Open-plan carriage, 2nd class, a group of middle-aged gentlemen sit amused at a table for four and puzzle over why the train stops at Göttingen station for so long. One person pulls out his cell phone, swipes through the apps and announces: “Aha, our ICE has a brake failure, the route has to be recalculated.” Smiling, shrugging shoulders, well, that’s just what happens. One suggests switching to the train opposite, as it also goes to Frankfurt. But, oh why, we’re not in a hurry anyway.

This scene took place four years ago, I was on the way to Fulda for a report (about, sigh, Deutsche Bahn’s forester), and, unlike the four obvious railway employees, unfortunately I didn’t have all the time in the world. Unlike them, I didn’t have a free choice of trains and if I hadn’t been sitting right next to them, I would never have known why we were stuck in Göttingen for 20 minutes.

Nobody is immune to stubborn technology, not even a company like Deutsche Bahn. But this little episodic allowed me to look into the soul of the railway workers for a moment: it looks gallows humor, dull and resigned to fate, no chakka anywhere. I can even understand men. They are among the pitiful idiots who are supposed to keep a highly complex structure like German train traffic running, which is crumbling before everyone’s eyes.

I also understand the railway workers because my two grandfathers were also there: one a train driver, the other a police officer. The former spent many years of his life in reserve, meaning he had to be ready in case a fellow train driver was unavailable. Such services are only mediocre for family life, but being a railway worker used to be something special, to put it pathetically: a matter of honor.

The run-down company offers little cause for pride. Now, according to some who know the store from the inside, regular cleaning is the only way to endure all the misery. Apparently it’s enough to call in sick ten minutes before the start of work. Given the circumstances, this may be understandable, but unfortunately it is the rail customers who have to pay for these imbalances.

Which brings us to the train drivers’ union GDL, its boss Claus Weselsky and their perceived constant strikes. Yes, of course labor disputes are painful, that’s their purpose. And yes, of course people should be paid decently and have good working hours – if the bosses don’t want it, a walkout follows. Especially since a rowdy brother like Weselsky gives the impression that he is generally happy to call for a strike.

In the case of the railways, it is in the nature of things that labor disputes come at the expense of train drivers. Unfortunately they, all of us, can’t help much in the matter. Should you now travel by train out of solidarity with the train drivers? It does not work. Skip the train? Silly. Switch to a car? Of course not. Although: Given my personal train delay rate of 70 percent, I’m seriously thinking about it.

That’s the annoying thing about the GDL strikes: they don’t help the overall Deutsche Bahn system in any way. No train arrives more punctually, no station is cleaner, no additional rail is laid, no customer is less annoyed. Maybe it’s time for some kind of rail pact: the unions slim down their list of demands, and the employer ensures more staff and generally better equipment. We customers would also really like that. Maybe that sounds very simple, but as the child of a railway family, I don’t want to give up hope for a good German railway.