FlixBus to Enter “Fernverkehr”-Market as FlixTrain

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One of the former Locomore train cars to be used by FlixTrain  WIkicommons

Munich-based bus provider to offer long-distance train services to compete with German Railways- The Bahn. Expansion is expected.

MUNICH- “Actually, for us is the train like a big bus.” When the CEO of FlixBus Jochen Engert mentioned this in an interview with the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung, the first thing that came to mind is how to get passengers from point a to point b on the tracks without getting nickeled and dimed by the German Railways- The Bahn. When FlixBus was established in 2011, its primary goal was to provide travelers with an affordable and painless way to get them where they want to be, while on the highway.  Today’s FlixBus covers 80% of all bus markets in Germany, providing 120,000 daily connections to over 1,000 destinations in 20 countries, from Bucharest to Bordeaux, Kiel to Milan and from Luxembourg to Prague, with stops big cities like Berlin, Hanover and Frankfurt, as well as smaller ones like Jena, Bamberg and Wolfsburg, just to name a few.

While FlixBus is making its American debut this April, providing residents along the West Coast with the signature modern green double-decker busses that Europeans are accustomed to, the company is making a splash on the railways. In a railroad market where the Bahn predominates long-distance rail services with its white, black and red ICE-trains and InterCity services, as well as its red and white Regio-trains, passengers are going to see the light green trains, known as FlixTrains competing beginning in April. At a cost of 10 Euros per single ticket, passengers can travel on the Flixbus going up to 200 km/h (125 mph)- equivalent to most IC-trains and the older ICE-trains between Berlin and Stuttgart as well as between Hamburg and Cologne. The plan is to have 28 stops available for up to four trains traveling in each direction per day on both routes.

The routes are somewhat familiar for they had been used by other private train services. Locomore was the first to provide daily services from Berlin to Stuttgart via Wolfsburg, Fulda and Frankfurt/Main. Starting in December 2016 until its insolvency in May 2017, Locomore operated one train in each direction, stopping at 18 stations. It had planned new routes between Berlin and Binz, Berlin-Hanover-Cologne-Bonn and Frankfurt-Augsburg-Berlin. In August 2017, the Czech-based Leo-Express and FlixBus acquired Locomore’s assets and have started painting the Locomore trains green to show ownership of the services. The trains will be run under FlixTrain by April. The Hamburg-Cologne line used to be an independent entity  known as HBX, where trains stopped in Osnabrück, Düsseldorf and Essen. The HBX was acquired by FlixBus and will start operating under FlixTrain at the end of March.

While this FlixTrain experiment will be done gradually (starting with two trains in each direction per day), the plan is if successful, the Flixtrain will provide more trains on these two routes and expand to include more cities in the near future.  The caveat behind this expansion is twofold. Firstly, despite its generous offers of: long distance trains at 200 kph at a price equivalent to a trip by FlixBus, coaches with an eatery, children’s playground and air conditioned seating, free Wifi and films and ordering tickets online or with an app, it will be difficult to lure passengers away from their loyal Bahn or car because of the advantages both has, plus private trains have as many problems with train delays and technical issues as other train services, both private and public.  Secondly the provider would have to choose carefully which cities to expand their services to for many reasons: 1. The train engines would need to be compatible with the track as some areas are not electrified, 2. They will need to be aware of the other trains that serve the cities and their customers and 3. The train’s availability on a daily basis may present some problems as private trains tend to have a difficult time sharing the track with the competitors.

But despite the possible setbacks of Flixtrain, there are some lines that couple possibly benefit from the expansion should business be successful and people turn to them instead of the Bahn and its reputation of being late most of the time and having overpriced tickets. Some potential candidates include:

Saale- Route (Leipzig-Jena-Saalfeld-Bamberg-Nuremberg)- Especially residents in Jena, Saalfeld, Lichtenfels and Naumburg have suffered a great deal since the ICE-train was rerouted onto the new Berlin-Leipzig/Halle-Erfurt-Nuremberg-Munich line in December 2017 as they had to face taking Regio-trains to Erfurt or Leipzig just to catch the next available long-distance train. Despite efforts to have faster Regio-Express trains available by December 2018, it may not be enough for many  who have already invested a year’s salary in a new car. With FlixTrain, it could serve as a medium to long-term fix for people going to either Berlin or Munich without changing trains.

Dresden-Hof-Nuremberg Magistrate- It has been 16 years since the last ICE-train has served this route and plans to electrify the line has been really slow-going- the requirement for having a long-distance train. Yet if diesel locomotives are available this would be a temporary fix until the electrification is finished. For people in Bayreuth, Hof, Zwickau, Glauchau and Chemnitz, having a FlixTrain would be a blessing as they could arrive at their destinations in time that is much quicker than with the motorway, which runs parallel but is beset with traffic jams caused by accidents and narrow four-lanes. Currently MRB-Rail operates the Hof-Dresden portion and the Bahn the rest, both as RegioTrains.

MDV Route- Consisting of the lines Leipzig-Naumburg-Weimar-Erfurt, Chemnitz-Glauchau-Gera-Jena-Weimar-Erfurt and Erfurt-Kassel-Dortmund-Cologne, the route has similar problems with electrification as the Dresden-Hof-Nuremberg Magistrate but between Weimar and Glauchau. Still the route has potential for attracting passengers who have been forced to deal with mostly RegioTrains and a pair of InterCity trains per day.

Schleswig-Holstein-Express- Connecting Hamburg with Flensburg via Rendsburg, this route has rarely seen Fernverkehr since the Bahn pulled its ICE-trains off the tracks three years ago and Germany and Denmark allowed the inter-rail agreement to run out at the end of 2016. The trains have operated regionally but people would benefit more with long-distance rail services between Hamburg and Denmark via Flensburg with the option of extending southward. As an alternative one could route a train through Kiel before entering Flensburg, yet a pair of bridges will need replacement and the tracks need to be added.  FlixBus already has bus connections in Scandanavia and could benefit with a pair of FlixTrain services going through Denmark.

North Sea Route: As the North Sea region in Schleswig-Holstein is very popular, especially during the summer, this route between Hamburg and Sylt via Husum would be beneficial for a FlixTrain. Originally, this route was operated by Nord-Ostsee Bahn Rail before it went bankrupt in 2014 and was taken over by the Bahn. Yet many customers are dissatisfied with the old-timer trains and the service of the Regio-Trains. Plus only a handful of IC-trains connect Sylt with Frankfurt on a daily basis.

These are the top five routes FlixTrain should pursue if it is successful and decides to expand. There are other routes to consider, yet one has to think about the advantages and disadvantages to having a cheap train service with the same services as the Bahn’s. Therefore to conclude, here are a couple questions to think about (let alone comment on):

  1. Would you prefer FlixTrain over the Bahn (or other rail services)  if it was to come to your town?
  2. Which rail routes, aside from the five mentioned ones, would you like to see FlixTrain using and why?

 

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Jena Says Adé to the ICE Train

Photo courtesy of Bahn Ansage

The last ICE high speed train leaves Jena at 9:00pm on December 9th. Regio-Trains to pass through after December 10th. Future of Long-Distance Train Service Questionable.

JENA, GERMANY-  It has been in the making for over 25 years, the same time as the introduction of the ICE Train along the Saale River Rail Line through Jena, Saalfeld and Lichtenfels connecting Munich and Berlin. Come December 10th, the new ICE Line connecting Erfurt with Bamberg will be open to traffic, and thus the completion of the multi-billion Euro project which features high-speed trains going up to 350 km/hrs. from Berlin to Munich via Leipzig, Erfurt and Coburg.

And with that, a bitter farewell to the service going through Jena. Despite protests and events designed to convince the Deutsche Bahn (DB) Rail Service to continue with the train service once the new ICE-line opens, the train service provider has decided to pull the plug on long-distance train services, which provided passengers with service to both major cities without having to change trains.

From December 2017 onwards, only regional trains will be passing through Jena on both the N-S and W-E axes, thus providing longer travel times to the nearest train stations that serve ICE-trains. To provide a pair of examples: With Regio-Service to Leipzig, it takes up to 90 minutes due to stops at every single station. With the ICE-train, it would have taken less than an hour. Going to Nuremberg, one needs three hours with the ICE. With Regio, it would be an additional two hours. Even if one takes a Regio-train to Erfurt to catch the ICE-train, one needs a half hour just to get to Erfurt.  Reports have indicated that Jena will get the worst end of the bargain in the history of the city’s rail lines and some have compared the service to that of 80 years ago.

IC trains to debut in Jena come 2019

But there is a silver lining to the deal. DB has not completely abandoned long-distance train services, and the state government under Prime Minister Bodo Ramelow is stepping in to provide support for the people in Jena affected by the new ICE rail line. There will be one ICE-train going to Berlin, which leaves at 5:30am every weekday morning and arriving back in Jena at 9:30pm. An Inter-City (IC) train connecting Leipzig with Karlsruhe will pass through Jena on a daily basis, but mainly in the afternoon. Come 2019, InterCity trains will pass through Jena, on the W-E axis, providing service to Gera (east) and Cologne via Erfurt and Kassel (west). This will be a first since 2002, the last time an IC train has passed through. By 2023, it is planned that IC-trains will pass through Jena on a two-hour basis going on the N-S axis between Leipzig and Karlsruhe.  Yet this will not be enough to soften the blow of residents who had been used to travelling with long-distance trains from Jena and need better services.

This is where Prime Minister Bodo Ramelow stepped in, during a conference in Jena on 29 November. The state will provide over 33.9 million Euros between the end of 2018 and 2024 for long-distance trains connecting Jena and Leipzig to ensure that passengers can reach their destinations faster than what is expected. In addition to that, a brand new Central Station in Jena is being planned in the southern suburb of Burgau, where all trains can stop for passengers. Alone with the second proposal came a massive amount of criticism from opponents who claim that with six train stations in Jena it was not necessary to construct another train station. Furthermore, Jena has a long-distance train station in Jena-Paradies, which was built in 2003. Work is already in the making to convert another station, Jena-Göschwitz, into a long-distance train station. Already the train station building is being renovated so that people can wait inside or pick up their food. In addition, the platforms are being rebuilt to include elevators and other handicap-accesses.

Older version of the IC, most of which are owned by Locomore

With the Bahn not committed to long-distance trains along the N-S axis before 2023 and the small number of IC-trains passing through on the W-E axis daily (three in each direction), all using the stops currently used by Regio-Express trains, Ramelow will have to look at private train providers to fulfill the promises of the residents of having long-distance trains between the end of 2018 and 2024. Already on the radar include Locomore, which is owned by Czech provider Leo Express and German bus provider Flixbus. Despite having gone through bankruptcy last year, train services are being reintroduced for lines connecting Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Berlin, competing with DB’s long distance lines in terms of pricing and services. It is very likely that Locomore could take over the former ICE line between Bamberg and Leipzig, thus providing residents in Jena and neighboring Saalfeld, Lichtenfels and Naumburg rail service until 2024.

Also in the running is Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn (MRB), which has expanded services in Saxony and could even reintroduce the Inter-Regio train connecting Leipzig with Jena, with an option of going to Bamberg. The Inter-Regio was last used in 2002 and functions as an Inter-City train with a snack bar and compartments for bikes.  Unlike the IC, college students could use the train with their student ticket, which is a big plus. Currently one Regio-Express line serves the Nuremberg-Hof-Chemnitz-Dresden Magistrate, starting in Hof.

Then there is the ALEX Rail, which serves lines connecting Munich with Landau, as well as Regensburg and Hof, mostly operated using diesel trains. If extended from Nuremberg to Leipzig it would provide passengers with direct service to Nuremberg and could thus switch onto the ICE-train to Munich, Frankfurt (via Wurzburg) or Vienna.

All options are currently open, but one variable is certain, due to the adjustment period with the new ICE-line, especially with regards to the pricing and the train access, as well as construction along the N-S axis both south and north of Jena and the planned electrification of the line along the W-E axis which will connect Weimar and Jena first before heading eastward towards Gera and Glauchau, residents of Jena and areas along the N-S axis will have to face the inevitable: the DB is committed to Regio-services in the short and middle terms. Already planned is more Regio trains connecting Jena with Erfurt as well as Jena with Halle(Saale) to provide more access to the ICE-stations. In addition, Erfurt Bahn is seeking to extend its Peppermint Line to Jena, enroute to Possneck via Orlamünde. Currently, the line connects Sommerda (north of Erfurt) with Grossheringen (near Naumburg). Should the plan to realize long-distance train services be in the cards, chances are most likely Jena will have to face prospects of either hand-me-down ICs from DB or Locomores in order to accommodate services.

And this may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for many who are reliant on the train services. Instead of dealing with multiple train changes and delays while waiting at small train stations with little or no services, many are thinking of investing in a set of wheels and calculating traffic jams on Germany’s Autobahn. Given Jena’s proximity to two of the busiest Autobahns (M9 between Berlin and Munich and M4 between Cologne and Dresden), this would make sense and would even fulfil the prediction once made by OTZ Newspaper Columnist Tino Zippel: In the end, DB will have invested billions for the new ICE-rail line……. and for the automobile.

On the map below, you can see the illustrations based on the information in the article.

 

Jena has six rail stations on both axes. On the N-S we have Jena-Zwätzen, Jena Saalbahnhof and Jena Paradies, the last being the ICE stop. On the W-E, we have Jena-West and Neue Schenke. Both lines cross at Jena-Göschwitz, which is currently being remodeled to become the new Jena Central Station, where all long-distance trains are scheduled to stop. Each station is heavily connected by city bus and street car services, which stops an average of every 10 minutes on a daily basis; 20 minutes on weekends.

 

A farewell ceremony to the ICE-train is scheduled for 9 December beginning at 7:00pm. A flashmob similar to people saying farewell to AirBerlin (when it ceased operations in October) will take place at 9:00pm, when the last ICE stops in Jena Paradies. Details here.

For information on the new train schedule, especially for those wishing to visit Jena can be found via DB here.

Panoramic view of Jena Paradies ICE Station. Built in 2003, this station will soon lose its ICE-stop after 9 December. Photo taken by Michael Sander