The tour of Germany: Some final thoughts

Posted by David Lassen
on Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Harz railway train begins its climb out of Wernigerode. The Harz belongs on any steam fan's must-see list. Photo by David Lassen
I’ve been back from the magazine’s anniversary tour of Germany for about a week now, still digesting and savoring the experience as I worked through the inevitable backlog that comes from being out of the office for 19 days. (In addition to our 11-day tour, I used some vacation time to visit Berlin and Prague.)

Before the tour slips too far into the past, however, I wanted to offer a few more thoughts on the experience.

From a railfan perspective, the Harz steam railroad was, for me, the clear highlight. Hard to believe a railroad like this really exists — heavily used meter-gauge steam with gem-like little 2-10-2Ts, welded rail and block signals. Not only is it worth a visit, it’s worth more time than we were able to give it within the constraints of our tour. There’s an additional steam route we didn’t ride, as well as portions of the railroad served by railcars and electric equipment. I would’ve liked to sample some of those operations.

It was interesting to see how the Harz and the other two steam railroads we rode — the Fichtelbergbahn, between Cranzahl and Oberwiesenthal, and the Lossnitzgrundbahn, between Radebeul and Radeburg — were tourist railroads, but not in exactly the same way we use the term here. While the railroads themselves were clearly destinations for many riders, they also served as just another piece of the transportation puzzle for other tourists. Many rode the Harz for access to hiking trails in the national park along the Brocken line; Oberwisenthal is a ski and offroad biking destination, and the Lossnitzgrundbahn runs through wine country, drawing cyclists and tourists visiting a palace in Moritzburg. The latter two trains had baggage-car space for bicycles.

But in the bigger picture, the thing that really matters, I think, is simply the depth, breadth and ease of use of Germany’s rail system. We traveled on the national system, the Deutsche Bahn, as well as regional operators HEX (to get to the Harz) and Meridian (in Bavaria). We also briefly sampled Austria’s Railjet on our side trip to Innsbruck. And we saw, but did not ride, a number of other regional operators, of which there are many. (This site lists them and has links to their websites.)

Germany's work in integrating its rail schedules extends even to its tourist railways, which in some cases ofter across-the-platform access to the national network. Photo by David Lassen.
All of them have equipment that’s generally new, sharp looking and well maintained (although Deutsche Bahn could stand to wash its high-speed ICE trainsets a bit more frequently; many of us were frustrated by dirty windows).

More important than how they look, though, is how they work. The various operators are all integrated so that the national system feeds the regionals; we made fairly seamless transfers from the DB to HEX, and from Railjet to Meridian, and our Eurail Pass was welcome on all of them. Heck, even the steam railroads have integrated schedules with the national and regional networks. On the Fichtelbergbahn, our transfer to the DB train to take us back to Dresden was literally across the platform, about 20 minutes after the steam ride ended.

Frequent service makes Germany's train travel incredibly convenient, and competitive with other modes of transportation. Here, trains prepare to leave Cologne. Photo by David Lassen.
Not only do the trains go almost everywhere — we needed a bus just once on our tour, to visit the Eagles’ Nest, the former Hitler retreat near the Austrian border, and even that was a relatively short hop from a train station — but they go everywhere on a regular basis. It’s this frequency that is the key to making the German system as user-friendly as it is. Most of the routes we traveled had hourly service; the least traveled saw a train every two hours. This meant that the one time we missed a connection — when our train was held for 30 minutes on a Sunday afternoon for a maintenance-of-way window — the only consequence was a slight delay, not a major inconvenience. (Most of us couldn’t help but compare this to Amtrak, where a missed connection can mean a two-day wait for the next train.)

None of this was a surprise, really. I’ve had the good fortune to travel quite a bit on Italy’s rail network in the past, and it is similar in reliability, frequency and scope. Still, when you use a system like Germany’s for a couple of weeks, it drives home what a loss it is for us to not even attempt to build a U.S. passenger rail network that could provide a genuinely competitive travel option in more than a handful of corridors. As our blogger Malcolm Kenton has written, what’s keeping us from building one is not the cost, considerable though it may be. It’s that we don’t think such a system is a priority. Until we do, we can only look to Germany with a bit of envy, and make the occasional visit to remind ourselves how things could be.


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