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Defective escalator in Stuttgart: The meme protest at the S-Bahn station Universität has a long tradition


It's a cold, gray November morning. Commuters in thick down jackets get off the S-Bahn at the University station and adjust their woollen hats. The crowd moves leisurely up the steps of the train station to the campus. Suddenly, a young man breaks away from the crowd and laughs out loud. A woman grins and takes off the glove on her right hand to take pictures of her mobile phone. And two girls stop giggling at the banister.

The reason to rejoice: On the walls of the defective escalator next door, around 200 funny pictures and messages in the style of popular Internet memes hang with adhesive strips. "Technician has been informed," reads a scrap of paper. On another piece of paper, two red buttons are depicted, with a sweaty cartoon head and the decision question: "Climb stairs" or "go home"? There is also a tribute to a well-known Baden-Württemberg sticker campaign: "Nice here. But have you ever ridden the escalator?"

The paper protest has a long tradition. For many years, students have allowed themselves this collective creativity when one of the escalators at the university stop comes to a standstill. Then walls, pillars and barrier fences are plastered with memes. So far, Deutsche Bahn has been quite annoyed by this hustle and bustle, employees have repeatedly torn the notes from the wall - and the railway even accused the participants of damage to property.

This time, however, the leaves are allowed to stay – and the best meme is even to be rewarded with an iPhone, as first reported by the »SWR« . Deutsche Bahn has announced that it will photograph the pictures for a competition and publish the best memes on the Instagram channel of the Stuttgart S-Bahn.

"That often makes me smile"

Jens Fischlein, whose real name is different, is surprised that Deutsche Bahn is only now so relaxed: He considers its reactions to the paper protest so far to be exaggerated. "I think it's a funny action," the student at the Media University told SPIEGEL. "I don't see any damage to property." The notes would be hung up with scotch tape. Besides, the memes really only stick to the wall when another escalator is broken. "That often makes me smile," says the 24-year-old.

Almost two years ago, Fischlein had already uploaded a picture of a stickered escalator from the same train station to Reddit and landed a hit with it. The post garnered more than 10,000 positive reviews and was commented on around 400 times. With this, Fischlein made it into the platform's official annual review. "The image on Reddit was just for friends, then it went viral," he says. Then, as now, it was a never-ending back and forth in Stuttgart: an escalator breaks. Students hang up pieces of paper. Railway employees hang out the memes. And three hours later, everything was postered again.

Humorous protest with a serious concern

There is also a serious concern behind the humorous action. "There are thousands of people out and about every day, not just students," explains Fischlein. "You can also see older people on their way up." An escalator breaks down several times a year, and the repair usually takes weeks. This is especially bitter when the elevator is also defective – as is currently the case with the elevator next to the postered escalator.

According to Ulrich Heck of the Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD), Deutsche Bahn is setting the wrong priorities. "Of course, it is the task of the railway to repair the escalator here as quickly as possible," Heck told SPIEGEL. "Communication campaigns don't help either." Many people have limited mobility and depend on escalators and elevators to function. The staff who take care of the competition could also be used to look after the responsible technology companies, says Heck.

According to him, the root problem lies in the financing of public transport, which has been severely neglected in recent years. "We hope that politicians have recognized this and that this will change in the future," says Heck. However, the transport activist praises Deutsche Bahn's handling of criticism. "She tries to counter the ridicule that has come to the fore with the memes, especially here at the university, with humour."

The competition will run for a few more weeks

A spokesman for Deutsche Bahn told SPIEGEL that the company is trying to offer passengers with limited mobility free access to local transport. In the escalator, which is currently defective, a jacket has become tangled, according to Deutsche Bahn. Among other things, 14 steps, the guide rail, several sensors and the so-called comb plate were damaged, it is said.

In the week before Christmas, the damage should be repaired, the railway also announces. The elevators at the station are currently being renewed. The lift on track two has already been replaced: "Now DB is also renewing the lift on track one." This will probably take until the end of December. In total, the replacement will cost around 630,000 euros.

Shortly before Christmas, the competition also ends – and the king of the escalator memes is to be crowned. However, it is still unclear exactly how this will work. After all, no one writes their phone number on a funny piece of paper. Even the railway does not really know how the winner is to be determined. "Deutsche Bahn will contact the students about how the most creative meme can be found and awarded," says their spokesperson.