A Women’s Only Train Compartment?

A Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn Train at Leipzig Central Station awaiting departure to Chemnitz. Photo taken in February 2016
A Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn Train at Leipzig Central Station awaiting departure to Chemnitz. Photo taken in February 2016

Imagine this scenario: You travel on a regional train from Leipzig to Chemnitz, but wanting to get off at Geithain for an interview for a teaching post at a local school. The train has seven coaches like the picture above, but are mostly full of passengers. You try to find a seat somewhere so you can practice your presentation to give to the interview panel. You walk through one coach full of children returning to a school in Bad Lausick after a field trip to a popular church in Leipzig. Another coach is full of football hooligans from RB Leipzig as they prepare to crash the party in a friendly match with Chemnitz FC, taking place in the evening, the next two coaches are full of passengers, but one male is spying on a woman in the next coach you are entering, which is full of women and children. The sign says for women as well as children up to 10 years of age only.  You see mostly women occupying the seats, ranging from nuns and teachers to businesswomen and mothers nursing babies. You find it awkward but decide to pass on to the next coach, where you finally find a seat. Two seconds after you sit down, the aforementioned male predator sits next to his prey and pries her privacy open, only to get the “Blauste Wunder seines Lebens”- in other words, the biggest but most unpleasant surprise of his life (I’ll leave the scene up to the women to complete the story to their liking). 😉

Then the light bulb goes on!  Having a women’s compartment on the train is a great idea, but is it really worth it and why?

This experiment is being attempted by the Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn (MRB), where such a compartment mentioned in this situation is being reserved for women and children. Unless granted, men are not allowed to sit in the compartment reserved for this group. The experiment is intended to make the female passengers feel safer while traveling, according to a statement by the MRB. Other countries have similar coaches reserved only for women, such as Japan, Indonesia, Egypt, Brazil, Mexico and India, while Great Britain is experimenting with reserving areas of the public transport trains, street cars and busses for women. While the goal is to protect women from being sexually harassed or assaulted, this measure presented by MRB has nothing to do with that, nor the incident on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, where over 1000 reports of women being sexually assaulted were made. Only one person has been charged. The attacks have sparked a backlash against refugees coming to Germany, as many assailants originated from the Middle East and Africa, according to the reports. Many refugees have been harassed and assaulted by right-wing extremists, their places of lodging were set ablaze, and the right populist party Alternative für Deutschland has been gaining success and votes as their anti-immigration policies have gained enormous support and traction.

Yet the idea of having a women’s only compartment on trains have sparked emotional outrage between those who are for such measures and those who consider it absurd. The article and question for the forum posted on many facebook pages including that of the Files’ have been met with mixed results. Proponents of such a measure believe that it would serve as place of refuge against people who are potential predators, giving them a warning of not to cross into their territory unless (….). Some who have supported this either experienced such incidents in person or know someone who has encountered such a person. Opponents claim that by designating areas solely for women would be going back to the age of segregation, where every facility was divided up between White people and Black people only, resulting in the likes of Rosa Parks breaking the barriers on the bus and Martin Luther King Jr. having a dream in his historical speech in Washington in 1963. Some people responded sarcastically by proposing everyone wearing burkas and having a men’s only cars, which had existed in Saudi Arabia until just recently. Others claim that such an arrangement is not enough and that more police protection and stiffer penalties are needed to keep predators and stalkers away. This includes longer sentences in prison and heavier fines. The German government has introduced tough measures to deport refugees committing such crimes, yet psychological counseling is patchy and only a fraction of the population, both victim and perpetrator alike, receive treatment, regardless of country of origin.

This leads to the question of the effectiveness of such a designation in the trains. Speaking from personal experience traveling in the family compartment of an ICE Train such designations are crowded and unwelcomed by “normal” passengers who believe that the safest and most convenient way to travel is by car. A 2011 article explains why (click here). Furthermore, should it be successful in the MRB, how can other railroad providers designate them in their trains, as the newer models are either double-decker InterCitys or sleaker Abellios, both of which have a major caveat, which is space availability, especially if other passengers have bikes to take with (another article written in 2011 on bike space can be found here).  The intentions are there, but better is civil courage either by standing up and saying NO or having others nearby stand up and help by shooing the person away. Then the person should be reported and tough(-er) measures will help him understand the meaning of NO! There are many reasons why women say no, and an article written by a columnist explains the meaning and reason why NO is used and many times ignored (click here)

Inspite of the opinions from all sides, the question will be whether this new experiment will be the norm for all rail services in the future, or if it will become a fad and other measures to protect people regardless of gender and ethnic background. Right now, the experiment is being tried on the trains traveling between Leipzig and Chemnitz along the Black-and-Blue Line, which connects the two with Halle and Magdeburg, each city having a storied history with their soccer teams and rivalries. If successful, it is expected to be expanded to other lines, and eventually to other train services, including the Bahn.

But is it really necessary?

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1. Do you think having a women and children’s coach in the train is appropriate? Why or why not? Make a list of advantages and disadvantages before answering, apart from the ones mentioned in the article.

2. Does your country have similar arrangements to the one being performed by the MRB? How does it work?

3. What measures does your home country have to protect women from predators and stalkers? Have they worked to date?

4.Using the two pictures below, how would you envision a women only compartment? Keep in mind that the double-decker train is an InterCity train with 10-12 coaches and the Abellio is a regional train similar to the MRB but has only one whole coach that can seat up to 300 passengers. Use your imagination. 🙂

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ICE-Line Erfurt-Leipzig/Halle(Saale) Open to Traffic

Galloping Gertie (the author's bike) and the ICE-T train at Leipzig Central Station. Photo taken in Dec. 2015
Galloping Gertie (the author’s bike) and the ICE-T train at Leipzig Central Station. Photo taken in Dec. 2015

 

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ERFURT/LEIPZIG/HALLE(SAALE)- It took 25 years of planning, of which 19 years of construction and delays, but now, the new ICE Train Line has become a reality. Several prominent politicians, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, the ministers of Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt and the CEO of the German Railways (Die Bahn) were on hand at Leipzig Central Station to open the new rail line between Erfurt and Leipzig/Halle to rail traffic. According to information from German public radio/TV MDR, the ceremony featured two special ICE-T trains, carrying invited guests, travelling side-by-side from Erfurt to its final destination in Leipzig, where they were greeted by hundreds of people including those involved in the 2.9 billion Euro project. “The new ICE line is a gift for the 25-years of German unity,” said Merkel at the ceremony in Leipzig. Thuringian minister Bodo Ramelow considered this day a historic one and the line would turn Thuringia into a economic hub.  The Erfurt-Leipzig/Halle line is part of the project to connect Berlin and Munich via Erfurt and the Thuringian Forest, and the northern part is half of the two-part project, which will start serving passengers beginning on Sunday. The southern part from Erfurt to Nuremberg via Suhl is expected to be completed in 2017, even though all of the bridges and tunnels have been completed already.

The opening of the northern half of the new line will mark the beginning of the end of long-distance train service for Weimar, Naumburg and Jena, for Weimar will lose its ICE stop by year’s end and will have InterCity trains stopping in the city. Jena and Naumburg will still have their ICE stops until the end of 2017. Afterwards InterCity trains are expected to serve the two cities with Jena-Göschwitz train station to become Jena Central Station and serving InterCity lines between Karlsruhe and Leipzig (after 2023) and between Chemnitz/Gera and Cologne (after 2017). Also planned after 2017 is ICE to Berlin from Jena twice a day. The cities will also lose its night train network, as Die Bahn plans to decommision the City Night Line service altogether by 2017. A CNL line connecting Prague and Berlin with Basel and Zurich runs through Naumburg, Weimar and Erfurt. Whether another international line connecting Paris and Moscow via Erfurt will use the new line or the old one remains open.

 

Halle(Saale) Central Station. Photo taken in Dec. 2015
Halle(Saale) Central Station. Photo taken in Dec. 2015

Here are some interesting facts to know about the northern half of the ICE line between Erfurt and Leipzig/Halle:

  1. The new rail line is 123 kilometers long, which is half the distance needed with the older line going through Weimar and Naumburg
  2. One can reach Leipzig in 40 minutes and Halle (Saale) in 35. This is half to a third as long as with the old line, counting the stops, regardless of what type of long-distance train used.
  3. The trip to Berlin from Frankfurt (Main) is reduced by up to 50 minutes.
  4. ICE Trains travelling the new line can maximize their speed to 300 kilometers/hour (187 miles/hour)
  5. The opening of the line will also usher in the ICE-Sprinter connecting Berlin with Frankfurt with stops in either Erfurt or Leipzig. Before, the Sprinter travelled north to Hanover before heading east to the German capital.
  6. Seven bridges and two tunnels serve the new line. The longest tunnel is the Finnetunnel, which is 6.9 kilometers long and located at the border between Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt near Bad Bibra. The longest bridge is the Saale/Elster Viaduct, located south of Halle (Saale) near Schkopau. The 8.5 kilometer long bridge features a 6.4 kilometer long viaduct (Leipzig-bound) crossing the two rivers and the 2.1 kilometer long branch viaduct going to Halle (Saale). The viaduct is the longest of its kind in Europe.
  7. Freight trains can also use the new line, but will be restricted to night time use only due to less train traffic.
  8. Die Bahn plans to install a automated man-less train system on the line in the future- most likely when the entire line is finished in 2017. Basically, trains would be operated automatically from the train stations, and can stop automatically when problems arises. The Shinkansen high-speed train in Japan is the only system known to have this function.
  9. Citizens in Halle (Saale) will benefit from the connection as its train station is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.
  10. The opening will mark the total completion of the renovation of Leipzig Central Station, which included an underground tunnel connecting the station with the Bavarian railway station south of the city, and the introduction and expansion of the City Lines (S-bahn) connecting the city with Bitterfeld, Halle, Geitahin, Altenberg and Zwickau.
  11. The opening of the line will also usher in the introduction of the Abellio train service to serve Erfurt and points to the east. Abellio is owned by the Dutch Rail Services.

 

Erfurt Central Station after the snow storm in December 2010
Erfurt Central Station after the snow storm in December 2010

More information on the ICE-Trains can be found here. Otherwise, here’s a question for our travellers: which is better: train lines that get you to your destination directly without any chance of seeing much of the view because of speed and time or train lines with stops in between to provide some scenic views? It depends on which line has to offer, but what is your view?

 

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The Fight to Save Fehmarn Island from Progress

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Co-produced with sister column The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles

FEHMARN, GERMANY-   Last fall, the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles did a segment on the preservation of the Fehmarn Bridge, the first bridge in the world that carries the now popular basket-handle tied arch bridge span. The battle is part of the series where residents of Fehmarn Island are fighting with both the German and Danish governments to stop a project where the Migratory Bird Route, connecting Hamburg and Copenhagen, would be widened- both the highway and the railway. This includes new bridges to replace the Fehmarn Bridge and a tunnel on the opposite end connecting Puttgarden (D) and Rodby (DK). And lastly an industrial areal was planned for the island.  Unfortunately, despite the Areal being blocked earlier this year, the European Union, according to reports from the BBC, has given Denmark the green light to start the construction of the tunnel, by providing 589 million Euros in the next four years for the project.

Yet while the Danes are prepared to start work beginning this fall, residents of the island and the surrounding area along the Baltic Sea coast are up in arms against the project and have started their own initiative to stop the project.

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Tourists and locals have seen the blue X’es popping up in neighborhoods, along highways and beaches and even in the skies between Hamburg and Lübeck and the island itself. The Blue-X Initiative was adopted by the groups Preserve Fehmarn and Beltretter, with the purpose of showing support for preserving the island and stopping the project from taking place. Almost one in every three households have this on their lawns as a way of demonstrating solidarity against the project. And there are many reasons for this initiative:

1. The construction of the tunnel would coincide with the expansion of the highway and rail line going through the island as well as the construction of the new Fehmarn Bridge, resulting in the island becoming a construction site. As small as the island is, and with the economy being dependent almost solely on tourism, analysts predict a loss of up to 800 million Euros (or close to $1 billion) in revenue during the time of the construction because of loss of tourism and commerce, plus additional money to improve the island’s imagery once the project was completed, which could take years to complete.

2. The project would involve a loss of sensitive vegetation and marine life that would be immense and possible irreplaceable. This includes the plan to scrap the underground tunnel similar to the Euro-Tunnel connecting France and Great Britain in favor of one above the sea floor, similar to the Oresund Bridge and Tunnel between Copenhagen and Malmö (Sweden), which could be devastating to marine life alone. The width of the construction area between Puttgarden and Fehmarn Bridge would average approximately five kilometers. The maximum width of the island is only 21.8 kilometers- and this given the size of the land to be 185 squared kilometers!

3. Some discreptancies in the environmental and economic impact surveys conducted by Denmark have resulted in rechecking the figures. Alone with the economic impact survey released in January 2015 led to a debate on the credibility of both the Danish government, the conglomerate spearheading the tunnel initiative Fehmarn A/S, and even the European Union. While both Denmark and the EU claim that the new crossings would produce a revenue of 4-5% of the gross domestic product in the region or approximately 3.48 billion Euros ($5.5 billion), other surveys indicate that the loss of revenue through construction combined with years of recovery, the new crossing would net an annual loss of 6.7 billion Euros ($8.2 billion). For the residents on the island, the risk would be too high to take.

4. While there is a one-track rail line that is suitable for transport between Hamburg and Copenhagen including the time needed to cross via ferry, there is another border crossing at Flensburg and Padborg, where they feature a freeway and a two-track rail line connecting Hamburg with Aarhus with a arm going to Copenhagen via Odense. At the present time, improvements are being made in the Flensburg area to make the crossing more attractive. While the logic behind expanding the line through Fehmarn is there, little do government authorities realize that Fehmarn is a vacation and natural area whose need for a freeway/ two-track crossing on both ends of the island would devastate the natural habitat and impact tourism negatively. In other words, better to go through Flensburg if you wish to stay on the freeway going to Denmark and not stop to go swimming.

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While officials in Denmark are preparing to start building the tunnel from the Rodby end, officials in Germany are in the process of discussing the project with many parties involved. This after the application for the construction of the new Fehmarn Bridge, new freeway and tunnel was submitted to the state ministry of transport. The communities affected will have a meeting in September, followed by the environmental groups, including BeltRetter in November and residents affected by the construction afterwards. The ministry will then review the opinions and information provided by those affected before making their decision- a process that could take up to a year.  Proponents of the project have already received a backing from The German Railways (The Bahn) and German Minister of Transport Alexander Dobrindt, the former wanting to expand and electrify its rail line to run more ICE-Trains on there.

But with the opposition towards the project crystalizing and spreading beyond the region, problems will most likely excaberbate over the course of two years, especially when the blue X’es sprout up everywhere making the area as blue as possible. Since blue is the sign of clear water, the water people deserve to swim in and marine life to inhabit, it also is a sign of preserving things as they are. With more initiatives coming up and more support pouring in, there is a chance that the project could be stalled further or even scrapped. If this is the case, then there will still be some work to be done with its current infrastructure to keep it up to date, but residents will breathe a sign of relief, for having a mega-highway for the sake of expanding commerce is not necessarily what they want. In fact with all of information on the negative impacts, combined with questions involving the credibility of the sources, this project in the end will do more harm to the region than good. This is something no one is willing to gamble on.

The Flensburg Files and the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles are proud to support the initiative to preserve Fehmarn Island and its places of interest. Both columns will provide you with further updates on the latest involving the project. If you wish to take part in the initiative and want to donate for the right cause, please click on the following links. There you have information on how you can help.

Beltretter

Bewahrt Fehmarn (Preserve Fehmarn)

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Special thanks to Mirko Kaminski for the use of the photos, as well as Karin Neumann and Hendrick Kerlen for their help in contributing some valuable information for this story.   

Und Täglich Grüß die Bahn (Groundhog Day with German Railways)

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The lounge of the train station in the town of Zeitz, located in Saxony-Anhalt. Its charm resembles the German Democratic Republic, yet it has seen its better days with peeling wall paper, empty platforms and even the lounge that is empty, with the exception of two people talking about the better days before the Wall fell. Yet despite its emptiness, the trains are still running- ableit privately.

Two rail lines are owned by two different train companies with no affiliation with the German Railways (Dt.: Die Bahn), one connecting Weissenfels and Zeitz (via Burgerland Bahn) and another between Leipzig and Saalfeld via Gera (via Erfurter Bahn). Private railways, like the buses, are becoming more and more competitive because of their attractiveness and the ability to get passengers to their destinations in a timely manner. With the German Railways striking again, it will become obvious that once an agreement is finally made, they will lose more customers and most likely, more rail lines will become privatized.

As this goes to the press, the train drivers (or engineers) who are operating the trains are on strike for the seventh time. 60% of the long-distance InterCity and ICE trains have slashed their services until Thursday evening, the regional trains by 50%. This is the second time since November that the state-owned rail service is on strike.  The latest strike is starting to resemble the scenes from an American film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell, which was filmed in 1993. For those who don’t know the plot of the film, the sneak preview below will help you:

The German public TV station NDR, based in Hamburg produced a parody of Groundhog Day in connection with the strike in 2008. While it has been awhile, the latest strike is becoming like the film that has found a place in American culture, used in the classroom to refresh one’s English skills and provide a whiff of what American life is like:

If you want to learn German, this is the place to do it.  😉

The main question lingering everybody right now is: How many more strikes like this will we have before an agreement between the worker’s union GDL and Die Bahn is finally made and sticks like concrete. Will the workers be happy with their new contract, or will we have more strikes? If the latter, we will see more privatized rail lines and buses going through communities in Germany and less of Die Bahn, resulting in (near) empty train stations and platforms like this:

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Think about it……

 

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Niklas Blows Through Germany

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High Winds Causes Downed Trees, Hinders Train Services, Causes Damages to Buildings

Bikers being blown off by high winds, high waves causing local flooding and damages, flying carousels, and trains eating fallen trees pretty much sums up a day in total chaos throughout Germany and central Europe yesterday, as the storm Niklas blew through the region, with winds gusting up to 190 km/ph or 100 mph. Many downed trees and flying debris caused damage to overhead powerlines on rail lines, thus bringing rail service to a standstill in many parts of the countries. In Bavaria, Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia, rail service was suspended completely, forcing many trains to stop at the nearest train stations and personnel to provide lodging possibilities for tens of thousands of stranded commuters. In Lower Saxony, one regional train was unable to stop in time to avoid a falling tree. In many cities, such as Munich and Berlin, light rail (S-bahn) services were halted. High winds also caused many semis and even cars to flip over on German autobahns, causing many to be closed for long periods of time. Flights in and out of Frankfurt and other cities were cancelled due to high winds. Even some festivals, like the annual city market in Flensburg, were called off due to flying debris and high waves.  Snow was reported in the northern half of Germany, in places like Rostock and Hamburg. The storm is believed to be one of the worst in recent history, comparing it to the storm Kyril, which devastated many parts of Europe in February 2007. There, high winds and torrential rainfall caused extensive damage, power outages in entire cities, like Magdeburg (in Saxony-Anhalt), and the first-ever shut down of rail service and highways on a federal level.

While the winds have now subsided a bit today, Easter here in Germany and parts of Europe is not looking good for any children wanting to hunt for Easter eggs. Snow, rain and winds are expected through the weekend, thus creating the possibility of a white Easter for the third time in four years. Better get the Bing Crosby song out for Easter Sunday, because “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christ- ma; Oh wait! Ea-ster!” 😉

Wishing you safe travels and make the best of Easter despite Old Man Winter’s attempt to try and ruin it!

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The Flensburg Files has compiled a list of links taking you to the galleries, where you can see the damage done by Niklas. The sources are below:

http://www.shz.de/schleswig-holstein/panorama/sturm-ueber-deutschland-orkan-niklas-in-bildern-id9357301.html

http://www.dw.de/germanys-storm-niklas-one-of-the-biggest-in-years/g-18351411?maca=en-Facebook-dwde

http://www.ndr.de/nachrichten/Niklas-zieht-ab-Zuege-fahren-wieder,sturm1526.html

http://www.br.de/nachrichten/unwetter-sturm-bayern-niklas-100.html

 

 

 

Fehmarn Island Spared from Industrial Areal

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Burgstaaken (Fehmarn) at Sundown. Photo taken in 2014

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Burg (Fehmarn)-  In the last 20 years, attempts have been made to turn the largest island in Germany, located northeast of Oldenburg in Schleswig-Holstein at the border to Denmark, into an industrial area, especially in the northern half of the island. And since last summer, a petition was made to put the proposal up to vote, which was granted on March 8. The question was whether profits from the new industrial area would make sense or whether it is best to keep the island as is and feed its profits from tourism and environmentalism. In other words, do they want the industry or not.

The majority spoke for the latter- and by an enormous number of votes!

Voters on the 8th voted unanimously to reject the proposal by the conglomerate Baltic FS to establish an industrial area in the northern part of the island with an average vote of two thirds favoring the annullment of the agreement with the firm and less than a third for the agreement. The plan would have allowed companies to establish their facilities on 15 acres of land between Puttgarden and Marienleuchte, which would have resulted in the widening of the Migratory Route (Vogellinie) between Hamburg and Lübeck to the south and Copenhagen in the north.  The majority that voted against the proposal were concerned about the increase in air and noise pollution caused by the establishment of several small firms as well as the subsequential increase in traffic, and that the environmentally sensitive region would sustain significant damage as a result. Proponents of the proposal wanted additional revenue to that coming from the tourism section, which is the main source of income. Yet because of the haste in planning by Baltic FS combined with questions about the affects of the Areal being answered vaguely or even left out, the majority of the residents of Fehmarn voted to cut the cord on the deal. The proposal, according to the news source Fehmarn Heiligenhafen is now on ice for at least two years, but attempts are being made by the Initiative Bewahrt Fehmarn (Preserve Fehmarn) to ensure that the Areal plan is off the table for good, together with the widening of the Vogellinie route and with that, a new bridge over the Fehmarn Sound to the south west of Burgstaaken and a new tunnel to the north at Puttgarden. Should this plan be successful, it is most likely that the Areal may be scrapped or even relocated. The Danish town of Rodby in Lolland may be the best place for the district, if the latter is proposed, given its strategic location.

 

Fehmarn Tunnel and Bridge on Ice?

In addition to the good news regarding the Areal, work on the Fehmarn Tunnel between Puttgarden and Rodby (Denmark) as well as the proposal for building a new Fehmarn Bridge between Burgstaaken and mainland Germany has been stalled for political reasons. According to sources from the Lübecker Nachricht newspaper as well as from the Initiative Bewarht Fehmarn, work on the new 18-kilometer long tunnel will most likely start in 2018 with the completion being in 2024. This will be three years later than scheduled. Reason for the delay is the debate on the future of the Fehmarn Bridge on the south end. According to an article produced by sister column The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, the 1963 basket-weave tied arch bridge was the very first bridge of its kind built, setting the stage for several more similar structures that have been built since then and three more to be built in the next five years; one of which is the Levansau Bridge west of Kiel. The German Railways (Die Bahn), owners of the bridge, wants two new bridges- one for railway traffic and one for the motorway and relieve its duties in maintaining the bridge- possibly even tearing it down. Residents are against the proposal for the bridge as it is one of the main icons of the island, plus it would mean residents losing acres of land and pollution setting in from an increase in traffic. While the tunnel proposal is on the table, it has not been etched in stone due to opposition and costs for the project, which politicians in Berlin are debating. While the bridge is expected to handle traffic for another 30 years at the most, according to sources, work is underway to determine what needs to be done with the bridge to prolong its life further, while at the same time ensure that the island does not witness an increase in volume of traffic through the tunnel or three-bridge solution and with that, the conversion of the two-lane road into a motorway, something the majority of residents are opposed to.

More on the Fehmarn Bridge you’ll find via Bridgehunter’s Chronicles by clicking on the logo below:

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The Flensburg Files and its sister column will keep you informed on the developments in the Fehmarn Region. Yet the Initiative Bewahrt Fehmarn needs your help and support. For more on how to help, please go to their facebook page and contact the people involved to see how you can help.

 

German Railways on strike- again!

An empty Flensburg Railway Station. No train driver, no trains, but many infuriated passengers, even if none are seen here.

Third union strike in two months. Longest strike in the history of Die Bahn. Court decision on the legality of the strike.

Travellers heading to Berlin for this weekend’s 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall may have to look at alternatives to train travel. Since this yesterday at 4:00pm, the train engineers are on strike, which has put most of the train service at a standstill in all of Germany. This strike is unique for two reasons: 1. This is the third strike in two months and 2. This strike is expected to last five days total (four days for passenger service), which is the longest in the history of the German Railways (a.k.a. Die Bahn).  The cause: The arbitration talks between the worker’s union GDL and Die Bahn broke down after the latter rejected demands of the former calling for a wage hike of five percent and a reduction of working hours a week to 37 hours.

The strike has reduced train travel throughout Germany to an average of 30%. This does not include the private railroad providers that are not affected by the strike. Yet this unprecedented strike has caused widespread anger among passengers, industry leaders and even politicians in Berlin. Chancellor Angela Merkel has demanded that both sides hold talks to end the strike as quickly as possible. It is already having a rippling affect on the economy, already predicted to stagnate come 2015 because of problems throughout the European Union. Analysts are predicting a loss of over 100 million Euros a day, while gas companies are predicting fuel shortages as early as Sunday as many motorists hit the roads to either celebrate in Berlin or in the case of school children  in Bremen and Lower Saxony, return home from vacation.  An injunction is being sought by Die Bahn to end the strikes, with the decision by the Labor Court in Frankfurt/Main to be made this afternoon German time.

Even if the strike ends on Monday at 2:00am, should the Court in Frankfurt rule in favor of GDL, it will eventually force Die Bahn create tougher measures to make striking more difficult to even impossible, it will most likely start a debate in Berlin on the possibility of reforming the strike laws so that they are not used excessively, as is the case with GDL. While the concept is widely known in the US, the idea of Strikebreakers- people who work despite the strikes- will most likely be considered to ensure that train service runs. In either case, with two thirds of the German population being dependent on train travel for holiday travel or commuting to work, this strike will serve as a wake-up call for all parties involved, including those working in Frankfurt and Berlin, that changes in policies regarding employee and employer relations are long overdue. Especially for even if a compromise is reached or the GDL has it their way, the Bahn may have to shed more rail lines to private rail firms, such as Abiello, Cantus, ODEG or even Metronome in order to break even financially. This is something that Die Bahn cannot afford.

Please refer to ARD and Deutsche Welle for more on the Strike. Articles on the Strike can also be found on the Files’ facebook pages.

 

Christmas Market Tour 2013: Berlin Potsdamer Platz

Left to right: Daimler, Kohlhoff and Deutsche Bahn/ Sony Center Towers. Christmas market in the foreground. Photos taken in December 2013

Our final stop on the Christmas market tour in Berlin- Mitte is Potsdamer Platz. Located one kilometer west of Brandenburg Gate, this square is one of the most highly developed areas in Mitte, most of which being constructed in the former West Berlin.  This is the spot where several hotels were located. It was also the busiest intersection in the city prior to World War II, as roads coming from Potsdam Mitte, and other points met here. This is one of the reasons why the first traffic light in Europe was built in 1924. A replica of the light, which functions as a clock, still occupies this point to this day.  After World War II, the area was completely in ruins, only to be cut in half by the Berlin Wall, when it was built in 1961. For 28 years, Potsdamer Platz was known as “No Man’s Land,” because of the Wall, as it was over 2 km wide, and the land was barren, filled with traps, patrolmen and watch towers.  Despite it being one of the death traps, Potsdamer Platz was one of the first places to be breached, when the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November, 1989, and the gates were open, allowing many East Germans to flee to the western part of Berlin and Germany.

Construction started in 1991 to reshape the square, which included the construction of buildings that housed Daimler Corporation, German Railways and Kohlhoff, as well as the Sony Center- where the German version of the Academy Awards for Films takes place annually- and the Arkade Shopping center, which features multiple stories of shops including those underground. It proceeded at a snail’s pace not only because of the competition among designers and builders on how to reshape the square, but also the stagnation of the German economy as a result of the costs involving Reunification. Germany was in a recession for two years (1993-4), which hampered Helmut Kohl’s chances of reelection as German chancellor in 1994. He won the elections anyway for a fourth term but lost out on his fifth chance to Gerhard Schröder in 1998. When visiting Potsdamer Platz in 2000, it was still a construction zone, with much left to do.

Fast forward to the present: there are no traces left of the Berlin Wall, let alone the cranes and diggers that had dominated the scene for 15 years until 2006. Instead, we have three skyscrapers, an Entertainment Quarter which includes Sony Center, many modernized residential areas with stretches of greenery to the east. Since 2006, Potsdamer Platz has served as a regional hub for rail, subway and light rail traffic, the first being part of the North-South Axis connecting Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof with points to the south, including Südkreuz Station. In fact, when walking up the stairs from the underground stations, one will see the three skyscrapers, with the Christmas market in front of them.

Interconnected with the Christmas market at Sony Center, the main theme of the Christmas market at Potsdamer Platz is: Lights! Camera! Action!  With hundreds of thousands of lights shining in the complex, the best time to visit the market is at night, where the complex and the Sony Center is lit up, creating the oohs and aahs among those who love taking night photography while beating the crowd. One can enjoy the specialties from Austria, in particular Salzburg at the huts located in front of the Kohlhoff Tower.  Mininature skiing and ice skating are also found next to one of the Salzburger huts for children wanting to have fun in the night light. Yet most of these activities can be found in the evening for it is the best time.

One of the huts serving Salzburger Delikatesse

As far as visiting the market in daylight is concerned, not much activity is seen, for only a handful of huts serving drinks and food are open, whereas others are closed until 5pm in the evening. While it may serve as a temporary stop for business people to eat and drink something for lunch, it is an inconvenience for those wanting to beat the rush of the crowd that most likely will visit the market from 6pm on, making the visit to the market among the crowd of people difficult. Alone the market itself is the place that is open the longest, hosting the festival of lights from the end of November until right before the Day of Epiphany (January 6th)- a good strategy for businesses wanting to profit from the passers-by. Yet the customer is king, and perhaps a combination of a pair of measures could max out the profits:

1. Opening the market beginning at 3:30 or 4:00pm would provide people beating the rush with a chance to tour the lights and enjoy the specialties before the normal crowd comes around. This is during the time the sun sets and presents the photographer with a chance to photograph the lights at sundown.

2. Utilize the green space for expansion. While the green area is most likely occupied by people in the summer months as they can enjoy the breeze and the sunlight, it is also useful during the time of the Christmas market where huts could utilize the space and move the crowd away from the traffic that passes through the hub. Sometimes sacrificing the space for a month for a purpose like the Christmas market can save lives as people don’t have to worry about cars speeding past. Cooperation from residents and businesses would be key in embarking on this idea.

Overview of the Market at Potsdamer Platz in daylight. Almost desolate in the daytime, yet at night…..

Overall, while the market is a quick stop for lunch for businessmen and tourists, the Christmas Market at Potsdam is clearly a night market, for the main attraction are the lights, which bring photographers and tourists together at night. Yet one has to find the best time to see it without having to fight the crowd. Therefore, come to the place early to take advantage of what it has to offer. 🙂

Photos of the Christmas market can be found here and here. Information about the history of Potsdamer Platz can be found here. Information about the Salzburger specialty foods can be found here.

 

FAST FACT POP QUIZ:

 

1. We wanted to know from you how many Christmas markets Berlin has. Without further ado: here is the answer:

109

There is a total of 109 Christmas markets in the greater Berlin area. Of which 5 are in Potsdam and 20 are located in Mitte, including the ones mentioned in the Christmas market series. If we continue with the tour of Berlin’s other Christmas market, it would take 5-8 years to visit and profile 10-15 of them. A tall order and one can only recommend the ones that are popular among people of all ages. 😉

 

2. In connection with the Christmas Market at Alexanderplatz, have a look at the picture again on the right-hand side. Any guesses what that is?

Look at the object on the right hand side of the picture and try and answer the question.

 

Here’s the answer:

The Urania World Clock

The clock was developed by Erich John  in 1969 and was part of the plan to redesign Alexanderplatz, which included the construction of the TV Tower. The clock features all 24 time zones and operates dependent on the rotation of the Earth around the sun. The aluminum clock is 2 meters tall and can be seen from the light rail tracks. More information on the clock can be found here.

 

 

Flensburg Files News Flyer 29 November, 2011

It’s Christmas time and with that come the Christmas Markets, the Glühwein, the Presents, and lots of events that have been going on the last few days, which warrants the Flensburg Files News Flyer- designed to provide the readers with a chance to find out more on what is going on in Germany that is not normally seen in the media mainstream. Themes like this one may be of some interest to you:

 

Yes to Stuttgart 21

After five years of protests, legal action and campaigns which involved virtually everyone on all levels of government, the citizens of Stuttgart made their point clear at the polls on Sunday: they would like to finally go forward with Stuttgart 21 once and for all.  According to the final polls, over 48.2% of the people voted for the project, while 41.8% were against the project. That means the German Railways can proceed with the construction project, consisting of 20km of underground rail line with an underground central railway station located underneath the present-day railway station located above ground. When completed in 2021, the old railroad station, which currently sees 240,000 passengers going through every day, will be converted into residential areas, and thus will help ease the housing crisis the city has been seeing in the last decade. The project started in 2002, but was met with delays due to protests because of increasing costs of the project combined with concerns that the environmental surroundings combined with much of the city’s historic buildings would be destroyed in the process. The project has involved not only the local and state governments but even the federal government in Berlin, whose majority of the politicians favor the underground station. The prime minister of Baden-Wurttemberg Winfried Kretschmann was even against the project but favored a public referendum. While he has accepted the decision, it does not come with no strings attached- the costs for the project must be capped at 4.5 bn Euros ($5.1 bn).

Links: http://www.mdr.de/nachrichten/stuttgarteinundzwanzig100.html;

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,15561178,00.html;

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stuttgart_21;

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stuttgart_Hauptbahnhof

 

http://www.bahnhof.de/site/bahnhoefe/de/sued/stuttgart__hbf/daten__und__fakten/daten__und__fakten__.html

Guttenberg pardoned for plagiarism; eyes comeback in 2013

In a decision which has raised eyebrows of many who question its legitimacy and morality, the prosecution has decided not to press charges against the former defense minister, Karl Theodore zu Guttenberg. While the University of Bayreuth stripped him of his doctorate title in March of this year because of the 23 passages he did not cite in his dissertation, the prosecution considered these counts a misdemeanor. That combined with his donation of 20,000 Euros (more than $26,000) to a charitable organization led to the decision of not starting the legal proceedings against him. Guttenberg is currently residing in the USA with his family, but is eyeing a political comeback in 2013, the same year as the federal elections in Germany. Whether it will help Angela Merkel in her bid to be reelected as German chancellor remains to be seen. But the public seems divided on his decision to return to politics; especially as many of his fellow colleagues from his own party, the Christian Socialist Union have been pursued for similar charges. More on this story will follow.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl-Theodor_zu_Guttenberg;

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,15550956,00.html

 

Dynamo Dresden Mistreated by the German Soccer Federation for Hooligan Incident

Soccer coaches, sports experts and even directors of regional soccer leagues have been heatedly criticizing the DFB, the soccer federation in charge of the top three leagues in German soccer, for harshly punishing the soccer team that is currently playing in the second highest league (Zweitliga). The  federation recently sanctioned the team located in eastern Saxony by banning them from next year’s DFB soccer playoffs for allowing hooligans to be out of control during the playoff game against Borussia Dortmund, the game which the team lost. In addition, the team was also fined in the tens of thousands of Euros.  Many experts consider the punishment too harsh, yet problems involving hooligans and their actions during the soccer game; especially in the eastern part of Germany has resulted in harsher measures in an attempt to crack down and teach the teams a lesson on sportsmanship among players and fans. While fines and barring fans from attending games have been effective, this sanction, harsh or not, may be one of many measures that could be the norm in the future should the problem with hooligans persist, together with subtracting points off the standings board in soccer and possibly forcing the team to be relegated a league down, the latter of which has not happened just yet.

Link: http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,15506337,00.html

 

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,15492412,00.html

http://www.dfb.de/index.php?id=503058&action=showSchema&lang=D&liga=dfbpokm&saison=11&saisonl=2011&spieltag=2&spielid=1011&cHash=cf8f91551a43c946258aad946166df0f

http://www.mdr.de/sport/fussball_bl/dynamo-reaktion100.html

 

Jena proving its reputation of being a cosmopolitan city

Located east of Erfurt and Weimar in eastern Thuringia, Jena is not only known for its optical industry (for it is home to Jenoptik and Carl Zeiss) but to the eyes of many foreigners (Americans included) the city of 120,000 inhabitants (20,000 being students) is known as the black hole- once you visit the city tucked away in the Saale River Valley, you do not want to leave. However according to the German public TV station ZDF in a recent documentary, the city is home to right-wing extremists; especially four terrorists who are in custody for 10 counts of murder of several foreigners and a police officer. In an interview with an author from Munich, who wrote a book on this topic, it was concluded that the university city is part of the fear zone, which has plagued the eastern half of the country, and a spawning point for potential neo-Nazis. This reportage has angered the city so much that a petition is being carried out demanding that ZDF retract its comments about Jena and apologize to the city or it is done for them by the German government, which owns the channel together with ARD. Furthermore, a concert to help the city fight right-wing extremism is taking place this Friday with many celebrities taking part, including Peter Maffay and Udo Lindenberg, where tens of thousands are expected to attend. The Flensburg Files will cover the topic of right-wing extremism in 2012 to determine which part of Germany is worse regarding neo-Nazis: the western or eastern parts of the country. While the eastern part of the country has seen its share of attacks committed by neo-Nazis, reports of the rise of neo-Nazis and attacks and parties have been reported in Bavaria and northern parts of the country in the past 2 years. Furthermore from the author’s experience living in Jena, the city has been more open to foreigners than in other cities its size in the eastern part of Germany and has zero tolerance to right-wing extremism. It even chased the neo-Nazis out of the city many times for trying to host the Festival of the People (Dt.: Fest der Völker), at least three times until the decision was made to host the event elsewhere in 2007.  And contrary to the pictures shown by the media, there are some bright spots to Jena that others do not see, some of which will be presented in photos when the Flensburg Files does a tour of the Christmas markets this year.

Links to the story: http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,15563635,00.html;

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,6659757,00.html;

http://www.mdr.de/brisant/zwickauer-trio204_zc-d3f5b083_zs-199ad683.html;

http://www.tagesspiegel.de/medien/zdf-macht-osten-zur-no-go-area/5888310.html

 

http://www.jenapolis.de/2011/11/wir-erwarten-eine-offentliche-entschuldigung-des-zdf-mindestens-bei-allen-burgern-jenas/

 

Sebastian Vettel wins Formula 1

For the second year in a row, we have a German champion in Formula One car racing. Sebastian Vettel took the crown despite his second place finish in the last race of the season in Brazil. Born in Heppenheim (near Frankfurt/Main), Vettel started his career early in 2007, having won his first championship last year, the first German to do that since Michael Schumacher won his last championship in 2001. This year, Vettel smashed many records, among them, having started at pole position 15 times, one greater than Nigel Mansell in 1992, and winning eleven out of 15 in 16 races this season. He also recorded an unprecidented 122 points, putting the competition in the dust.  Congratulations to Vettel and may you start another long streak of championships like your former counterpart did.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sebastian_Vettel

 

Neuner considers early retirement

It is very rare to see a sportsman retire in the mid to late 20s to even early 30s unless you are Randy Moss, the wide receiver who played for five American football teams, including the Minnesota Vikings and the New England Patriots. Perhaps Magdalena Neuner can learn from his example of when to say when, as the biathlete from Garmisch-Partenkirchen (located in the Alps south of Munich) is considering retirement after the 2011-12 season. The reason for this decision is her will to pursue other interests. While the decision is not yet final, the 24-year old, like Randy Moss, has won several championships on the national and international levels, including 24 World-Cup gold medals, finishing in the top three 45 times and won two Gold medals in last year’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Yet health issues combined with interest in doing other things in life has gotten her to consider her future beyond this season. Should Neuner decide to call it quits after this season, then it would definitely be on a high note as one of the most successful biathletes in the history of winter sports. Best of luck to you no matter what your decision will be.

Links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magdalena_Neuner#Olympic_Games

http://www.augsburger-allgemeine.de/sport/Magdalena-Neuner-startet-in-den-Weltcup-und-denkt-ans-Aufhoeren-id17729071.html

 

 

Note from the Author: The Christmas Markets have started already throughout all of Germany, and this means a tour of some of the finest towns with the best markets with the goal of attracting many tourist-wannabes to the region the next time they consider a flight to Germany. The Flensburg Files has a couple in mind that are worth visiting and will post Jason’s Pics during the month of September. Where exactly? It’s being kept a secret for now, but you’ll see once they are out in the public open. Stay tuned….

More Personell for the Customers, Please!

 

Typical at a station like the one in Flensburg: Empty ticket counter not in use (left) and ticket machines with a 50% functionality rate (right) Photo taken in May 2010

It is a nightmare of every passenger travelling by train; especially those who commute between towns on a daily basis: A person rushes to the train to catch it, for he has an important meeting with clients at his company- catching it in the last second before the doors close- and not having the time to pick up a ticket at the train station. It is a regio-train and the German railways (a.k.a. Die Bahn or DB) had just installed ticket machines to ensure that everyone is obliged to buy a ticket- only to find that the ticket machine does not work. He panics as he sees the ticket controller come by to check and stamp tickets. As a general rule, ticket controllers also have the right to sell tickets to passengers unable to buy tickets at the station or in the ticket machines, right?

Not this one! The person asks for a ticket only to be asked: “Personal ID, right now!” Why? “You travelled without a ticket and that means 40 Euros for being a stowaway!” You react objectively by saying “Wait a minute! The ticket machine is kaput! How the h*** am I supposed to buy a ticket on this train if the machine does not work?” Then the responses that followed justified that 40 Euros was a necessity to “teach everyone a lesson”- to buy a ticket before boarding the train; whether it is “You ran past me and said ‘s***!’ in the process,” or “You should have bought a ticket at another station,” or my favorite excuse “You should have smelled that you were going to be late and waited for another train, so that you can buy a ticket!” (This is a very raw translation of “Sie hätten es riechen sollen, Ihren Zug zu verpassen und auf den nächsten zu warten!”) Now how is someone supposed to assume that he/she is going to be late and plan ahead of time, let alone explain to the boss why the person is late because of the trains?

One will think that these excuses are made up, but sadly, these are real-life scenarios that I and other passengers have been dealing with ever since the German Railways introduced the concept of having ticket machines do the work for the passengers instead of the personnel themselves in 2008.  7 in 10 passengers have complained about the ticket machines not working and the ticket personnel being snarky at those unfortunate not to buy a ticket before or wanting to buy one shortly after boarding the regio-trains. Before I elaborate further, the regio-trains refer to not only the RB trains which stops at every single train station and stop, even in Timbuktu, whereas the RE (Regio-Express) stops at cities with 10,000 or more inhabitants, whose stations are the main points to get on. Even worse is the fact that one arbitrarily finds a ticket machine on the train. It is not customary to have a ticket machine in a Regio-Express train for it provides cramped space and some areas where they should be installed are reserved for bicycles and baby carriages only. And even then, these spaces are limited. While ticket machines can be found in one out of three Regio-trains (99% in diesel trains), there is only one per train and the functions are questionable. That means, the process of obtaining a ticket is too bureaucratic and the machines are choosy at accepting certain forms of payment. 3 in 4 reject debit cards, leaving many passengers scrambling to muster up the remaining lunch money they have to buy a ticket for their destination.

One would think that if these problems persist and there are more people travelling by train than by car that the DB would think about dollars and sense and hire more personnel to improve its quality of service. After all, the customer is king and their wishes should be respected. But unfortunately, the DB, like many companies, is trying to work for profit and efficiency and not for the benefit of the customer. This includes shortening the time needed to travel from one point to another- including the time needed for passengers to get on and off the trains, focusing on the profitable lines and abandoning the others that might get passengers to their destinations more quickly, having porters and ticket agents on the train to assist in luggage and selling tickets, providing more space for bikes, baby carriages and EVEN ticket machines, and lastly not having enough people with computer knowledge to maintain these machines. While the information age is making service faster and more efficient, there seems to be a loss of attention to the customers and their needs. While the Occupy Wall Street protests have spread to many financial institutions and the governments because of their corruptive ways of doing business with clients and the public, it would not be surprising if many disgruntled passengers decide to take their frustration out on DB and occupy their headquarters in Berlin and other important offices in Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg, just to name a few. It is just a question of one incident that will cause passengers to snap and the German networks of ARD and ZDF will be broadcasting the protests as early as January of next year.

More personell for the station and the trains, please! Stations like the one in Flensburg could use it, as with the trains. Photo taken in April 2011

It is time that the DB starts rethinking the way they do business with the customers. The easiest and most viable solution is to have more personnel in the trains, not just to check on the tickets, but also to sell them to those who could not buy them at the station because the ticket machines do not work or are full of passengers wanting to reach their destinations. The fine system should remain in place for those who refuse to buy a ticket and board the train as a stowaway, but should be more objective- not subjective and for the purpose of milking more away from those who can barely afford to buy a ticket. If the board of directors of DB insist that the ticket machines are the most effective way of providing passengers with tickets, then there should be more people with IT experience to ensure that the problems are fixed and the machines are back in service as quickly as possible. We are seeing more and more people studying IT at various universities and technical colleges who are looking for a job after graduation and therefore, that source should be tapped so that they have some experience with computers. Yet having train station personnel at the functioning train stations working in shifts can also improve service and make travelling by train less complicated, even for the commuter dependent on daily train travel.

But until reforms to improve customer service do take place, we will still see passengers disgruntled because of malfunctioning ticket machines and ticket personnel treating them as criminals when in all reality, it is not their fault. Even more alarming is the fact that passengers who use the bike to travel to work from the station may be forced to pay daily fees to have their bikes transported by Regio. The argument is one that I’ll remember a ticket personnel at Flensburg Station saying when I bought a ticket (and was forced to by one for the bike as well) for a day trip to Kiel this past April: “We don’t like bikes on trains! They’re unprofitable!” The Bavarians already introduced that two years ago; it is becoming a norm in the southern part of the country. It could be a reality in a couple years in all of Germany and will force people, like me to reconsider other forms of transportation; especially if the work place is far away.

As for travelling without a ticket, it would not be surprising if the DB, which is partially owned by the German government, will introduce the Flensburg Point System, to use against stowaways, regardless if it was their fault or not. After all, when caught, it is obligatory to show the personnel your driver’s license and ID to report the incident. Why not penalize them with 1-2 Flensburg Points? But before that happens, unless they recently took bribes by the DB and other lobbyists, the judges at the German Supreme Court in Karlsruhe will most likely shoot that proposal down as unconstitutional. If that happens, then perhaps they should remind the DB to respect the people’s rights to be treated fairly, as stated in the Basic Laws of the Federal Republic of Germany. It would be one step in the right direction of improving service, at least….

Mural and clock at Flensburg Station. Photo taken in May 2010