Marschbahn woes to continue

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245 212 at Westerland on a rake of drafted-in DB Intercity stock, 08/04/17 (JW)

Regional traffic on the Hamburg to Westerland “Marschbahn” route has been suffering from disruption for some time, and this does not look to end any time soon.  From a haulage and photography perspective, this may result in some interesting opportunities to remain present until Spring 2018.

This passenger rail traffic on the Marschbahn is some of the most important in Germany, given that the railway represents the only fixed transport link between the mainland and the North Sea island of Sylt, via the Hindenburgdamm causeway.  Sylt is a popular tourist destination, and it relies on the train service over the causeway to function effectively – all road traffic has to be conveyed on trains to and from Niebüll, and this itself has been a particular political hot potato over recent years.

The operation of the Hamburg to Westerland regional passenger trains passed from DB Regio to the private operator Nord-Ostsee-Bahn (NOB) at the December 2005 timetable change.  NOB retained the franchise for 11 years, operating the service with little fuss with a mixture of Siemens class 223 and MaK class 251 diesel locomotives.

Motive Power

2014 marked the root of the current problems.  The organisation that co-ordinates public transport in Schleswig-Holstein – now known as “NAH.SH” – decreed that a fleet of 15 brand-new Bombardier Traxx class 245.2 locomotives (245 201-215) would be procured by the investment company Paribus for use specifically on the Marschbahn regional trains, regardless of operator.  These entered traffic from late 2015.  At about the same time, it was announced that the franchise would be returning to DB Regio as of the December 2016 timetable change, using the 245.2s and the existing Bombardier “Married Pair” carriages.

However, problems with the 245.2s have been legion since day one.  Initially, they suffered from frequent overheating issues and required fire brigade attendance worryingly often.  Software problems have been frequent and oil and coolant issues have been frequently reported as the cause of failures too.  This is over and above an acceptable level of “teething troubles” and is clearly unsustainable. In October 2017 it was announced that they must again go through a rolling programme of works visits for software updates and that the fleet is not expected to be back at the planned-for level of availability until Spring 2018.

Part of the problem, it is commonly believed by railwaymen and observers alike, is that the 245s are very technology-heavy locomotives, a fleet of which has been ordered without any real prototype having been tested.  Throughout the entire history of (West) German diesel and electric motive power, all new technology has been thoroughly tested on the duties expected to be carried out before an order is placed – here, we are seeing issues being discovered for the first time on the front line.  The Marschbahn is far from flat and the locos get very warm on these demanding duties.

With a full fleet of 245.2s unable to be fielded, DB Fernverkehr Niebüll depot’s allocation of 245.0s (245 021-027) have been pushed into service on these diagrams, with at least one such loco being in use on these workings each day.  Originally procured to replace pairs of 218s on Intercity and car train workings, their own poor account of themselves has seen them generally relegated to half-length Niebüll to Westerland car trains only – although it is technically possible to get haulage from these (thanks to the “Sylt Shuttle Plus” DMU workings that attach to the rear of the car trains – article on this in production), they are otherwise very rare on passenger trains.

Additionally, a number of class 223s and 251s have been called back to the Marschbahn to help prop the service up.  It is unclear whether these machines will be easily ridden behind once the 245.2s are back in action.

Only one class 218 “rabbit” diesel-hydraulic working has been recorded on the regional traffic since the troubles began – when 218 381 piloted an early morning southbound service to save on a light engine path.  Further 218 use is not expected on these services as they are booked to be worked entirely by drivers who no longer sign them.

October 2017 has also seen problems with class 245s hit the headlines in the Frankfurt area – perhaps surprisingly given they have five locos (245 016-020) for four very leisurely peak hour-only diagrams.  Commuters were reported as being “left in the lurch” specifically by 245s, which suffered three fires in just eight days.

Of note, the Intercity traffic on the Marschbahn – almost entirely in the hands of pairs of 40-year-old class 218s – is not affected.  These locomotives continue to provide sterling and reliable service, and some are even being put through Bremen works even now, ostensibly to continue to work on Intercity duties on this route until 2025.


The “Married Pair” carriages are also providing trouble.  On 11th November 2016, a coupling defect was identified with one of the vehicles that led to the entire fleet of 90 being immediately withdrawn from traffic.  Even now, nearly a year later, only 68 are back in service.  This has led to all manner of scratch sets being formed from withdrawn Intercity and “fresh air” regional stock obtained from across Germany.

Indeed, DB Regio, which inherited the fleet at a time when none of the vehicles was operational, are apparently considering pursuing NOB for some form of compensation.

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