Trains that run on crime

There are few more potent images of the Shoah than The Cattle Truck, immortalised in Jorge Semprun's 1960s novel. Yet, only now, seven decades after the transports of Jews from every corner of Europe to the death camps, are the railway authorities being forced to come to terms with their Nazi past.

The French state railway, SNCF, has for the first time publicly expressed its regret for conveying Jews to Nazi death camps in the Second World War. Previously, SNCF had claimed that it had been "forced" into the deportations by Nazi occupiers.

At the root of the change of heart is commerce. The revival of high-speed train travel in the United States encouraged SNCF to bid for contracts in Florida and California - two states heavily peopled with Jews - including Holocaust survivors. It was the persistence of these survivors in getting the French railways to confront their past, and to pay compensation where appropriate, that led SNCF to acknowledge responsibility for the transport of 76,000 Jews from France to Germany.

Closer to home, and as the son of a refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe, I admit to being shocked by the indifference of Britain to the increasing Germanisation of our railways. What makes this trend even harder to take is that Deutsche Bahn - direct descendant of the Reichsbahn that ran most of the European transports -- has never fully come to terms with its disgraceful past. Indeed, there is evidence that the company actually resisted attempts, supported by the German government, to persuade it to acknowledge its history.

Britain’s indifference to this takeover is shocking

Earlier this year, it barely was noticed when Deutsche Bahn successfully bid £1.59 billion for Arriva - one of Britain's biggest train and bus companies. In contrast, when the American food group Kraft bought Cadbury there was a national outburst of indignation over the idea that a valuable part of Britain's business heritage was to fall into the hands of an overseas marauder.

This latter acquisition prompted a parliamentary inquiry, a review by the City referee the Takeover Panel, and consideration by the current Business Secretary Vince Cable of a change in the law.

Notwithstanding all this, as a result of the Deutsche Bahn takeover, Arriva trains in Wales will be in German hands, as well as most of London's buses. The German outfit already runs Chiltern Railways, which offers services to Stratford-upon-Avon and other locations from Marylebone. Moreover, travellers on Eurostar will soon be transported on trains built by the German firm Siemens, after it was preferred to a French rival.

It was only two years ago that Deutsche Bahn was publicly criticised by Berlin's chief cultural official, Andre Schmitz, for hampering an exhibition about children deported to concentration camps by the Nazis. "Deutsche Bahn's conduct is completely incomprehensible", said Schmitz, "and damaged not only the company's image, but also efforts by Berlin to come to terms with its history as the centre of power for the Nazi regime."

The travelling exhibition was designed to traverse 6,000 miles of German railtrack stopping at stations along the way, eventually arriving in Auschwitz.

Dissatisfaction with the way Deutsche Bahn confronts its past is not confined to Germany. Earlier this year, two Polish organisations, representing victims of the Nazi Third Reich, issued demands for compensation from Deutsche Bahn when it proposed buying into the Polish railway market. "We want DB to pay compensation to former concentration camp victims and forced labourers," argued campaigner Stanislaw Zalewski.

The German organisation, Train of Remembrance, estimates that the Reichbahn earned the equivalent of almost 500 billion Euros from Nazi-ordered transport of Polish captives. It is remarkable, given this inglorious history, that Britain has so freely given control of large chunks of its railway and bus network to a body that collaborated with the Nazis and has shown such insensitivity to the past.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

    Last updated: 10:24am, November 19 2010