Germany is known for its all-embracing railway system, the comfort of its trains, and “German punctuality”. However, train travel can become problematic for foreigners if they don’t understand the different train connections, ticket prices, or features of the trains.

Mohan Murti

With rapidly rising energy prices, driving in Europe has become dreadfully expensive and, therefore, public transportation is widely used. Germany is known for its all-embracing railway system, the comfort of its trains, and “German punctuality”.

Each day, I travel 210 km to work and it takes me an enjoyable 45 minutes from Cologne, where I live, to Frankfurt. For 17 years now, Germany has had (InterCity Express) ICE trains , operating on several high-speed lines between major German cities such as Cologne, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Stuttgart, and Frankfurt.

These sleek, white trains travel at 250-280 km an hour, whisking passengers along in quiet, comfortable cars equipped with video screens (in first class), stereo headsets, fax machines, and telephones. Like jet airplanes ICE coaches are pressurised, sparing passengers any ear discomfort in the tunnels required to keep the roadbeds straight and level for high speed.

Germany has one of the world’s best passenger rail systems.

There aren’t many places that you can’t get to with it, and the trip is comfortable, economical, and punctual. An average of 350,000 people use the 32,000 daily trains of the Deutsche Bahn (DB, or German Rail) system.

These trains serve over 7,000 destinations using 38,000 km of welded track, 20,000 km of which are electrified. And, an additional 3,500 km of this is available for high-speed travel.

The Deusche Bahn was formerly a government corporation but is now completely privatised. It was created from the old West German Deutsche Bundesbahn (German Federal Railways) and East German Reichsbahn (Imperial Railways).

Germany is a trade union country, and transport strikes can occur at any time, although it is still a fairly rare occurrence. Even a short “warning strike” in one city can ripple through the entire system, causing long delays and even cancellations.

Interestingly, since trains and punctuality are so important to Germans, the DB will hand-out official “certificates of train tardiness” (Bescheinigung über Zugverspätung) if a train is late. You can use these as “excuse slips” for arriving late to work, school, or other appointments!

I am fascinated by trains and sometimes go to Cologne or Frankfurt station and just sit on a platform for a while to watch the trains come and go.

Not only do I get to see all of the various types of trains but also watch how precisely the system runs.

German Railroad

Trains are the quickest, most punctual, modern, and most comfortable means of transportation in Central Europe. Taking a train or the subway is always the best travel option, especially when you have to get around in Europe’s large cities and urban areas.

The convenience of train travel can help to relieve travel stress. In fact, if you are travelling less than 500 km (310 miles) within

Europe, railroad travel usually offers time advantages in comparison to air travel.

All of Germany’s big cities are connected to each other within several hours’ train ride, and since all main train stations (Hauptbahnhof) are located in the city centres, you can get off the train in the middle of town.

However, train travel can become problematic for foreigners if they don’t understand the different train connections, ticket prices, or features of the German trains.

Starting with a few etiquette rules, here are a few personal tips from someone who has travelled with the German train system for several years:

Minding your Manners

To ensure that your train trip is a relaxing experience, be sure not to block other seats or the aisles with your briefcase, shopping bags, or backpack. Otherwise, you may be sarcastically asked if you have an additional ticket for your belongings. Seats marked for the handicapped must be offered when they are needed. One important rule Indians must note is that when inside trains or other public transport, “quiet is golden”. There are designated seats where mobile phones can be used.

Types of Trains

In order to find the fastest or most economical travel connections, it is especially important to understand the different train abbreviations and the differences between the types of German trains.

IR (Inter Region) trains connect the larger and middle-sized German cities usually within two-hour time span at a cost less than that of the ICE, the IC, or the EC.

RE (Regional Express) trains are standard German trains that stop at most train stations along the way. The RE prices are more economical, but travel time is usually longer than that the above mentioned trains.

RB (Regional Bahn) trains are the slowest in Germany. They stop at all train stations, and offer the same standard travel prices as the RE. The advantage of RB trains is that they deliver travellers to out of-the-way destinations and rural areas.

S-Bahn (Schnell Bahn) trains connect the centres of Germany’s big cities with the city’s surrounding areas quickly and frequently.

U-Bahn (Untergrundbahn) trains make up the underground metro lines that run under most big German cities.

Travel Options

Keep in mind that it is substantially cheaper to travel during the evening or, on the weekend, in a group, or when you buy your ticket online as soon as you know your travel plans.

Finally, when travelling in most of Europe, you will almost always be asked to show your ticket, even when only travelling a short distance. Ticketless travel could lead to a very embarrassing and expensive situation.

(The author is former Europe Director of CII. He presently lives in Cologne, Germany. Feedback may be sent to email: mohan.murti@t-online.de)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated June 30, 2008)
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