The Euro 2024 tournament is taking place well in Germany, but the trains are not

Niclas Füllkrug arrived early at the Adidas campus just outside Herzogenaurach, a postcard-perfect town in Bavaria that would host the German national team ahead of this summer's European soccer championships. The staff had been told that the players would arrive on Monday morning, a few days before the opening match. But on Sunday evening, Füllkrug, one of the team's attackers, arrived.

He had decided to make the 300-mile journey from his home in Hanover on the high-speed train of Germany's national railway company, Deutsche Bahn. The company was not only one of the sponsors of the tournament; it should also have been a standard-bearer for the event's green credentials.

But years of failure to invest in rolling stock, upgrade railways and digitalize switchgear have made Deutsche Bahn notorious for delays and cancellations. In a country that has long prided itself on its efficiency and punctuality, Germans – as well as fans – had been warning for months that problems could ruin the tournament.

So Füllkrug wasn't at all surprised when he found himself crammed into a train car full of high school students on a school trip. He spent the trip answering their questions about life with the national team.

By the time he arrived in Herzogenaurach, he had traveled several hours longer than expected, hardly ideal preparation for an elite athlete on the eve of a major tournament. However, the delays had at least confirmed his decision to extend extra time. In Germany, as Füllkrug said, it is worth “having a little respect for Deutsche Bahn”.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of fans from across Europe – as well as a notable number from the United States – who joined him in Germany, after an often tense opening week, will no doubt understand what he means.

Deutsche Bahn had been central to Germany's plans for the tournament. The company offered discounted prices on “climate-friendly train travel”, part of what organizers boasted would be the “most sustainable” edition of the European Championship. When the tournament draw was made in December, the stage decorations included miniature versions of Deutsche Bahn's long-distance high-speed trains.

Yet as fans flock to Germany to follow their teams, the country's rail networks are creaking. Even before the tournament began on June 14, staff members from Munich's transport authority had been dispatched to hand out ice lollies to overheated travelers stranded for hours on stationary trains around the city.

In Gelsenkirchen, an industrial city in the Ruhr Valley, some English fans worried about missing their team's kickoff decided to make the three-mile walk to the city's stadium after the trams stopped. In Stuttgart, Hungarian fans arriving at the city's main train station on Thursday for a match found that, thanks to a major renovation project – which began in 2010 – it has been replaced by a giant hole.

Instead of arriving through a vast corridor, disembarking passengers were instead diverted through huge wooden tunnels that snake into the city. “I'm here to orient them,” said a representative from the Hungarian consulate, who was among a dozen officials sent to orient arriving passengers but who were unwilling to have their names attached to the operation.

Despite their best efforts, some fans found the tunnels so long and disorienting that, even when they were almost through them, they turned back and retraced their steps in hopes of getting out of the train station faster. (Deutsche Bahn recently announced that completion of the Stuttgart project has been delayed, once again, until December 2026.)

In Hamburg, Cologne and Düsseldorf, local transport held up a little better: after Hungary's match against Switzerland in Cologne on 15 June, trams were lined up in front of the stadium to clear the backlog as quickly as possible.

Long-distance trains – offered to fans at a reduced fare – were equally unpredictable. The German rail network covers over 20,000 miles. But about half of that length has been demolished over the past 70 years, leaving existing routes overloaded as demand for both freight and passenger transportation increases.

Late arrivals by one train have a ripple effect on others, leading to widespread delays throughout the system. According to Deutsche Bahn, only 63% of the system's trains arrived at their destinations on time last month. This compares with more than 94% on-time performance in neighboring Austria and 87% in France.

The situation has been such an embarrassment to Germany that Felix Dachsel, a columnist for Der Spiegel, one of the country's largest media outlets, last week felt the need to “apologize in all 21 languages ​​of the tournament” for the state of the situation. the railway service. (He at least takes it in good humor: after all, he said, what could be more environmentally friendly than a train that doesn't run?)

“You can beat Germany,” he wrote, “but you will lose to Deutsche Bahn.”

Critics blame a lack of investment in the system in the decades after Deutsche Bahn was founded as a private company in 1994, merging the former East and West German state railways. The German government is its sole shareholder.

“It has been clear strategically for a long time that there is a lack of money,” said Andreas Knie, a professor at the Berlin Center for Social Sciences whose research concerns transportation and technology. “The sums that should have been invested in the railways, as a general rule, should have been double what was actually invested.”

For a while the system resisted. The last time Germany hosted a major tournament, the 2006 Men's World Cup, Deutsche Bahn's excellent service was heralded as a key ingredient to the event's success, helping to foster an enduring image of the Germany as a modern and smooth nation.

This time, many fans – as well as Füllkrug – have learned to treat the times more as a guideline. That didn't help Austrian fans trying to get to Düsseldorf last Monday to watch the kick-off match against France. Dozens of players were stranded soon after crossing the border into Germany, some of whom did not reach the game until midway through the second half.

Deutsche Bahn said it would personally apologize to those who were stranded. “We ask fans to get in touch with us,” said Ralph Thieme, head of Deutsche Bahn stations serving passengers. “We will find a fair and equitable way to compensate them.”

The problems have reached such proportions that, despite freezing public spending, Germany has set aside 40 billion euros, or $42.7 billion, to invest in its old railway. Work will begin on 40 key corridors starting this year.

Deutsche Bahn has already warned that this will mean dozens of construction sites on major routes and with them further delays. However, at least fans don't have to worry. Work is not expected to start before July 15th, the day after the final.

Tariq Panja AND Christopher F. Schuetze contributed to the reporting.

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