Locomore’s bumpy ride

It was the David to Deutsche Bahn’s Goliath: a vintage train that could get you from Berlin to Stuttgart for €22 with free wi-fi and organic food. But it went bankrupt in less than half a year. Now, Locomore has been resurrected. Here's the story.

Image for Locomore's bumpy ride

Photo by Matthias Manske

It was the David to Deutsche Bahn’s Goliath: a vintage train that could get you from Berlin to Stuttgart for €22 with free wi-fi and organic food. But it went bankrupt in less than half a year. Now, Locomore has been resurrected. But who’s behind the wheel?

As the 14:28 departs Lichtenberg, a voice rolls over the tannoy welcoming everyone onboard Wagen 1819. The passenger carriage is a Bmz Interregio number from the 1980s, with vintage feel still intact and a garish, Wes Anderson-esque orange-and-red interior. Kids play around with the wooden train set in the Familienabteil (family section) as their parents connect to the onboard wi-fi. At the bistro, a friendly employee proffers organic, vegan snacks and €2.30 fair-trade coffee, while posters in the hall proclaim this train is running on 100 percent renewable energy. If all goes well, Wagen 1819 will pull into Stuttgart in seven hours, hitting 13 stops along the way including Hanover and Frankfurt. The price? Under €40.

Image for Locomore's bumpy ride

A young Locomore rider plays with the wooden train set in the “Familienabteil“. Photo by Pavel Mezihorák

This feels like what German entrepreneur Derek Ladewig had in mind when he started Locomore, his long-in-the-making crowdfunded “green alternative” to Deutsche Bahn, in December 2016. But this isn’t his train. In fact, it’s run by Czech rail company Leo Express in conjunction with bus giant Flixbus. Ladewig is still on board as a manager, but the open-access operator (the term for a train company that purchases individual slots on a railway system, instead of franchising like the national companies) he founded just a year ago is no more.

Deutsche Bahn controls over 99 percent of long-distance rail travel in Germany; since the country’s rail system was liberalised in 1994, barely any companies have tried to disrupt that monopoly. Because rail infrastructure costs are so high (the Infrastrukturnutzungsentgelte, or “track access charge”, is around €5-7 per kilometre), it’s difficult for smaller companies to turn a profit, especially when long-distance buses are so inexpensive to run. The country’s first private rail company, Interconnex, was started by the Transdev corporation in 2002 and ran between Leipzig, Berlin and Rostock for 12 years, but folded in 2014 after failing to rival bus prices. Another, the Vogtland-Express between Berlin and Plauen, ran between 2005 and 2012 before being replaced by a bus fleet.

Ladewig, a former political scientist and transit consultant to the Bundestag, thought he had the answer when he founded Locomore GmbH in 2007: stick to one route, and choose it wisely. After initially being part of the founding team of the Hamburg-Cologne Express (HKX), an open-access train line between the two western cities that finally launched in 2012, he decided to focus on the Berlin-Stuttgart route exclusively. After applying for permission to use the tracks and receiving approval, his company signed the contract with DB Netz, Deutsche Bahn’s subsidiary in charge of managing infrastructure. The eight carriages, refurbished in Bucharest, were rented to Locomore by leasing company SRI Rail Invest GmbH.

‘We don’t consider ourselves as rivals to Deutsche Bahn,’ Flixbus says of their takeover: We both have the same goals: reducing car traffic and increasing mobiltiy.

After raising over €460,000 in crowdfunding on Startnext, Locomore hit the rails at the end of 2016. But despite transporting 70,000 passengers in five months, the earned revenue didn’t hit Locomore’s targets. The crowdfunding capital dried up. Shortly after launching, Locomore’s original schedule of seven weekly roundtrips between Berlin and Stuttgart was cut down to just four, to address “infancy problems”. It didn’t help. Ladewig’s company filed for bankruptcy in May 2017.

Today, Locomore seeks loftier heights. It relaunched last August after lengthy sales negotiations, mixing the railway muscle of Leo Express with the ticket sales expertise of Flixbus. The red-and-orange trains now ferry 420 passengers between Berlin and Stuttgart five days a week, Thursday through Monday. Customers who participated in Locomore’s crowdfunding campaign can still use the vouchers they received for the new service, and even a few employees remain from the early days – one of whom, a crew member named Christian, says his job feels “very much the same as before”. Ladewig is now employed by Leo Express, and insists that the Czech company and Flixbus field all press questions.

 “We don’t consider ourselves as rivals to Deutsche Bahn,” Flixbus spokesperson Martin Mangiapia says of their sales takeover. “We both have the same goals: reducing car traffic and increasing mobility.” Leo Express already had their eye on the German rails, and Flixbus can now add another train to its ‘intermodal concept’, which already includes pairings with private rail company Westbahn in Austria, ferry partners GNV in Italy, and Scandlines in Scandinavia.

Not everything is the same since the takeover. For one, those posters telling you “You’re riding with renewable energy” aren’t exactly telling the truth. Mangiapia explains that since Leo’s takeover, Locomore cut off the deal with Dusseldorf’s Naturstrom AG, and are now running on regular electricity again. According to their fact sheet, Flixbus’ big vision is “smart and green mobility for everyone to experience the world”, and Ladewig’s original goal was minimising pollution by taking people out of their cars; you feel a little cheated to say the least. Both Leo and Flixbus’ spokespeople make it clear that, of course, they would prefer renewable energy, but the question is when will it happen? “This could be a topic for the future, but it’s been pushed back as we wanted to take care of the smooth running of the trains first,” says a speculative Mangiapia. “But we’re planning to switch back soon…” In the meantime, those misleading Ökostrom posters need to be pulled down sharpish.

Actually booking your trip is another issue: despite Flixbus’ huge online marketing presence and user-friendly app, there’s no way to search only for Locomore trips. Unless you already know the route, you’ll be trawling through lists of bus times for hours. “People look for a connection, not a means of transportation,” Mangiapia says, but this doesn’t make sense for a company looking to boost passenger numbers. The lack of Locomore branding anywhere online shows that they have a long way to go. Flixbus’ focus is so geared to their buses that their new train service feels like an afterthought. The same goes for the Hamburg-Cologne-Express, which stopped running in October until Flixbus swooped in to take over sales duties last Christmas.

It’s a long way to go for Locomore, and it’s one mean feat to square up to a company that can easily run 40,000 trains per day, but they’ve got some things right. The toilets are immaculate (almost on par with the spaceship-feel gleam of the ICE), and there are two separate bike storage zones, no reserved seats, and no class divides. Passengers also seem content with moving at slower speeds (200kph) for a cheaper ticket. Short-distance prices start at €5, long-distance from €9.90. Booking around three weeks in advance, the same route with Deutsche Bahn would set you back €79.90 for a Sparpreis ticket (5.4 hours travel time), in comparison to Locomore’s €39 (7.02 hours). A bargain, as long as you’re not travelling with kids. Unlike Deutsche Bahn, Locomore doesn’t provide children under 15 with a free ride.

But for the company’s young, trendy target demographic, the extra hour and a half of travel time is worth the savings – point proven by the 70,000 tickets sold since the relaunch. Not bad for a four-and-a-half month stint for a two-trip-a-day train.