Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Passengers are Kings of the Rails

In my last post, I wrote about Germany's "love affair" with the private automobile. Today, I'm looking at the inter-city rail system.

There's a lot of freight hauled by rail, but on German rails passengers are the kings. During the daytime when I've traveled, freight trains appeared to be outnumbered about 20:1 by passenger trains. The freights I see are mainly container-trains - short by U.S. standards, at about 40-50 cars. I've seen plenty of bulk freight cars waiting in the yards, so I suppose they must move mainly at night, when passenger traffic is less frequent.

Piggy-back service is offered, but it's a bit different than in North America. Tractors as well as trailers are carried, and trains include one or two coaches so the drivers can accompany their rigs.

Most rail lines are owned by Deutche Bahn (DB), the government railway company. DB operates its own freight trains, but several other operators move freight around Germany and through it to points near and far.

However, there's no question of who has the right-of-way on Germany tracks: it's the passenger trains.

At the top of the passenger "pecking order" are the Inter City Express (ICE) trains. These are white with a red stripe and operate using Siemens equipment allowed to run up to 320 km/h (about 200 MPH). They actually spend much of their time operating in the 100-125 MPH range, since not all track is designed for super-high speeds. At any speed though, they're quiet and smooth-running. The densely-traveled long-distance lines have new track designed for true high-speed operation, including lots of tunnels and viaducts to provide straight, level operation.

One level down from the ICEs are the Inter City (IC) trains. They are operated with electric locomotives and older (but still comfortable) coaches, at speeds up to about 125 MPH. Like the ICEs, they all have on-board snack bars or dining cars and choice of first or second class seats. First class seats are wider, 2+1 across; second class is 2+2; I never saw 3+2, as is common in Japanese high-speed trains and on commuter lines in the US northeast.

Regional service is provided in all areas, including several speed options from express, through semi-express, to all-stops locals. These are usually red with white trim, second-class only, and many are locomotive-hauled with bi-level coaches and can operate up to the 125 MPH range but usually slower, and without food service. Single-level coaches and electric multiple-units are also used for this. There is a dense network of regional rail connections, available between just about all neighboring cities and towns, with stops at intermediate suburbs. These provide commuter service as well as frequent mid-day and evening runs under the "DB Regio" trade name.

Suburban and rural service is provided as "S-Bahn" (suburban line). Under this designation you find both trains and light-rail vehicles. Some of the longer runs are locomotive-hauled, but most of the trains are EMU or DMU sets, everything from single cars to ten-car trains. They are operated by DB, by regional transit authorities, and even by private companies. All offer fairly frequent runs (more often during rush hour, of course) in second-class only.

Commuter and regional locals often have tracks in the mainline right-of-way, but designated for local service only. Express trains then run on separate tracks, which has the advantage of keeping fast through-trains away from station platforms. Light-rail S-Bahn vehicles embody the interurban tradition that died out in the 1930s in North America. In cities, they operate on the streets along with cars, trucks, and buses, on the same rails as city streetcars.

A wonderful example of this is the S-41 line that I took to get to my cousin's house in the village of Bad Rotenfels ("Redrock Baths"), in the southwestern state of Baden-W├╝rtemburg. When I de-trained from the ICE in the city of Karlsruhe, I walked out of the main station across a plaza with three low-level platforms for boarding buses and rail cars. The S-41 rolled down the street in a few minutes - an articulated tram car - and I climbed aboard with women, men, and school kids. At a stop in an enclosed station a couple of blocks away, our car bumped into another waiting car, coupling on, and the driver got out and left. With the first car in charge, we soon left and headed south along the rail line at a top speed of about 55 MPH, stopping at all the little stations along the way. Each station was announced by a pleasant, recorded woman's voice and electronic sign. In that bucolic setting, I was rather surprised to see a French TGV breeze past in the other direction. At Rastatt, however, about 15 miles south of Karlsruhe, we left the main track and wound up a line that felt very much like an interurban trolley's: sometimes double-track, often single; passing through fields, trees, and stopping at villages. One of these villages is Bad Rotenfels, where my Krieg ancestors had lived beginning in 1797, making farm wagons, carriages, and related wheeled devices. The S-41 continues south for 32 miles to Freudenstadt, winding through the lovely narrow valley of the Murg river.

Continuing my tour of Germany a few days later, I boarded a morning interurban run and found standing-room only as far as Rastatt, after which I got a seat - and some video out the back window.

Clearly, the German idea of freedom is embodied in their fast cars, good roads, smooth rails, and abundant trains. How do they pay for this freedom, and what effect does it have on their community environment? This will be the subject for future posts.


  1. Its mean mostly freight trains move in night. I think this is the intelligent step by railway board.

  2. I have also heard about Germany's trains that it the best.Very informative article.