Derailing the Train: How Intercity Buses Are Changing the Way We Travel in Germany

Derailing the Train: How Intercity Buses Are Changing the Way We Travel in Germany

Until recently, if you wanted to travel the length of Germany—let’s say from Hamburg to Munich—you had three options: drive, fly, or take the train. Long-distance buses were, quite literally, forbidden. All of this changed at the beginning of 2013, which saw the liberalization of a German law resulting in the sudden and aggressive rise of the Fernbus.
by Zach Netzer

For the last 80 years, German law protected the monopoly held by railway company Deutsche Bahn over intercity travel. Deutsche Bahn operated its trains with impunity, secure in its legal protection from competition. However, January 1 of 2013 brought the transportation giant’s total domination to an end when private companies were permitted to open bus lines longer than 50 kilometers inside the country.

A sort of ‘bus boom’ erupted, with competitors of all shapes and sizes racing to take advantage of the open market. They promised travelers a far cheaper alternative to air and train transportation, a way to avoid the hassles of driving and rising fuel prices, and a comfortable ride to their destination with free coffee and Wi-Fi—all while saving the environment using eco-friendly buses which help minimize the number of cars on the road.

Since the beginning 2013, more than a dozen intercity bus lines sprang to life—MeinFernbus, DeinBus, FlixBus, ADAC Postbus, and City2City, to name a few—but not all of them survived. Competition has been fierce, pushing out large and small companies alike. ADAC pulled out of its joint venture with Postbus, leaving the latter to press on alone. City2City went out of business in October of 2014, and DeinBus closed its doors just a month later. Deutsche Bahn controls a fleet of its own buses, but retains a relatively small portion of the market compared to the biggest players: MeinFernbus and FlixBus.

Companies like MeinFernbus and FlixBus are growing fast, adding buses and staff, and expanding routes across the country. Recent strikes by employees of Deutsche Bahn and Lufthansa have further bolstered ticket sales and increased the demand for cheap, reliable, intercity transportation—suggesting even greater performance for Fernbus companies in 2015—and potentially higher prices for consumers. Can these ultra-low prices be maintained? That seems to be the big question as we enter the new year.

When I asked Gregor Hintz, Head of Communications for MeinFernbus, what it’s like to compete with other Fernbus companies, he replied: “In general, all long-distance coach operators (Fernbus companies) are pulling together. Collectively, we have achieved a lot and built up a new market in only a short time. It is important for us that we all work together fairly, which is the case most of the time. In the long term, the best, most customer-oriented providers will succeed.”

He went on to describe the perks MeinFernbus offers travelers: attractive prices, an easy booking process, bicycle transportation, and Wi-Fi access. MeinFernbus is planning to expand its network, increase manpower, and establish more central stations in the spring.

I also spoke with Bettina Engert, Head of Communications for FlixBus, and asked her what it was like to compete with Deutsche Bahn at the beginning of 2013. She said: “It was less a competition with DB than the establishment of a new means of transport, at least in Germany. We considered ourselves more a reliable and green alternative to the carpooling concept.”

In terms of competing with other Fernbus companies, she said it is an ongoing battle, and guesses that only two or three competitors will survive. FlixBus was rated as Germany’s test winner in the Stiftung Warentest 2014, and like MeinFernbus, is also planning to expand its network in the coming year.

But what is it like—from a customer’s perspective—to actually ride a Fernbus? I asked David R., an American expat living in Berlin, about his experiences.

“I’ve ridden Fernbusse a few times," he told me. "I liked how cheap it was. Going to Munich from Berlin is as cheap as taking a taxi from one side of Berlin to the Berlin airport. I also liked how there is Wi-Fi, even though it was a bit dodgy. On some of the shorter stretches (i.e. Berlin to Wernigerode and back), the bus was almost empty, so you would get two seats to yourself.”

When I asked David what he specifically did not like about the Fernbus experience, he said: “Even though it is comfortable for a bus, it is still uncomfortable compared to a train. Traffic can be a problem too.”

Karla M., a German woman living in Hannover, traveled from Berlin to Krakow, Poland, on one of Deutsche Bahn’s own long-distance buses. When I asked her about the pros and cons, she replied: "The tickets were incredibly cheap. We had a big group with us, and it was very affordable. The Wi-Fi was nice, though it came and went sometimes. There wasn't enough legroom for me, personally, because we were sitting for so long. I prefer trains when I have to travel for so many hours in a row. But, still, you can’t beat the price."

Private companies have been operating intercity bus lines in the United States since the 1930s, and the industry has seen its share of highs and lows, complete with strikes, consolidations, and bankruptcies. Since 2006, the trend seemed to be for companies to shorten their routes, focusing on trips between 200 and 300 miles, but rising gas prices and the demand for cheaper, more environment-friendly travel alternatives have brought long-distance buses back into the market. Travelers in America now enjoy longer routes—some over 3000 miles long, bringing them from one coast to the other—free Wi-Fi, power outlets, and extra legroom.

No one can predict the future of long-distance bus travel in Germany, but for now, travelers in record numbers are enjoying the low fare prices created by competition within the recently privatized industry.

by Zach Netzer