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.
Rocket or Snail?
Deutsche Bahn's efforts to, once again, intervene in the trains' development recalls the old days of the Deutsche Bundesbahn, the state railway of West Germany. Back then, DB had absolute decision-making power and manufacturers such as Siemens made their products according to DB calculations and designs. The components were considerably oversized and thus essentially indestructible. Germany's Intercity trains today still consist of old Bundesbahn train bodies from the 1970s.
The new ICE 3 seems, at last, to have united both robustness and technical elegance. Still, it won't help Germany to build a more sophisticated, modern train than the French, when key problems persisit: Even a rocket-like super train will be slowed to a snail's pace when it runs on poor quality tracks and has to stop too often. Even a Ferrari can't muster up much more than a leisurely pace when it travels on a dirt road.
France, with its spectacularly speedy travel times, has proven that progress is truly not a matter of just producing more and more high technology. The country has Europe's oldest and most attractive high-speed train system. The TGV, with its thoroughly solid, venerable old Alstom trains, travels from Paris to Marseille -- 661 kilometers (411 miles) as the crow flies -- in just three hours. Even the most modern ICE takes five and a half hours -- nearly twice as long -- to cover the shorter distance between Hamburg and Munich.
How is it possible for SNCF, France's national railway operator, to be reaching average speeds that seem nothing short of fantastical from a German perspective -- using comparatively crude vehicles? The TGV's trains don't have an under-floor drive system or eddy current brakes, while some do have double-decker cars in order to accommodate enormous passenger demand. The TGV is so popular, it has nearly made flight service within France redundant.
Learning from France
There is one main lesson Deutsche Bahn could take from its French neighbors: To travel fast you need a good rail network rather than highly complex trains. The TGV's success story is the result of consistent transport policies favorable to SNCF.
In France, an uninterrupted network of high-speed lines links Paris to cities such as Lyon, Marseille and Lille. Germany's rail network, meanwhile, is a patchwork. Short high-speed stretches such as the one between Cologne and the Rhine/Main area feed into winding corridors built in the time of Kaiser Wilhelm. There are no high-speed lines at all north of Hanover, in the Ruhr region or in many parts of eastern Germany.
Germany's power structures, federal in nature, also ensure that provincial cities, which hardly have enough passengers to fill a regional train, get ICE stations. That in turn slows even the fastest train down to a crawl.
The most amusing examples are small cities such as Limburg and Montabaur, whose transport policy triumph is paid for each year in the consumption of several gigawatt hours of operating power. Several times each day, ICEs traveling 300 kph (185 mph) are forced to come to a standstill at empty station platforms in these towns.
Major Stops in Minor Cities
Then there are moderately important cities such as Göttingen and Mannheim, which enjoy a status as major stations where nearly every ICE calls. The system is about as practical as if Lufthansa were to offer a direct connection eight times a day from the small city of Münster in northwestern Germany to the small city of Nuremberg in the southeast.
This model of major stops in minor cities is foreign to SNCF. Even large cities such as Lyon aren't served by all TGV trains. The super-high-speed, three-hour service from Paris to Marseille, for example, passes through Lyon and Avignon without stopping. This is the only way for a train to have unparalleled speed on this line -- and three hours is a travel time that allows train travel to beat even flight.
An example of how differently railway policies work here can be seen in the German rail network's most important contemporary construction: a continuous high-speed line between Stuttgart and Frankfurt. An ICE could cover this distance in less than an hour, if it made no other stops in between. That would also make further connections, such as Stuttgart to Cologne, more attractive.
But here too, influential antagonists have gotten in the way. The first hurdle along the route is the city of Mannheim. In its earliest planning phases, Deutsche Bahn wanted to build a bypass route to elegantly skirt the city, with only ICE trains that stop in Mannheim passing through the train station corridor. It would be a workable solution in line with the French model.
Fuel to the Fire
The city protested, afraid it would end up cut off completely from ICE traffic. Then-CEO of Deutsche Bahn Hartmut Mehdorn added fuel to the fire by declaring that "not every little place" could be included. As it happens, he was absolutely correct, but the debate spun out of control to the point that it was no longer possible to implement a rational solution.
"It has long since stopped actually being about finding reasonable solutions for Mannheim that make sense in terms of transportation and operation. It's become solely about preventing the bypass," criticizes Sven Andersen, one of the best-informed chroniclers of Germany's railway plight.
A retired Deutsche Bahn engineer and now the author of numerous publications on the topic, Andersen sees even more trouble brewing in the same region. Darmstadt, for example, a small city between Mannheim and Frankfurt, will also receive an ICE station as part of the planned corridor -- most likely without a bypass route. Even trains that don't stop in Darmstadt will have to reduce speed because here, as in Mannheim, the track passes directly through the city and the main train station.
Another stumbling block is Frankfurt itself. Original plans had Deutsche Bahn expanding the city's South Station into a hub. The station is located south of the Main River, as is the airport train station, and yet is close to the city center. Roland Heinisch, then head of track infrastructure for Deutsch Bahn, expressed clear support for this solution early in the decade.
Frittering Away Travel Time
Opposing the idea is Frankfurt's city government under Mayor Petra Roth of the Christian Democratic Union. She wants to keep the hub at the city's main station, a cumbersome terminus north of the Main that requires trains to change direction on their way back out.
It looks like Roth will prevail in the matter, which means Frankfurt remains a veritable brake on the speed of all trains passing through the city. The journey from Cologne to Würzburg, Nuremberg and Munich requires crossing the Main four times on low-speed stretches of tracks, frittering away a good half hour of travel time. The same amount of time, on open track, could be used to cover 150 kilometers (90 miles).
In Andersen's view, the city of Lyon in southern France provides a perfect model of the solution for Frankfurt. There too, the existing main train station proved unsuitable for high-speed TGV service. Instead, Part Dieu, a secondary station close to the city center, was expanded to accommodate long-distance travel. A bypass route was also constructed for trains that don't stop in Lyon.
The current state of the Stuttgart-Frankfurt project, meanwhile, offers the opposite to such intelligent routing decisions: no bypasses, pointless stops in Darmstadt and a grotesque waste of travel time in and around Frankfurt.
If things turn out the way he fears, concludes DB critic Andersen, "we might as well just go ahead and quit developing high-speed rail transportation in Germany entirely, right now."