January 10-22, 2006
In January my family and I flew to Berlin, Germany, to visit my youngest son studying there. Beforehand we purchased four-day 2nd class German Railpasses that allowed us to use the German rail system (Deutsche Bahn or DB) for any 4 days and nights of travel within 2 months from the date of first travel. A special "twin pass" permits 2 adults traveling together to use the same pass for a discounted cost of $270. We bought 2 of these for my wife and me and my oldest son and daughter. My youngest son traveled on a single youth pass costing $142. We used the passes for day trips to Leipzig, Dresden and Hamburg and for travel in German territory on a trip to Prague. The latter covered travel from Dresden to Bad Schandau on the Czech border and from Bad Schandau to Berlin on our return trip. Tickets for travel within the Czech Republic to Prague were bought in advance. Using group discounts this was very cheap-e.g. travel from Prague to Bad Schandau cost our group a total of $32.00.
We arrived on January 10th and kicked off train-riding by taking the U-Bahn (Underground) from Tegel Airport to our hotel, a 30-minute trip that required one change en-route. U-Bahn trains are bright yellow with comfy padded seats, spic and span throughout except for graffiti sprayed on car exteriors. All train cars feature electronic sign boards announcing stops along with voice messages preceded by distinctive chimes. In addition, stations have electronic signboards with estimated times of arrival for the next 2 trains. We seldom had to wait more than 5 minutes and it was great to come onto a platform and see that the next train was 1 or 2 minutes away.
On two of the nine U-Bahn lines, we rode brand new articulated train-sets. These featured video screens-flat panels with split screens, one showing ads and the other a German version of CNN. The train articulation enables one to walk between cars without passing through a door or vestibule. It was mesmerizing to be able to see passengers throughout the entire train and to see car interiors twisting like a snake on curves. Fares are high by Birmingham, AL. standards. A single ride in zones A and B (covering most of the city) cost 2.10 Euros or $2.52. A day pass cost 5.80 Euros or $6.96. However, tickets are also good for transfer to commuter trains, buses, and trams which frequently interconnect throughout the city.
We also rode the S-Bahn or commuter train system. The core of the S-Bahn is a "ring" line that circles Berlin along with numerous intersecting lines that go out to suburbs in all directions. The S-Bahn is mostly elevated and provides great views of the city and suburbs. Some lines share tracks with the DB so one can take an S-Bahn train directly to either of the 2 main DB stations and detrain on the same platform that intercity trains use.
An honor system is used for ticketing. Tickets are purchased from machines on station platforms and then validated (time and date imprinted). Although no-one collects tickets, ticket "police" can board trains at any time. In Berlin, if one is caught riding without a ticket, she/he must pay a $50 fine on the spot. In Prague, the same honor system is used but the fine is $20. In Berlin we saw ticket police, wearing "civilian" clothes, on only 2 trains. On one, an S-Bahn commuter train, a group of young people made a fast exit as the ticket cop began asking for tickets. In Prague checks were more frequent and done by uniformed subway police at station exits-hidden until you came around a corner.
S-Bahn cars sport red underbodies and cream-colored tops and comfortable padded seats with wide spaces near the doors that allow passengers to bring on bicycles, baby carriages, luggage and pet dogs. We saw numerous bicycles and dogs on both U- and S- Bahn trains. The U- and S-Bahn trains I observed were powered from a third rail-covered on top, open at the bottom for contact.
S- and U-Bahn trains were available within 3 blocks of our hotel so we used them to travel everywhere from museum island and the Unter den Linden shopping area in the former East Berlin to Berlin's Broadway, the Kurfurstendamm (Ku-Damm) in the west. Travel further afield from Berlin to nearby cities can be done on the DB's RE local trains. These brightly painted red train-sets feature food and drink service in double-deck cars that carry bicycles and motor scooters. Berlin's extensive public transportation system was heavily utilized day and night but must be costly to maintain and operate by our standards.
Intercity Rail Trips
After four days of sightseeing in Berlin, we activated our rail-passes at Berlin's "Zoo" station and boarded early morning ICE (InterCity Express) Train 1517 to Leipzig. The timetable indicates 19 daily trains between Berlin and Leipzig of which 10 are ICE high-speed trains. Most ICE trains to Leipzig continue on to Munich, Frankfurt and elsewhere. Unlike the French TGVs centered on Paris, ICE trains travel on 3 east-west and 3 north-south networks connecting major German cities as well as Innsbruck, Salzburg, and Vienna, Austria, Amsterdam, and Basel, Switzerland.
Most ICE trains use the same mainline tracks as slower IC (Intercity), EC (Eurocity) and RE local trains but can travel up to 135 mph. On dedicated high-speed lines they are allowed 175 mph. The latest ICE-3 train-sets operate in ultra-streamlined articulated train-sets of 7 or 8 cars with power cars at each end. On heavily trafficked routes 2 train-sets are coupled to together to increase capacity. A diesel powered version-ICET-- with tilting technology has been sidelined due to numerous technical problems.
On our train the power-car and a subsequent car seated first class passengers. The remaining cars were second class except for a café-bar car with table seating at one end, a kitchen and bar in the middle and stand up tables at the other end. First class passengers are entitled to meal and bar service at their seats and can watch movies on flat panel LCD screens installed in seat backs. We rode second class in seating similar to executive class on airlines. No movies but we could rent an audio minijack for 7 radio channels. Train interiors are attractive art-deco-like with a single glass door separating each car. At either end of each car is a digital sign that gives train speed, estimated arrival times, and other information. Our train rode smoothly, like a cadillac on a superhighway, except for occasional jolts when crossing a turn-out.
The trip to Leipzig took an hour and a half and en-route I visited the café-bar for coffee and a snack. One very busy attendant was serving breakfast to 12 people seated at the tables and a line of others like me at the bar. Within a few minutes I had my coffee and snack thanks to this very efficient fellow.
We spent the day touring the restored area of central Leipzig including a museum honoring Johannes Sebastian Bach and 2 churches Bach choir-mastered. My musician wife Jody reminded me that Schumann and Mendelssohn were also Leipzigers as was the writer Goethe. No time to see everything. The Leipzig bahnhof (main station) is a huge, magnificent, turn of the last century, beautifully maintained structure full of shops and restaurants. It is a stub end terminal and that afternoon while waiting for our train to Dresden an ICE train made up of 2 train-sets arrived from Frankfurt and I watched while a flood of disembarking passengers flowed past for a good 20 minutes. There must have been 600 people on that train. Fifteen minutes later the train took on another big load and left for Berlin. Soon after we boarded ICE 1651 to Dresden-55 minutes away-where we connected with EC train 371 to Prague. We left Dresden at 5:55PM arriving Prague's Central station (Praha Hlavni) at 8:25.
EC 371 carried Czech-built cars that were dark white with a red stripe, the color scheme used by the DB for mainline intercity trains. The 1st class car had open seating with wide seats. Second class cars had 6-seat compartments. We occupied a compartment and found it more than adequate--the seats pulled out for a comfortable ride--and nicely private. The windows were big affording good night views of Czech towns and villages along the Voltava River that we followed to Prague. Like all EC trains ours had a dining car that doubled as a lounge. After passport and ticket checks we found a good table and ordered bottles of Czech Budweiser beer to go with platters of ham, salami, three cheeses and pickles. A notable reduction in train speed occurred upon entering the Czech Republic. Probably due to mountainous territory beyond the border and Czech track conditions.
We did Prague in four days. The central area is full of fairytale-like buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries that are still fully functional. Especially notable was Prague Castle and the adjacent cathedral across the river from the city center along with the ornate Charles bridge connecting the two areas. Restaurant food, as in Germany, was fresh and very good, especially the bread, ham and salami. Prices were generally lower than in Germany but not as much as I expected. On the down side, when one goes away from the central area 2 or 3 miles one can encounter a very different city of depressing, colorless apartment blocks with graffiti and litter everywhere. Our hotel was in one such area and we didn't waste time each morning taking our bus/subway connection to central Prague returning as late as possible.
Another negative was the central rail station. About twenty years ago a newer terminal was added to the original 19th century station. The new terminal, built on 2 levels with a patio area on the second, features large open spaces with hideously ugly red steel walls. Litter abounded, especially around the food stands, and half the overhead lights were burned out. Worst of all, the terminal was open to the weather such that it seemed as cold inside as out. Flocks of pigeons flew about soiling tables and benches. Homeless people in rags wandered about or begged. A very depressing scene.
At a tourist information office I was told that the Czech rail system is in disrepair except for the international EC trains. "Pendolino" train-sets with tilting technology were recently bought from an Italian company to provide first class, faster service between Prague and major Czech cities. However, they are presently immobilized by "software glitches". On a positive note, Prague's interconnected transit system of three subway lines, busses and snazzy-looking trams with high pantographs is efficient and easy to use. Subway trains were comfortable, clean and fast, and ran every 15 minutes. The trams, usually coupled in 2 car sets, moved very fast between stops in dedicated areas in the middle of streets. A single transit ticket cost 60 Crowns or $2.60, good on any mode for 2 hours. This seemed high considering the relatively low economic status of the population.
We departed Prague on EC train 370 at 11:22AM arriving at the Berlin Ostbahnhof on time at 4:18. EC 370 then moved on to Hamburg and Aarhus, Denmark. The equipment was the mirror image of 371 and we snuggled comfortably in a 6 person compartment observing snow-covered Appalachian-like mountains along the Voltava River. On the opposite side of the river another pair of tracks displayed a steady stream of short, fast freight trains. Our side was all passenger-intercity and local trains. At Decin, on the border, we traded electric locomotives and crews and moved onto German tracks at Bad Schandau. Shortly afterward a surly ticket taker demanded to see our rail-passes. She was the only DB employee we encountered who wasn't cordial. After she strode off we trooped to the diner/lounge for lunch. We had trouble attracting the lone waiter until I waved a fistful of Czech Crowns. I had an excellent ham, cheese and mushroom omelet washed down with an equally satisfying draft of Czech beer. A magazine on each table indicated the dining service was provided by a private Czech company that also operates restaurants and motels throughout the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
After being bowed out of the diner by our now obsequious waiter we settled in the cozy compartment for naps and sightseeing. Somewhere en route I was jolted out of a stupor by the sight of a steam engine cab and tender behind a building. Live steam was exiting pipes under the cab but I could see nothing else. Then I noticed a gorgeous 2-10-2 or 2-10-0 with red drivers on a side track. We went by so fast I was unable to mark the location but I'll find it next time I go.
Two days later we left the Berlin Ostbahnhof on ICE 1616 for a day trip to Hamburg. Luckily we found four facing seats with a table and a fifth seat across the aisle on the crowded train. On this occasion I treated myself to a double espresso and salami sandwich in the smoky café/bar car. These cars are the only smoking areas on ICE trains and thus are popular with the heavy smoking German populace. Our journey was swift with the digital read-out showing 250 km. per hour several times.
Hamburg's main station looks traditional with big arching glass and steel canopies over 12 or 13 busy tracks. Sightseeing was hampered by a heavy snow-fall, but we saw the restored 19th century old brick riverfront warehouses that have become a tourist attraction and the huge docks area from a boardwalk that feeds multiple tourist boat rides. Strange to say on such a day they were doing a good business. We also glimpsed the infamous Reeperbahn where the Beatles got their start. The part we saw, now called the "greenlight district," has been gentrified for tourists with fast food outlets and Gap type clothing stores amid the sex shops and strip joints. An old hand said you now have to walk 6 blocks into the area to reach the hard core stuff.
ICE 1613 back to Berlin was made up of 2 sold-out train-sets so we had to sit apart. The café/bar was crowded with fashionably dressed businessmen and women smoking and drinking up a storm. Service was provided by 2 attendants moving like quicksilver. Despite the crowd I managed to consume 2 draft beers as the nonstop train racked up to a steady 245 km. per hour.
Our final days in Berlin were spent sightseeing and shopping. On January 22nd we took an S-Bahn train to a bus stop near Tegel airport. The 8-hour flight home was blessedly uneventful. Berlin is a great town for just about anything including train-watching made easy by the fact that one is free to go on to the platforms of any station, intercity or commuter. A good place for me was a Dunkin Donuts that faces the main DB line on the Alexanderplatz. While cozy and warm I saw a constant parade of ICE, EC, IC, RE local and S-bahn commuter trains. A newspaper article indicated the German government plans to privatize the DB. No details were mentioned except that the system will be divided into two parts. Rail unions worried about job losses have threatened to strike during next summer's Soccer World Cup in Berlin.
Berlin and the other German cities we saw are very different from the USA but thoroughly cosmopolitan, modern, clean and safe. To me Berlin has a laid-back, tolerant air that said everybody's welcome. If only there wasn't so much cigarette smoking. I hadn't seen so many ashtrays since I was a kid in the early 50s. Nonetheless, I intend to go back and use Berlin as base to see more of Germany.