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Eine Rückkehr nach Frankfurt

by DoDo Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 04:42:05 AM EST

This summer, after spending half my vacation chasing a cycle race on trains in rain-soaked France, I went to Frankfurt am Main in Germany. It was a nostalgic trip, I lived there for two years almost two decades ago.

Below the fold: a travelogue and some observations.

Two new skyscrapers in Frankfurt's bank district: left, the Japan Center (115 m, 1996); right, the Commerzbank Tower (1997), until recently Europe's tallest at 258,7 m (structural height)/300.1 m (with antenna)

I photo-diaried the French leg of my journey in Un tour de France 1/2 and 2/2. I also posted a parallel light rail diary. This diary is partly about trains – check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.

After my two-hour mad rush through Paris to Gare l'Est, I just made it, and boarded my train to Germany.

High-speed comparisons

...is what I hoped to be able to make, by taking a TGV POS one way and an ICE-3 back on the same line (the new LGV Est Européenne), with the same top speed of 320 km/h. But what I got wasn't really comparable.

Franco-German parallel service: on the left SNCF (French National Railways) TGV POS 4404, on the right DB (German Railways) 406 082 (4682), the ICE-3 I boarded here in Gare l'Est, Paris

As told in the first diary, my TGV was "only" an older but refurbished 300 km/h TGV Réseau set. Then in the ICE, I sat at the end of the last car, with perfect view on the receding track across the drivers' window.

Even the interior of that end compartment was different from the rest of the train. So, only comparing this with the refurbished TGV, it was more spartan, but with an adjustable seat design. At any rate, both were far from the most comfortable second-class interior I travelled on, that of the older ICE-1 sets.

Both vehicles had a rather smooth ride, but also sometimes a tendency for carbody yaw. I felt this more on the ICE – but one should expect this to be worst just at the end of a motorised end car.

The strangest thing was that the speed "felt" much less on the ICE-3, even though in reality the ICE went a bit faster. I explain this with (a) the track view, (b) looking backwards (both of which make one look more into the distance); and (c) the motor noise, which had a deep tone even at top speed.

:: :: :: :: ::

They journey not only crossed from one country to another, but just around the border, from cold and rain into summer sunshine. However, the high-speed train only took me just across the border, to Saarbrücken. There, I had to change to a regular locomotive-pulled IC train. That journey showed the differences to France, and also all the ills and improvements of the German Railways in recent years (see my recent frontpage story).

The state of the German Railways – reflected in one train journey

The ride began with an eight-minute delay – our locomotive wasn't ready in time. The regular-interval train was packed full, and warming up, with air conditioners not yet running.

On the first hundred kilometres, we often slowed down to walking speed: construction works! The German connecting section to the French high-speed line was neither ambitious nor on-time: only a (partial) upgrade to 200 km/h, which won't be ready until December at the earliest. Though, I should note that a full high-speed line would have required expensive long tunnels on the next 50 km, where trains now snake along a beautiful deep valley with 80–100 km/h.

Main stations in three major cities along the way were getting nice, though not too ambitious upgrades. The picture was more mixed for smaller stations: new high platforms for the new extended S-Bahn (suburban rapid transit) service, but with the ghosts of deserted old station buildings behind. How they imagine efficient parallel freight and 200 km/h express service on this busy line, as some wayside stations are turned into mere stopping places without sidings, is beyond me.

Contrasting branchline death were new tracks for the S-Bahn between Ludwigshafen and Mannheim. From the latter to Frankfurt, a high-speed line has been held up by a years-long dispute between the city and the railway. DB's management wants a line bypassing the city, for shorter journey times to Stuttgart. But the city fears that that could lead to DB taking Mannheim off the ICE service map completely (as it happened to a major city in another part of Germany). So on I went on the old line in the Rhine Valley, along the vineyard-covered foothills of the Odenwald.

:: :: :: :: ::

I arrived in Frankfurt in the late evening – into high summer. The local heat record for the day broke. What a contrast! Just this morning on the outskirts of Paris, I feared that I caught a cold, now I sweat in a T-shirt around 22h (during my first city-walk).

I reserved a room with kitchen in a cheap apartment-hotel, which even took 25% off the normal booking price. So I thought at last I get some rest, and so will my dangerously melting finances.

As I walked along the shore of the river Main to the hotel, along a traffic jam, I heard ever louder thumping hip-hop music. But it didn't came from a car radio. And it wasn't just hip-hop, but all kinds of music, each trying to out-decibel the others. It came from the riverside.

So I get to the hotel, the owner takes me up, to a river-facing room getting even more of the noise, shows me around, and then I ask him what's up. "It's Museumsfest, a three-day festival of the museums, but with music from all around the world!" Then he leads me to the balcony, and has the gall to say: "Here you can enjoy the party!"...

Taking a rest, fugghetit. I had to switch from a get-up-at-five lifestyle to a go-to-sleep-at-2am one.

Above: Fireworks on the last day of the Museumsfest. It was in segments: someone read excerpts from some piece of literature, then fireworks somehow inspired by it and with connected music followed.

Below: safety must be

The party itself wasn't a bad idea. With music from all around the world came food, too, and I grew fond of the East African stand. However, I saw the city itself only on night walks, so sorry not many photos.

How a city changes

Frankfurt is a bank center, and the bank district is Europe's largest assemblage of skyscrapers, earning the city the nickname "Mainhattan". So the most visible change was all the new skyscrapers that sprang up during the dotcom boom in the nineties. But none are built now (unlike in Moscow and London).

The renewal of Frankfurt's giant main station (mentioned in my Railway Cathedrals diary) and the landmark Eiserner Steg bridge also date from the nineties. Switching to the privately-owned, the subterranean supermarket of the Kaufhof shopping centre changed from a mass consumption centre between bare concrete walls to a higher-end supermarket with wooden interior and a large assortment of organic food products.

However, there were other impressions.

Frankfurt skyline from the S-Bahn train window. Left the futuristic industry fair centre, and the Messeturm (256.6 m, 1991, I saw it rising to the sky) – with 63 floors still the European skyscraper with the most levels. But the big bushland at center is the areal of the one-time freight railway terminal, cleared for property development projects that never came

The main shopping street Zeil seems run-down: holes in the decorative stone road surface covered just with asphalt, some shops closed, dirt under the banks, and I have been offered drugs while sitting on one. Overall, the city seemed stuck in development and less cared for since the boom years.

But the biggest change, at least to me, was something else.

"It's midnight and no one is to be seen, but a car stops at the red light at a cross-walk on a country road, from a farm to a bus stop. Which country are we in?"

By the end of my time in then West Germany, I didn't even understood why this line, popular among the expats there, was supposed to be a joke... what I saw was that (traffic) rules can work if people keep them.

But now I found a much more lax traffic behaviour. Worse than at home, worse than in France. Especially pedestrians: they crossed cross-walks as if there were no traffic lights, whether cars came or not. All the traffic lights had little tables saying, "Look out for the lights – be a model for children!", with zero effect.

:: :: :: :: ::

Other things change less. Next to the railway terminal is the Bahnhofsviertel (="station quarter"), which I walked across daily. This is considered the 'notorious' part of Frankfurt, where heroin addicts make their appearance and where sex shops cluster, but just next to the latter, you can find halal meat shops. The ethnic mix is even greater than in the rest of Frankfurt, with Turkish dominance. In the middle of it, there is a classic zero-luxury pub, with a demonstrative German flag in the window – sign of the history of a more hampered immigrant integration than in France.

When I lived here (to be precise, residing in a village belonging to a town just outside Frankfurt), my parents took the family to excursions every weekend. That way, I got to know the surrounding area within a radius of 150–200 km pretty well. When there wasn't much time, we only went to Frankfurt, or to nearby town Friedberg.

Evening lights in Friedberg's castle. I must have climbed the Adolfsturm at least a dozen times. Beware: it's only open between 14h and 18h on summertime weekends

A homecoming and reflections on recent history

The village I lived in is on a branchline. The trains are newer, but the track is decrepit. The platform was again new – but, eerily, that was about the biggest change I noticed in the village.

Cab view from a clean new double-deck driving trailer upon weed-infested track, at the road crossing in Gronau

DB 628 697 in Gronau en route to Bad Vilbel. The 628 series, then in another livery, just replaced the old railbuses at the end of my second school-year here

DB 218 498 is back with the double-deck consist in Gronau

I remembered all the streets and houses, only some were re-painted (including our once apartment block). But when I lived here, new homes were built in a major expansion of the village, and a new elementary school. While say the bike roads weren't too old either.

The village bus stop. In my first school-year, I boarded the school bus here – some of the old graffiti is still there on the brick wall under the rain roof

We lived in one flat in this apartment block, between a family with a pre-school-age first-born who decided that my brother be his playmate (whatever my brother or his own mother thought), and a nice middle-aged woman whom we learnt to have been an astrologer on the day we left

Where two streams meet. We used to picnic on the peninsula at centre. There are gravel bike roads on both sides, which are full during rush-hour and the week-ends

>An apple tree just outside the village. I remember walking over its foul fallen fruits on the one occasion I walked all the way home from school (after the bike accident mentioned below)

The sense of the place being frozen in time was worsened by schoolchildren walking home, I found myself trying to recognise my younger brother's classmates... Later, when I photographed my once home, a truck stopped beside me, and its Turkish-German driver greeted me pointedly. First I thought hard whether I can recognise a former classmate in him, and only figured that I'm just suspicious when he asked if I am a pro photographer or what's up.

In the town the village belongs to, I captured the very last moment to see my school as I knew it: renovation just started.

The open gangway of my former school in Bad Vilbel. Look at the bench the construction workers are taking a lunch break on: in my first year here, I used to sit there after the schoolbus arrived

A nondescript garden town street corner in Bad Vilbel, with a memory: when I bike-commuted to school in my second year here, I had the bike accident I wrote about here

However, walking into town, apart from grown trees, I got an even stronger sense of stasis than in the village.

Bad Vilbel is an old hot springs town, but it wasn't posh like the other Bad-something towns more to the west, being more dominated by the mineral water industry. (I had to buy a bottle of local brand Hassia and take it home.) So when I lived here, the city center was in the midst of a major polishing-up, involving façade renovations, decorative stone pavement for streets, new parks and bridges, and the conversion of a moated castle into an open-air theatre.

Bad Vilbel's renovated main street Frankfurter Straße, with the old major's office in front

But while you may see just another picture-perfect German town above, I saw the end state of this renovation – and only wear & tear since. Including the worn pavement. Only in the commercial district to the north did I see new or newly reconstructed buildings (plus the wind turbines in the fields nearby).

But the public buildings, including the indoor swimming pool and the railway station building, were in decay – the latter, no more manned despite being a junction station in a town of 30,000, is dark and dirty and smells like an unkempt toilet.

Seeing this apparent stagnation, I was thinking whether it is a reflection of recent German history: the heavy spending of West German public funds in the East after Reunification, and then the tendency for less public and more private economy when political elites listened to the siren calls of neo-liberals.

:: :: :: :: ::

As I began my 10-hour train ride home, I realised this nostalgia trip was one thing certainly: too short. I'd like to go back for at least a month...

Morning rush in Frankfurt's terminal station, as I wait for my Dortmund–Budapest EC to arrive on track 6 (left: 111 213 with regional train, centre: an ICE-1 high-speed train with domed restaurant car curves down the ramp from a bridge of the Main)


*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 04:47:34 AM EST
Thanks for this DoDo. There isn't much more to say than that I completely agree with you.
by PeWi on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 05:13:54 AM EST
Agree with PeWi, not much to add.

I would make explicit one of your point though. Economics as practised by neo-liberals does not measure the wearing away of the pavement, or the general decay of public spaces. That's one of the biggest problems all around.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 06:02:47 AM EST
I can never quite tell when I'm on an ICE1 or 2, they look the same. But the ICE3 is a better ride, even if the interior may not be quite as spacy. I also drove the Thalys once, but that felt a bit rickety at high speed.

Stations are kept by the Deutsche Bahn, so any decay there is due to rationalisation. Baths are kept by the local government, their status will often be an reflection of the priorities and state of finances of the municipality, which is influenced mainly by property prices, business activity and joblessness.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 08:24:13 AM EST
I also thought of the possibility that the downtown renovation drive emptied the town's coffers, and only paying debts remained afterwards. However, I checked, and found that our major left office after 24 years in 2004, with a successor from the same party (CDU...) being elected with a rather high margin, so it seems he didn't give that many reasons for people to blame him.

I note that while railway stations are owned by DB, renovations are usually paid for by a mix of public sources, any of which can be the project owner. So even if DB unilaterally withdraws from the station, the town could have spent on it.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 11:10:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
it is/was a couple of things.

1) Empty town coffers between - say - 2002 and 2005. You could read about towns reducing opening times for public libraries, public swimming pools etc. Even closing some of them. All in an attempt to save some money. It didn´t help that state and federal money for infrastructure also dried up during that period. So lot´s of things were delayed, postponed...
Going from personal observation that only started to change in late 2006 / early 2007 with the higher tax returns.

2) Just to add to 1), there was a tax reform in 2000. Besides lowering taxes it unfortunately (?) included some loopholes that allowed larger companies to drastically reduce their taxes even more for some years. It was even reported that some companies managed to pay practically no local taxes (going to the town/city) and only very reduced state and federal taxes.
I imagine "Deutsche Bank" and all the other large banks in Frankfurt were also benefiting from that "reform". Which might explain some of the problems of Frankfurt even today.

3) During that time some town and city mayors also started to complain about the "solidarity pact" with East Germany (Transfer of money from Western to Eastern Germany). Cities like Dortmund in the Ruhr region for example had to deal with high unemployment, a high rate of immigrants while losing tax paying businesses. And on top of that they allegedly still had to transfer some money east. (I didn´t check that. Just repeating German TV here.)

4) The DB CEO Mehdorn is one of the biggest fans of railway privatization. Of course for that he needs to show profits. Which - I suspect - means that he´d like to concentrate on the profitable ICE and IC routes while getting rid of the non-profitable short-distance and rural routes.
AFAIK at least some rural routes only stay open because local and state money subsidies are paid to the DB.

Your observation probably describes a combination of 1) and 4). And maybe 2)?

by Detlef (Detlef1961_at_yahoo_dot_de) on Sat Oct 6th, 2007 at 02:30:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
  1. That sure was the end of it -- and the most recent higher tax returns were also visible (school renovation, and a new road into the commercial district). But what happened in the nineties?

  2. Yeah, I remember reading about negative corporate taxes, it was obscene. OTOH even with all this discussion about reduced public spending, it is interesting that those banks with the extra-profits didn't built new skyscrapers since 2000. Say, Deutsche Bank itself, still residing in the same glass twin towers as 20 years ago. (Maybe actually the sign of some financial rationality?)

  3. So not only wasn't just Stoiber who complained about the Soli, but mayors did so explicitely, too? Interesting. But AFAIK communities don't pay it directly, only federal and state tax is involved (e.g. the West German towns and cities are hit indirectly, by getting less back). Or... there is the Solidaritätszuschlag on corporate tax, maybe somehow that limits local governments' ability to tax?

  4. I have to precisify these.
a) Mehdorn is not a that big fan of rail privatisation, at least not since after a few years in office. It is well known that his main gripe is with the separation of infrastrucure and operations (something I happen to agree on with him, but perhaps not for the same reasons). At one point in the tussle over the issue, he told press something to the tune that "rail privatisation is what the politicians want, I only act accordingly!".
b) While "keep high-end services & if possible drop the rest" is indeed the big picture, S-Bahn service can also be profitable, or at least traffic with a secure long-term outlook for subsidies. Thus for example DB fought tooth-and-nails to get the RheinNeckar S-Bahn franchise. Now, Bad Vilbel is a busy station on a mainline with S-Bahn service, so I don't think DB is trying to sabotage local public transport here. OTOH sparing maintenance and personal costs (and maybe also expecting to sell the building or the real estate it's on) does indeed fit into the anorexic privatisation drive theme.
c) It's local passenger services, and most of them, that only run because subsidies paid by the Länder to DB (or a private provider). Most local lines retain freight service even after passenger service is discontinued. And even if there is no freight service, DB needs a permission from the federal railway agency (EBA) to really close the line (and tear up the tracks). However, at all three stages, DB's management can play games -- e.g. let a line decay until say a bridge is declared unsafe but renovation in that stage is too costy.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Oct 6th, 2007 at 03:45:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I can never quite tell when I'm on an ICE1 or 2, they look the same.

Since the ICE-1 running gear has been replaced in the wake of the Eschede disaster, I guess difficult to tell inside. Except if you're in the restaurant car, or a driving trailer (the latter only ICE-2). But outside, the swing doors for the couplers on the noses identify the ICE-2 (the headlights had the be moved up too, resulting in a less sleek appearance).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 02:40:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Very nice.

I don't really know Frankfurt. I used to go there once a month or so when I was a Betriebsrat (before I started working for myself), and back then the junkies in front of the main station were a regular feature.

Back then in the pre-ICE era, the train ride home took a good 2 hours (as opposed to just 1 today) but it was a lot prettier: Frankfurt to Mainz, then along the Rhine past the Loreley and Kaub with Burg Pfalzgrafenstein, and then Koblenz/Bonn/home. I never worried about a seat reservation either - just headed to the dining car and had a couple of beers.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt ät gmail dotcom) on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 01:57:41 PM EST
Regarding the junkies, while I knew two decades ago that the Hbf's surroundings are said to be their center, I somehow never met any there (Ditto at Hamburg's Hbf when I was there).

The Bingen-Koblenz section of the Rhine is one of the reasons I'd go back. My favorite spot was Burg Stahleck in Bacharach, good view of the valley (and also the Pfalz in the river).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 02:36:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
that's the one section of Germany I've really spent any time in. I think I've visited every single castle between Koblenz and The Pfaltz. I still have pieces of Ash football pitch embedded in one knee from a riotously drunken game of football against some German schoolkids. It used to have the best beer in Germany, but apparently the local brewery has been taken over and the quality has suffered.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 02:47:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
We used to pass through Frankfurt several times a year and I loved to spend a few days laying over there after being in some less pleasant surroundings.  The first booking we ever had on an ICE train (Frankfurt) taught us an important lesson.  We stood by our car until just about boarding time and as we approached, intending to board, the steps suddenly withdrew without warning leaving us to scramble for a later train!

Great diary DoDo, brings back lots of memories of Frankfurt and train travel in Europe.  

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears

by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sat Oct 6th, 2007 at 10:31:16 PM EST

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