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S-Bahn chaos! An insider’s view

For almost a year, only half of Berlin’s commuter trains have been in service. So what’s up with the S-Bahn? Willi, a veteran train driver, shares his version of the crisis.

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Illustration by Dominic Burr

For almost a year, only half of Berlin’s commuter trains have been in service. So what’s up with the S-Bahn? Willi, a veteran train driver, shares his version of the crisis.

Every Berliner has fond memories of those ubiquitous red-and-yellow urban trains. Whether these involve traveling out to a lake on the weekend, coming home from a club in the wee hours or breaking the rules at an illegal “Ringbahn Party”, the S-Bahn is an integral part of day-to-day life in this city.

But since June, so-called “S-Bahn-Chaos” has meant that 50 percent of the network’s trains have been off the tracks. Commuters are enraged at having to wait for 10 or 15 minutes in order to cram into an already overfilled train – yet those most affected are the workers who are responsible for keeping the system running, come hell or high water. Willi* is one of them.

Life on the rails

Willi has been driving trains for almost 20 years. He started before the S-Bahn’s parent company, Deutsche Bahn (DB), was transformed into an Aktiengesellschaft (stock company) in 1995. Since then, although DB has remained 100 percent property of the German state (in the past two years, there have been attempts to open the company up to private investors, but these failed because of the financial crisis), it has functioned like a private corporation, with the aim of maximizing profits. What has changed for the workers? According to Willi, “just about everything”.

Train drivers used to be paid for every minute of their shift. Now they don’t get any money for breaks – and a ‘break’ can be nothing more than the few minutes after a train arrives at the end of the line before going back in the other direction. The early shift can begin at 3:30am, which means that a train driver who doesn’t own a car might have to take the last night train into work and wait until morning. There’s no pay for those three hours spent sitting around, either.

A work week often involves two early shifts, a late shift and two night shifts. “A driver might go to work one day at 4am at Ostkreuz station in the east and the next at 10am at Wannsee in the southwest,” Willi says.

The first big protests by S-Bahn employees occurred in June 2007, when the company tried to introduce a new shift system. Large numbers of drivers called in sick on the same day, bringing half the trains to a standstill: the overriding sentiment was ”Dit mack ick nischt mit!” (Berlinerisch for “I’m not going along with that”). This “June Revolution” led to a partial withdrawal of the head office’s plans.

The chaos begins

DB has done all it can to squeeze higher profits from the S-Bahn. It receives about €250 million in annual subsidies from the city – and in 2008, it kept €86 million in profits. This ‘optimization’ resulted in the closure of half of the train repair workshops. “In the last five years alone,” Willy says, “the workforce has been reduced from 4,300 to 2,900.” In other words, by a third.

Last winter, the first cracks appeared in this ‘optimized’ company. Signal equipment froze because of cutbacks to the cold weather preparations. Things got really bad on May 1, when a train jumped the tracks in Kaulsdorf after a brake malfunction. The company tried to cover up the incident, but workers went to the public with their own press release.

All of a sudden, Germany’s railway authority noticed that the S-Bahn hadn’t been doing legally required maintenance for years – and the brakes weren’t right for the S-Bahn’s model of train (another cost-cutting measure). Since May, the trains have been checked more regularly and all the brakes are being replaced, but there are not nearly enough workshops or maintenance workers to do the job in an orderly fashion.

Prospects for the future

Customers with an annual pass have now received two months for free, at a cost of €70 million in lost revenue for the S-Bahn. All in all, the company will have lost close to €300 million in 2009.

But Willi says nothing’s really changed: new maintenance workers have been hired, but only on a temporary basis. And the management wants to be back in the black – with a €25 million profit – by the end of 2010. They are still planning to fire hundreds more workers by eliminating the station managers at almost every S-Bahn stop.

Already one step nearer to privatization, Deutsche Bahn is expanding outside Germany and buying logistics companies as far away as Qatar. As Willi sees it, “the high ticket prices in Berlin are paying for DB’s shopping sprees in other countries.” In 2011, the city will renegotiate the S-Bahn contract and employees fear Berlin will end up with a ‘British model’, where several multinational corporations run trains on the same network and pay their drivers 30 to 40 percent less than Deutsche Bahn.

In response to this, a “Rettet die S-Bahn” (“Save the S-Bahn”) campaign has been working to bring S-Bahn employees and commuters together. The message on their flyers? If you want to keep your fond memories of the S-Bahn, you need to support the struggle for public, affordable urban transport.

* Willi’s name has been changed: S-Bahn workers are not allowed to talk to the press.