IT has been a difficult 12 months or so for German Rail (DB). Punctuality on its long-distance network fell to 58% in June 2022 and has only marginally recovered since: an average of 68.7% of trains ran on time or within six minutes of schedule in the first half of 2023, still short of DB’s rather underwhelming target of 70%.

DB blames the poor condition of the network for its travails. Infrastructure failures accounted for an average of 230 disruptions every day in 2022, resulting in the cancellation of an average of 0.8% of DB’s 1600 daily long-distance trains, or a total of 4700. An average of 0.5% of regional services, or 37,000 trains, also failed to run.

Performance is similarly undermined by the intensive programme of reconstruction and rehabilitation to correct many of these issues on DB’s busiest rail corridors. The high utilisation of these routes only compounds the reliability problems caused by speed restrictions, line closures and diversions.

In the face of intense media scrutiny and public consternation, the railway launched a corporate publicity campaign in early September. “More rail for everyone” aims to promote the long-term benefits of DB’s so-called high-performance network and offers a personalised explanation of the intensive work taking place at sites across the country. The campaign urges the public to stay the course as DB strives to deliver a network capable of carrying 25% more freight and nearly 4 billion passengers every year by 2030, double what it is doing now.

These targets come directly from the German federal government. The current coalition wants Germany’s railway to play a central role in reducing emissions from transport by carrying more people and goods, and it is spending big to try and improve network reliability to do so: more than €16bn is available to spend on renewal and maintenance of the network in 2023, which is an increase on the €13.1bn spent in 2022. This is funding the upgrade of 2000km of track, 1800 turnouts and 200 bridges.

The reality is quite different to that presented in well-rehearsed management presentations.

This is not isolated spending. The LuFV III rail infrastructure programme allocates €86bn for maintaining and modernising the national network between 2020 and 2029. The government also confirmed a package worth up to €40bn in August that will fund upgrades on 40 routes totalling 9000km by 2030.

The emphasis is therefore very much on DB to deliver. The 8th Railway Forum held in Berlin on September 6-7 offered a barometer of how DB’s top management is planning to achieve these goals.

Various executives confidently took to the stage to offer their perspective on all manner of topics. Among them was DB’s chief digitalisation and technology officer, Dr Daniela Gerd tom Markotten, who said that while the here and now is important, work must equally be focused on preparing DB for the future and creating an environment “where everyone wants to use the train.”

Digitalisation is DB’s chosen tonic to achieve this objective. For example, Markotten explained the virtues of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help improve performance in activities ranging from more accurate timetabling to improving asset management and facilitating mainline Automatic Train Operation (ATO), where DB is making notable progress in Hamburg. Earlier in the opening morning session, Dr Sigrid Nikutta, executive board member for freight, made an impassioned case for the universal adoption of the Digital Automatic Coupler (DAC) on Europe’s 500,000-strong wagon fleet.

Other speakers described work to develop attractive interior concepts for the ICE high-speed train of the 2030s and sourcing renewable energy for electric traction, which will increase to 67% of DB’s needs by the end of 2023. DB also showcased solutions developed in its own start-up incubator, the Mindbox, many of which are finding their way onto the railway.

DB identified digitalisation as critical to its future as long ago as 2014 and it has remained a central pillar of the various strategies that have emerged since then, including its latest, Strong Rail.

Yet the reality is quite different to the vision presented in well-rehearsed management presentations. DB is a behemoth and it is struggling to align all of its working parts to fully realise the benefits of a truly digitalised business.

This is apparent in the progress made to date with the plan to rollout ETCS across the national network within the next 20 years. DB is making encouraging headway with the Stuttgart Digital Node project and its plan to upgrade 40 routes now includes delivery of ETCS. Firm details of what precisely this will involve are yet to emerge, however, including whether it will involve the decommissioning of class B signalling, a prerequisite to success with ETCS, according to the Stuttgart team. Many of the current network upgrade projects involve expensive and time-consuming renewals of existing lineside signalling. Would this money not be better spent on laying the groundwork for ETCS?

The fragmented approach was apparent during a discussion at the forum on the adoption of digital twins. While DB was praised by participants for for openly providing data, it is tending to do so on individual projects rather than supporting the development of a digital twin for the entire railway, a regularly stated goal for DB.

This is a monumental task, but very much possible according to one of the session’s panellists, Mr Ralf Ritz, director of sales and business transformation, at IT company Dassault Systemes. Ritz challenged the session’s moderator, DB’s chief technology and innovation officer, Mr Rolf Härdi, and other executives to prioritise the DB digital twin. He argued that top management buy-in is crucial if the project is to have any chance of success.

This is true for the wider digitalisation strategy. A single railway approach appears absent in DB’s work to digitalise its activities. Unfortunately, too many silos still exist. DB management should therefore heed their own warnings and work to eliminate them. Only by aligning the digitalisation activities and objectives for all of its various moving parts can DB have any hope of realising the full benefits of the extra capacity, improved efficiency and performance that digitalisation can provide. DB might be talking the talk on digitalisation, but walking the walk is proving a major challenge.