Regular commenter RC169 considers a problem not dissimilar to that of the Stagecoach South Wales 172—that of the Black Forest no. 7215—and the need to pre-register (or not) and asks, “What can the operator do to avoid turning passengers away?” Oh and there’s an honourable mention of the alive and well continental dual purpose vehicle
These days I don't often get the opportunity to spend a day riding on buses but such an occasion arose on a recent Saturday and with it one or two interesting and unexpected incidents.
I have mentioned on previous occasions that buses in Germany are frequently perceived as feeders to rail-based systems, particularly in the larger urban areas, but there are exceptions, especially in rural upland areas, where the rail network is less dense, or even non-existent. In such cases, there are some quite long trunk bus services, some of which operate at regular interval frequencies. One such area, the southern half of the Black Forest, is in fact practically on my doorstep. The vast majority of services are operated by the Deutsche Bahn subsidiary Südbadenbus GmbH, usually abbreviated to SBG, although many journeys are sub-contracted to other operators. According to SBG's website, it has 258 buses of its own, but the combined operations use a total of around 500.
The journey in question was on service 7215 which requires almost an hour to travel between Kirchzarten (1,250 ft above sea level) and Todtnau (2,200 ft ASL), but in between climbs to Notschrei (3,700 ft ASL).
The journey (operated by a sub-contractor, Heizmann Reisen of Zell im Wiesental) started at Kirchzarten at 0858, with several passengers joining from the train from Freiburg. As the route crosses into the adjacent (Lörrach) Verkehrsverbund, there was some confusion with tickets, which the driver handled patiently but with a slight delay. (The complexities of the ticketing, and associated lack of clarity of the information material probably warrant a separate post!)
Several more passengers joined in the first few miles from Kirchzarten, including a group of hikers, with sufficient numbers to be able to obtain group discount (over 10 persons). The driver politely, and in a friendly manner, pointed out that it would be helpful if they could register in advance when travelling as a group. The vehicle was thus comfortably full—a few passengers stood for short distances, although there were still empty seats. A large number alighted at the stop that denotes the boundary of the Verkehrsverbunds. Given that most of the passengers appeared to be hikers, it was probably unimportant exactly where they alighted, so using tickets to the limit of their validity probably made sense. Since this was also the highest point on the journey, I presume the subsequent hike is less strenuous as well! There are also several short workings that terminate at this point.
More passengers were picked up over the next section, until the village Todtnauberg (3,350 ft ASL) was reached, where a very large crowd was waiting. The driver became rather agitated, as part of the crowd was a group from a mother and child ‘home’ consisting of some 20 people (mainly children), and the driver told them that they would not be allowed to board as they had not previously registered. Other passengers were allowed to board, and the parents/guardians of the group protested at the driver's refusal to carry them. He pointed out that there was no obligation to carry groups of more than 10 without prior registration, and that this group apparently did this every Saturday. The driver phoned the SBG control centre, and clearly he received confirmation that his stance was correct, and that he was justified in refusing to carry the group. So they were left behind. In fact there were empty seats, and I suspect that the group could have been carried—some would probably have had to stand, but the journey time from here to the destination Todtnau was only 13 minutes, although it is a steep descent. The greater problem seemed to be with the group's intended return journey from Todtnau in the afternoon—similar, perhaps, to the case of Stagecoach South Wales service 172 that featured recently on this blog.
The SBG website is quite clear about registering groups: over 10 people, and the group must be registered at least three days in advance, by phone or email (details here). The timetable PDF for the 7215 (http://www.suedbadenbus.de/suedbadenbus/view/mdb/kursbuch/mdb_96458_7215.pdf) also mentions the ruling regarding groups, and also states that only one group, with a maximum of 25 persons, can be carried on each journey. However, the website does also make clear that even if groups are registered, there is no guarantee that they will be able to be carried. Realistic, and honest, but possibly a deterrent to registering as well?
What can the operator do to avoid turning passengers away?
From my perspective, the company and the driver handled the situation correctly but the result was probably not really satisfactory for either party. I suppose if it had happened in the UK, and the press had found out, there would have been uproar. The situation was probably exacerbated by a festival on that day in the Todtnau area, with several duplicates operating to the festival site, so the spare resources were probably already being stretched.
On the other hand, it might have been possible to fit in a duplicate to Todtnauberg between the other extra journeys. There appeared to be some degree of flexibility—the next journey I used was such a duplicate, which actually extended beyond the stop for the festival, after that driver had phoned the control centre.
Bigger buses, some might say, but I am not sure the roads used by the 7215 are suitable. The vehicle used was a Setra S415UL, basically a 12m dual purpose coach, similar in concept to the “grant coaches” that were popular in the UK in the 1970s, and still widely used in Germany, where the type is sometimes referred to as a “Kombi”. The SBG does have some larger vehicles, of various types. Artics were previously the obvious (and only) choice, but I would not be surprised if artics were considered unsuitable for the roads traversed by the 7215, especially in winter—this is the highest part of the Black Forest, where the peaks reach heights similar to (or slightly higher than) the Cairngorms and Grampian Mountains.
More recently, the tri-axle 15m single decker has become available, and the SBG seems to have turned to these where practical. Some are low floor MANs or Mercedes Citaros, with three doors. These (the Citaros) have 50 seats, and can (theoretically) accommodate 80 standing with one wheelchair space. I presume that, for the operator, these are probably more cost effective than an 18m artic which can carry about 20 more, but has the added complication (and expense) of the turntable, and 3m extra length. These vehicles occasionally appear in Freiburg, but seem to be specifically employed on the trunk service 7300 between Schopfheim/Zell im Wiesental and Titisee, which principally uses the main road and is partly a replacement for a narrow gauge railway between Zell and Todtnau, that closed in 1968.
An alternative type of long single decker is an extended Kombi such as the Setra S419UL, of which the SBG has a few in use in the Black Forest. This type seats 65, with 50 standing and two doors (no wheelchairs—the UL type is high floor, and lifts seem to be out of favour at the moment). The seats in the SBG example I used were really little different to conventional bus seats, but adequate for a journey of 20 minutes or so.
There was another group of children on this journey—I don't know whether they had registered, but there was no controversy as there was plenty of space—and this was in slightly gentler territory, further east. The 15m vehicles have proved to be unsuitable in Berlin, but clearly the situation there is very different, but I would also have some doubts about their suitability for the 7215 and routes like it.
As far as the rest of my journeys that day were concerned, I used a total of eight buses, of which only one, a tri-axle Citaro, was low floor. The Setra high floor “Multi Class” seems to reign supreme in the Black Forest! For connoisseurs of bus routes in mountainous country, the 7215 is highly recommended but don’t forget to register if you’re taking many of your friends as well!