‘Integrated companies like DB pose more problems than solutions’

Image: Pxhere

The new German government recently announced that the split of Deutsche Bahn into two different entities would not take place. There will be an attempt to make the company’s internal structures more ‘efficient and transparent’. However, this does not seem to change the services that the independent operators will receive.

The proposal for splitting the company aimed to increase its transparency and the competition conditions in the German railway market. However, such a development could also help to improve the services of the German infrastructure manager towards independent operators, which currently are “very slow and not digitalised”, as Tom Buchhold from Flixmobility explained during a webinar organised by Investigate Europe.

Why split the company?

The initial proposal for DB’s split into two different entities (rail operator and infrastructure manager) came earlier this year by the German monopoly commission. It was followed by similar requests from rail freight and passenger organisations. The monopoly commission recommended a vertical separation between infrastructure management and rail transport. Simultaneously, NGOs from the rail sector published a position paper calling for a second major rail reform in Germany since “there is no way to be sure that financial measures will only benefit the infrastructure and not the operations of DB Group”.

On its behalf, the DB Group defended itself by saying that “network and operations belong together at all times”. A DB spokesperson explained that “It is key that management and infrastructure investment decisions are made under one roof, match together and provide the best services for our customers”. In addition, he added that from the company’s long-term experience, “successful railways worldwide and in Europe have an integrated structure, and we cannot see any good reason to choose a different path for the future of rail in Germany.”

Integrated companies pose problems

As the German infrastructure manager DB Netze will remain part of the DB integrated group, many were unhappy with the development. Among them was the company Flixmobility, which operates the FlixTrain in Germany and Sweden. The company’s experience in entering the German railway network might have a rail passenger company perspective. Still, it is indicative of the weaknesses that DB Netze might have in providing customer-oriented services.

Tom Buchhold from Flixmobility explained that when the company requested tracks and routes to operate its train in Germany, the process that followed was long and inefficient. “We had to put our request on paper and send it to Deutsche Bahn. The company took too long to reply-almost three months, and the answer was initially negative”.

“In Sweden, this is not the case because the infrastructure manager is separated from the National Railway company and treats operators like customers and wants more and more to shift to rail”, he added. Moreover, he concluded that he finds “integrated companies unreasonable because they pose more problems than solutions”.

Critique for services already there

It is not the first time that DB Netze has been criticised for the customer services it offers. When the Middle Rhine valley was closed in April due to a landslide, Hans-Willem Vroon, Director of rail freight interest group RailGood had stressed the same issue. The German infrastructure manager’s crisis management was the cause for him to highlight that DB Netze lacks three basic things: communication, reliable forecasts and entrepreneurship.

“It is about time for a cultural change on behalf of the infrastructure manager that oughts to start treating rail like a business and show accountability and responsibility,” he explained. Maybe DB will not split after all, and indeed its internal structures could become more efficient and transparent. However, an important focal point that should not be missed is that of customer-oriented services. Operators’ feedback could be food for thought for improving and modernising processes that currently lack efficiency and make rail even more attractive.

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Author: Nikos Papatolios

Nikos Papatolios is an editor of RailFreight.com, the online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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