GERMAN COMEDY fans howled when a character in “The Big Bang Theory”, a nerdy sitcom, likened the regularity of his bowel movements to a “German train schedule”. Scatology will always be welcome in Germany. But it was the absurdity of the comparison that stood out. Last year one-quarter of Deutsche Bahn’s long-distance services were late. Commuters are resigned to delays, missed connections and overcrowded carriages. Surprisingly to many, among Europeans only Romanian, Bulgarian and Italian passengers are unhappier with their trains. “It’s very frustrating,” says Luise Maudanz, a project manager. After regular cancellations on the Berlin-Munich line last year, she started flying instead.

Having been hauled over the coals by ministers, Deutsche Bahn (DB), Europe’s largest train operator, has presented a five-point plan to improve its performance, including more money and a hiring spree. But progress will be slow, at best. Germany’s low-investment culture has left its infrastructure dilapidated and outdated. The rail network has not kept pace with the long-term population shift to cities or the increase in freight traffic from ports. Disposal of some foreign interests could help fund the business at home; DB’s 700 subsidiaries operate in over 130 countries. But the estimated €4bn ($4.5bn) that the sale of Arriva, a British transport firm, would raise is a fraction of the investment needed. Passenger numbers have doubled since 1994, when DB was formed. The government wants them to do so again by 2030.

Germany’s government, which owns DB, has not helped. A pension reform in 2014 caused a wave of early retirement that left DB scrambling for staff in a tight labour market. Lower taxes and fees on other forms of transport have tilted the field against rail. It is too easy to blame Germany’s crafty car lobbyists, says Christian Böttger at Berlin’s University of Applied Sciences. Just 7% of Germans make a long-distance trip once a month; one-third never use public transport at all. Politicians react accordingly.

Some urge a sense of proportion. In 2017 a survey by BCG, a consultancy, placed Germany’s rail service in the first of three European tiers. Train travel remains affordable, regional services are efficient, and this year passengers should be mollified by new rolling stock and renovated stations. Still, even DB’s management admits punctuality will barely improve in the years ahead.