(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The upshot of a much-publicized Twitter altercation between climate activist Greta Thunberg and Germany’s state-owned rail operator, Deutsche Bahn: Train companies aren’t really ready for an increasing number of passengers who want to fly less to minimize their carbon footprint.
On Saturday, Thunberg tweeted a picture of herself sitting on the floor in a train vestibule, next to a pile of luggage. “Traveling on overcrowded trains through Germany,” she wrote. “And I’m finally on my way home!”
Deutsche Bahn came back with a snarky response, thanking Thunberg for supporting the railroad’s climate effort and riding “with 100% clean energy” but adding, “It would be even better if you would also report on the friendly and competent service you were receiving from our team in your first-class seat."
That counterpunch, remarkable for its very un-German use of private information, quickly backfired. As Thunberg explained, the train she was supposed to take from Basel in Switzerland had been taken off the schedule, so she ended up sitting on the floor on two different trains until reaching Goettingen, about 340 miles away. “This is no problem of course and I never said it was,” she wrote. “Overcrowded trains is a great sign because it means the demand for train travel is high.”
By then, of course, the whole thing had gone viral. German TV was analyzing Thunberg’s route using a map. A columnist for Bild showed his solidarity with the company, calling the photo “a set-up.” “Greta without a seat is our own Greta: she can’t get a seat just like us,” he went on. “But I have one final question: How real is Greta?”
That’s the wrong question to ask here. It makes more sense to ask how a first-class passenger ends up traveling on the floor for such a long stretch — and having to change trains in the process. To add insult to injury, the train on which Thunberg did get a seat in first class was behind schedule on Dec. 14.
Boston Consulting Group’s European Railway Performance Index, calculated in 2017, put German railroads in Tier 1 by intensity of use, punctuality, service and safety; according to the firm’s criteria, they ranked fourth in Europe. But things appear to be getting worse at Deutsche Bahn. In 2017, 78.5% of German long-distance trains arrived on time; in 2018, that share was down to 74.9%. It’s even lower this year.
Regional and local trains are more punctual, so Deutsche Bahn’s overall statistics are better: 98.4% of trains arrive within 5 minutes of their scheduled time. But it’s on long trips that punctuality matters the most: When one misses a connection, the rest of the trip can get unpredictably long and uncomfortable. It’s often impossible under these circumstances to get even a Greta-style floor seat.
The reasons for this decline are unsurprising. Deutsche Bahn faces personnel shortages, an aging fleet of engines and cars, and infrastructure that’s in growing need of repair. According to one recent analysis, Germany’s per-capita investment in railroads last year was only 21% as high as in Switzerland, which has the best rail network in Europe. It was lower by one-third than in the U.K. Meanwhile, the use of railroads in Germany is increasing.
People get used to good service, so when it gets worse, they tend to be bitterly disappointed. As a result, Germans are less satisfied with the punctuality and reliability of rail travel than people in many countries where trains are on time less often.
Making rail travel a more attractive alternative to flying features prominently in the German government’s climate policies. Deutsche Bahn stands to receive $118 billion between 2020 and 2030 in various forms of government aid, including a lower value-added tax on tickets (a cut that the company promises to pass on to passengers in full) and investments in infrastructure.
The company has Thunberg to thank for much of that stunning windfall. Her popularity among young people has made counteracting climate change a higher priority throughout the EU, but especially in Germany, where the traditional political parties have jealously watched the rise of the Greens to second place in the polls.
That alone should tell Deutsche Bahn to be nicer to Thunberg. The picture of a youth icon who has to sit on the floor of a train (and with a first-class ticket to boot) isn’t a great advertisement for those passengers who want to switch from flying to taking the train. Even before that government money starts coming in, the German railroad operator needs to work harder on getting its act together.
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Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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