Berlin: The S-Bahn Meltdown

Hello from Berlin, where I chanced to be in town for one of the larger transit meltdowns I’ve seen.  And I’ve seen a few!

DSCF1948 Berlin’s S-bahn, one of two rail rapid transit systems that jointly cover the city, found problems with its previous inspection of brakes.  The S-Bahn management appeared to have discovered, rather suddenly on Monday afternoon, that a huge range of brake inspections that it assumed were being done were not done, or not properly.  The agency manager called it a black day for Berlin, thus saving some work for a headline-writer at the Berliner Morgenpost (pictured).

Among all the parts on any transit vehicle, good transit managers cultivate a special reverence for brakes, because their failure can be so disastrous.  You can cut a lot of corners in transit operations, but you don’t cut corners with brakes.  So S-Bahn did the only thing they could do on discovering, all at once, that their brake inspections were not in order for about 3/4 of the fleet:  They took all those trains out of service, shutting down 3/4 of the system.  The decision was made late Monday afternoon. Of course Tuesday morning was a region-wide mess as most people had not gotten the word.

DSCF1938 Wednesday night it’s still a mess, but I have to say that I’m really impressed with how fast the agency acted.  Imagine having to decide at 4:00 PM which 75% of your service won’t run tomorrow morning.  Too many transit managers would have just said, well, we’ll cut 75% of the frequency on everything — because that’s fair, right?   At least, everyone will get a train eventually, right?

They were much smarter.  They reviewed every corridor to look at where the other transit networks (the U-bahn subway, regional commuter trains, and in some cases buses and trams) were positioned to handle some of the demand, and focused their cuts there, deleting all service on the corridors marked in red on the newspaper’s map above.  It looks really bad on the map.  The main east-west S-Bahn line across the middle of the city has had all its service cut west of Alexanderplatz, including such key destinations as the main intercity rail station, Berlin Hauptbahnhof.  But as I understand it, they cut there because so many regional commuter trains come through the same corridor (though making far fewer stops); thus there would be some options for people in each community even though many stations would be closed.

Then today, barely over 24 hours after the disaster struck, they came out with this newsletter.  Even if you don’t read German, look at it to get a sense of the extent and detail of information.  Not just a clear map (on page 2) showing what’s not running, but also an explanation, station by station, of exactly what your options are and what the other transit systems are doing to take up the slack.

I’m impressed, especially with the depth and speed of information.  As for the rapidly but smartly improvised service plan, it reminds me a little of what New York City’s transit agencies had to do on 9/11.  This is one of those moments when you are grateful your staff includes all those transit geeks — of all ages, but especially the older ones — who know the network really well because they love it so much, and who have already, just as a form of daydreaming, invented zillions of contingency plans in their heads.  I mean, what would New York City Transit do if it suddenly lost its World Trade Center stations and the whole 1/9 subway in Lower Manhattan?   I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the agency’s staff had actually thought about something like this in the shower, or while daydreaming in a boring meeting — not morbidly, not imagining anything like the disaster of 9/11, but simply because if you’re a transit geek, contingency plans are fun to think about.  They’d thought up zillions of other contingency plans as well.  And while some transit geeks can tend to get lost in detail in their daily work, at times like this a whole city should be grateful for them.

UPDATE:  On why the brake inspections were fouled up, see the comments section, but only if you’re ready to be drawn into the whirlpool of debate and recrimination about European models of transit governance.  Not everything is perfect there.

7 Responses to Berlin: The S-Bahn Meltdown

  1. September 10, 2009 at 1:45 am #

    I lived in Berlin for two months this year, and used the S25 and the S1 on a daily basis. It always impressed me how super organised the entire system was. And their whole system really is based on contingency – if the s-bahn fails, there is always the bus or the u-bahn. It’s mind-blowing, and I think it’s a big reason why Berlin is the wonderful city that it is!
    Keep blogging! I enjoy your posts.

  2. Beige September 10, 2009 at 9:10 am #

    It’s a whole different world over there. Can’t imagine being able to suggest other transit services as an alternative, as if there could be more than one service in one city. On the other hand, here the planning for shutting down a large part of the service has already been done, in preparation for the next round of budget cuts and corresponding service cuts. Just implement that ahead of schedule.

  3. lnow September 10, 2009 at 11:18 am #

    This is actually Meltdown II. They were able to respond so fast because they have had plenty of practice during the last four months. The whole story is almost funny:
    – 1st May. A wheel of an S-Bahn train breaks. S-Bahn operator promises to double the frequency of inspections.
    – 30th June. After some service cuts and messing around with the inspections the Federal Railway Authority has had enough and orders 190 of 500 two-car units to be put out of commission.
    – 2nd July. The entire top executive level of the S-Bahn is fired.
    – July sees severe service cuts. Only the onset of the summer holiday season reduces the chaos caused by the contingency service.
    – 31st August. Every line is in operation again. But not at normal frequencies.
    – September. Things are getting back to normal. But if it isn’t those darned brakes that come up to foil the S-Bahn again.
    I think they took the emergency plan which they developed over the last months out of the drawer again when they saw the shit hitting the fan again. That’s why they were so fast with the new service plan.
    Anyway, the public anger, the 100+m Euro extra cost and expected net loss that’s coming to them is more than deserved. It’s karma. When the parent company Deutsche Bahn decided to squeeze every drop of profit out of S-Bahn Berlin they imposed a high-fee contract on Berlin (and Berlin played along), started to dismantle maintenance operations/facilities, and scrapped cars they could have used now. Lessons for transit agencies: Don’t be evil. Don’t try to fleece the public. Do your maintenance. People have a long memory on things like this.

  4. anonymouse September 11, 2009 at 12:52 am #

    Who made those cars? Siemens?

  5. Jarrett at September 11, 2009 at 2:59 pm #

    To be fair, US and Australian agencies that I’ve observed do cooperate in emergencies as best they can. But there’s no substitute for clear lines of authority and communication in situations like this, and that’s sometimes hard in multi-agency regions in the US, such as the Bay Area.

  6. Beige September 11, 2009 at 5:03 pm #

    I didn’t so much mean inability/unwillingness to cooperate as much as (outside of NY and SF and whichever few other special cities) lack of anyone to cooperate with. Maybe a city 80 miles away could send a few extra buses (which they don’t have the money to operate anyway) over on loan if half the buses were out of action due to brake problems. But it’s not as if there is something else already running in the city. We’re lucky to have anything at all.

  7. anonymouse September 12, 2009 at 7:26 am #

    That does happen actually. I think all sorts of cities sent a whole bunch of buses to New Orleans when theirs were out of service with water damage from Katrina. And when NYC Transit had defective buses, I believe DC lent some buses to keep the service running.