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From everywhere to everywhere. The future clock-face schedule in Germany

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.

Long distance customers do not have the same needs as regional commuters (april 2018, Berlin-Hbf, photo

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.

All regional or local lines do not necessarily have one train per hour (photo Schnitzel_bank via license flickr)

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.

The concept: adding long-distance traffic (fernverkehr), various regional Lander traffic (nahverkehr) and freight flows (Güterverkehr)

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…


Le concept d’horaire cadensé, en graphique…

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!

In large cities, the amount of S-Bahn does not pose a problem of connections (Berlin-Hbf, photo

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 …

Upcoming improvements

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.

The rail part of the BVWP 2030 plan. In red, urgent needs in infrastructure rehabilitation… (photo BMVI)

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 …



Die Welt : Jetzt soll der „Deutschland-Takt“ die Bahn retten

The BVWP 2030 plan

Deutschland-Takt – Immer gut verbunden

Infrastruktur für einen Deutschland-Takt im Schienenverkehr

VVO online


The last twenty years that changed the train

(Version en français de cet article)

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While there is still some agitations claiming for a utopian back to the past, we can now to look at the past twenty years that have changed the train: change of service to the public, change of society, leadership of the industry and new players in the field have undeniably moved the lines. Let’s see that in more detail.

Mutation of the service to the public
In the 80s, a questioning appeared on the opportunity to know if we could not manage the public matters by avoiding the heaviness and rigidities of the administration. Most of the national companies such as the Post Office, the “Telephone” and the public railway undertakings were destined to mutate towards a more entrepreneurial management, with management contract and accounting to the latest international standards. In all the European countries in the 90s, a transformation of these administrations were made towards public law companies, with in some case participations of other shareholders. This will result in the emergence of a new rhetoric foreign to the culture of the public service: project, contract, call for tenders, evaluation, quality approach, setting quantitative and qualitative objectives, reduction of global subsidies, competition , contracting, etc. While the task was more or less easy with the Telecom sector and, to a lesser extent, with the National Posts (DHL, TNT …), the railways have shown greater resistance to change.

In twenty years, several national parliaments have amended their legislation to introduce the end of the rail monopoly, a progressive change of special social regimes, the introduction of public service delegation which offers of contracts open to third parties and a clear delimitation of publics funds by dedicated State-Operator contracts for public transport. Part of Europe has moved to this policy with more or less vigor according to national political cultures and ideological resistance. In regional traffic, the delegation of public service on local networks is now a well-engaged policy in some countries that promote local and regional autonomy, with a framework by law. In some regions, it is the local government who has taken over its trains and put an end to the policy of closing the local lines, or sometimes by re-opening sections stripped by the national railway incumbent. The sectors where essential social or national considerations no longer predominate – in the freight sector and main line train services – have been removed from the public service and have a real autonomy to manage their services, equipments and recruitment, whatever the main shareholder. It was unthinkable twenty years ago.

Mutation of society
We do not speak about the debate of contemporary society, which is the subject of so much commentary and requires so many nuances in its interpretation. We observe that since over thirty years, contemporary societies rely on an individualistic anthropology that values ​​the individual and the relationship between oneself. The times of today are also characterized by a dynamic of permanent transformation (for example Telecoms), which is the opposite of the stability and heaviness of the administration. Unlimited access to information via digital channels today maintains an uninterrupted stream of comparisons and tactics to travel cheaper and otherwise, which has greatly hinders the railway sector. The major consequence of this change was the arrival of marketing within the railway. Today, the pricing promotes the individual rather than the group, the age rather than the veteran of second worldwar (actually we are in 2017, the idea of veteran of second worldwar is still relevant?). Clearly, we went from the docile user to the volatile customer, who totally changed the relationship between the railways and its customers.

In the private sector, customer satisfaction is a significant target and is the focus of ongoing efforts to improve the service. The public service is still lagging, but there are some qualitative improvements, such as the Nightjet service from the Austrian state-owned company ÖBB or the high-speed train service from Trenitalia, which has to compete against its competitor NTV-Italo. What added value for the citizen? It’s a matter of culture and personal impressions. Today, we speak of “customer experience”, in other words, the relationship with the company, live or via a computer, and the complete progress of the purchase and travel in the best conditions. This reality has penetrated the historic railways and has changing the horizon in twenty years. We can see that with more attractive websites and a better access to information. Independent companies like Thalys, Thello, NTV or Eurostar offer a range of visible and simple prices at a glance. The ticket can now print at home on A4 paper or be sent on smartphone with a QR Code. All of this were impossible twenty years ago.

Private industry leadership
This is another mutation, more strategic. In the past, the domestic railway industry was the only subcontractor of the national railway. The national administrations drew up the plans themselves, which were signed by the minister and the ministry had commissioned the rolling stock at the national price. So, each state had their closed circuit with its own technical standards, away from the world. But changes have been made within the new laws on tenders : from now cables, bolts, steel, trains and all the technical railway equipment must be bought with the best price, on the industrial market, in a european field, and not made to measure. This is the end of the “national subcontractor for ever”. For some railway administrations, the consequences was that they were stripped progressively of their technical prerogatives! Industrial companies released from the protectionism of the neighboring countries, then undertook a vast transformation of their industrial scheme in the 1990s to expand their market  in all of Europe and boost their sales.

To achieve this, the transformation was radical: the construction of trains, trams and subways is now made by “platform”. Which means that a factory is a product, when the same product is made with a range of different alternatives (color, seat, lenght…). It’s like the automotive industry: a basic vehicle and charged alternatives. This industrialization by standard product means that a single European factory is enough to study and to build only one kind of locomotive and to cover a single market in Europe. And that was also still unthinkable in the early 90s.

In twenty years, the rail industry has clearly taken the lead of the research by studying the railway products itself to offer one product to the widest possible number of railway companies, which reduced the costs of production. This landscape has made the rail industry more attractive for investors and has make easier the access to credit, with the appearance of a few big giants which have the ability to offer a full range of products in a single catalog. These include the Bombardier TRAXX locomotive only built in the Kassel factory (DE) or the Siemens Vectron locomotive built in Munich-Allach (DE). Alstom builds its commuter trains on the sole site of Savigliano (IT), and its regional trains in Salzgitter (DE) and Reichshoffen (FR). Bombardier builds its high-speed train at Vado Ligure (IT) while Hitachi Rail has built its only assembly plant at Newton Aycliffe in Great Britain. Each constructor exhibits its new rolling stock at major shows, such as InnoTrans in Berlin, which has only existed since 1996, providing further proof of the vitality of the railway industry, which was not very active twenty-five years ago.

But the industry could not have grown if there were only incumbant railway companies as sole customers. It is indeed the opening of the market to new entrants that has boosted the railway market, with orders sometimes impressive and others with smaller quantities, but it’s still the same locomotive. They is customized “à la carte” according the requierementsof the customers. For example, you have need a locomotive only for Netherlands / Germany / Poland or a locomotive for Germany / Austria / Italy. This industrial performance, which no historical company was able to do because they were not interested in that, blew up a market which was still so sluggish twenty years ago. This has created more highly skilled jobs than the losses of employment incurred with the restructuring of the industry.

This industrial recomposition goes hand in hand with a standardization of approval procedures, now under the auspices of ERA, an railway european agency that did not exist twenty years ago either… Without this, the success of the Bombardier’s TRAXX, for more than 2,000 standardized and homologated locomotives sold from Helsinki to Lisbon, could never have happened. As there will be a time where all transport companies will have their full new rolling stock, the supposed drop of purchase volumes is already encouraging the sector to anticipate by boosting theirs customer service, particularly through sales contracts, leasing & maintenance. This activity was precisely one of the activities of the historic railways. Playing a role in the maintenance, it was still unthinkable twenty years ago …

New players on the market
This is probably the most visible face of railway transformation. The introduction of new entrants vary greatly according the politics culture of each land, but is now well anchored in the railway landscape, especially at the level of the freight sector since the 2000s, where the competition is not longer subject to contestation.

But during this time, the low-cost airliners showed that you could travel quickly and with good conditions for few money. Suddenly the railways became too expensive for many people. Thus, it was the aviation that became the transport of the poors and the train became a transport … for the rich people ! It will be to wait until 2012 to see appearing the first railway private companies on the main line segment (Thello, WESTBahn, NTV-Italo, RegioJet, LeoExpress …). Former monopolies like Eurostar or Thalys were transfered to independent companies for a better managment. Four countries offer rail in open access, ie several companies on one railway line, such as in aviation: the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy and, more modestly, Sweden. Which added value for the citizen? The competition provides a more readable and accessible offer, with sometimes lower rates and more promotions than in the time of the national monopoly.

Transregio, from the french enterprise Transdev, provides trains services between Cologne et Coblence under contract. Emu Desiro from Siemens (picture Transregio)

Except in Great Britain, quite a few Member States have devised political legislation favorable to the management of local lines under contract by third parties, whether private or not. In hindsight, we can say that these are subsidiaries of historic companies that meet – and win – many European tenders. This allows them to expand their business beyond national borders, which was unthinkable twenty years ago. Which added value for the citizen? Maybe not really at the price level, but certainly at the service level: creation of regional transport authorities mixing the bus and the train, lines passed from four to fifteen or more trains per day , weekend service, rolling stock often new (except in Great Britain… but this is changing) and many small stations renovated and serviced, sometimes even created or re-opened. This local coverage has rubbed off on some municipalities crossed, which financed out of the railway field a bicycle network and more attractive roads or parking access that were still wasteland less than twenty years ago…

The railway employment
It is decreasing, as in many economic sectors. Because of a recession of the public service? Not really, but it is true that the closures of stations, tickets offices, industrial yards and locals lines helped to melt staff numbers, but that does not explain everything. There are also and especially the great waves of recruitment of the 1970s that have suddenly retired thousands of railway workers in the early 2010s. In addition, the rise of technologies has induced a lower need for personnel, as for example the computerized signal boxes that cover much larger areas, making small signal boxes useless. Some jobs are disappearing with societal changes: luggages with built-in rollerboards and lifts to the station platform have replaced all baggage handler. Mail and parcels are no longer transported by passenger trains because of the new logisitic organization of the Post Office and the automated sorting …

(picture CFF/SBB)

Over the last twenty years, a greater professionalization of staff has taken place: the myth of the little apprentice who starts at 16 year old in a filthy deposit is a picture of the past, for movies of Ken Loach. Henceforth, the railroad is no longer a refuge for the poorly qualified proletarian or for the son of the humble farmer (who seeks social climbing). It is now more qualified technicians, electricians, welders, accountants, computer scientists, lawyers or engineers who make up the railway staff. To become a driver of train is not so easy than yesterday. The skills to the job have fortunately been revised upward in line with the expectations and the requierments of today, in particulary because railways are today more electrified and because there exist many ISO standards. Nevertheless, in recent times, the lack of train drivers is also sorely lacking in some companies in Europe.

Conclusion ?
This article is an idyllic picture? No, but it has been shown that the railway is always a reflection of its users. If these evolve, the rail is forced to evolve. Some ideological forces would like to believe that the past of the railways is the future of the railways, especially towards the generation Z who did not know the railroad of old. The railway ecosystem was much slower to moult than other public sectors like post and telecom, but the new railway is now launched.

A lot of things that live today were still impossible to implement twenty years ago. Changes in the legislative landscape are important : they were necessary. Sociologists will probably regret the change of the status from “the user” to “the customer”, but this is a societal development with which the railways can only to adapt. These twenty years of change in the railway landscape have shown what could be done and what was not optimal to undertake. Night trains must search for viable new business models. Nightjet appears to be on the right track. Obtaining British-style franchises, without a social pricing policy, is also something to review.

Adjustments will still be needed at all levels, including legislative regulations. Clarifications still need to be made where there are persistent failures on the accountability of each parties. Thus, in 2018, the sharing of the deficit of a cross-border service between two states remains a misery, while calls for modal shift are heard everywhere.

These last years have shown a reality: the horizon have moved everywhere, in the attitudes, in the heads and in the management of the old railway administrations. This is what was asked by the citizen, first donor and user of the railway public service …

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