Lost for words
Deutsche Bahn passengers lose 685 items a day, from mobile phones to false teeth. Some possessions are never claimed. But Walter Schreiner is on the case
• For 20 years, Walter Schreiner has been looking after and disposing of belongings travellers have left behind and failed to collect on trains or station platforms along the Deutsche Bahn from Oberstdorf in the south of Germany to Westerland in the far north.
Every year, railway passengers on Deutsche Bahn (DB) lose some 250,000 items, averaging 685 a day. Many find their way back to their owners: 60% of lost property, rising to more than 90% of laptops and musical instruments. These are impressive figures that federal German lost property offices just cannot compete with. DB goes to great effort for its “losers”, as the company calls them. Schreiner is responsible for the really tough cases: those items that are never picked up. By the time a suitcase comes to him, in the central lost property department in Wuppertal, western Germany, it has travelled a long way.
If an “honest finder”, as Schreiner calls them, on the intercity express from Munich to Stuttgart finds a lost hat and hands it in to the train staff, the hat is taken to the nearest of 83 DB lost property offices and checked for clues to its owner. If there is a name and address, a railway clerk will write and the owner then has three weeks to pick the hat up, for a fee of €5 (£4.45). If the item reveals no contact details, it remains where it is for seven days before being shipped to Wuppertal.
Here, at Platform 1, new lost property arrives every day by the container load from all over Germany. Each container holds some 200 items, from commemorative coins to toy giraffes. Each object is examined by one of the 14 staff, then compared with the lost property reports in the database and assigned to the appropriate specialist department in the labyrinthine 1,300 sq metre building.
The building is about 100 years old. Its lino and fluorescent lighting feel very dour and pre-German reunification, which seems appropriate for a place all about sober logistics. Thousands of objects of all shapes and sizes need to be properly stored and documented so they can be retrieved later. Here, every suitcase, every laundry bag, every wallet is inspected again closely. The technical department searches through hard drives, the wallet department does internet research and the clothing department digs deep into pockets. If new clues emerge, a new letter is dispatched. The charge for collecting the items from here is €15. If a banknote is found, under the insole of a shoe, for example, that money is paid into a Frankfurt nominee account. Perishable goods are disposed of as waste, but otherwise it is a matter of waiting another 70 days in case whoever lost it reports the item missing. Only then does the department give up hope of finding the owner – and it is Schreiner’s turn. “Right!” he says, “This is where I clear out the storage racks.” The time has come to prepare the objects for auction.
Schreiner is built like he could bend iron, with the handshake of a foreign legionnaire and the irresistible smile of an old-time TV gameshow host. He has worked for Deutsche Bahn since 1973, almost his entire working life: “Another five years and eight months, then I’ll be retiring.” But the 60-year-old from Düsseldorf shows no sign of tiring, though he has worked as an engineer, civil servant, station master, works supervisor and manager to get here; dozens of positions in just one company. “I have done pretty much everything. My motto used to be that I would switch to something new every five years; otherwise things would get boring.”
Dissecting our remains
But then he came to Wuppertal: “And I just seemed to get stuck here.” That was in 1999. His job now is to sort the lost property and pack items from 10 different suitcases into one new one. “I create surprise parcels for grown-ups,” says Schreiner. He is a trauma surgeon for the German travelling spirit. Every day, his dissecting table reveals a cross-section of society. For 20 years, he has been dismembering what travellers leave behind, from wheeled Frankfurt business cases, through the family suitcase from Böblingen, to the festival rucksack from Leipzig.
He knows the difference between typically German-style folded clothes, and the space-saving Asian practice of rolling them up. He can recognise a fake Louis Vuitton handbag and a Rimowa case from the collection before last. He can identify most clothing brands from several metres away and would never mistake a Samsung Galaxy A7 for a Samsung Galaxy A9. Over the decades, he has seen trends come and go: “The first Sony Walkman, which still used audio cassettes, then the Discman, later the first mobile phones.” Mobile phones are now second only to luggage for being lost, with 20,000 phones a year left behind, against 53,000 items of baggage.
Before he repackages everything, he checks every item once again – together with a colleague, in keeping with the department’s “four-eyes” policy. Everything that is dirty, broken or worthless is now thrown away. Hard drives go to the technical department to be erased for data protection; cards and documents from wallets are destroyed by an external contractor; ID cards and passports are the property of the issuing country and have to be sent back there. If he finds drugs or weapons, he calls the police.
Once all this has been taken care of, Schreiner makes a number of little piles. He fills one bag with men’s watches; one suitcase with sporting goods; a box with iPhones; another with chargers; a surprise box with new trainers; and – the highlight at every auction – an “18+ suitcase, with toys for adults”. The suitcases, bags and boxes are auctioned off unopened, Schreiner only gives a rough indication of their contents; just enough to tickle the curiosity of those attending the auction. People sometimes pay several hundred euros for a suitcase. Many are dealers who sell on the contents.
An auction is held in Wuppertal most Thursdays, and every few weeks there’s one somewhere else in the country. For 20 years, Walter has been presenting these events – with a Rhineland charm that is difficult to resist. He has lots of experience: he knows how to make Swabians open their purses, get Franconians laughing and Thuringians dancing. But he never had any professional training as an auctioneer. He began his first performance in Wuppertal with the words: “My name is Walter Schreiner – and now I would like you to introduce yourselves.” The auditorium laughed, the ice had been broken and from that day forward Schreiner was a fixture. He fires up the crowds, drags over-eager buyers up on stage, and shows off the sexiest outfits – maybe trying on a high-heeled boot, or holding a leather piece up to himself. His record is six hours of auctioneering without a break. That was in Freilassing, near Salzburg. Nowadays, he only does three-hour gigs. That’s enough.
Just packing the suitcases would be a cheerful and carefree task, if it weren’t for a further hurdle: losers are legally entitled to the proceeds of the sale for three years afterwards. No suitcase is auctioned off with its original contents, but a loser who contacts the lost property office too late still has rights, Schreiner has to record precisely which objects he takes from which lost property item and what value he or his colleagues assign to it, what price he intends to offer it for and how much he eventually got for it. And if this all sounds complicated, consider the staff who did this job before the “lost&found” computer system was introduced in 2002, with just a tireless record-keeper, rooms full of files and a level of patience impossible to comprehend today.
The answer to how Deutsche Bahn manages to achieve its formidable percentage of returns is quite simply this: thanks to incredible meticulousness. With 83 lost property offices, more than 600 employees and millions of objects, the system is so complex that getting rid of it now would be virtually impossible. It costs €3.5m a year to run, whereas the 90 or so auctions throughout the country bring in just under €350,000. If a single department were to be removed, the structure would collapse. Every eventuality interlocks with another.
So although it is rare for a loser to come forward after years, it does happen. A well-dressed gentleman once stormed into Schreiner’s office with sunken cheeks, mumbling incomprehensibly. When the auctioneer realised that the visitor was looking for his dentures, he fetched his collection. Before he could even present the various models, the man had inserted the required item with a satisfied smacking of his lips and hurried off again with a brief word of thanks. He left behind an uncharacteristically speechless Schreiner, who couldn’t decide whether to be annoyed at being cheated out of the service fee or amused about the uncleaned dentures that had been gathering dust on the shelf for many weeks. He opted for the latter.
After all these years, he finds it difficult to list the most bizarre items left. “Nothing can shock me any more, I’ve seen everything,” he says. There have been breast implants and half a pig in a suitcase. Or the Stradivarius, and a federal order of merit that has still not been picked up.
On a tour of the various sections, he offhandedly points out a worm-eaten first world war field telephone, a prosthetic lower leg, a refrigerator-sized air-conditioning unit, a football trophy weighing as much as a crate of beer, a bright red removal trolley, half a dozen desktop computers, flat-screen monitors, a Lufthansa pilot’s cap, two drones, three sets of judge’s robes, four police uniforms, five prayer mats and 10 stamp albums. Every week, Schreiner clears the back while his colleagues fill the shelves again from the front. It has been going on for 20 years. But how can anyone lose a false leg? And why did nobody notice they had left behind their air-conditioning unit? What stories, what personal fates are stashed away here on every shelf? Schreiner shrugs. “Perhaps they simply have too much money.”
Losing things is only human, he says. Just the other day he mislaid a bunch of keys on a train. But he described his lost property so accurately that they turned up again within minutes. Schreiner understands perfectly well how anyone can lose things from time to time. But surely people ought to pick them up again, or at least realise they are missing? “That’s something I simply don’t understand to this day,” he says, “after all the trouble we go to with the lost property.” Although he makes his living from unclaimed lost property, it would put his mind at rest if he could just understand why the owners were no longer interested in these things.