This article is adapted from the business magazine Capital and is available here for ten days. Afterwards it will only be available to read at Like stern, Capital belongs to RTL Deutschland.

When the loudspeakers recently cracked on the ICE train at full speed to Hamburg, many passengers didn’t suspect anything good: unfortunately no hot drinks in the dining car today, or the air conditioning in the front carriages failing, something like that – you know the announcements by now. But no, music played, “Happy Birthday to you”. It was the train driver’s birthday and the whole team wanted to congratulate him, said the train attendant – the guests’ relief was palpable.

For months, frequent travelers have had the impression that the train attendants on the route and the employees at the service counters are the last to save the railway’s reputation: they are often attacked by angry passengers who have already missed their connecting trains or are likely to miss them , and who end up stranded in Erfurt, Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe or Hamm. And yet they do their job, try to help wherever they can, and sometimes they even treat themselves and everyone around them to the necessary portion of gallows humor.

Because other than sarcasm, it is hard to bear what the board of directors of Deutsche Bahn presented this Thursday as the balance sheet for 2023: More than one in three long-distance trains were delayed last year (if they ran at all – canceled connections are in As is well known, this statistic is not taken into account at all). Broken switches, rails or railway sleepers, defective signals and level crossings, dilapidated bridges over which trains are only allowed to travel at 30 km/h – what was Berlin’s scandalous BER airport ten years ago, which caused pity and ridicule around the world, is now Deutsche Bahn: a symbol of arrogance, mismanagement and incompetence.

Another part of Deutsche Bahn’s misery is that no one person alone is to blame for it, or at least the company management alone. No, at the state-owned company, management and the respective federal governments and their transport ministers have been working together for many years in a particularly disastrous way that always oscillates between fraud and self-deception. Strategy and investment programs that have been loudly announced dozens of times, embellished statistics, jubilee projects that are only completed ten years late at best – the list of results of this organized irresponsibility is long and horrific.

Now one might think that the net loss of more than 2 billion euros that the railway management announced on Thursday for the past financial year was the lowest point. From now on things are looking up again, because that was also the message that railway boss Richard Lutz tried to convey several times when presenting the figures. But the change for the better is unlikely to happen so quickly, on the contrary.

What the railway board sold barely more than six months ago as the largest renovation program in railway history – depending on the period and calculation between 42 and 87 billion euros for the modernization of the tracks and bridges – is now shrinking month by month: At the moment, only investments for this year and next year are secured, meaning that out of 40 particularly urgent renovation projects, only three are somewhat certain. Instead of 4,000 kilometers of rail that need to be modernized, only 425 will be brought into better condition. And the cost increases that are already being announced for the three (!) projects are not even included.

What is only supposed to be completed after the federal election next year still has to hope for more money. What Lutz explained when asked on Thursday was treacherous: If money gets tight, we will prioritize, “just like we have always done over the last 20 years when projects are needed.” For rail travelers, this will sound more like a threat than a prospect of better times.