MADELEINE BRAND, host:
During the Cold War, the commuter train in Berlin, with its strict check points, was a symbol of division between East and West. Later, when the train's links between the two sides were restored, it symbolized Berlin's reunification. This week the S-Bahn, as it's called, has become a symbol for something else, chaos. Entire routes have been shutdown after federal inspectors found many trains had cracked wheels and other problems.
From Berlin, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Nearing the peak of the summer tourist season and the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, officials in the third most visited city in Europe were hoping for a smooth summer, record crowds defying the recession. But tourists who want to hop on a train at Schoenefeld airport these days are greeted with a message in broken English that the main train, the S-Bahn, is kaput.
(Soundbite of railway announcement)
Unidentified Man: May I have your attention? S-Bahn service are currently not (unintelligible).
WESTERVELT: The train from this airport and the main East West S-Bahn lines are not running. Other lines are operating with some 70 percent fewer cars.
(Soundbite of train)
WESTERVELT: The few S-Bahn lines that are running and the cars on the subway, the U-Bahn, are now hazardously overcrowded. Although one tourist from the U.K. said even a broken German rail system is still better than what he's used to, many Berlin residents are not as cheerful. They're angry. They want their trains to run and to run on time. Louisa Miller(ph) is a midwife. She says this week's commute has been chaotic and horrible.
Ms. LOUISA MILLER (Midwife): (Through Translator) This is not good. I'm annoyed. I'm riding late for everything no matter where I'm going. Companies at least compensate me by reducing the price of my monthly ticket.
WESTERVELT: An editorial in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel said wryly, in 1945, it took two and half million Soviet Red Army soldiers to bring Berlin's trains to a grinding halt. The paper said the S-Bahn was able to do the same merely by deploying four incompetent managers. Several top rail officials have already been fired over the fiasco. As another paper put it, heads are rolling but the trains aren't. German authorities have launched criminal investigation amid allegations managers cut back on required safety inspections to save money.
The criminal probe is little comfort to businessmen such as Danny Heim(ph). His 24-hour bar and restaurant at Hackescher Markt in central Berlin is right under the S-Bahn station. These day, the station is deserted and business during this peak summer season is down dramatically.
Mr. DANNY HEIM (Bar & Restaurant Owner, Berlin): Quite a bit, it's a problem.
WESTERVELT: The S-Bahn's parent company, the Deutsche Bahn, is in the process of privatizing after decades of state ownership. So there's potential political fallout as well. Germany holds national elections in September. Already politicians are pointing fingers, calling for greater oversight and some are even blaming capitalism itself. Jutta Matuschek is a senior member of Berlin's Die Linke or the left party, an outgrowth of the old East German Communist party.
Ms. JUTTA MATUSCHEK (Die Linke): (Through Translator) This is really the consequence of the attempts to privatize the company. It seems to drive for profits. And not serving the clients has become the main priority of the S-Bahn.
WESTERVELT: The repair price tag is estimated at over $100 million. A dejected sounding spokesman for the S-Bahn told NPR, the company aims to improve service as soon as possible. But he warned that normal S-Bahn service won't be restored until December, a month after the city celebrates 20 years of the reunification.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin.
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