Earlier this year Berlin announced its plans to funnel large amounts of funding into the city’s transport system, to the tune of approximately €28 billion. At the same time, other city planning departments in Berlin have been pushing for a barrier-free, accessible city. Meanwhile, two major public transport players are improving their train stocks and reliability. With these simultaneous developments, Berlin’s public transport system is going through a major overhaul from all sides.
A multi-directional approach
The €28 billion (approx. $31 billion) of funding proposed by the city is the largest investment of the above efforts, and will be spread out from now until 2035. The bulk of the changes to the system will occur before 2023, and most of these are in the form of extensions to existing U-bahn (the underground) and S-bahn (light rail train) lines. In addition, adding and extending tram lines will cover parts of the city that were never covered before.
Traditionally, tram lines in Berlin were only established on the eastern side. The new plan supports the current trend of slowly expanding tram lines into the western areas of Kreuzberg, Schöneberg, and Spandau. This is a plan that is heavily supported by residents, for many reasons. First, trams are quieter than buses, with lower emissions, and a smoother ride. Two European studies performed in Germany and Switzerland found that passengers overwhelmingly prefer trains and trams to buses. With any luck, the extensions of the tram system across the city may support greater passenger carriage and increased usage of public transport.
The S-bahn will also see improvements, but without building new lines. Rather, many of the new S-bahn lines will take over old track, particularly in the north of the city where many lines lay unused. The funding plan also proposes that buses should all be electric by 2030, with many bus lines already adopting these changes. There is some question about whether electric bus lines will be suitable for all routes. This is because the cost of running an electric bus is much higher than the currently-used diesel buses. The Berlin IGEB (passenger association) has suggested a workaround: the electric buses could be used on short lines or for “last mile” trips. This would increase the offering and coverage of electric buses, while keeping operating costs low.
The buses and trains on some lines have already experienced an overhaul from the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG), one of the two public transport providers in Berlin. The BVG buses and trains are being slowly upgraded, with electronic display panels listing upcoming stops, and higher-quality, more-visible priority passenger seating, and electric accessibility ramps.
Changes sorely needed
These changes are urgently needed. With the BVG providing 1.1 billion trips in 2018, they are caring for the mobility of a large number of citizens throughout the city. But, the BVG has faced many problems: significant delays, cancellations, and unreliability have frustrated passengers for decades.
Many Berliners have a love-hate relationship with the transport giant. In part, the high-quality advertising campaign in 2015, #weilwirdichlieben, (“because we love you”), made up some of the shortfall. When the BVG first launched this advertising campaign, their aim was to request feedback from passengers. But the backlash was extreme: they received many complaints of delays, unfriendly drivers, and rubbish on the train tracks.
However, they were also successful. By poking fun at their own failings, the campaign softened passenger opinions of the beleaguered transit giant. Martell Beck, the marketing chief of the BVG, noted that “sie habe viele Berliner zu Freunden der BVG gemacht” (they have made many Berliners the friends of the BVG). In recent years, the BVG still faces problems: internal staff shortages, strikes over pay, and continuing complaints about service reliability. With improvements to the bus and train fleets, the BVG can work towards providing real benefits for passengers, instead of building popularity through marketing.
The other major public transport player in Berlin, Deutsche Bahn (DB), has also taken part in a push to improve their offerings. As the largest rail operator in Europe, DB recently faced backlash from customers due to issues with reliability. The Pro-Rail Alliance in Germany notes that Germany has invested too much for too long in roads, and that rail improvements are desperately needed. As a result, DB has requested an additional 7.3 billion euros to make further improvements to lines and trains. From 2020-2023, trains on the ringbahn (circle line) and southeast lines will be slowly replaced with new trains. The lines covered by the improvements are approximately one-third of the entire S-Bahn network in Berlin, and the CEO of S-Bahn Berlin notes that their goal is to provide “a train that brings [passengers] reliably, quickly and comfortably to their destination.” With the proposed improvements, hopefully DB will be able to meet this aim.
These line extensions and increase in city investment run alongside another mobility plan: the desire to make Berlin a barrier-free city.
The Senate Department for Urban Development and Housing is in charge of this effort. They propose to improve access to public spaces, transport, and infrastructure, by working with private property developers, institutions, architects, and engineers. The BVG supports this barrier-free plan, and they are now working towards barrier-free access to their buses, trains, and trams by 2020. In practice this means that many train lines are closed for extensions, and others are closed for improvements such as adding elevators, escalators, and ramps.
Political backing supports improvements
The reason behind these changes is partly due to the presence of the Green Party, SPD, and Die Linke in Berlin’s governing coalition, with all three parties in favour of making Berlin a greener, more accessible city. As part of this effort, political support is soundly behind the improvement of the public transport system as a whole.
Furthermore, the growth and maintenance of public transport systems is essential for cities to grow. By providing access to jobs and amenities, improving access for those without cars, attracting young professionals, and supporting innovation and the economy, Berlin has its eye on growth. The German economy as a whole is growing, with Berlin finally catching up to the rest of the country after a long period of structural weakness. Riding on this trend and providing modern, reliable public transport infrastructure is vital for continuing to attract new businesses and human capital to the job market.
With all of these developments happening in tandem, within the next 5 years Berlin should see significant improvements to every aspect of the public transport system, a change that is sorely needed and supported by Berliners.