Signals back to green for Deutsche Bahn

Richard Lutz, CEO of the German railway operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) poses for a picture in front of an Inter City Express 4 train prior to the company's annual results news conference in Berlin on March 23, 2017. (AFP Photo/Odd ANDERSEN) (AFP)

Berlin (AFP) - Publicly-owned German rail operator Deutsche Bahn said Thursday it returned to profit in 2016, after it booked its first loss in more than a decade the previous year.

Net profit stood at 716 million euros ($773 million) last year, a rebound from the 1.3 billion euros lost in 2015 as Deutsche Bahn struggled with problems in its freight division, the impact of harsh storms in Germany and repeated train drivers' strikes.

"2016 was a good year for us," chief executive Richard Lutz told a press conference in Berlin -- just one day after formally taking the reins from former boss Ruediger Grube, who abandoned the top job over disagreements about extending his contract.

Since mid-2015, Deutsche Bahn has been tightly focused on quality as it fends off low-cost competition from long-distance bus operators.

"We've clearly increased the quality of our products and our punctuality," Lutz said, with "a record number of passengers on main-line trains" last year.

While the rail operator was able to increase punctuality -- which it defines as arriving with less than six minutes' delay -- to 79 percent in 2016 and 84 percent so far in 2017, it remains the butt of frustrated but fond jokes among the German public.

The new year has also seen Deutsche Bahn install free wifi service on all of its high-speed ICE trains.

Across Europe, the rail company transported people on some 4.4 billion journeys by train and bus last year, an increase of 81 million over 2015's figure.

But freight division DB Cargo continues to weigh the firm down, making an operating loss of 81 million euros.

"I can't promise to our customers and employees that all the Bahn's problems will vanish at a stroke," Lutz declared from a podium between two ICE trains at a Berlin maintenance site.

"But I and my colleagues on the board promise to work with all our might to make Deutsche Bahn more attractive day by day."

Looking ahead to this year, Deutsche Bahn aims to bring in revenues of 41.5 billion euros -- around one billion more than 2016 -- for an operating profit of at least 2.1 billion euros.