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Frozen in ICE: How Can Germany's High-Speed Trains Get Back on Track?

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German ICE trains still underperform their zappy French TGV counterparts. Deutsche Bahn hopes its new high-speed train will improve Germany's record -- but old tracks and complex networks may put the brakes on the plan.

Photo Gallery: On the Right Tracks? Photos
DPA

Germany's fastest vehicle runs on electricity. It can hold more than 400 passengers, distributed among eight cars. The Intercity-Express (ICE) train, being built in the Uerdingen district of Krefeld in western Germany, reached 404 kph (251 mph) during a demonstration trial.

The area where German engineering company Siemens makes its trains strikes visitors as run down. With its abandoned, boarded-up refreshment stand, factory ruins and obsolete smokestacks, the shoddy landscape befits the often desolate image of trains from the past.

Rarely has a train caused so much trouble for its operator as the third generation ICE has for German railway operator Deutsche Bahn (DB). This was the first high-speed train to be designed by industry alone, with Siemens overseeing the creation of a vehicle that seemed to have a knack for malfunctioning. When the first trains rolled into operation 10 years ago, passengers complained of defective air conditioners and clogged toilets. Defective couplings later paralyzed ICE operations, an axle broke in Cologne in summer 2008 and recently a door flew off a train traveling at full speed.

This susceptibility to breakdowns was particularly humiliating for the Munich-based company which aimed to challenge its French competitor Alstom, a company with a glowing industrial reputation for its successful high-performance trains. Alstom holds the world record in rail travel with a speed of 575 kph (357 mph).

Time for a Complete Overhaul?

What, then, is wrong with the ICE? Is Germany's rail industry good for nothing short of a complete overhaul?

Volker Kefer, board member for technology at Deutsche Bahn, asks himself the same question. His answer comes out diplomatically -- the industry needs help. "We need to restructure the relationship between Deutsche Bahn and industry," Kefer said during a recent visit to the Siemens plant in Uerdingen. He explained how this new structure should look, saying that Deutsche Bahn needs to be "included in development earlier."

Siemens engineers in the auditorium cast grumpy looks. They are already familiar with the new arrangement from their daily work. A team made up of engineers from both Deutsche Bahn and Siemens has met regularly for the last two years, with the goal of making the trains more reliable and robust.

Now the engineers have proudly unveiled the first results of the new cooperation -- an improved ICE 3. Deutsche Bahn has ordered 15 of this new model, at a total cost of around €500 million ($600 million). The plan initially is for the high-tech trains to undertake journeys abroad, along new corridors in southern France and possibly even as far as London.

ICE Makeover

The new model is recognizable by its bulkier nose cone, designed to meet stricter crash regulations, as well as by continuous roof paneling meant to reduce drag by up to 8 percent. The train's interior has also been rejigged. It now has 40 more seats, making a total of 460. And there are no longer any seats with a view into the engine driver's cabin -- instead, an equipment compartment now sits directly behind the driver. The hope is that the new ICE will not attract any more negative attention through technical glitches.

Improvements were made to several train components that had been susceptible to failure:

- The couplings can no longer be extended, but instead are fixed. This dispenses with a vulnerable mechanism that sometimes disrupted operations, especially in winter.

- The wheel set shafts on the drive axles are once again larger and manufactured from a conventional grade of steel. This marks the end of using a high-tech experiment with high-tensile steel, after it nearly caused a disaster.

- The toilets are no longer provided by a Danish subcontractor, but by Siemens itself, and are said to be able to reliably process even bulky items such as clumps of paper towels.

- Air conditioners will use conventional liquid cooling agents again. The use of air as coolant led to frequent failures.

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1.
BTraven 06/11/2010
An interesting article, however, I doubt that it makes sense to set up station in the city suburbs in order to make the trains faster. New stations will offer not many train connections so passenger will have to travel to the old main stations where they can use the trains they are used to take daily to get home. I think a better solution would be to equip coaches on which business travellers could work. From the geographical situation of Germany’s big centres a fast train network the shape like a house with a pitched roof would be ideal. The first floor would be a Stuttgart-Munich line. From both towns go routes to the north. They would connect in Hamburg. Perhaps one or two east-west-lines are needed. I think only an high-speed maglev system could deliver the journey times necessary to compete with planes.
2. Long-Known Dilemma - No Short-Term Remedy
Uwe4270 08/08/2010
The article discusses the classic dilemma that has plagued the German High-Speed Rail connections for more than 20 years now: namely that the technology of the trains are capable of delivering much higher travel speeds than the underlying system of tracks can accommodate. The comparison between Germany's ICE and neighboring France's TGV is instructive indeed. In fact, the dividing line is so crass in the SPIEGEL ONLINE graph of the article, that it is worthwhile quoting these numbers: ICE Hamburg - Cologne 361 km 4:00 hours 90 km/h TGV Paris - Lyon ........ 396 km 2:00 hours 198 km/h ICE Hamburg - Munich 614 km 5:30 hours 112 km/h TGV Paris - Marseille . 661 km 3:00 hours 220 km/h The rightmost quantity was added my me here, it is the all-important "time table travel speed", (German: Fahrplan-Reisegeschwindigkeit). It is that quantity which ultimately determines the attractiveness of high-speed rail travel between major cities in competition with the alternatives, which are of course automobile or air travel. To take the trip between Hamburg and Cologne in an ICE at only 90 km/h effective speed according to the table above, is indeed disappointing for high-tech Germany, internationally known in general for its excellent physical and social infrastructure. The well-known anecdotal historical comparison of some items on the current ICE timetable with those of the trains from the times of the Emperor Wilhelm may amuse the Emperor in his grave, and his railway engineers can be proud. But for the international marketing of the ICE as a German hi-tech railway engineering export, it is also embarrassing and thus potentially harmful to our German economy. The French TGV system makes obvious what must be done - namely to build high-speed tracks throughout and eliminate unnecessary stops in medium-sized towns. Easy to say, and it has been said countless times. But granted, it’s not so easily done. In the first place, the German rail system is much marred by bureaucracy and empowerment of municipalities to maintain the senseless ICE stops in medium-sized towns, of which indeed Limburg and Montabaur are the standard anecdotal examples. But even eliminating these will gain only several minutes for the time table. The problem lies apparently also in the administrative control of different sections of the railway track system. The effective travel speed seen in the time table is primarily determined by the zones where the speed is restricted. Local rail speed limits are due to the age and quality of the tracks together with topographic constraints of track curvature, such as along the river Rhine. This produces a bottleneck effect, akin to that of the sports car driver on the Autobahn who finds her effective average speed much determined by the speed-limited construction zones. In the meantime, at least the exported ICE trains make headlines their countries of operation. Most notably apparently in Spain, where the time table speed may prove to exceed 250 km/h between Barcelona and Madrid. That’s another shining example. Only the investment of dedicated high-speed tracks either to replace existing tracks or erecting entirely new high-speed sections, will improve the situation. These are obviously public infrastructure projects in the multi-billion Euros range (in German "multi-milliarden"). In the short run, there are thus no remedies in sight to improve this miserable time table performance of the German ICE.
3.
BTraven 08/10/2010
Zitat von Uwe4270The article discusses the classic dilemma that has plagued the German High-Speed Rail connections for more than 20 years now: namely that the technology of the trains are capable of delivering much higher travel speeds than the underlying system of tracks can accommodate. The comparison between Germany's ICE and neighboring France's TGV is instructive indeed. In fact, the dividing line is so crass in the SPIEGEL ONLINE graph of the article, that it is worthwhile quoting these numbers: ICE Hamburg - Cologne 361 km 4:00 hours 90 km/h TGV Paris - Lyon ........ 396 km 2:00 hours 198 km/h ICE Hamburg - Munich 614 km 5:30 hours 112 km/h TGV Paris - Marseille . 661 km 3:00 hours 220 km/h The rightmost quantity was added my me here, it is the all-important "time table travel speed", (German: Fahrplan-Reisegeschwindigkeit). It is that quantity which ultimately determines the attractiveness of high-speed rail travel between major cities in competition with the alternatives, which are of course automobile or air travel. To take the trip between Hamburg and Cologne in an ICE at only 90 km/h effective speed according to the table above, is indeed disappointing for high-tech Germany, internationally known in general for its excellent physical and social infrastructure. The well-known anecdotal historical comparison of some items on the current ICE timetable with those of the trains from the times of the Emperor Wilhelm may amuse the Emperor in his grave, and his railway engineers can be proud. But for the international marketing of the ICE as a German hi-tech railway engineering export, it is also embarrassing and thus potentially harmful to our German economy. The French TGV system makes obvious what must be done - namely to build high-speed tracks throughout and eliminate unnecessary stops in medium-sized towns. Easy to say, and it has been said countless times. But granted, it’s not so easily done. In the first place, the German rail system is much marred by bureaucracy and empowerment of municipalities to maintain the senseless ICE stops in medium-sized towns, of which indeed Limburg and Montabaur are the standard anecdotal examples. But even eliminating these will gain only several minutes for the time table. The problem lies apparently also in the administrative control of different sections of the railway track system. The effective travel speed seen in the time table is primarily determined by the zones where the speed is restricted. Local rail speed limits are due to the age and quality of the tracks together with topographic constraints of track curvature, such as along the river Rhine. This produces a bottleneck effect, akin to that of the sports car driver on the Autobahn who finds her effective average speed much determined by the speed-limited construction zones. In the meantime, at least the exported ICE trains make headlines their countries of operation. Most notably apparently in Spain, where the time table speed may prove to exceed 250 km/h between Barcelona and Madrid. That’s another shining example. Only the investment of dedicated high-speed tracks either to replace existing tracks or erecting entirely new high-speed sections, will improve the situation. These are obviously public infrastructure projects in the multi-billion Euros range (in German "multi-milliarden"). In the short run, there are thus no remedies in sight to improve this miserable time table performance of the German ICE.
In all fairness it must be said that there are many big cities between Cologne and Hamburg while there is not big centre between Paris and Lyon which makes it much easier to set up an high-speed-line because the outcry of those who complain about being decoupled from a system of which is believed it would bring prosperity to all those places connected to it. Therefore it could be useful to integrate as many big towns in the system as possible since in that areas central stations exist which are capable of delivering passengers efficiently to the areas where they live or work. A line between the towns mentioned would mean that you need a station in Cologne which people who live in Essen or Dortmund can reach in the same time as the ones in their towns.
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