Every hour, at the same time, all over Germany! People travel more often by train if the service is correct. Key elements are intelligent and coordinated trains connections in train stations.
Half of the long-distance travelers in Germany use local transport on their journey to reach their destination. This means that one should not focus solely on the main lines traffic. What is the point of a trip from Buxtehude to Cottbus, with an ICE between Hamburg and Berlin at 230 km/h, if the traveler must to wait more than three quarters of an hour on the platform for connection? So there would be no clock-face schedule in Germany?
Not the same requirements
In reality, the clock-face schedule is operated on two separate commercial segments. The first concerns long-distance traffic entirely managed by Deutsche Bahn and its many ICEs. Since 1979, Deutsche Bahn has been offering connections every hour between the big German cities, with the success we all know. So far, the idea was that few long-distance travelers would take a local train to continue their journey. This is the principle of air travel.
The second segment is the local traffic: it is not the same customers. Deutsche Bahn managed – and still manages – this traffic separately, without paying too much attention to long-distance segment travelers. The main argument that is often defended is that local customers have other expectations compared to long-distance customers. It is therefore necessary to construct timetables adapted to school hours, offices, etc.
The networks that have adopted the clock-face schedule have shown that it favors connections and that it increases traffic, as in the Benelux countries or in Switzerland. The Lander have also built a clock time schedule on the regional segment, adapted to the requests of their customers. What is problematic is the coincidence between the arrival of the long-distance Intercity and the immediate connections with the local trains. In some cases, there is a gap of 20 to 40 minutes, which is dissuasive for the long-distance traveler.
From everywhere to everywhere
Associations have taken up this problem of connections between long-distance trains and local traffic. In 2008, the VCD (Verkehrsclub Deutschland), an environmental association, as well as other German associations, founded the « Deutschland-Takt » initiative (literally the « German clock »). The future of transport in Germany is becoming clearer every day: more inhabitants tomorrow means more trips and a carbon footprint that must absolutely be controlled. For this growth of travel to be sustainable, we must move the population as much as possible towards trains services. But the rail network is not able today to absorb this growth.
In 2015, the project is taken seriously. A study by the Federal Ministry of Transport concludes that a clock-face schedule in Germany is possible. The report states that this concept will increase the number of connections and reduce the total duration of journeys. The German clock time schedule is to make the railway system more attractive for a large number of people by means of tailor-made synchronization of the network in passenger rail transport. The trains must be running at regular intervals, for example every 30 or 60 minutes, and go to each hub stations in Germany. They leave after a short time to avoid waiting and transfer time too long. This connected network multiplies the connections and therefore the attractiveness of the railways. In rail freight transport, the introduction of an clock time schedule should allow for greater train path availability. Enak Ferlemann, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Transport, conveys the vision of the federal government for the year 2030 and told Die Welt: ‘The railway will have state-of-the-art trains, be on time, will no longer produce greenhouse gas emissions and will offer much better supply than today, especially in metropolitan areas.’ In theory…
To take the realities into account
The clock-face schedule is not a miracle pill. Current realities of the infrastructure and the reliability of the trains also count for a lot. At the moment, the German rail network can count on nearly 1000 worksites per day. Punctuality is catastrophic: less than 70% of trains arrive on time while Deutsche Bahn has already set a rate of 85% for years. Only one on six ICE initially works without technical problems (toilets or air conditioning down, no restaurant, missing car, bad maintenance, faulty reservation system, etc.). It is the CEO of the DB, Richard Lutz, who says it. Added to this is a growing number of « non-railway » incidents, such as theft of cables or people along the tracks. Whereas rail traffic is paralyzed, highways do not have these problems. And the citizen knows it: with the Waze app, the citizen is able to bypass incidents and traffic jams…
These negative elements strongly degrade the clock-face schedule, since the schedule is no longer respected. Except in one case: when the local traffic is composed of a train every 15 minutes, the delay of an ICE is « less serious ». But such local traffic only exists on regional high-traffic lines, around big cities like Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Berlin or Munich. For lower traffic lines, the Lander build generally schedules with one train per hour. In this case, the delay of an ICE is much more problematic. In the best case, the local train is waiting for the latecomer. But it irritates the local commuters who suffer a delay that does not concern them!
At the political level, the Lander are responsible – and pay – for local train traffic. They are very attentive to the quality of the service and the punctuality provided by their operators. They do not intend to « pay » for the setbacks of the national DB by delaying « the trains of their own voters », as recalled by a fiery regional minister.
Moreover, the question arises of which compensation that should be paid when local operators, ready to leave and perfectly on time, are ordered to wait for an Intercity late. These details are not regulated everywhere in the same manner. It is true that the question also arises in the opposite direction. Should an Intercity wait for a local train late? On another scale, we know that buses often wait for trains, but that trains never wait for buses late because they paralyze the tracks …
Improvements for a clock-face schedule involve infrastructure solutions and the adoption of digital tools. This is what Enak Ferlemann recalls: ‘The construction of new tracks is expensive, the approval process is long and faces fierce resistance from the inhabitants.’ Putting more trains on existing tracks ‘means that current control and safety technology of signalization needs to be replaced by electronic systems, which means that trains can travel at shorter intervals, allowing for more dense traffics. Therefore, the railways must be digitized section per section. It is expected that it will increase rail capacity by 20%. I think it’s too optimistic. If we reach 10%, it would be good.’ says the Secretary of State.
The other part is the reliability of the trains, denounced by the CEO of the DB. Digital tools can help. But they cannot solve all problems encountering either. Team management in the workshops will have to be adapted, which is often a problem at the social level.
The clock-face schedule can obviously extend to urban transport and local buses. That becomes a large public transport organized and connected. But how to deal with incidents of only one operator of the chain? That’s the whole question. The concept of Mobility As A Service (MaaS) should be an help. But the MaaS presents in real time only what is actually operational and available. This is not a problem around the big cities, where service offers are plentiful. In case of incident, we can fall back on other choices. This is not the case in less urbanized areas, where the offers would remain weaker, MaaS or not.
The clock-face schedule is in any case part of the BVWP 2030 government plan. 41.3% of the projects are for rail transport and alone represent around € 109.3 billion. Which is considerable. It is no longer a question of engaging in sumptuary spending, but to upgrade the rail network.
Deutsche Bahn, meanwhile, must put pressure on quality and operating costs. It has lost 27% of regional traffic over the last decade, to other companies that can make the train cheaper and more efficient. The DB faces a vast shortage of train drivers. The job maybe have to be upgraded but without creating billionaire employees, which would have an impact on the ticket prices. Digital tools will also be able to evolve the whole sector, such as semi-automated driving, predictive maintenance, traveler orientation and mobile service offerings.
Regarding the latter theme, Secretary of State Enak Ferlemann wonders: ‘Of course, passengers want a door-to-door service, so a complete chain of transport. The question is whether Deutsche Bahn has to offer a complete offer, from the train to the bike and the rental car. Or if the company should focus only on its core business and if other operators could take over the last few miles.’ The federal government’s job will be to ensure that the interfaces work perfectly when changing means of transport. A huge challenge …