Berlin’s S-Bahn system – stronger after its crisis

Posted: 12 March 2015 | Peter Buchner, Ingo Priegnitz & Felix Pohl, S-Bahn Berlin

No other transport company can look back on such a past as rich and varied as S-Bahn Berlin. The network operator celebrated its 90th birthday on 8 August 2014, following the most severe crisis in its history. It successfully overcame these difficulties and now transports more than 400 million passengers a year – a record figure which reveals how S-Bahn Berlin has triumphed over the most adverse situations. Peter Buchner, Chairman of the Board of Directors, along with colleagues Ingo Priegnitz and Felix Pohl, take a look back at the difficult years and how the transport company has returned to form and looks to the future…

Berlin’s S-Bahn system – stronger after its crisis

The network consists of 332km of track, 166 stations and 15 different lines linking the heart of Berlin with the surrounding region by means of very frequent services. Every day, S-Bahn Berlin transports approximately 1.4 million people, and its army of over 3,000 employees work to make sure that passengers enjoy the best possible service. The company’s red and yellow trains are as much a symbol of the German capital as the Brandenburg Gate.

Red and yellow: the fleet’s colours

S-Bahn Berlin has 650 two-carriage units, referred to as ‘quarter-trains’ that belong to three different model classes. Class 481 is the newest range of vehicles in the fleet: 500 quarter-trains were purchased in the period from 1996 to 2004, all of them comprising a multiple unit. The smallest train operating in the network is a ‘half-train’, i.e. two quarter trains that have been coupled together, while a ‘full-train’ in turn comprises four quarter trains and is the longest single unit in service.

Between 1987 and 1992, East Germany’s rail company, Deutsche Reichsbahn, introduced the class 485, comprising 166 quarter-trains featuring a multiple unit and ‘trailer’. Today, some 80 quarter-trains are still in service.

In 1984, the West Berlin S-Bahn operator, BVG (Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe), acquired the rights from Deutsche Reichsbahn to operate S-Bahn services in the western half of the city. BVG placed an order with a total of 130 quarter-trains for the class 480; 70 quartertrains are still in use.

Minor maintenance is carried out at five workshops within the S-Bahn network, while the workshop at Schöneweide is dedicated to heavy maintenance requirements. When the modern class 481 vehicles were purchased, they were thought to demand less repair and maintenance, thereby cutting costs. BVG optimised workshop and staff capacities accordingly. However, following the breakage of a wheel disk on a class 481 vehicle in early-May 2009, the company launched an extensive survey of its fleet which revealed that the new vehicles suffered from serious construction flaws. This revelation marked the start of the most serious crisis in the company’s history: for several years, passengers and staff alike were to repeatedly experience service cancellations. These problems were compounded by major mistakes which S-Bahn Berlin’s management had made. Parent company Deutsche Bahn pulled the ‘emergency brake’ on 2 June 2009, when it suspended S-Bahn Berlin’s management and appointed a new team of experienced executives. These professionals had a mandate to leave no stone unturned and approve every investment necessary to get the company ‘back on track’. They made full use of these powers, but it was to take four years of hard work before S-Bahn services were once more as good as they should be. 

The crisis years at S-Bahn Berlin

Restricting services after wheel disc’s breakage

Following the fateful breaking of a wheel disc on 1 May 2009, an in-depth survey was carried out to assess just how much stress vehicles’ wheels could cope with, a process which also saw the involvement of Germany’s Federal Rail Authority (EBA). The findings were troubling. The fatigue strength of the wheel discs fell well short of the manufacturer’s claims and the requirements stipulated by EBA, and they would require replacement as a result.

In early-June 2009, S-Bahn Berlin informed EBA that it would replace its trains’ wheels ahead of schedule and substantially reduce its inspection intervals. The company had to cut vehicle availability by some 50 quarter-trains, and scores of lines had to make do with shorter trains.

According to an EBA audit from the end of June 2009, the rail operator had overshot the agreed inspection intervals time and again. This had the consequence of removing another 150 quarter-trains from service immediately. The combined impact of this and the requirement to send trains for inspection on time was immense: only some 300 quarter-trains were now available for operation, so overall services had to be severely curtailed.

In mid-July 2009, EBA issued another ruling demanding additional safety checks. As a result, only one third of the total fleet – some 165 vehicles – was in operation for a two-week period. Services were completely suspended on the key east-west line through the city centre and on numerous peripheral routes. Regional trains from other German states were brought in so regional services that followed S-Bahn routes could help counteract the shutdowns, while restricted operations were imposed on other S-Bahn lines. It was not possible to use S-Bahn vehicles from elsewhere in Germany because of the Berlin network’s unique power system.

Due to the cracks and inadequate strength plaguing wheel discs and axles, the wheelsets of every single class had to be replaced with stronger components. For the class 481 alone, this amounted to 4,000 wheelsets for all 500 quarter-trains. All replacements were completed by the end of 2011, entailing a cost to the company of €50 million for class 481.

First roll-out

On 3 August 2009, the emergency timetable with its mere 165 quarter-trains was withdrawn, and 339 quarter-trains were gradually redeployed in the subsequent period. Maintaining day-to-day services and providing passengers with the necessary information were a massive challenge that the company had to address. 

Vehicle availability at new depths

Inspections held on 13 August 2009 revealed a new problem: for years, S-Bahn Berlin had been handling brake cylinders in a way which contravened the repair guidelines laid down by the components’ manufacturer. This information was forwarded to EBA, and the S-Bahn operator agreed to run additional safety checks on all its vehicles. Inspectors then discovered on 7 September 2009 that four out of the eight brake cylinders of a class 481 quarter-train were not functioning though they had fully passed their check just one week previously. It was likely that the entire class 481 suffered from the same problem, so the company decided to immediately suspend the use of any vehicle whose brake cylinders had been in use over a certain mileage figure.

This move once again decimated the number of quarter-trains available for use: on 8 September 2009, only 163 were fit for operation. The company imposed the same restricted service that had been in place from 20 July to 3 August. 

Second roll-out

The second phase of the emergency timetable lasted until 27 September 2009. VBB, the transport association for the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, and both states’ governments were involved in the renewed roll-out. Between late-September and the end of 2009, over 400 quarter-trains were returned to service.

Winter difficulties

The winter of 2009-2010 caused yet more problems that restricted vehicle availability for S-Bahn Berlin; traction motors were the main culprits: wind-blown snow penetrated the motors, leading to short-circuits and failures. Approximately 3,000 traction motors were affected, and they all had to be overhauled or replaced.

The same harsh weather also caused sanding devices to freeze on class 480 and 481 trains. These vehicles had to reduce speeds to 60km/h. Heating units were installed in the sandboxes of 570 quarter-trains. Today, heating the pipes of the sand filling systems eliminates the risk of freezing. Additionally the trains have been fitted with a new and innovative monitoring system especially developed for this purpose: automatic sand level sensors that permit drivers to check each sandbox from their cabs.

Increasing vehicle capacities

The fresh blow to S-Bahn Berlin’s train capacities in winter 2010-2011 prompted the company to create two working groups made up of independent, external rail technology experts with the task of assessing the company’s planned and implemented measures for permanently resolving its acute shortage of vehicles. In their final report, these experts stated that S-Bahn Berlin had made the right choices and that risks of failure could be substantially reduced thanks to the measures undertaken by the company.

Along with the major undertaking of replacing wheels, the company revised how maintenance activities were organised and dedicated itself to addressing the extensive package of necessary technical measures. For example, S-Bahn Berlin opted to reactivate 20 decommissioned quarter-trains from the class 485. The total costs for these investments came to €16 million.

Over time, these measures enabled the company to successively reintroduce more vehicles to the network. Since mid-2013, about 530 vehicles have been in service every day on the network’s lines.

Causes: management errors and substandard manufacturing

In September 2009, S-Bahn Berlin and its parent company, Deutsche Bahn (DB), hired an independent external law firm to investigate the issues that had come to light.

When presented in February 2010, the lawyers’ report singled out three key reasons for the disruption to services: technical flaws in the 481 class trains for which the manufacturer bore responsibility; management errors within S-Bahn Berlin; and severe problems in how maintenance work was organised. The report’s findings were used as a starting point for reorganising workshop structures with the objective of enhancing levels of on-site responsibility: centralised management was done away with in favour of reinstalling one plant manager at each workshop. Another move saw responsibility for specific models uncoupled from maintenance activities, as separate teams were established for this and production-linked quality assurance. S-Bahn Berlin was also obliged to greatly expand maintenance capacities in order to cope with the scope of necessary technical work, ranging from overhauling brakes and sand filling systems to the gargantuan task of replacing trains’ wheelsets.

After the crisis – returning to form

It was only thanks to S-Bahn Berlin’s unsparing and comprehensive investigation into all of the difficulties, that the company was able to tackle these problems and exit from the crisis stronger than ever before. Its objective was to regain the trust of Berlin’s citizens, the nation’s political figures and Germany’s rail authorities. This mission appears to have succeeded, as passenger numbers have not declined as was initially feared. The opposite has happened: Berlin’s residents continue to rely on their S-Bahn network. One factor in this process was the company’s efforts to make up for the inconvenience caused to passengers. For example, it offered free journeys and gave long-time customers and students a total of four month’s free travel. This three-part programme cost the company approximately €150 million.

The crisis has had another, unforeseen consequence: S-Bahn Berlin is now more transparent than any other railway undertaking. It and VBB routinely publish key figures on performance-related topics such as punctuality of services, vehicle availability, cleanliness, etc.

S-Bahn Berlin’s timetable has returned to normal: all of the mandated services are up and running once more, apart from a few supplementary connections at rush hour. The state governments of Berlin and Brandenburg have every reason to be pleased, as the rail services they order in their capacity as public transport suppliers are delivered with reliability ratings of 99.3% (99.2% for Berlin, 100% for Brandenburg).

S-Bahn Berlin now provides more services than in the pre-crisis years, as Berlin and Brandenburg have both ordered additional capacities. S-Bahn trains now clock up more miles, up from 31.8 million to 32.4 million train-path kilometres, revealing that the company has fully recovered from the crisis.

Similarly, an increase in subscription tickets proves that the company has won back its customers’ trust: figures rose from 177,000 in 2010 to 186,000 in 2011, and then increased from 191,000 in 2012 to 197,000 in 2013. Finally, in March 2014, S-Bahn Berlin acquired its 200,000th subscription-paying customer. Ticket revenue rose to €374.6 million in 2013, up on the previous year’s figure of €339.4 million.

As a result, the company was once again back in the black at the end of 2013, following four years of negative financial figures. Total losses for the company amounted to some €350 million, a sum which was offset by the DB Group.

Innovations for the future – technology that people will love


Last year, S-Bahn Berlin commissioned a train driver support system called FASSI. It entailed the creation of a background system, communication links with vehicles, and the inclusion of an additional monitor in drivers’ cabs. One of the benefits of FASSI is the way that it reduces energy consumption: the system recommends features which can be turned off while travelling, thereby enabling drivers to cut energy usage. As of summer 2015, the use of FASSI will also enable drivers to do away with all of the cumbersome forms and paperwork they are currently required to have with them while driving. As the new system monitors a train’s location, drivers can be informed if and how long they should wait at a stop in order to connect with another train. 

Information campaign

S-Bahn Berlin is pressing ahead with its investments in an extensive passenger information offering. The free S-Bahn app is a one-stop platform for data that had previously been scattered across a host of communication channels. This information supplements the company’s much-used webpage (7.6 million clicks in 2013) and its popular Twitter account, which supplies upward of 20,000 followers with the latest information quickly and conveniently. The smart use of new media follows the comprehensive installation of modern LCD information displays and new sound systems on S-Bahn station platforms.

Electronic destination displays are part of BIS, S-Bahn Berlin’s new operating and information system, and they have so far been installed at most stations, providing departure times and train cancellations. Staff at S-Bahn Berlin’s operations HQ and key stations can also add information whenever necessary. At the same time, stations were fitted with a fully automatic Voice over IP sound system that supplies passengers with spoken information.

In great shape for the future

S-Bahn Berlin is well on its way to recovering its position as the lynchpin in Berlin’s public transport system. The company’s passenger figures reached a new record in 2013 – people made no less than 402 million journeys by S-Bahn. This follows the previous year’s surge, with passenger numbers rising from 383 million to 395 million. Having survived its crisis, S-Bahn Berlin is now in a stronger position than ever before and ready to face whatever challenges the future may bring.

This view is also shared by customers: in the most recent Passenger Satisfaction Index (PSI) from November 2014, S-Bahn Berlin scored 2.46, its best November rating since the first PSI was compiled in 1996. Covering a host of factors such as the S-Bahn network’s quality, its stations and range of services, the questionnaires ask customers to rate these different factors on a scale of 1 (very satisfied) to 5 (very dissatisfied).

One thing is clear: the S-Bahn team is fully motivated to deliver the best for its passengers. This is currently a crucial point, as Berlin and Brandenburg have put the operation of the network’s circle lines (‘Ringbahn’) out to tender – the contract will comprise some nine million train-kilometres, which corresponds to about one third of the entire network. S-Bahn Berlin is confident that, come 2024, it will be able to look back with pride on 100 years of tradition, dependability and innovation.


Peter Buchner has been Chairman of the Board of Directors at S-Bahn Berlin GmbH since July 2009. Following his degree in business administration, Peter started his career at Deutsche Bundesbahn. He took over as Managing Director at Usedomer Bäderbahn in 1994, later returning to DB AG to contribute to the company’s first tenders for services of regional and local rail passenger transport. In 1997 Peter joined DB Regio AG’s Berlin-Brandenburg unit and became a member of the northeast region’s management in 2000. He has also served as Managing Director at two bus service operators for 10 years.

Ingo Priegnitz has held the position of S-Bahn Berlin’s press spokesperson since 1998. He is part of DB AG’s regional communications team for the states of Berlin, Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. After earning a degree in political science, he joined RIAS Berlin as a radio journalist in 1990. With the creation of new radio services for reunited Germany’s eastern states, he worked as a writer, host and reporter for Ostdeutscher Rundfunk Brandenburg, Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, Deutschlandradio and Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg’s information channel.

Felix Pohl has been Head of the Marketing Department at S-Bahn Berlin GmbH since July 2007. After earning his degree in law, Felix started his labour force in the Legal Department of Deutsche Bahn AG in 2000. Between 2000 and 2007 he consulted the subsidiaries and the Board of Directors of Deutsche Bahn AG in all legal affairs in matters of antitrust, competition, state aid and public procurement law issues, in particular in the rail transport sector.