In the movie Zootopia, the main character, played by an overly energetic rabbit, goes to the local authority to find out the identity of a hit-and-run driver. The guy behind the counter is played by a sloth, the perfect animal to portray the agonizing slowness of a bureaucrat.
His name? “Flash.”
Here’s a little-known fact: the scriptwriters modeled Flash on German politicians. I’m sure I read that somewhere.
A case in point: the digital age arrived in most places decades ago, but only to some areas of Germany. So when the corona pandemic hit and schools had to switch to online classes overnight, many were unable to do so.
Even though Europe and perhaps the world look to Germany to lead the way in combating climate change, the country is squarely set on the path to missing its 2030 climate goals. In official rankings of environmental friendliness, Germany ranks behind Italy and Hungary, due in part to its never-ending love affair with coal. The Autobahns are still choked with gas-guzzling cars protected by the powerful automobile lobby. Trains are more unpunctual than ever, fueling a booming long-distance bus industry that far undercuts train fares.
Discussions in the German Bundestag are heated, full of promises, and yield little. What would it take to rattle this august body to take action on climate change?
War. It took nothing short of war to move them to take action.
In fact, the Russian invasion of Ukraine made Germany take action so radical, it left people stunned. It was like an enraged mother entering the bedroom of her sleeping teenage son at 10:00 a.m. on a schoolday, accompanied by samurai warriors who tear off the bedcovers, open the windows (this is a German mother, after all, mustn’t forget the airing out) and catapult her stupefied son out of bed.
The EU socked sanctions on Russia, which swiftly retaliated by curtailing gas exports. At the time, Germany was importing over half of its natural gas from Russia, so this was a real kick where it hurt, namely in people’s wallets.
So in an odd twist of history, we have the pasty-faced, grumpy old man sitting at the oversized conference table in the Kremlin to thank. (As Shrek would ask: Is he compensating for something?). Putin achieved what the Green Party, years of demonstrations, and dozens of think tank predictions failed to accomplish: he made the German government take bold action on climate change.
To mitigate the impact of exploding gas prices, they introduced the monthly €9 train ticket last summer to promote the use of public transportation. As someone who lives in the outskirts of Munich and pays €100 for a ticket for just a fraction of the regional train network, this was like Christmas, my 18th birthday, and winning the lottery – all in one day.
The ticket was so popular that as soon as it ended, people wanted it back. So this year, May 1st ushers in something so tantalizing that people have been queuing up in long lines so as not to miss out: the monthly €49 train ticket. Like its predecessor, it gives unlimited access to urban transport and regional trains anywhere in the country.
The low price is great, but the real problem is the rail system’s reliability. When people move here, they envision super-punctual trains. After all, it’s Germany, the land of efficient workers and rule-followers. Stereotypes die hard, but eventually, the light bulb goes off in even the slowest person’s head.
“Hey! Isn’t that like the tenth time I missed my train connection? I’m getting the feeling this German train system isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.”
To find that fantasy German train system in the real world, you have to head south – to Switzerland. They have an actual, functioning, efficient rail system. You know, Swiss chronometry and all that.
Something else the Swiss have a lot of plays a big role: money. They invest five times as much in their train system per capita as Germany does. An interview with the head of the Swiss train system is enough to bring tears to your eyes. He stands proudly in a huge control center that looks like something out of Star Trek, except these monitors actually do something – namely track all trains in real time. Any train more than three minutes late shows up red, and 92% of all Swiss trains are punctual, compared to German trains last summer, of which only 60% were on time, a new low.
The Swiss go to amazing lengths to keep the system running smoothly. Where congestion is expected, they have fully staffed replacement trains waiting at the sidelines in case they need to be deployed to keep the overall system running on time, similar to the fire department. After many bad experiences with trains arriving late from Germany, the Swiss have also learned to keep such trains at the border to compensate.
It’s enough to make you want to hop on a train to Zurich. Except you might miss your connection. And the €49 ticket doesn’t reach that far, anyway.
On a train to everywhere – Germany’s €9 ticket and its surprising consequences
The new, improved me – courtesy of the EU-conform driver’s license
If this is punctuality, my watch is broken