New High-Speed Line Opens after 25 Years of Planning and Construction. Erfurt and Leipzig to become ICE Cities. 80 ICE trains expected in Erfurt daily.
BERLIN/ MUNICH/LEIPZIG/ERFURT/COBURG/JENA- It took the signing of former (now late) German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s signature to allow for the project to begin- 25 years ago. That in itself was as historic as US President Dwight D. Eisenhowers signature in 1956 to launch the US Interstate Highway System. It took 25 years, from the time of its signature until the time of its completion, costing over 12 billion Euros, and resulting in 37 bridges- including the 8.6 kilometer long Elster-Saale Viaduct near Halle (the longest in Germany)- two dozen tunnels and the complete makeover of five different stations- the main ones of which are in Erfurt and Leipzig.
With that new line, not only will the cities of Leipzig and Halle will profit from the long-distance trains stopping there on a daily basis, but also the ICE City Erfurt in central Thuringia, where as many as 80 ICE-trains will stop to board people on a daily basis travelling on the N-S axis between Berlin and Munich via Nuremberg, as well as between Dresden and Frankfurt via Leipzig on the W-E axis. Along the N-S axis, one can travel between the German and Bavarian capitals in just over four hours, two less than its current travel. Between Dresden and Frankfurt, it is expected that trains passing through Erfurt will need only three hours instead of the normal five. Planned is the new ICE-Sprinter connecting Berlin with Munich with a stop only in Erfurt. That stretch will take only under four hours. Another is planned for Halle-Munich and Nuremberg-Berlin, each of which will take less than three hours.
Prior to the opening of the new ICE line, a person needed over six hours along the line that went through Naumburg, Jena, Saalfeld, Lichtenfels and Bamberg. That line will be relegated to Regio-trains which will be a total inconvenience to people living in Jena and points to the east. With that will mark the end of long-distance service for the first time in over 115 years. The state of Thuringia is working with the Deutsche Bahn to provide better access, which includes a new long-distance InterCity station in Jena to be opened in 2024. (More on that here). The ICE line will mean more development for Erfurt, as the ICE-City plans to build a new convention center and series of hotels and restaurants around the station to better accommodate customers and visitors to Erfurt.
The new line will mark the debut of the newest ICE train, the ICE 4, which will travel alongside the ICE 3 from Munich to Berlin. The ICE-T will continue to serve between Dresden and Leipzig (for more on the train types, click here). At the same time, the older two models will be phased out bit-by-bit after having travelled tens of thousands of kilometers for over 25 years. The newest models can travel over 300 km/h and has compartments for bikes, available upon reservation.
While the new line, scheduled to be part of the train plan come 10 December, will compete with the airlines and automobile in terms of travel time, there is a catch that many people do not like: From Berlin to Munich, one will have to pay at least 125 Euros one-way, 40 Euros more than with the present route. Despite having more Regio-trains providing access to Erfurt and Leipzig/Halle from Jena and elsewhere, it will become an inconvenience when it comes to changing trains and having to rush to the nearest ICE train with very little time left.
Still it is up to the Bahn to decide how to adjust to the situation as it plans to allow for time for people to adjust and get used to the new line. After a year or so, it will make some adjustments to better serve customers who are out of reach of the new line. By then, one will find out whether the billions spent on this project was worth its salt.
Video on the VDE8 Project- the ICE Line Berlin-Erfurt-Munich:
When traveling with the Deutsche Bahn (German Railways), there are two extreme forms of communication to keep in mind, which annoy the customer the most: There is no information and there is the decision that is made and there is no compromise. This is especially the case when you find a train arriving for you to board, with the info-board saying the train is leaving in a half hour to your destination, and you enter the train that is unlocked, ONLY to find that you are locked in and your train leaves the platform 20 minutes earlier, enroute to the railyard for repairs!!! You are surprised when the conductor enters the train and finds a trespasser frantically waiting to get out and return to the train station to catch your real connecting train, if it hadn’t left while he found a way to shuttle you back in the meantime.
People being trapped in miscommunication with the Bahn is nothing new to passengers, for announcements and information on the trains are sometimes very patchy, causing confusion and sometimes anger among the passengers dependent on train service as the alternative to driving the car. Whether there is neither information on the info-board nor announcements on the train and it arrives without notice, the lack of communication between the Bahn and the customers is an ongoing problem, and one that cannot be ignored, along with the increasing costs of traveling by train.
Some more examples of such headaches include a person boarding an ICE train upon arrival at Frankfurt without any information on whether or not to board, only to be locked up for 20 minutes while the cleaning crew takes out the garbage and cleans the seats before allowing people to board enroute to Dresden. Then there is a train that is supposed to leave the platform on time, only to be cancelled without notice because the loc driver went on strike. Or one that is my all time favorite: while riding the CityNightLine enroute to Geneva, 15 minutes before approaching Fulda so that the train can be separated between the one going to Basel and one going to Munich and Vienna, I was trapped in the latter train without notice, as train crews locked the door of the section going to Basel- and this while in the restroom next to a restaurant!
From my own personal experience traveling with the Bahn ever since coming to Germany, one can find the miscommunication very often with long-distance trains, in particular, the ICE, for despite its biggest strength of being the fastest and most efficient, customer service is the poorest. This includes a lack of communication between train crew and customers in terms of providing available information on connections, being impatient with customers arriving from trains that are late, providing alternative train connections that are not realistic, and lastly, being too arrogant to provide information via announcements- both in German as well as in English. When an announcer on an ICE-train upon arriving says “Alle vorgesehene Zügen werden erreicht” (All connections will be reached) and sometimes in a broken dialect in English, the first natural reaction you will find in any situation falls along the lines of : “Häh????”
After having my experience of being locked in a train two times within one month, I decided to provide you with a few tips so that you can get the information you want and not be entangled in a web of misunderstanding.
When a train is waiting to leave for your destination, don’t board right away but wait until 10 minutes before departure. Chances are if a train is on the platform and you have 30 minutes to wait, it will either head to the railyard or is locked with the cleaning crew on board. Better to drink a coffee or Glühwein at the train station and enjoy some company with strangers than to have an experience of a lifetime.
While on the ICE, make sure you have access to a broschure to see when you will reach your destination and what connecting trains are available. They are both in German and English. Chances are likely that you have more than one possibility to catch your connecting train in case you missed the first one.
Know your train and where you should be, especially when travelling overnight. While the CityNightLine is now defunct, other trains have taken its place, such as the EuroNight, EuroCity and NachtZug (Night Train) that have arrangements similar to what was mentioned. That means if a train separates at a railyard station, like Fulda, Hamburg, Nuremberg, etc., please be sure to be in your own carriage 20 minutes before the procedure starts so that you are not locked in the wrong one and end up going in the wrong direction.
While we’re talking about back-up plans, don’t bind yourself with one connection- one train. The German Railways do have Flexi-Tickets and other options, especially if you have a BahnCard. I personally have BahnCard 25 but they have 50 and 100. Pending on how often you travel by train, it is best to look at the best options which will help you financially and in terms of your sanity.
Communicate with the train crew. If in doubt, ask. If you don’t like their service, make it known. The train crew is paid to do one important thing, which is to make the customer happy. They cannot afford to be arrogant, even though there are some explanations for their lack of logic. However they are sometimes very helpful, especially in situations where the customer needs some guidance in difficult situations.
Lastly, be patient. All of us are human, and many of us make mistakes. Therefore, if you are in any of the situations like the ones mentioned here, relax. There is always a way out of any bad situation. I’m reminded of the song by the Wiseguys which describes the adventures of the German Railways quite well, and one doesn’t need to learn German or English just to see the descriptions and the facial reactions of the passengers (see this Genre of the Week Article here).
And if you want my word of advice: If you are ever in doubt whether or not you should board your train and you have more than enough time to spare, please, bitte NICHT einsteigen. Even if the sign says the train is leaving at your time, it is better to wait until right before the train’s planned departure than to board too early only to be locked in at the worst possible time. Especially if the crew wants to clean the train before it leaves, it is better to have a coffee and sandwich at a restaurant and give them a token of thanks for their service than to have some frowned looks in the end. 🙂
Author’s personal note: In reference to the CityNightLine train heading to Geneva, the one I now tout as the Jodie-Foster-Express thanks to the film Flightplan, I did manage to get back into the carriage going to Basel but not before waiting 20 minutes until one of the railway workers came and led me off the Munich coach back onto the Basel coach. With my wife accompanying me to Geneva, my first response to her question of what happened was: “Don’t ask!” 😉
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is a throw-back article dating back to Easter 2011, when the author took a tour of Flensburg and parts of Schleswig-Holstein for articles for both the Files and sister column The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles. This article fits very nicely with the problem that train commuters and tourists have when using the Deutsche Bahn- bikes on trains and the availability of trains and coaches to accomodate them. In response to the latest strikes by the union GDL over salary increases and better working conditions, the Bahn has more issues than ever before going beyond the salary dispute, as seen with the author’s pet peeve below.
This Easter kicks off the start of the biking season over here in Germany (and parts of Europe). After months of having the bikes in the garages for many months due to a rather wintry season with more snow than what the continent is used to, cyclists, like yours truly are taking advantage of the warm and sunny weather by packing the bikes and whatever they can use for on the way and head hundreds of kilometers away from their homes to their destinations, so that they can see many new places and pedal many kilometers, whether it is a nice 20 km scenic tour or a marathon of over 110 km long. It all depends on preference mainly, although some people go to extremes only to pay the price physically in the end.
For many who are taking their bikes with to their destinations, it is not unusual to load them up on the trains and take off with them. It’s easier than having to load them up on top of their cars or in the back of their trucks, and one only needs to pay for train fare for himself and the bike. Sadly though, as you can see in the picture, the German Railways (Die Bahn) are trying to indirectly discourage that possibility, as there are too many bikes clogging up the train. Now why would railway services, like Die Bahn would want to do that?
The explanation is cause and effect. In Germany (and you can also include the rest of Europe as they have the same issue), it is too expensive to own a car. Apart from the very high gas prices (please refer to my last column on dictating our driving habits), one has to worry about paying taxes for the car- let alone car insurance which is twice as expensive as in the United States (in most cases). Furthermore, it is obligatory to have your car inspected annually to ensure that it functions properly. The so-called TÜV inspection ensures that cars that do not meet strict requirements, such as reducing carbon dioxide emissions and eliminating harmful gases produced by the exhaust system, the car engine making minimum noise while in operation, and the outer body looking like brand new, are taken off the roads unless the problems are corrected. In a way, it encourages more business on the part of the car dealers and law enforcement agencies and safety on the part of the drivers. But by the same token, it discourages many drivers from purchasing a car and use alternative forms of transportation instead, such as bus, streetcar, bike, and the train.
Problem with the alternative with train and bike is not just the overcrowding of bikes, but the lack of availability of coaches to store the bikes. While one can take their bikes onto a regional service train at no cost (most of the time, that is), these trains stop at every single train station at every town, big or small, resulting in the travel time being three times as long as it would be, if one would use long-distance train services, which travels faster and stops at only the big and most popular stations, like in Frankfurt (Main), Dresden, Berlin and Hamburg, for example. The fastest long-distance train service in Germany is the ICE, which travels up to 300 km/h. The second quickest is the Inter City, which can clock in a maximum speed of 250 km/h. Yet the IC is the only one that provides the cyclists with the possibility to take the bike on board, even though they have to reserve a spot at a small price. The problem with this possibility is the fact that the bike reservations on the ICs are as limited as the number of these trains that are still running on the tracks. And it will only get worse in the next decade, as many changes by Die Bahn is forcing many to either adapt to the changes or consider alternatives. First and foremost, the ICs are retiring, as many of the coaches have been in operation for 30-40 years and despite consistent renovations, they are approaching the end of their useful lives. At the same time however, the newest version of the ICE, the ICx will make its debut as early as 2017, which will make the ICs and the first two generations of the ICE trains obsolete. There are currently four types in operation: The ICE I, which has been in service since 1990, the ICE II (since 1993), the ICE T (since 2000) and the ICE III (since 2004). All four of these types cannot accommodate the bikes and are therefore forbidden to take aboard unless one wants to face legal action. Also disturbing is the possible elimination of ICE routes as they are either considered non-profitable or are being bypassed with more efficient routes. This includes the weaning of the route Stralsund- Berlin-Leipzig-Weimar-Erfurt-Kassel-Dortmund-Cologne off the ICs and replacing them with regional services, which has caused some massive protests from those who want a quick route to either the Cathedral in Cologne and points in the Ruhrgebiet (an industrial area where Dortmund and Cologne are located) or the Baltic Sea, in places like Stralsund, or the islands of Rügen and Usedom [Oooh-se-dome]. Another route, the Berlin-Leipzig-Erfurt-Nuremberg route is getting a new route, which would go through Suhl instead of Naumburg, Jena and Lichtenfels and with that, the treacherous mountains located between Saalfeld and Lichtenfels. While it may cut down the amount of time because the trains will go through a series of bridges and tunnels, there are concerns that Jena and Naumburg may end up without long-distance train services, a discussion that was brought up last year in Jena, as the city of 120,000 inhabitants is the center of its optical industry and has two renowned universities that are focused on the sciences.
Regional services do have three advantages. First it better serves the communities as the trains stop at all stations and towns, big or small. People are more connected as they meet and get to know each other, and one can load their bikes on the train and take them to their destinations, no matter where they go, for free. But this privilege will not last for long. Already in some places, like Hesse, the trains now have limitations for the number of bikes allowed on board. And in Bavaria, bike fees are being imposed on certain routes. One wonders whether these restrictions will actually do more harm to Die Bahn and its profits, let alone the customers; especially those who do not want to resort to the car to load their bikes and go to their destinations, if they can help it.
While the situation is still bearable, it will be a matter of time before the frustration between the customers with the bikes and Die Bahn come to a boil and that solutions offering flexibility will have to be found. This includes looking at neighboring countries for references, as their systems are more complex but more logical than what Die Bahn is offering. This includes the rail service in Switzerland (the SBB), where bikes are allowed on any train regardless of whether it is the regional services or the quickest service, the ICN, which runs services between Basel, Geneva, and Zurich. The reintroduction of InterRegio services, which was discontinued in 2006, would provide passengers with better connections to medium-sized communities and more space for the bikes. This is one service that the SBB still retains alongside its InterCity services. And lastly, to better serve the customers, having more train services running regularly- namely three per hour in the more populated areas- would provide the passengers with more opportunities to travel and trains with more space for the bikes. This is being practiced in Switzerland; especially in the corridor of Geneva-Montreaux-Bern as well as Montreaux-Sion-Lugano, for example.
Whether Die Bahn will look to other sources for references or find other creative ideas on their own depends on the costs, let alone the supply vs. demand- namely what the customers want and what the rail service can provide them in order for them to be satisfied. No matter what the case may be, many people are not going to let any train service put them down. They will do whatever it takes to travel by train; especially now because of the increasing oil prices, which shows no signs of slowing down at all. And on a beautiful weekend, like Easter, with temperatures between 20 and 30°C and mostly sunny skies, many people, like myself, are taking the bikes into the trains and travelling to their destinations, where they will hit the trails and see the places that they want to see, but without the use of a set of wheels that has guzzled one liter of gas too many.