If this is punctuality, my watch is broken

23 July 2022

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Germans are world-renowned for their punctuality, but taking a train on the Munich transportation system will rattle even the most stalwart believer of this myth. Like when the train lurches mysteriously to a halt in the middle of a field. Then the train driver mumbles something in Bavarian dialect over the loudspeaker – what did he say? Passengers exchange looks. The experienced commuters merely sigh and accept that there will always be certain things they will never understand; how to find meaning in a meaningless life, the vastness of the cosmos, and Bavarian train conductors. It’s only a few more stops to the main train station, but I’ll miss my connection if the train keeps wheezing its way slowly along…aaaand I missed it! The experienced commuter sighs and then returns to their sage indifference.

Munich touts itself as the Weltstadt mit Herz, the international metropolis with a heart, but it was late in jumping on the urban transport bandwagon. The London Underground began running trains in 1863, as did the Ferrocarril de Sarrià a Barcelona, the Paris Métro began chugging along in 1900 and New York’s first underground trains began rumbling in 1904. Germany’s urbane Prussian sister in the north, Berlin, built its system in 1902.

To be fair, the city of Munich had started construction on a transport system, yet it took a giant kick in the butt in the form of the 1972 Olympics to finally finish the job.

But for some reason, Munich’s two complementary train lines, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn, are operated separately. The only distinguishing characteristic between the two is that breakdowns seem to be confined to the S-Bahn, while the U-Bahn chugs – or rather glides – on, strangely impervious.

There are many good reasons why the trains are held up. These include police deployments, emergency medical interventions, and my favorite one: people on the tracks. This last one often results in a train staying put for a good hour. I understand that they don’t want to run people over, but shouldn’t it just be a matter of kindly asking them to please get out of the way? Perhaps people have fallen asleep on the tracks and can’t be woken up, Sleeping Beauty style. Maybe the authorities should hire a Prince Charming to get these trains moving. Or maybe Greenpeace activists have chained themselves to the tracks to protest the whole concept of suburbs that require urban transport in the first place. It was and remains a mystery.

I once saw a group of slightly inebriated but affable young men dare each other to do push-ups on the tracks at a rural S-Bahn station – which they did, briefly. I felt like I should have yelled at them, but didn’t, considering their recent imbibing and the fact that they were six and I was one. I also didn’t feel like taking on the role of the scolding, finger-wagging, middle-aged woman. So I just watched. But it did cross my mind that perhaps some camera had caught them in the act and would bring the entire train system to a screeching halt. I breathed a sigh of relief when my train arrived, notwithstanding the teenage tomfoolery.

A far more exciting system delay occurs when a construction crew digs up an unexploded bomb from WWII. In the U.S., this war is largely confined to books and old photographs, but here in Germany it is still very much present and waiting just beneath the surface. Nobody knows exactly where, right up until the moment when a construction worker hits metal and the bomb squad has to be called in. Here in Bavaria, they are always either American or British bombs. It is astounding that they almost always succeed in defusing them, but not without taking the necessary precautions of closing nearby train stations and sometimes evacuating entire neighborhoods.

The topic of public transportation has recently been fraught with scandal. Bavarians, particularly the ones from Munich, love to gloat about how they contribute so much to federal coffers. This is known as the Länderfinanzausgleich, meaning that if your state brings in more taxes than other states, you have to help them out. Together with the other southern German state of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria has been booming economically for some time and likewise contributing to the coffers of other states. With this in mind, Bavarians like nothing better than to visit Berlin, stroll around looking at post-Reunification renovation, and with an extra swagger in their step, proclaim loudly in Bavarian dialect:

„Das haben mir ois zoit!“ This translates into High German as:

„Wenn ich mich nicht täusche, glaube ich, dass der Bundesstaat Bayern wesentlich zu diesen Renovierungsmaßnahmen beigetragen hat.“

It’s oh-so-satisfying to feel morally superior. We know how to plan our finances to make ends meet, goes the thinking. We don’t need any handouts.

But dear boastful Bavarians, I have some bad news for you. Your gloating days are now over. Bavaria has now proven that its fiscal finesse is finite.

There has been some trouble with numbers here for a while now. The former Federal Traffic Minister, Andreas Scheuer, who is from Bavaria, breezily signed major contracts with companies for a toll system for Germany’s Autobahns – and did so before receiving the required EU approval. When Brussels said “Non”, it left the German federal government with a staggering €21.5 million in litigation fees. But Scheuer has proven to be the ultimate Teflon politician: he has suffered no consequences and is still a member of the crusty Bavarian CSU political party. He holds his head high during TV interviews on the topic. He should offer workshops on how to be self-confident when there is absolutely no reason to be.

In the most recent Bavarian budget blowout, it came to light that costs for the planned parallel track for the trunk route of the main train line, the zweite Stammstrecke, have exploded: instead of €3.8 million, it will cost €7.2 million. In addition, it won’t open in 2028 as planned but in 2037. Gosh, I hope they put in lots of elevators, ‘cause by then I might not be able to climb the steps.

But the more I think about it, I think I have the answer to this conundrum. These Bavarians have spent too much time out of their home state, away from the cleansing alpine air. They have let the northern climate of Berlin go to their heads and it has dulled their senses. After all, Berlin is the city that took 10 years too long to build its airport at three times the cost.

These politicians should return to Bavaria and come to their senses. Maybe by drinking a few liters of beer at the Oktoberfest, for example. Until then, I’ll just have to take a few trains earlier to important meetings and hope nobody decides to have a heart attack or take a nap on the tracks at the other end of the line.

Brenda Arnold

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

See also:
Emotional baggage: why I pack too much on trips home
In awe of Colorado’s awfully good athletes
On The (Same) Road Again