Germany's ICE Trains
The Deutsche Bahn's high-speed 'Intercity-Express' trains connect cities throughout Germany.
France's TGVs, Japan's Shinkansen "bullet trains," and Eurostar may be better-known to English-speaking foreigners, but the Intercity-Express or ICE trains of Germany have been providing high-speed rail service on the Deutsche Bahn, or Germany Federal Railways, since 1991.
On any given day, more than 150 ICE trainsets connect German cities at speeds of up to 300 km/h or 186 m.ph., with some routes extending into neighboring countries. The busiest stretch of the ICE network, the Riedbahn between Frankfurt and Mannheim, has a capacity of 280 trains per day.
For you, the statistics translate into speed, frequency, and convenience: Intercity-Express trains are, quite simply, the best way to travel between most German cities.
Even on long stretches, such as Berlin to Basel, train travel is competitive with flying after you've factored in ground transportation and other hassles.
(Need proof? Lufthansa offers AIRail service for passengers departing from Frankfurt International Airport. You can check in for your flight at the Cologne, Siegburg/Bonn, or Stuttgart railroad station and take an ICE train directly to the Frankfurt airport instead of catching a Lufthansa feeder flight.)
In this article, we'll describe what it's like to ride an ICE train, tell you how to buy tickets or use your rail pass, and point you to other Web resources for Intercity-Express passengers and railfans.
ICE train types
To most passengers, all Intercity-Express trains look pretty much the same: They're long, streamlined trainsets with pale grey (almost white) paint and red stripes along the side, and all offer high standards of comfort.
Still, there are differences that are worth noting:
ICE 1 trains were introduced in the early 1990s. The trainsets have power cars, or locomotives, at each end and passenger cars (including a tall BordRestaurant dining car) in between.
ICE 2 trains are a bit more streamlined than their ICE 1 counterparts, with a BordBistro café/restaurant that looks almost identical to the standard passenger cars.
ICE 3 trains have bullet noses and no separate power cars: motors and other electrical components are beneath the floors of the passenger cars, making it possible to offer a "lounge seat" compartment directly behind the engineer's cockpit at each end of the train. Passengers can watch the driver and the tracks ahead through a floor-to-ceiling glass partition.
Lounge seats are also available on ICE T trains, which are similar to ICE 3 trains but include a tilting mechanism to allow faster speeds on curved track.
ICE train services:
Intercity-Express trains also can be defined by their type of service:
Traveling by ICE train
Class of travel and seating:
ICE trains have first- and second-class cars. All cars are air-conditioned, and the main difference between the two classes is in the seating:
You can see pictures of first- and second-class cars under "More ICE train photos" below.
In addition to the more common open seating, some cars have modern versions of the traditional six- or eight-seat European train compartments, and some trains have business cars with laptop tables and glassed-in conference rooms.
Newer ICE 3 and ICE T trains also have compartments with "lounge seats" directly behind the engineer's cockpits at both ends of the train (see photo at top of page).
These compartments are popular with railfans, and they're available in both first and second class.
Other seating variations include facing pairs of seats with tables and family compartments on newer trains. If you have a preference for a certain type of seat, indicate your preference when making seat reservations.
At the train station, look for an electronic signboard or a yellow printed "Abfahrten" ("Departures") list. This will show the platform for your train.
On the platform, look for a diagram that shows the makeup of each train. Identify the platform sector (A, B, C, D) for your class of travel and/or the car where you have a seat reservation and wait for the train between the sector signs.
When the train arrives, look for the car numbers near the doors. If you don't have time to reach the other end of the train, board anywhere and walk to your car. (ICE trains have automatic electric doors between cars, so walking through the train is easy unless you're hauling bulky luggage.)
You'll need to take your bags into the car with you, but this shouldn't be a problem if you're traveling with a reasonable amount of luggage.
Place smaller bags on the overhead rack above your seat; larger bags can be placed between the backs of opposite-facing seats or stowed in a luggage locker at the end of the car.
(Deposit a coin, which will be refunded when you collect your suitcase.)
In first class, passengers often simply place suitcases next to them in the aisle; this isn't always convenient in second class, where aisles are narrower and cars are more crowded.
Porters are available in larger German railroad stations, but they can be hard to find.
If you need a porter to meet you upon arrival, ask a member of the train crew to phone ahead. Many conductors and car attendants speak English, but if all else fails, show your ticket, ask "Gepäckträger?", and make lifting gestures.
Food and drink
Your ICE train will have a BordRestaurant (dining car), a BordBistro (café car), or both. On most trains, you can order a meal at your seat in first class or buy snacks in second class.
An even better option, if you're watching your euros, is to buy a sandwich and drink in the railroad station before departure. Larger stations often have food stands or kiosks on the train platforms.
All ICE trains have accessible lavatories, wheelchair parking, and other facilities for disabled travelers. These are located only in certain cars, so it's a good idea to reserve a seat and indicate your need before you travel.
What to expect on board
ICE trains offer a fast, smooth ride, without the lurches and clatter of traditional trains. You may be surprised to look up and see "300 km/h" displayed on a digital panel at the end of your car.
On some trains (ICE Sprinters) you'll be offered free newspapers, and free copies of the Deutsche Bahn's excellent German-language magazine are available in all trains.
Also glance through the leaflet titled Ihr Reiseplan, which shows your train's schedule with connecting services at each station along the way.
Finally, the first-class cars on some trains offer video entertainment, and nearly all have headphone jacks for free onboard audio programming.
Telephones and laptops
Some ICE cars have cellular repeaters for the convenience of mobile-phone users, but other carriages are "quiet cars" where telephones are forbidden. If you intend to use your phone enroute (or if you like to play your iPod at top volume), don't sit in the silent zone.
In recent years, the Deutsche Bahn has installed computer power plugs in newer trains and many older cars. Free Wi-Fi is available on all ICE trains.
Ticketing and reservations
You can buy ICE and other Deutsche Bahn tickets at railroad stations, at travel agencies, from online vendors like Rail Europe in the U.S., or directly from the Deutsche Bahn Web site.
First class will cost you about 50 per cent more than second class, but the car will have fewer passengers and your seat will be a little more comfortable. (For most travelers, second class on an ICE train is more than adequate, and it's more comfortable than economy class on an airplane.)
Seat reservations aren't required on most ICE trains, but they're a good idea if you're traveling at a busy period or want a block of seats for your family or group.
You can reserve seats at German railroad stations or on the Deutsche Bahn Web site.
When you board a train with a seat reservation, go to the indicated car and seat number.
You'll see a small sign (usually electronic, sometimes paper) above the seat that identifies your boarding and arrival station, such as "Nürnberg-München" or "Wolfsburg-Hannover."
When you board a train without a seat reservation, look for an unreserved seat or a seat with an expired reservation indicator (in other words, if the reservation is to Frankfurt Hbf and you get on after Frankfurt Hbf, you can claim the seat).
You can travel free on ICE trains if you have a qualifying rail pass. Eurail (for travelers who live outside Europe) and InterRail (for residents of Europe) offer a variety of multi-country and single-country passes. Deutsche Bahn also sells passes and special tickets for tourists.
Related Web links
Deutsche Bahn -
German Federal Railways
Railfaneurope.net Picture Gallery: ICE
General travel information for Germany
Historic Highlights of Germany
More ICE train photos
An ICE train of the German Federal Railways leaves Cologne's Hauptbahnhof.
Another Intercity-Express prepares to cross the Hohenzollern railroad and pedestrian bridge in Cologne.
A multi-unit ICE 3 train crosses the Lahntal Bridge north of Frankfurt am Main.
An ICE 3 train delivers passengers to the terminals at Frankfurt International Airport.
A family boards an ICE train with help from a conductor.
In first class, open coaches have 1 + 2 seating.
Second-class seating is 2 + 2. Note the coat closet on the left side of the aisle.
Some ICE trains have BordRestaurants, while others offer more casual BordBistros. You can also drink, snack, or (in first class) have a meal served at your seat.
Photos copyright © Rail Europe. Used by permission.
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