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Train Experience in Germany

Just arrived back home from our trip to Germany and i would like to say thanks to Russ and the gang on here for all the help in answering my questions. I would like to point out some observations from taking the trains over there and we took many of them. First, the trains are not punctual and what I mean by that is that often we had to wait up to 40 minutes or more after the ETA. Second, the ticketing system is an absolute nightmare. One must have to browse the yellow or white timetable sign and write down all the stops to know where to go and get off as the ticket contains no information whatsoever. Third, the ticket kiosk does not always have your destination on it. We tried multiple times to type in St. Goarhausen into the machine at Rudesheim and it never came up. The nice German local who assisted us could not figure out why either. This happened also on our way to Rothenburg. The machine did not locate Wurzburg which was the next leg of the trip from Mainz and by chance we typed in Rothenburg and it was there so we chose that. Fourth, even the locals do not understand the system! Overall, it is an unnecessary confusing system that needs to be revamped.

Posted by
8889 posts

I must disagree with you. As a "local" I do not find it confusing. You just have to know which station you are going to.

"One must have to browse the yellow or white timetable sign and write down all the stops to know where to go and get off as the ticket contains no information whatsoever" - Of course. It is not like an aircraft where you book a specific flight. You have a ticket from A to B. You can often use it on any train, and different trains can take different routes and have different stops. They could not possibly list the complete timetable on a ticket.
You are assumed to know the local geography and how to reach your destination, the same as when you are driving you need to know which roads to take and which towns to go through to get to your destination.

Posted by
5697 posts

Sounds like the OP and I have different experiences with German trains. My husband and I found them clean, fast, efficient and easy to maneuver.

On the comment "even the locals do not understand the system" I can only note that I do not know every transit trip in my surrounding area, just the ones I regularly use.

Posted by
2507 posts

You can print out the route for the train you want to take ahead of time at home from the Dbahn site. If you're not sure which train you'll take, print out the alternatives. The printout will tell you the stops, ETA and Departure for each stop, total travel time, type of train, if you need to change trains and where. I've never found it difficult. And I have always found the German trains to be punctual.

Posted by
19171 posts

I'm not a local; I don't find it at all confusing.

"We tried multiple times to type in St. Goarhausen into the machine at Rudesheim and it never came up."

Why did you not try to type in the real name, St. GoarShausen (note the s after Goar). BTW, you were in Rüdesheim, not Rudesheim. Those little dots mean something. The vowel, ü, is a different vowel than u.

"The machine did not locate Wurzburg"

The correct spelling of the town is Würzburg or Wuerzburg.

"One must have to browse the yellow or white timetable sign"

I don't. But, then, I always use the Bahn website in advance of my trip to find which trains are going where I want to go. I think you suffered from a lack of good planning. You should have known that the white and mustard arrival and departure posters only give every station up to the "target sign", then only the major stops after it.

I've taken hundreds of trains in my 21 weeks of travel in Germany in the last 15 years, and I can only remember one that was around 40 minutes or more late. I'm not saying every train has been exactly on time, but for the most part, the delay has not been significant enough to note.

Wilthomhow, I'm really sorry you had such a bad experience, but the fact that it was so different from what I have experienced myself makes me wonder if, possibly, it was due to your lack of experience.

There is an old adage in Engineering, "Nothing can be made idiot proof because idiots are so ingenious."

Posted by
6811 posts

"First, the trains are not punctual and what I mean by that is that often we had to wait up to 40 minutes or more after the ETA."
Wow - I mean once in a while, but that really is pretty late. IME the trains are normally punctual within 10 minutes or so. I had one on my last trip that was 30 minutes late - story was that some homeless person had found his way onto the track and been hit. I guess stuff happens. But then it probably happens more frequently, I think, if you're driving.

" the ticketing system is an absolute nightmare."
The DB ticket machines tend to be pretty easy. But sometimes they don't sell the tickets you need and you have to use the the local transit authority machines, which are different, maybe trickier, and there is a learning curve. At the Rüdesheim ticket machine, you were probably at the local transit authority machine (RMV) which might not sell tickets to St. Goarshausen (which is in a different transit authority zone, the VRM) so you'd need to buy a DB ticket from a DB machine. Indeed - it can get quite complicated.

RMV/VRM zones

At the DB machine, it is possible to print out your chosen itinerary on a separate piece of paper for any journey you wish to take. If I'm not sure which schedule I like best I sometimes have 2 or 3 of those little printed schedules in my pocket. Sorry we didn't get you that info.

Hope you had a good trip anyway.

Posted by
16894 posts

Germany has a wide network of train tracks which nearly guarantees that you'll reach your destination, somehow. They also sell a variety of open, unreserved tickets and passes, allowing your travel plan to stay flexible. A map will give you clues about possible connection points, but eventually, you'll want to consult train schedules in one of these formats:

  • DB/German Rail perfected the train schedule web site that is the standard for researching nearly all train schedules across Europe. It's especially the best resource for spelling out convenient connections between any two towns (which also vary by time of day). We recommend this resource above all others and provide tips for using it at How to Look Up Train Schedules and Routes Online.
  • The web site won't necessarily reflect up-to-the-moment delays as you travel, although the mobile app probably can.
  • Schedule/info kiosks in German stations are an older method of accessing the same connection details. I can't recall when I last used one. Spelling and accent marks may have been your stumbling block there, as they're always important.
  • Another old-fashioned method is requesting the schedule at a train information window, which is a free service in stations with staff.
  • Paper poster timetables are an easy way to identify direct trains to major destinations but they are cumbersome when your route includes connections and small towns, making them probably last choice for your situation.
Posted by
506 posts

We just returned from our trip abroad (and thanks to all of you on our trip planning and questions!), and had 5 train days (I say days as we had multiple changes on each). Our experiences on each:

Lauterbrunnen to Munich-almost 90 minutes late arriving in Munich as the train had to stop on the tracks about 45-60 minutes out of Munich. Best we could understand was a problem at a station in front of us. Conductor said we couldn't back up because there were other trains behind us, so we sat there for a almost an hour. We would have been about 20 minutes late if not for this issue. Good news is we got a voucher to turn in for 25% refund of our fare since we were so late.

Munich to Cochem-All our trains were within 5-10 minutes of ETA. Good and smooth trips this day.

Cochem to Dusseldorf-We were flying out of Dusseldorf and had 3 changes to make. Our train out of Koblenz was about 20 minutes late (there was another one being announced on the platform that was 45 minutes late), and we ended up stopping on the tracks between there and Dusseldorf for another 15 minutes. Thankfully we had booked enough of a buffer in between our trains and our flight it wasn't an issue, though we were sweating it a bit just sitting on the tracks as they were unsure how long we would be (there was a problem with a train up ahead and it was not moving).

Frankfurt Flughafen to Mainz- we were taking the S-Bahn to Mainz and it was running about 15-20 minutes behind schedule.

Mainz to Frankfurt Flughafen-we took one of the early S-Bhan's in the morning and it was also running behind schedule, but only about 5-10 minutes late.

This was our second trip to Germany (we last went 7 years ago), and though these delays this trip were more significant, my recollection on the last trip was most of our trains were late arriving. If I remember correctly, our long distance train from Frankfurt to Berlin was about an hour late. On both trips, none of the tardiness caused any significant problems with our trip (except for losing an hour of beer drinking in Munich the night of our arrival, but we made up for it! :-) ). Small sample size, but our trains in Italy and Switzerland were much more punctual as no delays of note.

My completely uneducated guess is that there are lots and lots of trains running on each of the lines that small delays add up and impact the other trains. I just got the sense it was like at major airports which are operating at max capacity and any small glitch trickles down and creates delays for others. For me, just makes sense to plan for some delays so build some buffer into your reservations, especially if you have to be somewhere at a specific time. And keep it in perspective....these delays are happening IN Europe, so that means you're IN Europe, so try to take them in stride. :-)

For train schedules, we did what was already advised above. I had researched where we were going, intermediate stops, and alternatives. I got in the habit each night before a train trip to go online and write down the 2-3 stops prior to our destination and write them on the back of our ticket (as well as departure times from those stations). That way I could gauge how close we were to our destination and also if we were on schedule or not.

Googlemaps was also a huge boon for us this trip. You could plug in your destination, select the route from your current location, and select mode of transport as rail (or subway) and it will give you the routes, train (or subway line) direction, departure times, and how many stops between getting on and off the train. It was a fabulous tool in Munich as we used it for subway options and took some stress out of trying to figure out what line and direction we needed to get on.

Sorry for the long post, just our experiences this past month.

Posted by
14580 posts

It looks as though Jed has backed up what the OP said of the trains' punctuality or lack of it, ie 90 mins late, 20 mins. late. If it doesn't happen to you personally, it is happening to someone else: listen to the latest announcements (Beachten Sie die Ansagen. ) while standing there on the platform waiting for your train... hear which trains are arriving late (verspätet, verzögert) and by how minutes on other platforms. Read the blue electronic board to see which trains are departing / arriving late or to see if your train is still running or not (Zug fällt aus).

Posted by
10369 posts

I don't know whether this is part of the problem, but in France the heat wave is affecting the tracks. We saw this on the France 2 newscast. If someone could find Nigel, he might be able to elaborate.

Posted by
20480 posts

To paraphrase the movie "Chinatown", "Heat vely vely bad for the tlacks."

Posted by
27 posts

I guess everyone has different experiences with the trains. It may be we just had a case of bad luck with our trains and it indeed was very hot so perhaps that could have been an issue, but who knows. We were actually very prepared. Months before we left we printed the train connections from the DB Bahn site. The kiosk was rather easy to follow and use, but I noticed discrepancies occurring whenever we compared the posted timetable to a print out schedule from a station that had an office to assist. The platforms and times would differ and this was frustrating. I did not experience this when taking similar trains from Rome to Pompeii.

Posted by
20480 posts

I did notice an unusual number of trains running 20 to 40 minutes late in Germany this summer, especially in the Mannheim-Duesseldorf corridor.

Posted by
2297 posts

Track changes are not uncommon, especially if there's a delay involved and if it's a large, busy train station. Just like planes often have a last minute gate change ;-) So when I arrive at a train station my first check is for a possible track change.

So far, I've experienced the worst train delays in Germany when there was an unusual weather event that had affected ALL modes of transportation. In those cases, train delays were easily an hour - but delays on the roads or in the air even worse.

Posted by
1507 posts

We have ridden the trains on 11 trips over the last 10 years. They are usually punctual but not always. Sometimes an accident can even cancel a trip. The last minute scurry to use buses to fill the void is not a clean process.

Ticket machines require a learning curve. I check out the whole trip before hand on this DB template:
http://reiseauskunft.bahn.de/bin/query.exe/en
which helps me check my spelling as Lee suggested.

On a rare occasion you can even run into a rude train inspector.

All that said, we still have no plans giving up the train system as our main mode of transportation in German. Every mode of transportation has its draw backs but trains and walking most often meet our needs best. It is for us a more relaxing way to travel, more dependable and safer than the crowded autobahns.

Posted by
3392 posts

We rode a number of trains in the region around Munich in July and only one was on time...all the others were 10 - 40 minutes late. The Deutsche punktlichkeit seems to be slipping!

Posted by
7468 posts

Thanks for this posting. We'll be in Germany & Austria soon, and I was expecting the punctuality that I experienced a few years ago. At least now I've been forewarned to go with more flexibility in mind for our train connections. When Italian trains are more punctual than German trains.... - wow!

Posted by
33339 posts

Regarding the question about unusual heat and train tracks - it really is true. Rails are steel and expand and contract with heat, like all metals. When the tracks are laid the rails are planned to have a particular expansion in the highest normal heat, and contraction in the lowest normal cold temperature.

The gaps in the rail are designed for each area based on that, In very extreme cold the rail ends can pull apart and for unsafe gaps for normal train running.

In extreme heat (and remember that that rails in the sun are much hotter than the air - remember running across tar streets in summer when you were a kid? - ) the rails can kink or bend out of shape and out of gauge with little or no warning. A train passing over a bad kink or bend, or an abnormal gap at the joint is probably going to derail - and you don't want that.

That is why railways put in emergency speed limits or stop the trains completely to examine the rails. I am sure people would prefer to be a bit late than have the train tip over.

I know on the railway I work on, and as far as I know on the other railways in Europe, it is safety first. Always. We want our passengers and staff to be safe.

Posted by
169 posts

I think the extreme heat has affected many European systems -and many Europeans! Heat is not good for electronics either, and so much of the high tech world is computer and sensor controlled these days, never mind the steel rail blues Nigel describes so well.
Here is how I avoid grief on trains in Germany, pretty much each year: (a)when there I buy my tickets from a person, not a machine.
(b) I use the bahn.de website weeks in advance to plan and explore and pre-book my trip. If possible, I pre-order a ticket and have it sent to me here or to friends in Europe. I have pre-ordered cheap tickets from Zagreb to Munich, for example, sent to friends in Zagreb. The over 60 traveller gets an extra discount -once you figure out how to enter your age under other options on the website.
The deep discount makes it worth buying a Europa-Spezial first class ticket on this day-long route, for example. First class means no one in your compartment, quite often, and inside Germany it means a far better experience. Entering Germany from any other country in Europe gives you this special rate class. It is so cheap that last year I had a long and difficult conversation with the short, precise German train conductor (who took over at the border) because (a) he saw the 'wrong train number' on the ticket - it is the same train, but changes its number on entering Germany, go figure, and (b) because the ticket was so cheap. He even used his handy wi-fi device to prove the normal price was three times higher. I speak fluent German, and decided that calm confusion was the best policy. He finally wrote 'took the wrong train in Salzburg by mistake' on the back of our tickets and left. I still don't know if he was tripping, but his mind could not get over finding 212 instead of 112 on the ticket. Later I found both numbers on the carriage doors, with all the route listed (as for the stops on a German train, which are all listed on the Web, trains almost all have paper schedule brochures scattered in the compartments and for first class passengers they also have friendly folk who stop in and ask if you need anything). As my German friends later said of the little man, "Ach, typisch deutsch!" which is, fortunately, not true :). Take the train, Mensch.

Posted by
11613 posts

I was in Getmany for 24 days last month and a surprising number of trains were late, but usually not more than ten minutes. I only missed two connections because of a late train. I had printouts of nearly all my tickets from bahn.de, only had to show my credit card on the first leg of each journey.

Overall very good, no problems navigating stations or finding correct tracks.

Posted by
14580 posts

I came across the situation (a few times) this past trip where the Reisebegleiter on the compartment seats showed the destination of the ride going in the opposite direction., ie, say you board in Frankfurt, terminus is Berlin Hbf. You pick up the Reisebegleiter only to see that instead of Berlin as the terminus, as you would expect, it's Zürich. That Reisebegleiter is a fresh copy, presumably not left over from the day before, but it's no use.... verkehrt.

Posted by
12197 posts

I've screwed up on the schedule before, usually by not paying attention to all the information (like the last train only runs on Fridays and Saturdays). Once you get used to it, it's a great system.

Trains running late is new to me, I don't recall any significantly late train when I was there - it may be related to track maintenance in the summer months. I've only visited Scandinavia in the summer months, all my other trips to Europe are shoulder season.

Posted by
101 posts

I'm digging up this old discussion because it was incredibly useful to me. I'll be going to Germany in two months and am trying to figure out the train system. @wilthomhow brought up the relevant point that (for a visitor not familiar with the geography), it's important to know the intervening stops so you know when to get off the train.

I just found a free app for my iPhone called "Rail Planner - Offline Timetable for Eurail...". It seems pretty good, and it can be used for scheduling. All the info seems to be in a format that's easy to use, and it can also let you know the stops on a route.

Has anyone used this app? I really like the fact that it provides offline access!

Posted by
7209 posts

You just have to know the name of the town/station where you want to exit the train. When the train stops at your exit there's a sign posted in the station in BIG LETTERS so you can know that you've arrived at your destination. If you can read a sign you can get off at the correct place. I've never experienced such things as not knowing when to get off the train...

Posted by
101 posts

Seriously, TIm?
I ride the subway every day of my life, and Amtrak trains in the U.S. frequently as well. Usually I relax and read a book or do some work. So of course it is useful to have in my head the general order of the stops so I know when mine is coming up. That way, I can have my things collected so I'm ready to go, rather than being surprised and having to bolt to the door.
I'd imagine this is true in Germany as well, where I DON'T know the order of the stops. That's why an app that helps me out would make my travel a smoother and more stress-free experience.
Of course I can read signs.

Posted by
1507 posts

Beth, I have understood that Eurail does not include all trains in its listings. I have not used them; so, I can not verify.

Die Bahn has an app of its own on which you can lookup individual stops. I have used it. My internet connection is frequently broken while actually riding the train; so, I am not sure if you can do a lookup in route. If you pulled up the page before you left the station, you could probably retain it. I have not tried.

I usually have no difficulty just going by the expected ETA. They do announce stops just before you arrive in the station. If things are off schedule, I will sometimes try to remember the stop just before mine.

Posted by
18860 posts

Thanks. I think reminders are always useful. Also keep in mind that there may be delays on some international trains in and out of Germany due to the migrant issue.

Such as this from the Hungarian rail site

Passengers travelling from Budapest to Munich with railjet train must
leave the train at Salzburg station, where border control will be
carried out. A connecting railjet train will be provided towards
Munich, where seat reservation is obligatory. There is no such border
control when travelling from Munich towards Budapest. The EuroNight
train EN 462/463 (Kálmán Imre) operates again with full service (i.e.
with seat, couchette and sleeping cars) between Budapest and Munich.
At Salzburg station travel documents and ID/passport of all passengers
in the seat car will be checked. Although the attendants of the
couchette and sleeping cars will collect the travel documents in
advance, occasional and thorough controls may be expected in these
cars. Click here for up-do-date information on the international
railway traffic.

Posted by
101 posts

Thanks for the feedback. Well, I now have the Eurail and DB apps on my phone, with the first offering offline info even if the second is more accurate.

I took a photo of the schedule on the platform (big yellow poster schedule) before boarding each train to keep track of the station stops while on the train. Then I could follow from the photo on my phone and I never needed to worry about Wi-Fi or data connections.

Posted by
24 posts

As a solo traveler to Germany many times over the years I have encountered all of these problems. The system is ever evolving and there is a learning curve with both the traveler and the system. Whenever I got frustrated at not being able to figure something out I always opt for standing in line at the ticket counter and talked to a person. They are very patient and helpful. Last year in a tiny village where there wasn't a manned ticket counter I went into the coffee shop in the station and was able to get help from the woman running the store. Also one time at a busy big city train station I was impatiently standing behind a German local who couldn't figure out how to use the ticket machine. I helped him to get his ticket by using my limited German language skills. Such experiences make for great memories and add to ones travel skills.

Posted by
19171 posts

"I took a photo of the schedule on the platform (big yellow poster schedule) before boarding each train to keep track of the station stops while on the train."

As I mentioned above, those yellow timetables only give every stop up to a certain point, as shown by a "target" symbol (concentric dot and circle), then only major stations after the symbol, so if you are going to be on the train for any length of time, it probably won't show the stop before your destination. There is really no substitute for detailed advance planning.

On major trains, there will probably be printed detailed schedules of stops distributed around the coach, but not on lesser trains.

The touch-screen Bahn automats do give some schedule information. I've only used this feature once. I know it showed all the changes, but I don't know if it will show all the stops on a trains route.

Posted by
8889 posts

On www.bahn.de you can list all the stops for a train, with the times at those stops. And you can print it out. Once you have searched for and found your train, just drill down on the train number.

Posted by
32273 posts

wilth,

As the others have indicated, spelling is important especially when using the ticket Kiosks, and that may have been the reason you experienced problems. One way to avoid that problem is to buy tickets at staffed ticket windows, and you can usually buy tickets for all the journeys you'll be making at the same time. The other way to avoid that is to buy advance tickets online.

Regarding the "late ETA" that you experienced, I've found that's not uncommon in many countries in Europe (the problem is worse in some countries than others). Switzerland seems to be the only country that has absolutely punctual trains about 99% of the time (although they are also subject to the vagaries of railway operation such as track expansion.

Posted by
14580 posts

Regarding the comment that ten years ago the DB train ran on time. I mean , say in '04, '05, I would say true. Iwas there in the summer of 2005. The latest trip in Germany in early 2015 June, ie, prior the effects of heat on the tracks, the migrant influx, the delay, lack of punctuality was blatantly evident. What I saw then corresponds to what Anita experienced in her response in Aug. It may well be that it's learning curve for the system.

In 2007 the DB personnel handed out coupons (Gutscheine) as a PR move to placate passengers due to so many late trains. On two occasions I was given one, still have these two coupons. In 2015 no such thing took place in regards to the late trains of any type, ICE, regional train. I can imagine the DB personnel feeling harried/pressured when confronted by people whose train was cancelled (Zug fällt aus) or ended up being 40 mins late. You yourself may luck out in taking punctual trains while some else comes away with a totally opposite experience.

I don't use apps to know the order of the stops, rely on the Reisebegleiter usually on the seats, but the last trip proved also more than once , they were not reliable either due to various reasons. Another way is to look at the electronic board. in additional to knowing the rough time of arrival. The annoucements on the regional trains are only in German. I use a combination of methods.

I don't know about all of Germany, but I've been to Berlin and the U Bahn and S Bahn are just perfect. Always on time, there's always a train coming one after the other, and it's clean and there are no weird smells or anything :)
Very efficient too. i once went on a few days trip to Berlin and then to Hamburg, it was through RoutePerfects trip planner, and we chose to go by train and that was a bit less convenient than the inner Berlin trains but still it was clean and nice (which I'm not used to in Manhattan..) and the train wasn't late and we had a great ride with wonderful view. SO... i suppose you were just a bit outa luck in that department. :-)

Posted by
19171 posts

My last trip to Germany was in Oct 2013. My first train was from Frankfurt airport (FRA) to Mannheim on an ICE that had started in Dortmund and was coming from Köln. It was abour 40 minutes late arriving. We had some time to change in Mannheim but the train was later than that. The held our connection train, another ICE, for our arrival, and we made the connection.

Traditionally, the Bahn has held outgoing trains when an incoming train is late arriving. This, of course, has a snowballing effect, as all the held trains are now running late. But since this has always been the case, I don't know why it should be a bigger problem today.

Incidentally, after the first two ICEs, we where on 33 more train connections in the 3 weeks we were in Europe, and only one other train was late leaving. In that case we were on a bus that was late due to some passenger's confusion. The driver radioed ahead to the station and the train was held about 10 minutes for us to board.

"I have understood that Eurail does not include all trains in its listings."

Actually, the Eurail listings look pretty complete to me. I don't find any trains missing from listing for German routes I know and checked. They list train connections for your convenience only, and they don't show costs or sell tickets. And Eurail's timetable page also includes links to the schedule webwites for the various national rail companies, such as Bahn.de, OeBB.at , etc., where you can find the cost of fares over there. Eurail is a consortium of European railroads organized to package and sell rail passes.

I think you are confusing Eurail with RailEurope, which is essentially a travel agency owned primarily by French Rail. RailEurope does not include anywhere near all trains in its listings, only the trains for which it sells tickets online, and these are for the most part, only some of the major trains (and for a marked-up price).