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