A German student swapped her flat for a train ticket. You’d have to be a rich masochist to do that in the UK
Leonie Müller uses the railway to write essays, catch up on sleep and even wash her hair. In Britain, the huge fares, late-running services and terrible Wi-Fi would make that impossible – never mind utterly unbearable
Following an argument with her landlady, the 23-year-old student left her apartment and, on 1 May, began an experiment in nomadic living. She now writes her essays using Deutsche Bahn’s Wi-Fi, washes her hair in the locomotive loos (the 41-minute stretch between Mannheim and Stuttgart is just long enough to get her style right) and zones out annoying fellow travellers with noise-cancelling headphones.
Anyone who has the misfortune of travelling regularly on British railways will have greeted the story with incredulity, and with some justification: it turns out Müller is really a sofa surfer who uses the pass to commute between Berlin, her boyfriend’s place in Cologne and Tübingen, where she goes to university. She rarely sleeps on board and averages just 1,200km (746 miles) a week on the railroad, according to her blog.
Yet, the fact remains that Müller’s experiment would be impossible in Britain, and something only a mad – and rich – woman would contemplate. One month’s unlimited travel on Germany’s nationalised rail system costs €379 (about £280). If I wanted to make an impromptu visit to the Guardian’s London office on Wednesday for morning conference at 10am and needed to be back in Manchester in time for tea at 6pm, Virgin would have the brass neck to charge me £329.
For that impudent sum, I would have no guarantee of a seat during the two-hour journey and just an 86.3% chance of arriving within five minutes of the scheduled time. And, if my bladder failed me, I would have to face the indignity of using a toilet that would try to josh with me. For those of you lucky enough never to have experienced Virgin’s talking lavs, they tell you not to flush down “nappies, sanitary towels, old mobile phones, unpaid bills, your ex’s jumper, hopes, dreams or goldfish”. Unforgivably, the message comes at just the point when you’ve summoned the courage to drop your drawers, leaving you terrified that their stupid locking system might be about to fail and expose your nethers to another passenger.
The banter bogs are far from the worst thing about rail travel in Britain. That would be the unreliability. In July this year, 92.3% of Deutsche Bahn services arrived on time – a cause for national shame that was blamed on numerous lightning strikes and a big train fire in Munich. Usually, more than 95% of German trains are punctual, a statistic surpassed by the Swiss, who run Europe’s most dependable railway system, where 96.8% of trains come and go when they’re supposed to.
Contrast that with Southern’s 7.29am service from Brighton, which never once reached London Victoria on time at 8.35am in 2014. The operator recently solved the problem – not by pulling its socks up, but by tweaking the timetable so that the same service is now scheduled to skip a stop and arrive three minutes later. And let us not forget the train christened Northern Powerhouse by the chancellor, which broke down three times in four months. This scandal was defended by the operator, Northern Rail, which said it was more reliable than some of its fleet.
I was the Guardian’s Berlin correspondent for a bit, and I didn’t bother getting a car. There was no need; even the tiniest dorf had a railway station, and, for about £150, I could buy a railcard that got me half-price fares at all times – none of this “peak time” nonsense in Merkel’s empire. (On which note, from 6 September, railcard holders will no longer be able to travel at “peak” time with off-peak tickets on Virgin trains. You’re welcome.)
However, when I became the Guardian’s north of England editor a few years back, it was a given that I’d need a car, because too many places up here lost their stations decades ago. The other night, I wanted to go and watch Bacup Borough FC. I was acting as lady consort to my friend Elizabeth, who had been made the club’s honorary president, but we couldn’t get anywhere close by train. There is a novelty railway that serves nearby Rawtenstall, but the last train back was at 4.30pm. Not ideal for an 8pm kick-off.
While Müller happily updates her blog while whizzing through Baden-Württemberg, I have never managed to get a decent Wi-Fi signal on the Virgin Pendolino, despite regularly stumping up £4 for the pleasure. And do not get me started on the wholly inadequate bike spaces, which prevent groups of more than two cyclists boarding at once and must be reserved in advance.
Is renationalisation the answer? Jeremy Corbyn thinks so, as does Andy Burnham. The German state is the majority shareholder of Deutsche Bahn, which also owns Arriva, a Welsh operator with a reasonable punctuality record. This means Deutsche Bahn’s €2.1bn profits last year were effectively subsidised by those travelling from Merthyr Tydfil to Pontypridd. For five years until March, the UK state ran the east coast mainline. During that period, it returned more than £1bn in premiums, as well as several million in profits, to the Treasury, becoming one of two firms to make a net contribution to the government’s coffers in the past two years. So what did the government do with it? They handed it over to Richard Branson to ruin with his wise-cracking johns, of course.