Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
All aboard a low-price, eco-friendly, vintage train that promises an experience as much as a journey.
What’s more important in your travels: speed or price? A new, crowdfunded entrant in Germany’s passenger rail scene is betting on the latter, offering low-price but slightly slower than average rail services across the country.
Serving the 370-mile route between Berlin and Stuttgart since Wednesday, the Locomore company takes about an hour longer to complete its journey than Deutsche Bahn, the main national carrier. But Locomore is arguably as much about lifestyle choices and community as it is about transit.
A €22 ($23.50) one-way ticket is less than a quarter of DB’s €115.90 ($123) standard fare. For that, Locomore passengers get to enjoy organic, free-range refreshments, zones of the train that are tailored toward people with common interests—and a journey on a recycled (dare I say vintage) train that runs entirely on sustainably sourced green electricity.
Originally, Locomore’s train graced Germany’s rails in the 1970s (as part of the Deutsche Bahn fleet, no less). They’ve since been renovated and provided with such amenities as in-train wi-fi, but in a throwback to their original period of service, they’re coated in a garish orange colour that’s as 1970s as the oil crisis. Once on board the refitted cars, passengers can guzzle fair-trade coffee (affordably, at €1.80 a cup), organic lemonade, gluten-free beer, cola spiked with Guarana, vegan millet-bread sandwiches and free-range pork patties.
This is likely to go down very well with a particular type of German. So popular is organic food in the country that a class of self-consciously virtuous citizens are occasionally referred to here as the Bionade Bourgeoisie, in reference to a popular brand of organic soda.
Possibly to enhance the experience for this group, Locomore has divided its train into quasi-social zones themed to attract passengers with similar interests. Current themes (the plan is to change them over time) include photography, sport, and, for those who just want to chat, Kaffeeklatsch (which loosely translates as “coffee tattle”). A special family zone is laid out to grant a little more space for children. Put all together, the train sounds more like some sort of alternative community than a daily train service.
A rail company with a small-scale, experimental approach like this is possible thanks to German rail reforms in the 1990s that separated rail transit companies, who run train services, from railway infrastructure companies, who own rails. This has opened up Germany’s market to some competition between smaller companies such as Transdev and Deutsche Bahn, though the latter still dominates.
The relationship between Locomore and DB is close but somewhat uneasy. Deutsche Bahn will not sell Locomore tickets from station ticket booths, making them available only online. What’s more, the project was apparently too unusual-sounding for most conventional investors, so Locomore has relied on crowdfunding to get its start-up capital. So far over €640,000 has been raised, and the amount is still rising. This alone sounds like a rather low investment threshold to start a new train line, but a Locomore representative wasn’t available to comment on what this sum covers and whether other funding sources are being used. (We’ll update when we learn more.)
So is this the shape of things to come? Yes and no. Locomore’s main competitor may actually be the bus, whose passengers are also similarly disposed to putting price over immediate convenience. A Berlin-to-Stuttgart bus comes in slightly cheaper than a Locomore train (at as little as €18) but requires more than 10 hours on the road, compared to Locomore’s six and a half hour trip. Factor in space to walk around, more comfortable seats and free wi-fi, and Locomore starts to look pretty irresistible.
Still, with just one train going each direction per day, Locomore is not going to be displacing Deutsche Bahn any time soon. To use the service, you need to be flexible. It leaves Stuttgart at 6:21 a.m. and returns from Berlin at 2:28 p.m., and although some intermediate stops (at major cities such as Frankfurt and Hanover) are a little more ideally timed for a mid-morning or early-evening departure, that’s not going to work for everyone.
Germany is nonetheless going through an interesting period of small-scale rail innovation that’s worth paying attention to. Locomore’s current service is just the first of three more planned for 2018, to Cologne, Munich, and the Baltic vacation island of Rügen. Meanwhile the world’s first ever hydrogen-powered passenger train is coming this month. It also won’t replace Germany’s currently dominant model, but provides a small-scale and invaluable alternative.
Europe’s railways have already seen substantial deregulation and privatization—often, as in Britain, with highly negative results. With privatization accomplished, at least projects like Locomore show the positive contribution that multiple rail companies can make in sparking new ways of thinking about and delivering services. The rest of Europe—and the world—would do well to pay attention.