Deutsche Bahn needs small steps instead of big goals

Construction work on the track

The railway now has to catch up on what has been neglected for many years: the expansion and modernization of the infrastructure.

(Photo: dpa)

Frankfurt Sometimes it’s the tiresome subject of unpunctuality, sometimes it’s strikes, then again the moderate customer communication – Deutsche Bahn regularly provides topics of conversation. It is currently the major construction site of the rail network that is causing frustration. The self-proclaimed fastest climate saver is in reality terribly lame.

It is obvious that the disaster should be passed on to the company’s management. And it’s true: First and foremost, the management is responsible for the state of a corporation. But as is so often the case with DB, the matter is a little more complex.

For years, Deutsche Bahn has been crushed between constant new announcements from the sole owner of the federal government. First the group was transformed into a stock corporation that was supposed to generate profits and please shareholders. That is why savings were made, including on the infrastructure. This is taking its toll now.

The topic is now through, now the train should save our climate. But again the company only gets the general announcement to double the number of passengers and to increase the proportion of goods traffic. The owner is silent about which stages there should be on the way there.

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The federal government is thus giving up all the tools to control management. If the famous milestones do not exist, they cannot be claimed. That needs to change.

It takes clear guidance from the owner

The future government coalition must first define what the task of its rail company should be. This also includes answering difficult questions. For example: If the railways are to play a major role in the turnaround in traffic, can the critical infrastructure, i.e. the rail network, continue to be geared towards profit?

Then concrete guidelines for the management should be formulated. Such a tight leash is unlikely to please some railway managers. But in the end it will make your job easier. Constantly tinkering around without guard rails and being the nation’s permanent bogeyman is no fun either.

It remains to be seen whether the future government can bring about such a change in strategy. So far, the parties have gotten entangled in the fundamental debate as to whether the railway should be broken up or not – also in the coalition negotiations of the last few weeks.

This partly dogmatic discussion does not lead one step further. There is no need for a new corporate structure. It just needs clearer guidance from the owner. This is also possible with a Deutsche Bahn as a stock corporation.

More: Why a family office could help the German rail network

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