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Real-time data: Deutsche Bahn does not know where its trains are

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Real-time data: Deutsche Bahn does not know where its trains are

I recently took the train from Copenhagen to Hamburg. The EC 399 left Copenhagen more than an hour late. But the DB navigator didn’t know anything about it. He thought the train was almost 270 kilometers away in Odense, before it had even left Copenhagen. Only when the train was supposed to have arrived in Germany did the app finally show real-time data. At this point, the delay had been known for at least three and a half hours. If a carrier pigeon had been sent to Schleswig in good time (approx. 200 kilometers as the crow flies), train passengers could have been warned much earlier.


Can it actually be the case that in 2024 there will still be no real-time data exchanged between all neighboring European countries? That’s exactly how it is, the railway confirms: “There are already collaborations with many European railways for the exchange of real-time data (including ÖBB, SBB, SNCF),” a railway spokeswoman told me. “Danish Railways is actually not one of them yet. However, we are in discussions with the relevant partners in order to integrate further data.” The particular irony is that the Danish real-time data is publicly accessible, for example via websites such as zugfinder.net. Just not via the Deutsche Bahn system.

The journalist and transport activist Jon Worth, who knows cross-border rail traffic in Europe like no other, experiences this problem regularly: “It’s the same at the borders with the Czech Republic and Austria.” There is a system for exchanging real-time data between the Central European railways. “But in the last 12 months I’ve never seen it work properly.”

The communication chaos can sometimes reach absurd proportions, as I found out last fall. One day before the return journey from South Tyrol, I received an automatically generated email from Deutsche Bahn saying that there were some problems with the connection. Only: Nowhere was it possible to find out which train was on – from Brixen to Munich or from Munich to Hanover? Not even the DB hotline knew. Everything was fine, they said, maybe there had just been a change in the track somewhere. The next morning – surprise! The train to Munich is completely canceled.

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Some atom of information had apparently made it through the system from Italy to Germany and triggered an automatic email there. But even the hotline couldn’t figure out the exact cause.

What exactly is so difficult about regularly shoving a few bits from one system to another? Probably the usual mess of sensitivities, bureaucracy, standardization issues and indifference. But that is no excuse for Deutsche Bahn not knowing where its own trains are – even when they are abroad. Practically every rental bike, no matter how cool, is reliably tracked via GPS. This should also work with complete trains – at least if, like the EC 399, they are trains owned by the railway and traveling abroad. An old smartphone on board that regularly reports its position would be enough.

Gregor Honsel has been a TR editor since 2006. He believes that many complex problems have simple, easy-to-understand but wrong solutions.

“But the accuracy! But the hackers! But the tunnels! But the dead spots!” is probably what I’m hearing at this point. “A proper railway infrastructure includes balises, tests, certificates, standards, protocols, laws, committees, contracts!”

This may actually be the case for safety-critical functions. But in this case it’s not about security, but about service. Here, a quick-and-dirty solution would always be better than none at all. It may be that GPS & Co are off by ten meters. When I drove through Denmark, the train app was more than a hundred kilometers off. It can’t be the case that the Tiers, Limes and Bolts of this world know better about their fleets than the huge railway company.

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