There is no international railway line I have travelled more often than Bruxelles – Köln. A good part of my life since my teenage years on language exchanges in the mid-1990s in Verviers and Lahnstein, through to professional life today in my early forties as a self employed person living in Berlin with contracts in Bruxelles, Brugge and Maastricht, has been intrinsically connected with it. I’ve crossed the border between Hergenrath and Aachen more than a hundred times in each direction.
It was then – to say the least – something of a surprise when Deutsche Bahn and SNCB, in the presence of Germany’s transport minister Wissing and his Belgian counterpart Gilkinet recently “celebrated” 20 years of ICE trains running on the route – Deutsche Bahn wrote a press release about it here, and here’s SNCB’s CEO tweeting about it:
Le train grande vitesse ICE est devenu un pilier de la mobilité durable. Une aventure que nous partageons au quotidien avec @DB_Presse car voilà 20 ans que ICE relie Bruxelles et Francfort via Aix-la-Chapelle et Cologne. @SNCB pic.twitter.com/dx8NRgfYDn
— Sophie Dutordoir (@DutordoirSophie) November 16, 2022
It shows some audacity to have fireworks on the stage… when the main problem with the ICE trains on the line is that they keep catching fire. That strikes me as tone deaf in the extreme.
But of course Gilkinet retweeted the joyous SNCB tweet about the event, Wissing’s ministry BMDV tweeted euphorically about the 20 years of the service, and DB boss Lutz joined in on LinkedIn.
On 16th November, the day of the event in Brussels, the ICE service to Bruxelles ran comparatively well (perhaps there were VIPs on board like DB boss Lutz and even Wissing himself?), but the day after reverted to normal – with delays and cancellations.
In the meantime Grüne Member of the Bundestag Matthias Gastel has been looking at the statistics about delays and cancellations on the route, and here are the tables from his latest enquiries, from a letter dated 20th October – a few weeks before the celebratory event in Brussels:
Given August has 31 days, and there are 7 trains a day each way, that means 104 of 434 trains – or 24% (just short of a quarter) were entirely cancelled during that month, and 88 further services were part cancelled (normally between Köln and Brussels in my experience). And in August fewer than half the trains on the route were on time.
So how does this compare to the historical statistics for the route? Again from Gastel’s digging:
While there has been a marked deterioration of the route in the summer of 2022, even prior to that the statistics make grim reading – in only 4 months where the stats are provided was punctuality above 80%, and partial or complete cancellations are also comparatively common – with at least 1 a day on average across the whole period.
And this – according to SNCB and Deutsche Bahn at their event – is a success story?
If it is, I’d not like to see what a failure looks like.
As I see it, there is nothing whatsoever to celebrate about the Bruxelles – Köln – Frankfurt ICE. It is a route that ought to be a hell of a lot better than it is. But the very fact that the likes of Wissing, Gilkinet, Lutz and Dutordoir do publicly state that there is something to celebrate seems to demonstrate to me their complete and total disconnection from reality. Sometimes it is better to say nothing at all, than to celebrate something so obviously deeply dysfunctional. And – interestingly – I enquired with a few journalists and critical politicians I know in Brussels EU transport circles I know, and none of them were even asked along to the celebration event.
This whole story leaves me feeling very empty. I’d not expect anything except PR puff from Wissing as he’s FDP, but Gilkinet is from the Walloon Greens Ecolo for goodness sake – if someone like him cannot be honest about the problems, what hope do we realistically have about improving our international railways?
In the meanwhile I’m now planning my trips on this route fearing the worst, and planning in enough time to go on regional trains via Welkenraedt for the times when the ICE breaks down. That is the reality, however much anyone wants to say otherwise at celebratory events in Bruxelles.