Rail travel in Germany

a map of (only) the ICE lines including frequency and speed-limits of these as of 2016

Germany offers a fast and (if booked in advance) affordable railway system that reaches most parts of the country. Unless you travel by car, rail is likely to be your major mode of transportation. Crossing Germany from Munich in the south to Hamburg in the north will usually take around 6 hours, while driving by car will take around 8 hours.

Almost all long-distance and many regional trains are operated by Deutsche Bahn ("German Rail"), the state-owned railway company. DB's website in English and DB's website customised for the US (available in many other localisations), is an excellent resource for working out transport options not only in Germany (generally all modes except air travel; bus and ship, but branch line timetables are incomplete) but also pretty much anywhere in Europe (train and a few selected long-distance bus routes only). An interesting gimmick is the carbon dioxide emission comparisons for different train journeys.

Basics

For its comparative size, Germany has over 40,000 miles of railways and thus is incredibly well-connected, making it possible to connect from most rural areas to large metropolises. All major German cities have a "Hauptbahnhof" (central railway station) or "Hbf." These are often situated in the center of town and have accommodations, restaurants, and attractions nearby. Be careful as some German cities, such as Berlin and Hamburg, have more than one main line station; be sure to double-check your itinerary. If the city has public transit such as S-Bahn, U-Bahn, or even buses, Hauptbahnhof will be the hub for every local line and transit service. Small towns usually have a single platform station and are bypassed except for regional trains.

Long distance

Inter City Express (ICE).

All major cities are linked by DB's ICE (InterCity Express) and regular InterCity trains. ICE is a system of high speed trains that are capable of speeding with 330 km/h, the condition of tracks and signals however allows top speeds of only 160 km/h (usual), 200 km/h (routes with special electronic equipment called "Ausbaustrecke") or 250 km/h to 300 km/h (designated high-speed tracks only called "Neubaustrecke"). The top speed of 320 km/h is reached on the journey from Frankfurt to Paris, France. Although significantly faster than by road, they are also expensive, with a 1-hour-trip ( Frankfurt to Cologne, around 180 km) costing around €67 one-way (normal price without any discount). However when you book the ticket online in advance, you can get a considerable discount (see Discounts). Reservations are not mandatory but are recommended, especially when you travel on weekends or holidays. This means, that with Interrail or Eurail pass you can use domestic ICE trains without supplement (except for international ICE trains) - the only exception is the ICE Sprinter, which requires a reservation, though this is bound to change according to announcements of late 2015.

Next are the regular InterCity (IC) and EuroCity (EC) trains. The latter connect the larger European cities and are virtually identical to the regular ICs. These trains are also fairly comfortable, even if they lack the high-tech feeling of the ICE. Many Eurocity trains are provided by neighboring railway operators (e.g. the Prague- Hamburg route is serviced by Czech railways) while this has no effect on booking and prices, the interior of the trains might be notably different from comparable German trains. Also note that Eurocities, especially those that travel very long distances are more prone to delays than purely domestic services.

As most other trains in Germany, apart from some local public transportation, the ICE, IC and EC offer first and second class service. For its higher rates, first class on those trains offers more room (three rather than four seats abreast, more legroom, seats with a large amount of recline) and airline-style waiter service with drinks and food brought to your seat. Do note that the latter is not free - there are no drinks or food included in the price, the only benefit is the service and not having to go to the dining car as the second-class passengers have to. There is also WiFi on the DB long-distance trains, starting in December of 2014 this will be free for first class passengers while second class passengers still have to pay for it through Deutsche Telekom.

Yes you are reading the display correctly

In the largest train stations, the first class passengers can enjoy the DB First Class Lounges before their trip. The lounges offer space to sit down and wait comfortably before one's trip, WiFi, as well as a selection of drinks and light snacks. Interestingly, unlike on the trains, all the aforementioned services are free for the first class passengers. There are first class lounges on the Hauptbahnhöfe (the main train stations) of Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg and Munich. In other major stations, first class passengers can use the regular DB lounges which provide most of the same amenities, but no snacks (only drinks) and no waiter service. The regular DB lounges are also open to the members of Deutsche Bahn's loyalty programme bahn.bonus who have achieved a comfort level (which is done by accumulating 2000 points by travelling in Deutsche Bahn often and registering your trips with your bahn.bonus account, similar to airline frequent flyer programmes). The list of lounges and details can be found in the Deutsche Bahn's website.

On the major lines, an ICE or IC train will run each hour or so during the day, and even certain minor cities of touristic importance like Tübingen or Heringsdorf are connected on a daily or weekly basis. Before you shell out the money for the ICE ticket, you may want to check if it actually makes a significant time difference. ICE trains travel faster than other IC trains only on specially equipped high-speed routes. There are also long distance trains operated by other companies than Deutsche Bahn, usually running over secondary routes. These are usually comfortable enough (although not as comfortable as ICE) and sometimes considerably cheaper, but most of them stop at almost every station en route.

Despite being fast, modern and highly profitable, German railways are known among Germans for their delays specifically on main lines – trains usually do not wait for one another (most local trains normally do for up to 5 min.) you should not rely on connecting times of less than 15 min. If you miss your connection due to a delayed train, you may use another, under certain circumstances even better (e.g. ICE instead of IC) train and if your total delay at your destination exceeds 1 hour you are entitled to a reimbursement. Sometimes you need to get the delay confirmed by a conductor, so do so while still on the train, as they can also advise you on connections. If you are "stranded" after missing the last train due to a delay, you may get the costs of a taxi and/or hotel covered by the reimbursement policy even in many cases of "acts of god" (e.g. bad weather, suicides etc.)

Regional travel

Regional and local trains in Germany come in several flavours:

S-Bahn station Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof tief

Urban transportation systems are usually ran by local companies that are publicly held: these may include subways, city buses, light rail and even regional trains. In larger urban areas, the local companies will often form a Verkehrsverbund or VB (integrated public transport system): you will be able to travel in and between all participating cities using the same tickets and fares. These urban transport networks are often (but not always) integrated with the DB network and Verkehrsverbund tickets are valid in local trains.

There are many companies apart from Deutsche Bahn that run regional trains. This is usually done through a contract with the Bundesland that pays them to run a certain number of trains at specified hours and usually those contracts also stipulate that DB-tickets (such as Ländertickets and the Quer durchs Land ticket) are accepted. In some regions such as Schleswig-Holstein there might be two, three or more different ticket vending machines in the station, one for each company. When in doubt ask people on the platform, or better yet DB personnel.

Regular tickets

Very old (keypad) and old (touchscreen) DB ticket machines

There are a few locations you can book your tickets:

Now, if you're traveling on local trains, things can get confusing. The basic unit of confusion is the Verkehrsverbund (VB), or "tariff union", which is basically a region around a large city that has a single tariff system. Examples include VBB around Berlin and RMV around Frankfurt and Hesse. Any travel within a single Verkehrsverbund is "local" and usually quite cheap; but any travel between Verkehrsverbunde requires either a special (within North Rhine-Westphalia) or the full DB fare and will usually be considerably more expensive. The catch is that DB trains often cross between Verkehrsverbunde with no warning at all, and your "local" ticket stops being valid the instant you cross the invisible line.

With many local machines and old DB machines, figure out the four-digit code for your destination, found on a panel of densely packed print nearby. Poke the flag button to switch to English, punch in the code for your destination station on the keypad, then hit the appropriate button in the left ("adult") row below to pick your ticket. The first button is always one-way single (Einzelfahrausweis). A price will be displayed: feed in your money (quickly, since the time out is quite fast, and the machine will spit out your tickets and change. For new blue DB machines, select the local tariff union in the top menu, and the rest is easy.

If you buy a local VB ticket, you will usually have to validate it by time stamping it at the bright yellow punch machines located on platforms. If you have no valid ticket or an un-punched ticket, you will be fined as a fare dodger. Ticket validity varies randomly from one VB to another: usually, there is either a zone system (the further you travel, the more you pay), a time system (the longer you travel, the more you pay), or most commonly a combination of these two. Unlimited transfers between trains, buses, etc. are usually allowed as long as your ticket remains valid. Discounts may be given for return trips, and one-day tickets (Tageskarte) are usually cheaper and much less hassle that single tickets, although zone limits apply to them as well. You can often pick up brochures attempting to explain all this, usually with helpful maps, and occasionally even in English, at a local Reisezentrum (ticket office).

Regional train tickets are point-to-point, with the destinations written on the ticket. They are valid on only trains (but in North Rhine-Westphalia, they are also on certain other means of public transport), although for long-distance tickets, you may have the option to add on a local transport ticket at your destination for a few euro extra.

Discounts

As standard fares are relatively expensive, there is a sometimes confusing set of special promotions and prices offered by the rail companies at various times (tests showed that even many railway employees at ticket counters failed to find the best bargain). Your best course of action is to check the web or to ask at a train station or their telephone hotline for current details. If you search for a connection with the on-line timetable, it automatically offers you the most favourable discount for the journey. Try several departure times as discount tickets are limited and may be sold out for your initial choice. If you plan to travel a bit more extensively, a BahnCard or rail pass may be the better choice.

Unlike standard tickets, Sparpreis and Europa-Spezial tickets are valid only on the train booked so you cannot use them on an earlier or later train. Obviously if your train is delayed and you miss the follow-up train connection that restriction is lifted, however it is advisable to get a train conductor or some staff at the train station to confirm this on your ticket.

BahnCard

Bahncard, with a 25% reduction

BahnCard is a good choice if you plan to travel by train a lot. It's valid for one year from the date of purchase and gives you discounts on all standard tickets. Long-distance BahnCard tickets frequently do include one single journey on public transport in many destinations (look out for City ticket). However, you have to keep in mind that once you sign a contract for the card, they will automatically renew your card at the end of its time period unless you cancel it in writing before the last three months of the card starts. The DB employees may not tell you about this stipulation when you buy the card.

The BahnCard discount doesn't apply to network tickets, but some transportation networks do offer their own discounts for BahnCard holders.

Network tickets

German network tickets are valid for one day in all DB local trains (S, RB, SE, RE and IRE), local private trains and city public transport. They are often a cheaper alternative to single or return tickets because on many shorter connections, local trains are not much slower than long-distance trains (IC, EC, ICE). Check the travel time at the on-line timetable and select the Only local transport button.

If you need a network ticket for long-distance trains, use some of european rail passes or German Rail Pass.

All network tickets can be purchased on-line and at ticket machines at railway stations. You cannot buy them from the conductor.

Some locals look for other people at stations to share a journey with to reduce costs and there's a website for searching for a travel companion. Some even sell their network ticket for a discount after arriving at their destination to recoup some of their expenditure. In response, DB now requires you to write your name on the ticket to validate it; however the conductor hardly ever checks your identity.

German Rail Pass

A German Rail Pass allows for unlimited travel throughout Germany in all trains on 3–10 days within a month. There is an interesting "twin" discount for two people travelling together. The pass is available only for residents outside Europe, Turkey and Russia; you can purchase it online at abovementioned website or from travel agencies outside Germany.

Eurail offers a pass for 3–10 days of travel (does not have to be consecutive) throughout Germany.

Carrying bikes

In some Verkehrsverbünde, you can carry a bike on a train with normal ticket without supplement at off-peak hours. For short journeys outside Verkehrsverbund you can buy a bike supplement ticket for €5, valid on all local trains for one day. On local trains you can carry bike usually in the open area near doors.

On long-distance trains (only IC/EC) the supplement costs €9 for a day (€6 with BahnCard), here you must reserve. On international routes the supplement is €10 for one journey. Long-distance trains have special section with bike holders. Follow up the bike symbols near the car door. Bikes are not allowed on high-speed trains (ICE, Thalys, TGV).

Rail&fly

Many airlines that fly to/from German airports offer rail&fly tickets with their flights. they have to be bought together with your flight and are usually cheaper than a comparable domestic flight or even entirely free, depending on the airline and your type of service (discounted or "premium"). rail&fly allows you to take any flight from any station to the airport with any number of changes up to one day prior to the departure / after the arrival of your flight. See also rail air alliances

Stay safe

An emergency brake. It can't be missed and the sign spells out what it does in four languages

Although trains in Germany are among the safest in the world and trains in general are the safest mode of transport almost everywhere, there are some security concerns:

As luggage isn't checked in you should always have a watchful eye on it as luggage theft and pickpocketing occur on trains from time to time. If you notice that your bag isn't where you put it, notify a conductor as they may be able to find it if it has just been put elsewhere by someone storing his/her own luggage.

The window on a German ICE. Notice the red dot in the upper part

There are usually emergency brakes in every car of the train and they are clearly marked in (at least) German and English as such. While pulling them without justification incurs a heavy fine (often more than €1000 for first time offenders), you are not charged if you can give a plausible reason why you thought the train to be in danger. Note that most conductors have the same right as you to pull the emergency brake and there is thus nothing gained (but maybe valuable time lost) if you ask a conductor before pulling the brake.

If for some reason the door doesn't open there is usually some mechanism to manually open it. If you can, ask a conductor before doing it, or let him/her do it for you, as sometimes these systems have to be disabled manually before the train can drive on, thus causing delays when done incorrectly.

In the unlikely case of an accident the doors may be impassable or not within reach. To provide further routes of escape you can break the windows. This is usually done by hitting the small red dot on top of the window with the red hammer. You can than safely remove the broken window. Make sure that the drop is not too deep before you exit the train.

Information for railway fans

The narrow-gauge railway Rasender Roland (Rushing Roland) on Rugia Island at the Baltic Sea
Harz Narrow-Gauge Railways on the Brocken mountain (Harz, northern Germany)
The Schwebebahn, the world's oldest monorail system in Wuppertal

There are several railways of special interest in Germany.

Cog railways are in Stuttgart, up Drachenfels, up the Zugspitze Mountain and up the Wendelstein Mountain.

For an almost complete list, see List of railways worth seeing (in German language Wikivoyage).

DB subsidiaries

Other railway corporations

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Friday, April 01, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.