A story that came out recently about a woman who documented Deutsche Bahn’s (lack of) punctuality by knitting a color-coded scarf and selling it on eBay for charity reminded me of a story one of my students told me about the railway company. My student, who I will call Sepp and the woman who knitted the scarf, are both regular commuters in the Munich area.
Sepp travels from Mühldorf am Inn to Munich during the workweek and it takes him a little over an hour each way. To go home, Sepp gets on the train at Munich’s East Station. The train has anywhere from 4 to 8 stops in-between, depending on how much of an ‘express’ train it is. The train also shares the line with Munich’s S2 and there are quite a few cargo trains on the lines because both the convention center and many of Munich’s goods from other parts of Germany pass through that section. The first stop outside of Munich on the regional trains is Markt Schwaben, and it is also an Sbahn station, and it’s about 15 minutes east of East Station.
It was a Thursday when Sepp hopped on the on time regional train at 3:22 pm, and found a seat in the middle of the wagon by the window. An older gentleman sat across from him. Across the aisle were two businessmen also sitting opposite one another dressed in nice suits with ties. They looked at their smartphones periodically as they conversed. The train was, per usual, moderately crowded but since the May weather was warm the wagon still felt stuffy, even with a few open windows. There were about 20 people in Sepp’s carriage and the train consisted of only two carriages. It was an older train, about 40 years old, since the subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn, SüdostBayernBahn, preferred to use its nicer trains during rush hour when they could be seen by more people.
Just outside Munich’s eastern city limits, the train slowed down and an announcement was made over the loudspeakers. The engineer’s voice crackled over the speakers and everybody on the train just looked at each other or shrugged their shoulders. Nobody had understood a word. The conductor, a man whose only goal at work with DB was to survive the last two years of his career before beginning his well-compensated retirement, moved slowly up the aisle of the carriage, his girth barely managing to pass between the seats.
“We have to make a stop in Feldkirchen and wait for an inbound slow moving hazardous materials cargo train to pass Markt Schwaben,” the conductor bellowed. He seemed neither upset nor surprised, only indifferent. He had seen everything in his 40 years, much like the train he was in charge of. It was only a slight delay.
The train stopped in Feldkirchen and the heavy loud doors were opened. Feldkirchen, as the name implies, is little more than a couple of churches and a couple of houses in the middle of some fields. Recently, some hotels and gas stations had been built in Feldkirchen to catch a few of the participants who attend trade fairs or conventions in the convention center which is five kilometers back towards Munich. But there is little else.
As soon as the doors opened, around 10 or 12 of the passengers got out of the train. The two businessmen stood on the platform and held up their smartphones, attempting to get a bar or two of mobile internet service. Some other passengers (the Bavarians) went to a small kiosk which had newspapers, snacks and all of the usual vices, namely cigarettes, liquor and beer. Men bought beer, perhaps one picked up a little bottle of Jägermeister, and they then popped the tops and began to chat under the awning of the kiosk. The kiosk owner leaned out the window to listen and nod his head. A couple other passengers moved a bit down the platform and lit up. A woman watched as her small child ran back and forth along the length of the platform. Other passengers simply milled about and engaged in a bit of small talk. (They were probably talking about Deutsche Bahn and its terrible record for punctuality.) The old man across from Sepp went out to ‘stretch his legs’, leaving his backpack on the seat, just like the businessmen across the aisle had left theirs on their seat. It is Germany and one need not worry about personal belongings on trains like this being stolen.
Sepp sat and waited, watching as he could, though his eyes would close periodically in slight repose. It was an absolutely brilliant May afternoon. That first wheat beer when he got home would taste amazing he dreamed.
The slamming of the steel doors on the train shook Sepp from his slumber and the train lurched and then pulled out. He looked at his watch to see that the delay in Feldkirchen had only been a minute or that his watch had stopped. There had been no announcement, no whistle, no boarding call. The looks on the faces of all of the passengers in different places of conversation and location were too shocked to do much of anything. Cigarettes hung from the lips of their owners at the end of the platform, the young child pointed as the mom turned in disbelief, the beer drinkers were too burly to move with much conviction and the young businessmen hardly noticed since they’d finally got a strong enough signal to use on their phones properly.
Sepp laughed at the scene. The conductor walked up the aisle and said to the remaining passengers that “the delay had been much shorter than first anticipated and the driver told me nothing.” He collected the bags on the seats of the abandoned passengers and put them in his room to secure them. It was the best he could do.
In the end, the train was not late, though the complaints would surely come for other reasons. But they would not be about punctuality on that day.