Frozen in ICE
How Can Germany's High-Speed Trains Get Back on Track?
By Christian Wüst
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). more