Berlin’s regional train network, plunged into chaos in recent weeks by safety problems, may not return to normal until December, an official said, threatening misery for commuters, tourists and visitors to the World Athletics Championships in August.
Since a cracked wheel caused a derailment on May 1, Germany’s Federal Railway authority has ordered that all trains on which the wheels had not been duly inspected be pulled off the system.
The result: overcrowded trains, packed platforms, delays, cancellations and commuter chaos, leading mass circulation daily Bild to rename the network “Stress Bahn” -- a play on the system’s German name, S-Bahn.
And as the problem affects a large proportion of the train stock, the chaos could last for months. “We will be able to offer a complete timetable service again in December,” said Deutsche Bahn board member Ulrich Homburg quoted in Berlin-based daily Tagesspiegel.
For the next two and a half weeks -- and for the first time in Berlin’s history -- there will be no service at all between Ostbahnhof (east station) and Zoo station, two major transport hubs, threatening to paralyse the city centre.
Critics have blamed the crisis on cost cuts enforced by parent company Deutsche Bahn ahead of a possible stock market entry.
The firm cancelled its initial public offering last year owing to choppy financial market conditions, but is gearing up for another shot in 2011, according to the Berliner Zeitung daily.
And it is not just the 1.3 million commuters regularly using the S-Bahn who will suffer.
Berlin is a centre of attraction for tourists from around the world, with about 17.7 million overnight stays in 2008, according to the latest information from the Berlin tourist board. It is the third most visited European city behind London and Paris.
And the period from now until December promises to be a particularly busy time for Germany’s capital.
On top of the usual summer influx of tourists, Berlin celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November and hosts the World Athletics Championships in August.
The regional trains to the Olympic Stadium will be affected by the safety checks in addition to the services to and from the Ostbahnhof where the longest section of the Berlin Wall stands.
Heinrich Clausen, general secretary of the organising committee for the World Championships told German radio recently the underground train network alone would not be sufficient to transport the 500,000 fans expected in Berlin for the games, which start on August 15.
On top of this, S-Bahn trains to and from one of Berlin’s two main airports -- Schoenefeld -- will also be affected.
While there are alternative means to get to all these destinations, Berlin is a very spread-out city and the regional trains are seen as an invaluable link, as well the fastest way to traverse the city.
A spokesman for the Berlin tourism board, Christian Taenzler, told AFP that the city’s public transport system enjoys a stellar reputation abroad but that this could be damaged by the latest chaos.
“When tourists give us feedback forms, they describe the S-Bahn as punctual, reliable, clean and they are pleased with the 24-hour service which is often not available in their own countries ... So the image is very, very positive,” said Taenzler.
“I think up until now, the problems have largely passed tourists by. However, with the latest problems (between Zoo and Ostbahnhof), tourists will begin to feel it and that is not very positive for us.”
As for the athletics, he said he was counting on a “crisis solution.”
The transport chaos has already had political and economic consequences. Tagesspiegel reported that restoring the network to full working order will cost Deutsche Bahn a cool 50 million euros (71 million dollars).
And according to statistics from the country’s central bank, tourism brought in 26.5 billion euros last year to Germany, which is currently suffering its worst recession since 1945.
Meanwhile, heads have rolled. The entire board of the S-Bahn resigned as the full extent of the chaos became clear.
However, some have pointed out that the overcrowding, queues and delays may be a misery to Berliners but a daily feature of life in other cities.
“Berliners are a bit like spoilt children,” railway expert Michael Holzhey told AFP.
“What is a ‘crisis situation´ here with full carriages and people standing happens every rush hour in London and Paris.”