the service for a day in the mountains.

Posted by Brian Hayes on September 19, 2004

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October 13, 2004

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