Interview with Meike Niedbal, Head of Smart City at Deutsche Bahn
Experts agree: the transport of the future must be networked. In an interview, Meike Niedbal, Head of Smart City at Deutsche Bahn, talks about the interaction of rail, car and e-scooters. She also explains why railway stations are gaining importance as co-working spaces.
“Rail must be the backbone of the mobility transition.”
Transport must become CO₂-neutral. What role does rail play?
Rail must be the backbone of the mobility transition. No other means of transport carries so many people from A-to-B as quickly and efficiently as rail. In addition, Deutsche Bahn already uses a high proportion of renewable energy today – 60 percent overall, 100 percent in long-distance transport. If Deutsche Bahn gains new customers, this will benefit climate protection.
How do you intend to attract additional customers?
An important argument is the comfort factor during the journey. We are working on making the most of the quality time available while on train journeys, which passengers can use according to their personal interests. This includes, for example, fast internet so that you can stay connected to the world while traveling. In recent years, we have invested more than 200 million euros in the technical WLAN infrastructure at stations, on trains and buses. And we continue to build on this: Around 44 million euros are currently flowing into WLAN related programs at over 130 stations alone.
Do we need more investment in rail and less in roads?
We certainly need more investment in the railways – and there are such investment. The Federal Government and the railways will provide a total of 86 billion euros for the infrastructure by 2030. The money will go into maintenance as well as into the expansion and construction of lines and stations. In parallel, we are digitalizing the rail system so that more trains can run at shorter intervals. The expansion of the railways does not mean that investments in roads should be cut across the board. We too have an interest in ensuring that our customers can get to the station easily – on foot, by bike or even by car.
There is much talk about networking – how can rail better complement other modes of transport?
Optimal networking is achieved when travelers hardly notice the different means of transport. Three things are important. Firstly, automatic check-in with a best-price guarantee across the entire travel network. One ticket must be valid for all means of transport. Secondly: appropriate transfer times – sometimes I want to get to my destination as quickly as possible, sometimes a comfortable connection is more important to me. Third: a digital travel assistant that informs me, reacts to the traffic situation and guides me to my connecting mode of transport – this could be a carsharing service, an e-scooter or the nearest tram.
What has to change for this to happen?
Mobility providers need to understand that they are not in constant competition with each other. If the important players work together honestly, many can benefit – the customers, the companies, the climate. Our mobility behavior cannot remain as it has been in recent decades. I am convinced that climate-friendly offers will find a corresponding demand.
During the corona pandemic many people have been shunning public transport. Is this only a short-term effect or is there a threat of long-term damage?
Public transport has indeed suffered greatly during the pandemic. Recently, however, a study by the Berlin Charité hospital showed that rail travel does not increase the risk of infection. The infection rate of our employees who spend many hours a day in the train is even lower than in the control group. This shows that the hygiene measures are working. I am confident that we will regain the confidence of passengers.
“Many people who work in a home office will occasionally need another place to work.”
You recently opened a co-working space at Berlin’s main railway station. What does this have to do with mobility?
Ultimately, corona has shown how closely work and mobility are linked. You can already work wonderfully in our trains today. But the moment our customers leave the train, they lose the mobile office. That’s where we come in – with workstations in the station, without a contract, billed by the minute. We believe that such offers will also work at smaller commuter stations in the future.
Where does the demand come from?
Many people who work in a home office will occasionally need another place of work close to their homes. A desk that can be used when needed. Or a place to meet colleagues.
Is the station of the future a multifunctional building
First and foremost, a station remains a mobility hub where different modes of transport meet. But stations are also always places where people meet. During normal times, 21 million people board, disembark or change trains at German railway stations every day. I know of no other place that reaches such numbers. Other functions are becoming increasingly important. A station can be an art gallery, cinema, marketplace or logistics hub. This is why we have launched the “Hamburg Box” as a pilot project.
What is the “Hamburg Box”?
We call the “Hamburg Box” intelligent lockers, which we have set up at 20 stations from Altona to Wandsbek. The idea: many people order online. Since they are not always at home, the delivery people often ring the bell in vain. This is a pity for the delivery companies and a pity for the customers who have to pick up the order in a parcel shop. With the “Hamburg Box”, people can take the goods with them to a place they pass by regardless. In this way we are making a contribution to reducing commercial traffic.
Will you extend the project?
We firmly believe that there is demand for multi-brand lockers not only in Hamburg, but throughout Germany. But first we want to gain more experience – for example, about the right locations. By the way, the system is not only open to online trading. Every shop, including stationary retailers, can use the “Hamburg Box”.
“Small and medium-sized stations are becoming more important.”
Do such offers also work in the countryside?
Yes, I am absolutely convinced of that. We are seeing a trend back to the provinces. This means that small and medium-sized stations are becoming more important. In our project “Stations of the Future” we are testing new services at 16 selected locations – for example, connecting mobility, shopping facilities and the quality of stay. Wolfsburg is also involved. The stations of the future are by no means only located in major cities, but also in smaller towns such as Haltern am See or Wernigerode. At the end of the year, we will evaluate which offers are proving their worth.
Meike Niedbal is Head of Product and Portfolio Management and Head of Smart City at Deutsche Bahn. She was previously responsible for sustainability management and futurology at Deutsche Bahn. The enthusiastic hobby gardener lives in Potsdam.