Intercity Bus Trendsetter on Tour
Germany’s bus market is booming! Since early 2013, more and more passengers have been using the services offered by a steadily growing number of operators and are choosing to travel by intercity bus.
The road is positively blinding – it rained during the night, and the wet asphalt is mirror-bright in the morning sun. Driver Ali Aydin straightens his sunglasses. His bus is cruising quietly through the North German lowlands; there’s very little traffic. A few commuters, a couple of tractors. The journey takes us past villages with names like Sülze (“Aspic” in English), Didderse and Wipshausen. Homemade signs along the roadside advertise “Lovely potatoes – fresh from the farm!”, “Firewood, going cheap” and “Tanya’s tasty takeouts”. In the brown fields, crows are pecking at the stubble; moorland sheep are nibbling the fresh spring grass. Sightseeing in the peaceful heart of Lower Saxony – aboard a bus that’s making the railway companies very nervous.
Intercity bus travel is booming
This Friday’s outing is taking us from Hamburg to Munich. Around 30 passengers assembled at eight o’clock this morning in Hamburg’s central bus station – official name: “Bus Port”, because the city is a major port – waiting to board the bright green bus (a MAN Lion’s Coach) operated by travel company MeinFernbus. Some of them are traveling as far as the foothills of the Alps, a trip lasting more than 12.5 hours. Others are disembarking in Braunschweig, Magdeburg or Leipzig. They’re all united by one thing: they’re trendsetters, because they’re traveling by bus rather than by train, budget airline or car. By intercity bus, to be precise. Since the deregulation of Germany’s long-haul bus market on January 1, 2013, business has been booming. By the end of the year, around 40 long-distance bus operators were offering more than 5,000 scheduled trips within Germany each week, according to a survey carried out by the IGES Institute in Berlin on behalf of the Federal Association of German Bus & Coach Operators; just 12 months ago, there were fewer than 1,500. Since then, independent web portal FahrtenFuchs (English: TravelFox) reckons the figure has risen to 8,000 a week. Germany’s long-distance rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) has some serious competition at last. From MeinFernbus.de in particular. The Berlin-based company is currently German market leader, with a 39.7 percent share of the scheduled road miles. Like its competitors, MeinFernbus is attracting young people and senior citizens in particular – a clientele that’s price-sensitive and doesn’t mind spending more time on the road. After all, while long-haul bus journeys are usually much cheaper than comparable trips by train, they do last longer. It takes bus passengers 12.5 hours on average to travel from Hamburg to Munich; by train it takes around six hours.
But intercity buses do excel at one thing: they can drive directly to smaller destinations that are only accessible by train if you’re willing to make multiple changes. As a bonus, passengers enjoy free Internet access by Wi‑Fi, plus snacks for one euro (1.35 dollars) and soft drinks for 1.50 euros (two dollars). More and more operators are pushing into the market; firms like DeinBus.de, Flixbus and ADAC Postbus. It’s not surprising – estimated annual industry sales are as high as 600 million euros. Even Deutsche Bahn is muscling in. Its subsidiary Berlin Linien Bus GmbH has just opened ten new bus routes: Hamburg-Munich and Hamburg-Cologne, for example.
“It’s just like sitting in a helicopter!”
Immediately behind bus driver Ali Aydin sits Reinhardt Kohlrusch. The 64-year-old pensioner from Flensburg has made himself very comfortable. A friend drove him to Hamburg, and now he’s taking the bus all the way to the central bus station in Munich. He always tries to sit in the front row, because “when you’ve got an unobstructed view through that huge windshield, it’s just like sitting in a helicopter!” While he’s finishing his second breakfast – a salami roll and an apple – Kohlrusch tells us all about his seven children and four grandchildren. Nearly all of them live on Lake Starnberg, which is where he’s traveling now. He’s not a native of the Flensburg area, either, as we’d already guessed from his distinctive Bavarian accent. Kohlrusch approves of bus travel: “There’s no stress this way”. It might be a “little quicker” by car, or indeed by train, but the legroom in the bus is unbeatable. His son booked the ticket for him on the Web. Now he can sit and daydream in peace, taking an occasional nap and watching the scenery pass by. Then there’s the price: just 28 euros (38 dollars) for a one-way ticket. For pensioners on a modest income, that makes a very strong case for traveling by bus, laughs Reinhardt Kohlrusch.
Pensioner Kohlrusch is a typical intercity bus customer. “A large proportion of our passengers are traveling as tourists, or visiting friends and family, or going to business appointments,” says Torben Greve, Managing Director of MeinFernbus. As it happens, the new long-distance travel operators are not primarily targeting rail customers. It’s “car drivers in particular” who view intercity buses as a “comfortable and stress-free alternative to making the journey in their own cars,” as Greve puts it. And it’s true: last year, the number of rail passengers didn’t decline, despite the new competition on the nation’s roads. Transport expert Christoph Gipp, one of the consultants working for the IGES Institute in Berlin, believes that many intercity bus passengers are “new travelers”, including many senior citizens who found the whole process of changing trains too strenuous and so didn’t travel at all. Now, thanks to the rapidly growing bus network with its direct connections, this target audience is discovering a new kind of freedom. “Another passenger segment comes from carpooling or car-sharing environments, or previously traveled by car or train,” adds Gipp.
Applause for the driver
The green bus has left the A7 freeway near Soltau-Süd and is now rolling down country roads toward Celle, the first stop of the morning. The highway runs ruler-straight down an avenue of alders and beeches. The morning mist rises from the fields, windmills turn sedately on the horizon, and here and there you can see Lower Saxony’s “green hills”: biogas plants set up by state-of-the-art farming operations. “I love it,” says Ali Aydin, our bus driver. He’s taken off his sunglasses. “This early-morning calm – it’s beautiful.” Aydin, a trained mechanic, tells us how he used to work as a taxi driver in Bad Harzburg and Goslar a couple of years ago. He decided to retrain, and signed up with bus operator “Der Schmidt” in Wolfenbüttel, a subcontractor of MeinFernbus. He’d always wanted to travel further away, not just hang around in the Bad Harzburg neighborhood, and the idea of driving a really big vehicle with plenty of horsepower really appealed to him. And that’s what he’s doing: the MAN bus is propelled by a 440 horsepower engine, as well as AS Tronic, ZF’s 12-speed automatic transmission system. Ali Aydin steers the bus, which can carry nearly 60 passengers, into the bus station in Braunschweig, then picks up the microphone and wishes his passengers a safe onward journey – a new driver will take them the rest of the way to Munich. Aydin laughs, pulls on his green MeinFernbus anorak, and climbs out – to applause from his passengers. In 20 years of driving a taxi, he never experienced that.