Timing is everything

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Monday, September 20, 2010

On a Saturday night, will I slip on the ICE?

I’m in Germany this week to attend the biennual InnoTrans conference. This is at the fairgrounds in Berlin, and it’s a showcase of the world’s newest and fastest trains, and other technological wonders of this age (railroad tunnel boring is apparently wildly popular; who knew?!), and with America about to spend a few billion dollars on high speed rail, I figured it was prime time to be in the showroom to see what may – or may not – be around the next bend for us. More on that later in the week. Right now, I want to tell you about my “free” Saturday, and a race to get back to Frankfurt at a decent hour that I thought I’d lose.

I arrived by plane in Frankfurt on Friday morning, took the first DB (that’s shorthand for Deustch Bahn, the German railways) train downtown, and spent the morning in awe of the constant passenger traffic in and out of the main station for this international center of commerce. A six-day long auto show has drawn visitors from around the world, and the place is packed with exhibitors. After staying up all night on the trans-Atlantic flight, I still had enough energy to stow my bags at the hotel and go play tourist. I visited Gothe’s house, strolled along the Main River, and had beer on the square in a much smaller knock-off of Oktoberfest. I traveled by wonderful tram 11 (a streetcar to us Americans) and foot to reach it all. Later, I enjoyed a French pizza and a beer at an outdoor festival, went to the room, and crashed. Invigorated by a night of deep sleep, I woke up late on Saturday, got breakfast, and headed to the station to catch a train bound for Nuremburg. I took a regional express, which has more stops than the Amtrak Hiawatha that we often take between Milwaukee and Chicago, so it took four and a half hours. It’s a gorgeous trip with rolling hills like the Carolina Piedmont I’m used to. By the time we reached Nuremburg, I grabbed a sandwich at the station café and headed for the national railway museum. This was time well spent, as the museum is exhibiting nine replicas of European steam at its beginnings to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the DB. They have some amazing teapots on display in a darkened chamber apparently meant to enhance their antiquity (why else?). After the visit, I returned to the station, and climbed onto an ICE train, yes, one of those really fast, sleek German trains, the cousin to the French TGV, and the Swedish X2000. I wanted to go to Munich, and it was only an hour and 15 minutes, so off I went. I don’t startle easily, but when we met our first opposing ICE train, both vehicles at full gait, I heard an audible “bam” and felt the train move as the air hammer came down. I’m sure I leaped an inch or two in my seat in first class near the head end. These suckers do fly!

I spent a couple of hours in Munich (note to those contemplating a trip to Oktoberfest: Go to your own state fair and experience much of the same), and went back to the station. “What’s the best ICE routing to Frankfurt?” I asked Anna at the DB info counter. No. 513 to Manheim, and change to another ICE there was her answer. I could have stayed on 513 to Frankfurt airport and caught a local train back into town, but the conductor assured me that the change at Manheim was the most efficient way to go. So I settled in to watch the scenery, later went forward and had dinner (one beer, and a potato and sausage soup for $13 Euros is pretty tasty), and returned to my seat to study the trip plan. The trip plan is a marvelous document that lists the times and all the connections at each station stop for your specific ICE. Pretty cool, eh?

Studying this I learned that No. 513 was set to arrive Manheim at 8:27 p.m., and No. 292, my connection departed at 8:31. Hmmm… a four minute window to change. Not much time, and certainly nothing I’d want to attempt back in the U.S. (apologies to my friends at Amtrak), but I figured it would be OK either way: If we were late, I’d just stay on 513 and do the Frankfurt shuffle. We arrived Stuttgart, the station before Manheim, on time, but something delayed our leaving, and the conductor came on the PA and advised us that we were running six minutes late. “I’ll update you on connections before we arrive,” he said. Now I was getting a bit edgy. Would they send 292 on without me? Would we arrive to see its markers disappearing into the darkness? I had visions of it across the terminal, and me running for it, only to watch the doors close and the train begin to move. Would I slip on the ICE?

As we rolled into the station, the conductor returned to the PA: “Passengers connecting to 292, your train is waiting.” I walked out of one first class compartment, crossed the platform, and plunked down into another chair.  Moments later, No. 292 began to move.

Early in the day, a DB employee had stopped at my seat as part of a survey he was giving passengers. When I told him my German was limited, he said in English: “Have you had any problems with the DB?” I wish he’d have asked at 8:38 p.m. Saturday night after my impressive connection on Manheim. His bosses would have given him a bonus. Like I said, timing is everything!

Jim Wrinn photos

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