Attempted Closure of Internet Rail Schedule

Internet users victorious

In May 1997, the German rail operator Deutsche Bahn AG attempted a magnificent coup which failed due to the massive resistance of Internet users.

It had long been known that DBAG wanted their schedule information services to be cost-neutral. Therefore, the schedule information services offered via Compuserve and BTX, a German online service, were never free of charge.

DBAG never tried to shut down the RailServer with its volume of up to 2,000 queries per day, maybe because it was no real competition for the other services. But the free schedule service at HaCon (the programmers of the schedule database) ran since mid-1996 and served about to 20,000 queries a day in May 1997.

On May 6th, 1997, HaCon received a written order from DBAG to close down their service. Furthermore, DBAG asked HaCon not to tell the users the truth but something vague in order not to evoke a wave of protest. (Their fears were justified, as you will see later.) HaCon complied - they had no choice because DBAG owns all rights to its schedule data. Would-be customers that day only saw a message informing them of " in progress..." without any details.

Half an hour later the first posting in de.alt.eisenbahn, then the German USENET rail discussion group, arrived asking what whas going on. I tried to inform everyone about the true facts - that we were not dealing with "work in progress" but with outright closure. I even installed a web page on the subject which was accessed over 1,000 times within 12 hours.

That DBAG really wanted to close down the service is evident from a letter sent to one of the complaining users, Jörg Herzer, on May 13th (deletions and comments by J. Herzer in italics, translation below):

Deutsche Bahn
Unternehmensbereich Personenverkehr
Zentrale Kundenbetreuung

Bearbeitung: Jürgen Till

(Verweis auf T-Online, CompuServe und, lohnt das Abtippen nicht) - Dann aber:

Um die Wirtschaftlichkeit der Fahrplan- und Fahrpreisauskunft in T-Online nicht zu gefährden, hatten wir die Firma Hacon gebeten, auf Ihren Auskunftsdienst kurzfristig zu verzichten. Diese Maßnahme wurde zwischenzeitlich jedoch wieder rückgängig gemacht, so daß Sie den Hacon-Service wie gewohnt nutzen können.

Derzeit bereiten wir einen Zugang zur Online-Fahrplanauskunft der DB im Internet vor. Nähere Informationen hierzu werden wir rechtzeitig veröffentlichen.

(Translation: "... in order not to endanger the profitability of our schedule and fare information system in T-Online [the successor of BTX, F.R.], we asked HaCon to stop their service for a short period of time. This measure has been revoked in the mean time, ...")

This is interesting because in a later statement, DBAG told the press that the whole thing was just a server failure while trying to move the service from HaCon's server to a server of their own. Of course, that's an outright lie - at that time, DBAG would not have been able to operate the service themselves even if they had wanted to. Trust me, I know what I'm saying :-)

Luckily, although the DBAG tried to hide their intentions, on the day of the closure they received so many complaints that they had to reconsider.

Just one day later, on May 7th, the service was allowed to continue. I don't know how it will be in the future, but I think the people at DBAG have learned one lesson: That we Internet users are not to fool with. (The proprietary Compuserve and T-Online services have been closed in 1997 resp. 1998 as far as I know.)

  Frederik Ramm, 2001-04-24