Riding the ICE

RIDING THE ICE

By Gordon Preller

 

 For those of us who grew up with the Interstate Highway system, and the convenience of having your own car when you arrived at your destination, train travel may seem like a thing of a long gone era.  Mention train travel, and it conjures images of old comedies with people popping into and out of Pullman sleepers, or Jesse James or Butch Cassidy robbing the coaches and blowing up the mail car.   The more modern minded might have experienced rocking down the rails on Amtrak, at a stately top speed of 55 miles per hour.  But I say that riding the rails is the way of the future, and the future is now!

Clear your mind, and project on that mental screen a vision of a space age, streamlined land-rocket quietly whipping through the landscape at 320 k/h – that’s 200 miles per hour to us Americans!  Futuristic?  You bet!  A pipe-dream?  Nope, just common, every-day travel in Germany and much of Europe.

The InterCity Express, ICE to Americans, EE-TSAY-AY to Germans, is a comfortable and rapid travel medium between both large and small cities in Germany.  I have had the pleasure of riding the ICE several times, and each time I am amazed at the quiet, smooth ride.

This year my brother Fred and I arrived at the Frankfurt am Main Flughafen (airport), cleared our entry and headed for the attached Bahnhof (train station).  There are two at the airport: one for local and regional trains and the Fernbahnhof for long distance travel.  We found the ticket office and bought two second class tickets for Lichtenfels, at €65 each.   We could have bought these from a machine on the platform, but chose to deal with a person instead.  No extra charge, and his English was excellent, despite my poor German.  We had a half hour to kill, so grabbed breakfast at the German equivalent of fast food: a Bahnhof deli cum bakery, with a selection of sandwiches, freshly made, and that day’s pastries and breads.  Good food, great coffee.

At 09:55 we were on the Bahnsteig (platform) waiting on our 10:02 ICE to come in on Gleis 5 (Track 5).   There is an information board showing the consist – the location of the various cars, first class, second class, restaurant-bord, and cars for bicycles.  ICE 1521 arrived promptly at 09:58.

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The doors opened and passengers debarked.  We boarded a second class car and looked for a vacant seat, mindful of the little LED signs above each seat indicating whether that seat was reserved.  No problem, we found a pair of comfortable seats with a table.  Fred stowed his large suitcase in a luggage bin at the end of the car, and I tossed my backpack on the overhead rack, and we settled into very comfortable seats.

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So, what is the difference between First Class and Second Class on an ICE?  Not much.  First class has marginally more comfortable seats, and the people are quieter.  Most people travelling with babies don’t travel first class.  You won’t get a bunch of rowdy students going to and from school, though this is less likely on an ICE than on a second class local car.

At 10:02 we realized the train had begun to move.  The start-up of an electric train like the ICE is imperceptible.  Not “almost” imperceptible.  Imperceptible.  You have to be looking out the window to realize you are moving.  Getting out of the area of the Bahnhof and passing through various turnouts is much smoother than expected, and once out of town and running, the ICE is very smooth, with only an occasional gentle side to side motion.  American railroads have much to learn about track-laying and maintenance!  And there is no noise.

After brief stops at the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof (main train station) and one in Hanau, our ICE got up and running for Würzburg Hauptbahnhof.  I didn’t see the speed readout at the end of our car during this particular journey.  On a later leg of the trip, on a different ICE, I saw that we were traveling at 230 k/h, which is about 143 mph.  Just because it can go 320, doesn’t necessarily mean that it always runs at top speed.

Fred enjoyed the fruits of the restaurant car, while I simply sat back and enjoyed the ride.  Unlike driving your own vehicle, on the train you can get up and walk around, go to the restaurant car or toilette, and, if that is your inclination, have a few beers or a glass or two of wine, and not worry about that DUI or getting in an accident.  In second class you can buy a drink or sandwich from the cart that comes down the aisle, if you don’t want to walk to the restaurant car.

On this leg of our trip, no one checked our tickets.  On German trains, one doesn’t need to queue up to get on, and there is no security screening to delay your departure.   One simply finds one’s train and boards.  A conductor may or may not check your ticket later.

As the ICE entered the outskirts of Würzburg, we collected our luggage and waited by the doors.  A PA announcement tells you which side of the train will be the platform (Aussteigen links – left; Aussteigen rechts – right).  None of this “Please remain seated until the train (plane) has come to a complete halt.”  If you do that in Germany, you may just miss getting off the train!  Some local stops only allow about 35 seconds for passengers to get off and get on a train!  Würzburg was a train change for us, and we had a leisurely 10 minutes between trains.  Often there are only 4 or 5 minutes, sometimes less, for one to get off an arriving train before boarding one’s next ride.

We changed trains twice between Frankfurt Flughafen and Lichtenfels.  When we arrived at Lichtenfels, the Hotel Preussischer Hof was an easy one block hike from the Bahnhof.  Who needs a car?

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Lichtenfels is famous for the Basket Market and  Lichtenfels Castle

 

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