My friends, change is good. Whether it’s routines, pants or a pocket full of twenty pences, change can tell you a lot about a person or even a culture. Greek philosophers have mused on it, Presidents have pondered it and now Germany is staring down the train tracks at the change locomotive as it careers wildly towards them. “What kind of change is Germany facing?”, you may well ask. It’s the kind of change that is served by a jolly hostess serving crisps and tea, because barring any further appeals, National Express (NE) will be taking over one of the largest and most effective train lines in Germany, the Nürnberg S-bahn. This is not the British firms first foray into Germany’s travel network, National Express already operate lines in North Rhine -Westphalia and Rhein-Münsterland-Express , but this is easily its largest operation to date. For their part, German’s have allowed their natural optimism to burst forth, with Frank Hauenstein from the Railway and Transport union (EDC) declaring that National Express involvement in Bavaria will be a “fiasco”, adding “No matter who travels here in the future, the operation will not work without difficulty”.
You might think that Herr. Hauenstein’s assessment is a little harsh, then again, National Express don’t always get a long with unions. Equally, fiasco seems like the only logical word to use when describing the UK’s travel networks. In 2009, National Express were themselves forced to default two years into a ten year contract to run the East Coast line in the UK after it realised it couldn’t afford the payments, the second company to do so after GNER in 2006. Anyone watching the news this week will see that Southern Trains are facing a five day strike by staff over changes to staff roles, compounded by a multitude of other major issues that saw a 20% punctuality rate between 2015 and 2016. Of course, this doesn’t show the whole picture, there are some positives. For example, you could buy a can of Stella Artois and an excruciatingly disappointing egg and cress sandwich for the combined price of £722, while at the same time enjoying a soundtrack of expletive filled conversations bellowed into smartphones. I don’t know what everyone is so worried about.
In fairness, like many British people, I have an incredibly low opinion of my homelands train and bus network. I’m not even sure if all the bile is warranted. In a lackadaisical attempt at fairness I did some research on National Express’ Twitter feed. Their replies are littered with various apologies for missed connections, directions to online complaint forms and the occasional whimpered thank you for using their service which makes it read like real time version of 50 Shades of Grey. I can only assume the person(s) operating it is fulfilling their live long masochistic fantasies. These fantasies are not shared by the passengers of the UK who are subjected high prices and a general lack of quality in comparison to their European neighbours. In Germany, rail travel lurches from amazing to terrible, depending on the day, week, season, state or person who is travelling. I have very few complaints, especially since I learned to drive, but even as a passenger of Deutsche Bahn, I found the services acceptable even on the worst of days. One might argue this is because the DB is run partially as a private company and partially as a nationalised company. DB is an Aktiengesellschaft or Public Limited Company, with only one share owned by Federal Government of Germany. This is in sharp contrast to the patchwork of private firms that own and operate the train networks in the UK.
Like the UK, the German public have debated the merits of a nationalised versus privatised rail networks and have seemingly gone with a very British fudge solution, it being neither one nor the other. What is much clearer in Germany, however, are ticket prices. There are generally low prices, even at peak times and with additional options such as regional tickets, commuters or holiday makers can often find a reasonable ticket, even to the more far flung areas of Germany. Contrast these options with the UK, where train companies have been found to actively hide cheaper tickets from customers, hoping instead to sell the over priced versions for the same journey. Even if you find an affordable ticket, it may well be over priced with fares increasing by 25% since 2010. In some cases, season tickets for some rail networks may cost people more than there mortgage.
So, German rail is less expensive for travellers and more coherently organised, so what can National Express offer the German customer? Well, in their press release following their takeover of services in North Rhine-Westphalia, they claimed they would be operating a “very British Service” which doesn’t exactly fill you with hope. Thankfully, this seemed to translate into having some Union flags scattered around and saying please and thank you a bit more often. What this means for Nürnberg is uncertain, however, National Express hold the punctuality record in the UK when it comes to trains, which may endear them to the locals. They also won’t be in charge of ticket pricing either. If we can insure they won’t try and sell us any sandwiches or preposterously sized cookies, they may just be a success!