18 December 2016

Berlin Express(es): Innotrans 2016 - the journey

Every two years, in the city of Berlin, Germany, the biggest railway fair in the world is held. Innotrans is basically the transport equivalent of the Farnborough Airshow in which railway companies from all the world showcase their new products. There are four days for trade and the media (I have a friend who is a rail journalist and he went along), as well as two days in which the railway sidings are open for the general public.

I decided that I was going to travel out to Berlin by rail, following my trip to Scotland in July and used the excellent The Man in Seat Sixty-One website for assistance in planning the journey.

This is going to be a three part post, covering my trip from London to Berlin in the first part, the fair in the second part and the other rail-related things I did in the German capital in part three.

(All photos not credited are my own - these were done with a conventional digital camera without flash - for driver safety reasons - so there may be some quality issues)

West Berlin Express - what it would have been like in 1975

Before beginning, it is worth pointing out that this journey is a lot easier than it used to be. I have a copy of the British Rail International timetable for 1974-75, which I picked up at the second hand store at the Great Central Railway in Loughborough.

Then I would have had to get the Day Continental boat train from Liverpool Street to the then Harwich Parkeston Quay, (probably hauled by a Class 37 diesel as the wires were not up to Harwich by this point), then get a ferry across the North Sea to Hook of Holland.

From here at the Haven station, I would have boarded the Ost-West Express, the sleeper train that had a portion going from the Dutch port to at least Warsaw and four times a week all the way to Moscow, capital of the then Soviet Union.

As this was a sleeper train, I'd hope that the conductor would have dealt with all the formalities as I passed through into West Germany then into East Germany and back into West Berlin, whose relationship with the rest of the Bundesrepublik was a tad complicated to put it mildly. Otherwise, being woken up by the Grenztruppen at around 3am in the morning would not have been ideal, if I didn't get woken up by the low quality line that was in use in the transit lines between West Germany and West Berlin at the time. There would have been at least two locomotive changes, probably three.

According to the timetable, I'd have left London at 10.20am and arrived, hopefully refreshed, at Berlin Zoo station at 07.02am local time the following morning. A journey time of 19 hours and 42 minutes.

An awful lot has changed since then and will continue to do so; Hook of Holland's heavy rail link will be replaced by a light rail one in 2017.

Getting to St. Pancras - Abellio Greater Anglia and London Underground

Out of preference, when heading to a 'northern destination' in London, I will go into London Liverpool Street and where possible I will get a Abellio Greater Anglia service as this is faster by about ten minutes than the TfL Rail service, which calls at most if not all the intermediate stations.

AGA's semi-fast services are operated at present using the Class 321 and Class 360 Desiro electric multiple units. The 08:58 is the first of these to call at Romford after the height of the rush hour and so was pretty busy, but I was able to find a seat in the 321 (sitting in the end bay with space for my suitcase beside me), known to enthusiasts as a 'Dusty Bin' in reference to the character and booby prize in the 1980s game show 3-2-1. I personally find them a tad bland myself.

The journey into Liverpool Street was slightly delayed due to a signal failure. Much of the final approach into the station is through a fairly 'tight' brick cutting and the Great Eastern platforms i.e. 11-18 are pretty gloomy since being built over during the course of the station's refurbishment in the late 1980s-early 1990s. I like the rest of the station, but I am really not a fan of that bit.

From there, it was a walk down to the westbound 'Inner Circle' platforms; as there is no lift to the platform themselves, this does present some difficulty with a suitcase.

Getting to King's Cross St Pancras, the huge interchange station for both mainline stations, it is simply a case of get whatever comes first. This happened to be a Metropolitan Line train. Since the withdrawal of the C stock, everything on this part of the sub-surface lines is handled by the S stock trains;

London Underground 21319
By Hahifuheho (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Met trains are the eight-coach S8 version; these have some bay seating areas, which I prefer to the longitudinal seating prevalent on the rest of the line - which isn't very good for the basher.

Eurostar 9I26/#9126: St. Pancras International to Bruxelles Midi

Not many photos here sadly, I didn't have time to take anything of the Eurostar itself.

St. Pancras itself looks lovely but isn't the best designed of stations. It takes ages to walk anywhere; especially if you are coming from the huge Underground station, which actually has diagrams to tell you which lifts to use. Also, it is not a very good station for the spotter; the Eurostar trains are behind barriers, you can't get at the East Midlands Trains or Southeastern services with a Travelcard and Thameslink runs in underground platforms.
The Eurostar entrance is kind of tucked off on one side and could be a little more... inspiring. It's really quite plain - I would personally have some form of map of the destinations served by Eurostar, also a little museum about the Channel Tunnel itself (the exhibition centre at Folkestone has long since closed) with a bit on the Night Ferry. Anyway...

As I had a Sparpreis Europa ticket booked through Loco2.com and printed out at home, I just showed this at one of the check-in desks and went through. There is an airport style security check, followed by two sets of passport gates - one for leaving the UK and one for France. These are easily traversed and it is just a case of waiting in the lounge area until your train is called.

There is a Caffè Nero and a WH Smith in the departures area; I had a croissant - I was going through France after all - which was decent enough, but I've had better over the years. The seats are brown leather and pretty comfortable. Travellers should note that the shops do not accept the Euro, but a cash machine is present if you need Sterling.

Getting up to the platform is via an inclined travelator (a moving walkway for my American readers), then it is simply a case of getting onto your assigned carriage and finding your seat.

Eurostar currently operates three types of trains; the original Class 373s that the service opened with, a refurbished version of the type known as the e300 (in reference to its top speed of 300 km/h) and the new e320, a version of the Siemens Velaro, of which more later. The current plan is to have 17 of the last type, eight of the second and scrap the rest; they're very worn out from over 20 years of daily high-intensity use and heavy exposure to the salty air found inside the Tunnel.

I travelled in an original 373 and the age is starting to show in these; the blinds also needed a bit of dust. I was booked in Standard Premier i.e. first class for leisure travellers and had an airline style seat on my own. These can be tilted back without causing any inconvenience for the passenger behind you; they are also quite soft - more modern stock is a bit hard for my liking.

The drinks trolley came down just before we departed - 10 seconds ahead of our scheduled departure at 1058 BST and my complimentary light meal arrived five minutes later, before we'd even sped through Stratford International, that misleadingly named station next to Westfield shopping centre - it has never had an international train call there.

Since 2007, there has been a direct high speed line running all the way from St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel itself. This runs for 12 miles from St Pancras to south Dagenham, where the line emerges and runs alongside the southern part of the c2c network until splitting off at the QE2 Bridge and diving into another tunnel that runs under the Thames until the approach to Ebbsfleet. This is the fastest stretch of railway in the whole of the UK and is pretty exhilarating to go on; I have used it on a number of occasions in Southeastern's Class 395 Javelins, but this was my first time on a Eurostar.

At Ebbsfleet we stopped to pick up passengers - the service cannot be used for internal travel in the UK - before going onto the second part of the line via Ashford to the Channel Tunnel. The Javelins are only capable of 140, but the 373s, being narrower TGVs (to allow them to operate on the more restricted British loading gauge) top out at 186mph; the official UK record is 203.

I was using my phone speedometer; not the most accurate thing in the world and I plan to get something better for Christmas, but we peaked at 181... mind you, when you're going that fast, getting a fix on your location is not easy. At past 170, the train did rattle a bit, but nothing overly bad.

Going back to the light meal, it was tasty, although the cutlery was cold to the touch.

After passing Ashford and a Southeastern depot, we slowed for the Channel Tunnel itself, where the line speed is only 99 miles per hour. The journey under the English Channel or La Manche takes around 25 minutes and you can get mobile signal during it. I could also listen to my podcast without problems; something I can't do on the Jubilee Line!

Exiting the tunnel at 1258 CEST - the clocks of course go forward an hour once you enter France, we swiftly passed Calais-Fréthun. Some Eurostar trains call here and you can get connections for TGV or local services to other parts of France; you will need to change if you are planning a day trip as this station is well out of town. It should be safer now 'the Jungle' has been cleared.

Our train was not stopping here - it was heading onto Lille Europe. The French actually run their trains on the left like us; a bit of a surprise, but that's the way the first ones were built using British expertise and it has stuck. The exception is in Alsace and Lorraine, which were ruled by Germany from 1871 to 1919 after the Franco-Prussian War and switched over to right-hand running.

As we sped through the countryside of Pas-de-Calais, I looked at the lovely landscape and noted to myself that this was where two world wars were fought... Indeed, I can recall a school trip to the Western Front battlefields where we used Eurotunnel and the first thing I saw as we came out of the Tunnel were poppies growing by the track.

The only stop for this train in France is at Lille Europe, our approach to the station being announced in English, French and German. Arriving at 1323, my carriage was at the wrong end of the train (it stopped under one of the bridges) to get a full appreciation of what seems to be a fairly nice station built to serve TGV/Eurostar services.

While waiting for our departure, I heard a group of men laughing loudly in the bar car - this was too crowded for me to go in - and also saw a man wearing a kilt. These may or may not have been related.

Leaving the station, I saw a group of TGVs in the sidings outside the station. I believe these were the first 300 km/h trains in the world when the second version, the TGV Atlantique entered service in 1988. I would really like to ride on one at some point - especially the double decker versions now in use.

Anyway, back to my own journey. I crossed into Belgium without even noticing it until I checked my location on my phone and also noted that dedicated high speed lines can be a bit of a boring experience as you barely see any other trains or indeed much in the way of rail infrastructure.

The Eurostar service terminates here for the time being, although there are current plans to run some trains to Amsterdam from December 2017.
SNCB EMUs at the approach to Brussels station
In conclusion, the Eurostar remains a highly enjoyable way to get across the Channel, although it does need improvements in some areas.
ICE #17: Bruxelles Midi - Koeln Hbf

There is a short connecting subway from the Eurostar platforms to the other platforms, but this is currently closed for security reasons - Brussels was of course subjected to a major terror attack in March 2016.

As a result, you have to take a longer walk into the main station, then back to your platforms. This is doable in the time allowed for the interchange, but if you're held up more than about 10 minutes, you may end up missing your connection, although you will be allowed to travel on the next train.

I managed to make the journey in time though, even with my coach being right at the far (eastern end) of the nine-coach train, whose ultimate destination is Frankfurt-am-Main i.e. the big city in southern Germany.

The Deutsche Bahn Class 406 train, known as the ICE-3M, is one of the Siemens Velaro family of high-speed Electrical Multiple Units, which operate in various forms in a number of countries including Russia (as the Sapsan), China and Spain. ICE stands for Intercity-Express (the then Deutsche Bundesbahn licensed the name 'Inter-City' from BR back in 1971 and others have used it as well) and the M stands for Multisystem. These trains are multi-voltage and cleared for operation in Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands; another version of the Velaro is the one that Deutsche Bahn proposed to run through the Channel Tunnel to London, but that proposal was put on hold in 2014. I personally severely doubt it will happen at all after Brexit.

Anyway, the Velaro is also the same type of train being used for the e320 and is capable of a top speed of 200 mph. Having ridden inside the German version, I have to say that I have a new favourite electric train.

Not quite the man in Seat 61, but close enough...

It's very roomy; especially in First Class. The seats are lovely, even the airline style ones - they have foot rests as well. You also get a free newspaper (which I declined as it was too big) and free Wi-Fi, the latter only once you are actually in Germany. The carriage was a tad warm, but that might have been me being a bit under the weather.

The ICE3M also contains a 'Bordbistro' that sells drinks and light meals, although like most train food they aren't exactly cheap. I bought a bottle of water and realised that I needed from then on to ask for water 'ohne Gas' or I was likely to get the fizzy variety...

In the vestibules there is a display screen that can tell you the train's current speed in kilometres per hour and at the ends of the train, there is a section where First Class passengers can see out through the cab ahead of them, although the window can be made opaque by the driver if he/she wants. I wasn't in that section myself and at any rate, I was also facing the wrong direction i.e. backwards.

So onto the journey; this one was a lot more fun than the first leg of the trip as there was a lot more to see. The eastern approach to Brussels Central makes that to London Waterloo look tidy; there are an awful lot of tracks there. I also saw a large number of Desiro EMUs; this Siemens built family of multiple units are very common around Europe these days, including in the UK.

The train stops at Brussels Nord and Liège-Guillemins before crossing the border and moving over to right hand side running. The train runs very fast at times - the indicator saying 230km/h at one point, which is faster than any domestic UK train of course. During this and the next journey, I went past an awful lot of freight yards and saw a great many locomotives used for this - hauling goods by rail is increasingly popular, especially for cars, as you can't exactly stick them in large numbers in an aircraft.

At around 1556, after crossing into Germany, the driver suddenly braked - we were still 24 minutes out from Cologne at this point and things started to slide off the table. There was also some rather uncomfortable sideward motion.

Journalists like to comment about the comparative prices of our rail services to those in Europe, but Deutsche Bahn have had increasing problems with their own trains running on time. They are also reliant heavily on government subsidy and even then are eliminating their sleeper services - more on that in the third part.

We eventually arrived in Cologne five minutes late at 1620, which wouldn't be deemed late under the standard British way of reckoning (which is a minimum of ten minutes for long-distance services) but could make a connection trickier.

I will point out that shortly before arriving, the staff brought round free mini packs of Gummi Bears. These have a certain childhood resonance for me; my German teacher (who I still see from time to time) would give them out as rewards.

All in all, an enjoyable trip on an excellent train.


ICE #653: Koeln Hbf - Berlin-Spandau

Cologne's central station, located right next to the city's famous cathedral (which survived the Allied bombing of the city during the Second World War because it was used for navigational purposes by bomber crews) is rather typical of German urban stations in that it possesses large arched roofs for the train shed, is rather larger than it needs to be and is very open to a decent gust of wind.

I had a while to wait for my connection (or as they are called in German, 'Anschluss', something that of course immediately put me in mind of Mr. One Testicle) so I was able to take pictures of some interesting rolling stock and features of German stations I would become familiar with during the course of my stay.

Firstly, this, the Wagenreihungsplan or 'coach sequence indicator'.

There are three common posters that can be found at German stations; the first two are common throughout mainland Europe in fact.
  • A yellow poster telling you all the departing trains for the day, with their booked platform, their destination and their calling points, although sometimes only the major ones.
  • A white poster that does the same for arriving trains.
  • The 'coach sequence indicator' that tells you where you are on the platform and where the long-distance services will stop so you can make sure you are standing in the right place to board your booked carriage.
So far, so good. Where DB are less good is in the provision of real-time information; delay indicators would tell you whether a train is going to about five minutes late or ten minutes late, but not more specific than that or for that matter why.

Also, loco-hauled double-decker trains.

Locomotive haulage is still far more common in Germany and France than it is in Britain; while the easier to operate multiple unit is becoming more popular, you will still see big bulky electric locomotives hauling relatively modern carriages. I would also discover that these electric locomotives are rather loud...

Also, because European railway lines are/were built to a larger profile, many services, including some of the TGVs, are double decker trains.

So, onto my train.

This was a DB Class 402, aka the ICE2. This is a eight-car unit with a power car at one end, six trailers following it and a driving trailer at the other end. They also have names - this one, 402 205, was called Oldenburg after the city in Lower Saxony.

ICE trains have compartments in some coaches; in the ICE2 there are both full compartments and 'semi-compartments' in which your table is separated from the others by a translucent screen. I got the latter, which I had to share with two other people.

We left Cologne to the second at 1648 and crossed the Rhine a minute later; very nice river that.

This service had a 'Bordrestaurant' and as a 1st Class passenger, I was able to order meals from my table. The menu is a colour booklet with those artfully styled photographs of the meals - they never look as good as that on the plate of course. I was served by a slightly camp male German waiter, who actually said "See you later alligator" to me at one point.

As we approached Wuppertal, a city I know best for its monorail (it connects with the station there, but I didn't see it). I decided to order German-style sausages and potato salad. Unfortunately, they'd not got any potato salad, so I had black bread instead; it was a unusual but pleasant meal. I also had dessert, which was some type of German cake.

As my main course arrived, we stopped at Hagen, where a batch of Borussia Dortmund fans had just got off; they were making their way to a home game against SC Freiburg, which they would win 3-1.

As we passed another station, I noticed that the sign there was rather similar in its font to the Rail Alphabet font as used by British Rail. I later found out that the rather similar Helvetica font has been extensively used in transport settings, including formerly by Deutsche Bahn.

We spent over ten minutes at Hamm, which also had something called a 'Bahnhofsmission', which is a Christian organisation based at major railway stations in Germany and I don't really know much more than that. No explanation was given for the delay, so I asked the "alligator" staff member why we were being held up. He told me that we were waiting for another unit to couple onto the rear of the train. I wish that had been explained earlier...

After a stop at Bielefeld (most famous for a long running German internet joke conspiracy that it doesn't exist), where we departed four minutes behind schedule, we soon entered into the first of two extended non-stop runs.

The first of these was a 47 minute run across western Germany to Hanover, which the Germans spell with two 'n's. During this and before hand I noticed the rather large distance boards at the side of the track, which are considerably easier to see than the ones in the UK even at high speed. A quick timing with some of them confirmed that we were running at around 125 miles per hour. The train was also shaking quite a bit.

After Hanover (another big station - it is a major railway junction), it was a run of over an hour to Berlin-Spandau. In the Cold War days, the route to Berlin was via Stendal, but high speed services now go via Oebisfelde (non-stop), which was a border crossing for local trains only.

However, by this point, it was getting rather dark and I couldn't really see much outside the train. The first time I crossed the old Iron Curtain, it was on a coach past a disused border post... here you couldn't see anything apart from flashing past Oebisfelde at high speed. It got a bit boring.

I didn't log my actual arrival time at Berlin-Spandau, but I believe I was broadly on time.


S-Bahn to my hotel

I had in fact chosen to go to Berlin-Spandau rather than the Hauptbahnhof as my hotel was roughly halfway between them and it was a shorter overall journey by about 15 minutes.

To be honest, I remember fairly little about this part of the journey; it had gone 9pm at this point, I was getting fairly tired and just wanted to get to my destination, something which involved a long walk down a major boulevard, noticing the election posters from the city elections earlier in the week were still up. I took some photos which I will share later.

Anyway, my thoughts on the Berlin S-Bahn will follow in Part Three... Part Two will be Innotrans itself.

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