On choosing buses over trains

The iconic red double-decker bus on the streets of London

Every now and again when business takes me from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, I leave the car at home and take the bus. Since the Roads and Transport Authority upgraded this service a few years ago, it’s a very comfortable ride and rather than suffering what is actually a fairly dull drive with only the radio as company, I can stretch out, read the paper, or even catch up with my emails thanks to onboard wi-fi.

Modern inter-city buses are, in my opinion, a perfect alternative to taking the car for distances of 200 to 300 kilometers and I often wondered why we didn’t have a similar service in my home country, Germany.

When I was a student in London, I regularly took buses to Oxford or Leicester or other cities not too far away to see friends or just discover a new city. Using my student discount card made inter-city bus travel even more affordable and, particularly for money-poor and time-rich folks, a welcome alternative to trains. Like the Greyhound buses in their heyday in the US, inter-city busses in the UK democratised travel and brought it to the masses.

In Germany, on the other hand, the national train operator for many years enjoyed a government endorsed monopoly on inter-city travel and long-distance busses were strictly verboten.

Monopolies of any kind are somewhat annoying and the German ‘train only’ monopoly was no exception, so I was very happy when, a little while ago, it finally fell and joined its brother, the monopoly for safety matches (yes, Germany used to have a monopoly for safety matches between 1930 and 1983) in the big monopoly graveyard.

As soon as the monopoly fell, inter-city bus companies sprang up left, right, and centre and everybody jumped onto the bandwagon. You could buy bus tickets at the post office and even at Aldi, one of our major supermarket chains.

Ticket prices sank and service quality went up as bus companies competed with each other and the trains. Not all operators survived the first year and there were (and still are) a lot of mergers, but what hasn’t changed is that bus tickets are considerably cheaper than train tickets and that service on board inter-city buses is often better than on trains.

Last summer, I took a bus from Munich to Frankfurt. I booked my ticket online and paid €15 ($17) compared to approximately €70 ($79) for a train ticket. The bus was modern and the driver sold coffee, tea and snacks, plus there was free wi-fi.

To date, only very few trains in Germany have wi-fi. Additionally, ticket pricing for Germany’s inter-city buses is very straightforward and simply fluctuates with demand. Book early or travel at an odd time and you’ll get a really good deal. Book late or for a time when loads of other people travel, too, and you’ll pay more.

The only discounts offered by operators are for students and pensioners. Compare that to the pricing model employed by the German train operators, which requires a PhD in microeconomics to figure out and frequently even leaves ticketing clerks baffled, and you begin to see the appeal of inter-city bus travel.

In the good old days, trains in Germany used to run on time, but these days are long gone and with them one of the last arguments against inter-city bus travel. I mean, if I get delayed, I’d rather get delayed on a bus with free wi-fi than on a train without.

As it happened, my bus pulled into Frankfurt’s central bus station a minute or two early. I guess you’ll see me more often on the buses.

By Martin Kubler