Troubled transport

Beautiful railway station with modern red commuter train at suns

The other day I was working in Mainz, and a colleague on my team asked me if I had “mit der Bahn gekommen”. Indeed I had. But what do Germans mean when they say Bahn? And where do ice trains come from or go to? Come and join me on a railway journey through the land of trrrävelling …

Mainz is about 180 km from Cologne. If I had been asked the exact same question (“Bist du mit der Bahn gekommen?”) on a local job in Cologne, it would have meant local public transport, specifically the U-Bahn (underground trains) and Straßenbahn (trams), and sometimes S-Bahn, which stands for Schnellbahn (urban rail).

To make matters even more confusing, there are quite a few German cities, including Cologne, where underground trains turn into trams and vice versa, and Bahn is universally used to mean either.

When you travel further, however, i.e. regionally or (inter)nationally, die Bahn usually refers to regional or national rail services, the largest provider of which is the formerly state-owned Deutsche Bahn (DB). A synonym for travelling by rail is mit dem Zug fahren, which never refers to trams or underground trains.

You will also hear many Germans talk about specific types of Deutsche Bahn trains they use, the most common ones being ICE, IC and Regionalexpress or Regionalbahn. What do these names denote?

ICE (pronounce individual letters, i.e. [i tse e] – although I have taken quite a liking to the fact that other nationals call it the ‘ice train’ … I picture snowy train roofs, frosted windows with icicles and a steam train puffing through a winter wonderland …) stands for – wait for the rather disappointingly prosaic reality check here – Inter City Express. How unimaginative. Picture me pouting.

It’s supposed to be the fastest German train – a concept that is put into perspective in view of the fact that long-distance trains accounted for most of DB’s over seven years of delays in 2015 alone (cf. Handelsblatt article 3,79 Millionen Minuten Verspätung). Yes, I’m sorry to be the one to break this news to all of you who still believed in the fabled German virtue that is punctuality. Woe is me, that ship has sailed. Or rather, that train has left.

And then we have the IC, which is – who can guess? Yes, ta dahhh! The Icicle Crusher! It, too, is a relatively fast train, relatively being the operative word here.

Finally, you have your Regionalexpress and your Regionalbahn. The former is the train that stops at the larger regional stops, i.e. metropolises including Oer-Erkenschwick and Bad Oeynhausen, while the latter, also referred to as Bummelzug or Bummelbahn, stops an jeder Milchkanne, as we Germans say. Both are 5 minutes late by default. This is because only delays in excess of 5 minutes appear in DB’s delay statistics.

As for the Bummelbahn, though, it can get even bummeliger than that. DB has even sub-regional trains up its sleeve, some of which run on diesel fuel, going where no man has ever gone before. Where no Milchkanne has ever been spotted, even. Picture a poor, lonely, dusty train all alone, tumbleweed, and, in the distance, a stranger playing the harmonica … I digress.

I like trrrävelling viz Deutsche Bahn because, if nothing else, you will always have enough time to finish prepping for the job you’re going to. Or writing blog entries about die Bahn.

The Pommes-Buddha says: Five minutes are zero minutes. (Zero minutes can feel very long.)

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