Editorial | Headed for disaster

DSB can make the trains run mostly on time, but poor decision-making is a sign of the rail company’s deep-seated problems

If DSB’s executives were to spend as much time trying to get their trains to run on time as they apparently spend on silencing critical journalists, this country might have the world’s best train service. Instead, travellers find themselves slowed or just plain stopped by decisions the company has made in recent years.

DSB certainly isn’t the world’s worst train service. Its trains arrive on time 95 percent of the time (an improvement over recent years), and passenger satisfaction is above the EU average. 

But then again, it shouldn’t take a Swiss to run the trains on time here. Denmark is a small, flat country with a comparatively simple rail net and a relatively temperate climate. Especially after the construction of the Great Belt Bridge, eliminating the need to include ferry travel in a cross-country trip, operating trains a 95 percent on-time rate ought to be a minimum standard. 

But if punctuality is one measure of a rail company’s management, another measure is its ability to prepare for the challenges down the road, and here DSB’s record makes for uneasy reading. 

The most grotesque example of the company’s problems is its purchase of a new series of trains in 2000. A total of 83 of the custom-designed IC4 combined engines and carriages were ordered, due for delivery starting 2003. The first train was delivered in 2007. So far 52 have been delivered, and eight are in service.

Copenhagen commuters will also remember offers to have DSB’s S-train provide them with mobile phone service and weekly food recipes in collaboration with an online supermarket. 

DSB is a business, just like any other, and it needs to make money – either by cutting costs or increasing revenue – and many of these initiatives showed that the company was thinking commercially by trying to come up with new revenue sources.

None of the initiatives have panned out though and DSB still isn’t making money, even though its ticket prices remain among the highest in Europe. 

In fact, DSB is nearly 18 billion kroner in debt, and just before Christmas parliament granted it permission to borrow another 8 billion kroner. By way of comparison, the government in December was ready to let SAS, a partially state-owned airline, go bankrupt if it was unable to find a way to pay off part of its 4.7 billion kroner debt.

As part of its marketing to advertisers, DSB once referred to passengers as “moving targets”. We’d like to propose a slogan of our own for rail executives caught up in ‘Whitewatergate’: “sitting ducks”.