Transit Service Recovery: A Trip Back From Germany Becomes an Ordeal

15 Jul

A severe storm in the morning of July 12th disrupted rail services in North West Germany which affected services through Köln Hbf. Travelling back from Köln my girlfriend arrived for the 14:46 ICE 124 train to Amsterdam to find it was 90 minutes late with no further information. Towards the end of the 90 minutes an announcement was made that the platform had been changed and the train was waiting to be boarded. She took her seat, but the train didn’t leave. Again no further information was given regarding the estimation of the delay and the train and its passengers waited and waited, no one knowing when it would leave.

At 17:15, two and a half hours late, the ICE service finally left Köln Hbf. An on train announcement was made that Deutsche Bahn (DB) had no idea if the train would make it past Duisburg and that a decision on how best to proceed with such a late service would made there. The service pulled into Duisburg at 18:00 and everyone waited on the train. No decision was taken for over an hour, with no further passenger communication of any kind made until 19:00 when all the passengers were told to get off the train and make their way to coaches outside the station. The 200 passengers were advised that these buses would take them through to Arnhem, Utrecht and Amsterdam. The coaches left Duisburg 45 minutes later at 19:45. As a comparison, the service was due to have arrived in Amsterdam at 17:25 and they were still in Germany.

Then it got needlessly irritating. The Dutch coach driver seemed to lose his way around Arnhem, taking 20 minutes to find the station as his company had not seen fit to invest in SatNav! Upon arrival at Arnhem station the passengers were then told to get off the coaches and get a train to Amsterdam, differing to what they had been told in Duisburg. No special replacement train was provided and as no proactive co-ordination was made by the train operators, a direct service to Amsterdam was not held and it departed just as the coaches pulled into the station, leaving a further wait of 30 minutes for the next train. Utterly needless!

Compounding the struggle is that Arnhem station is currently undergoing major renovation and the transfer to the platforms is a long trudge through temporary walkways, with one 4-person lift or many flights of stairs left to serve 200 weary passengers and their baggage.

Instead of arriving at 17:25 passengers finally arrived at 23:10. That’s 5 hours 45 minutes late! A journey scheduled for just over 2 hours 30, had turned into ordeal of over 8 hours 20 minutes.

A Lack of Service Recovery and Planning

Severe weather can affect any mode of transport, so once the cause of the delay has occurred it then becomes a matter of how well the recovery is organised. It’s this point that DB failed so miserably on. The following points are suggestions as to how good planning can prevent these situation from getting worse and can be used for many long distance train operators.

Contingency – Diversion Planning

There are 4 different potential rail routes between Köln and Amsterdam. There is the main route via Arnhem, the route via Venlo, a longer route via Enschede and finally a partially unelectrified route via Aachen. The “ICE International” services between The Netherlands and Germany go via Arnhem and are operated by Siemens ICE-3M trains which have been modified to run on both Dutch and German electrified tracks. As the train operating the service is capable of running over various routes, once DB had established which options were still operable, a “route-to-goal” should have been planned and the service diverted (also see addendum below for today’s update). These alternative routes should be recorded on a database with a system ready to calculate (using similar tech to SatNav devices) what the new timings would be. This would help decision making, delay planning and of course service recovery.

For some reason, despite workable alternatives, a diversion of this service doesn’t seem to have been considered at any stage.

Contingency – Communication

Passenger communication was dire from start to finish from every perspective. Travellers looking to go forward to other North Western German cities (Düsseldorf, Duisburg etc;) were not offered or told of alternative local or regional services and at no time were passengers advised to travel via alternative routes. Passengers going to The Netherlands were told either nothing or conflicting information, most notably at Duisburg and Arnhem when first they were told they would be going all the way via coach then that they had to get another train at Arnhem which significantly delayed them again. This makes it clear that DB managers dealing with the service had different approaches and were not co-ordinating their efforts. This is essential when dealing with any service recovery.

My own journey that day from Köln to Amsterdam using connecting regional trains via the Düren, Aachen and Heerlen route which took a little under 5 hours, which when compared to over 8 hours and would have been acceptable to many of the stranded passengers. Why wasn’t this advertised? Is it a ticketing issue again?

All the relevant alternative routes should have been advertised and communicated to the passengers, especially when we consider that by the time the service left Köln it was already 2 and a half hours late and the majority of passengers could have been at least half way home by then.

Solutions and Addendum

For reasons I’ll discuss in a future post, this particular service and route is prone to delays, particularly on the section between Oberhausen and Arnhem. When the route is undergoing maintenance the ICE International is diverted via the Venlo route I outlined earlier.

At the time of posting another storm on Wednesday 14th July also disrupted the same services, this time DB diverted Köln to Amsterdam services through Venlo.

Passengers for other German destinations should have been advised almost immediately to take alternative services/routes such is the frequency of trains, density of routes and magnitude of the delay. For Dutch destinations the train should simply have taken another route as sticking to the scheduled one merely exacerbated the problem for everyone.

This highlights the need for a “Recovery Manager” who becomes ultimately responsible and accountable for routes or services during such a time of widespread disruption. This job should be to have all contingencies recorded and an infrastructure planning system with the alternatives ready to be analysed. Once each alternative has been appraised and a “route to goal” selected the plan is distributed and implemented. The lack of such a position meant that late passengers were not afforded the best information at each step and that the service provider gave conflicting information with no clear site of a strategy.

Finally, replacing a train with a bus/coach should always be the last option. Modern trains are more accessible with luggage, passengers with disabilities can find coaches difficult to board and time is invariably lost due to modal transfers, unfamiliar routes and congestion. Alternative routes and services must be explored before taking the “quick-fix of bustitution” because as shown here it only delayed passengers even more.

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