The basic message is that long distance travel with a bicycle by train in Germany is possible, but choice is limited and you need to book early to travel in summer. On the other hand, regional services up to about 125 miles with accompanied bicycles are superb. The German Railways website is www.bahn.co.uk.
Currently the state-owned Deutsche Bahn A.G. (DB, or German Railways) owns, maintains and operates passenger trains on most domestic lines and is responsible for the network, track, signalling and stations. One operating division of DB runs long distance trains (ICE, IC/EC and the sleeper trains) without any subsidies. There is little competition to DB on long distance routes, although there is a daily service between Köln (Cologne) and Hamburg (more on some days of the week), operated by a private company which does take bicycles.
Another DB operating division runs regional trains (IRE, RE, RB and the S-Bahn (suburban trains)) with financial assistance from the provincial authorities. Other organisations, consortia of public authorities working with DB, and private foreign companies like Veolia or SBB Swiss Rail run some subsidised regional services. Long distance express trains have a fixed frequency and mostly depart at the same time after the hour every one or two hours from early morning to the evening, at least for the core of the journey.
Long distance express trains
Intercity Express (ICE)
ICE in St. Pancras Station 19 October 2010 Copyright Deutsche Bahn AG
These are the flagships of the DB network and are high speed train units travelling at speeds up to 300kph (188mph) between major cities. They do not take any bicycles except folding bicycles in a cover. However some of the services to and from France operate as Trains Grand Vitesse (TGV) and Thalys (THA). The TGVs take up to eight bicycles and can be booked within Germany on the excellent www.bahn.de website. THA high speed trains link Amsterdam, Brussels, Cologne and Paris, and are operated by Thalys, an independent company owned by French Rail (SNCF), Belgian Rail (SNCB), Netherlands Rail (NS) and DB. This too does not accept bicycles except bagged folding bikes.
InterCity Train Copyright Deutsche Bahn AG
These are conventional trains hauled by a locomotive and can take up to 16 bicycles. The bicycle compartment is in the carriage furthest from the locomotive, behind the rear driver’s cab (if the train is running backwards, you get a superb view over the driver’s shoulder.) ICs run not only between major centres, but also important regional settlements in Germany. Whereas ICEs do not make local stops – between Stuttgart and Ulm for example – an IC/EC travelling between these cities will make additional stops at three smaller towns. ECs are international trains offering the same services in Germany and abroad. IC/EC are slower than the ICEs, but fares are cheaper.
Where do the IC/EC go, when and how often?
IC/EC are the best way for cyclists to travel with their bicycles. Unfortunately the DB appears to be phasing many of these out and replacing them with faster, more expensive ICEs, which generally only carry folding bikes. The ADFC, the German Cycling Club, has produced a downloadable map showing the long distance services still on offer. The map is in German but with the help of the DB website the reader can work out where and when the trains run.
Night Trains (City Night Line (CNL), D-Nacht, Euronight)
© Bergstrasse Bike Books
CityNightLine Bicycle storage
© Bergstrasse Bike Books
Night trains offer long distance travel with one’s bicycle without having to change frequently. Services are being cut back, so use them while you can. The connections to Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Paris will stop in December 2014.
All regional trains take bicycles, but there may be restrictions in the rush hour. These subsidised trains tie in with the ICE and IC/EC trains to serve smaller towns and cities. Although one can use DB tickets, regional transport authority tickets can also be used. It is possible to travel long distances across Germany on these trains, but sometimes many changes are needed. The trains will take between 8 and 16 bicycles, in a number of compartments. Just propping your bike in a corridor is frowned upon.
Interregio Express (IRE) and Regional Express (RE)
These trains do not stop at the smaller stations but offer a reasonably fast service between regional centres.
These trains stop at almost every station and are thus slow.
Bicycle compartment of a typical double-decker Regionalbahn
© Bergstrasse Bike Books
Leaving a rural train
© Bergstrasse Bike Books
Suburban and underground trains stopping at every station in or near the larger cities. Access to these with bicycles is often restricted during rush hour.
The range of tickets available is, to use an Americanism, awesome. The Germans seem to tend towards complicated solutions, but it is worthwhile wading through the possibilities. There are three types of train that can be used over long distances and at least one saver ticket, meaning that there are at least six possible prices for any one journey. The special offer saver tickets can provide half-price fares if you book more than three days in advance and travel by a specified train, outside the high density travel periods of Friday and Sunday afternoon/ev
enings. Check out www.bahn.co.uk for details.
As an example the 224 km trip from the German station in Basel to Mannheim costs in Euros:
||21 and cheaper
||4h – 4h 30m
The trump card with the regional services are the go anywhere tickets: Länder-, Schönes Wochenende and Quer durchs Land. The
Länder-Tickets are valid for each province and its fringes. They cost per person between €8 and €23, more from a ticket office or a less from a ticket machine. You might need to buy bike tickets (€4.50) as well. They are valid all day at weekends and from Monday to Friday after 09:00 up to 03:00 the next day.
At weekends, the Schönes Wochenende tickets for up five people allow you to travel anywhere in Germany and in some cases across the border into neighbouring countries. They are slightly more expensive (€44) and have the same conditions as the Länder tickets. These tickets are popular and the regional trains at the weekends can be very full.
During the week the Quer durchs Land ticket offers similar possibilities as the Schönes Wochenende but is a little more expensive. The first ticket costs 44 Euros, and every additional passenger (up to four) costs a further eight Euros. The trains are not as full as at weekends.
Buying a ticket
There are a number of options in Britain:
- erail Travel T 020 7619 1083 www.erail.co.uk or www.europeanrail.com
- Log on to the Deutsche Bahn web site: www.bahn.co.uk. Tickets can be printed out at home, sent to a smart phone or sent by post. In the first two cases, passengers need to have the credit/debit card with them on the train that they used to buy the ticket. In the last case delivery time is up to eight days and costs 3.50 Euros.
- Ring Deutsche Bahn on +44 (0)8718 80 80 66 between 09:00 and 20:00 weekdays and between 09:00 and 13:00 at weekends.
Rail Cards offering a rebate
German Railways offer three annual rail cards: BahnCard 100, BahnCard 50 and BahnCard 25 in two flavours, First and Second Class. These only really pay if you live in Germany or are intending to travel extensively, and there is a major snag: You need to cancel your subscription three months or so before the end of the period of validity. If not you will have to pay for another year.
- BahnCard 100 is a go anywhere travel pass for the whole of Germany and costs 6,890 Euros (First Class) or 4,090 Euros (Second Class).
- BahnCard 50 holders can buy tickets for half the normal price on any train. It costs between 127.50 and 255 Euros Second Class and between 257.50 and 515 Euros in First Class.
- BahnCard 25 gives a 25% reduction on tickets including reduced price tickets, so it is possible to travel with a 62.5% reduction on the normal fare if you book early enough. These cards cost 125 Euros in First Class and 62 Euros in Second Class.
You can book tickets online at the reduced rate before you even purchase your BahnCard 25 or 50, so theoretically you could book your tickets online and print them out at home. When you arrive in Aachen or Saarbrücken leave the train, join the queue in the Reisecenter (Travel Centre) or at the Fahrkartenschalter (Ticket Office), and ask for a BahnCard. You will have to fill in a form, but the Bahn employee will help you, and there is no need for a photograph nowadays. When you pay, you will be given a temporary BahnCard. About a month later you will receive the ‘proper’ Card.
Bicycle reservations for trips within Germany can be made online with your tickets using www.bahn.co.uk. Just check the box ‘carriage of bicycle required’ and the bicycle ticket is booked automatically. You are supplied with two tickets: one you pop on the bike and one you carry with you. The former has an adhesive patch to stick it to the bicycle. Your bicycle will cost 9 Euros on the long distance trains within Germany, and a trailer costs the same amount. A recumbent or a tandem costs 18 Euros. On the regional trains, a bicycle costs 4.50 Euros in some regions, while in others it is free. The DB puts out a German language brochure called ‘Bahn und Bike’ with full details.
If travelling on a long-distance train you need to reserve a place for the bicycle, and if you’re travelling in summer with a non-folding bike, you should sort this out well in advance. If travelling on a summer Saturday try to make a reservation 92 days in advance and set your alarm clock early to do it. International bicycle tickets cost 10 to 15 Euros and include a bicycle reservation. These are valid from your starting station to your destination. Again recumbents and tandems cost double.
Excellent and easy to use. It provides an option – in the German language version at least – to scan train times over a period to find the cheapest fares each day. This is missing on the English version, probably in revenge for World Cup defeat at Wembley in 1966. (You can cheat. Use the German version and let Google Translator change the language to something you can understand.) You can specify that you are only interested in trains that take accompanied bicycles. This includes some TGV routes, from Karlsruhe to Munich, for example. The timetable section will tell you at which platform you arrive and where you leave from. You can buy bike tickets and reserve bike spaces online in Germany. From what we can see, the website shows the cheapest fares available. For passengers unencumbered by non-folding bicycles it is a good source of information for foreign railways as well. However there are one or two flies in the ointment:
- You cannot reserve bike places online on international trains, so you will need to talk to a human being, either by phone or at a station.
- Unfortunately information on the website about transporting accompanied bikes abroad, i.e. outside Germany, is not always accurate. You can, for example, put your bicycle on most trains and use most stations in Belgium, but if you enquire in Germany about travelling from Aachen to Brussels with a velocipede, www.bahn.de suggests you ring the DB cyclists hotline in Germany on 01805 151 415 at the equivalent of about 12p/minute, although you can book the bike tickets in Belgium online. Belgian trains from Liege run to Aachen. Similarly, if you tick the ‘accompanied bicycle’ box when planning a trip from Mannheim to Toulouse the website suggests travelling for just over 25 hours via Basel or Paris and changing five or six times. However there is a perfectly good night train from Paris to Toulouse that takes bicycles.There are local trains from Mannheim to Strasbourg and a late afternoon TGV from Strasbourg will get you into Paris Est with plenty of time to cross to Gare Austerlitz, enjoy a sandwich jambon and a petit rouge before tucking up into your couchette to slumber down to Toulouse. The moral of this: If you want to travel by train with a bicycle between two countries it is advisable to check the websites of both railway systems (French Railways).
A woman writes
Women tend to be shorter and less strong than their menfolk and can have problems with getting bikes on trains in Germany. Platforms, especially on rural stations (i.e. the kind of stations cyclists are likely to visit), are low and the steps up into the earlier diesel railcars can resemble the north face of the Eiger at first sighting. The designers probably assumed that all cyclists are the thin, fit types one sees in the Tour de France with similarly svelte bicycles, but a loaded touring bike is a different kettle of fish entirely.
The narrow train doors hinder the ‘storming of the Bastille’ approach that I’ve used sometimes to reach the top of station steps. The DB suggests removing panniers, but with only two minutes to get on the train there’s a real possibility of leaving them on the platform as you depart. If you are lucky, DB conductor-guards or other cyclists on the train or platform will help you. I tend to play the helpless female at this point, whilst seething within. More modern rolling stock, like the double-decker trains, provide very easy access. Once you’re on board, ladies, a bungee or a strap can be helpful to stop the bike falling over, thus keeping your travelling household neat and tidy.
Changing trains can also be a sporting event, especially at larger stations, and it may be worth specifying a longer interval than the default five minutes when changing trains. This interval can be set on www.bahn.de. This means a slower journey overall, but you are not forced to get off one train with up to 20 other cyclists; jog down a flight or two of stairs; run through the tunnel under the station, clamber up another flight of steps; find the cycle compartment marked by a cycle logo and get your bike on the next train within five minutes. Larger stations often have lifts, even though they may be so narrow that only one person with a loaded bicycle can use them. If they are slightly wider it is worthwhile putting two bikes in head to toe.
Other than when they’re in bakers’ or butchers’ shops, Germans do not understand the concept of queueing, so don’t hang back being polite. You will miss your train.
Ferries and River Steamers
Kiel Canal Ferry
There are times when crossing a canal, river or lake means taking a ferry. These can vary from rowing boats across streams to large vessels crossing national boundaries – on Lake Constance, for example, between Friedrichshafen in Germany and Romanshorn in Switzerland. Steamers on the lakes and rivers will also take bicycles and their riders. One of the best ways to see the Rhine Gorge is from the deck of a steamer with a plate of apple strudel and a cup of coffee in front of you.
Germany now has long distance buses crisscrossing the country. Until recently long distance bus services were forbidden and had been forbidden since the 1930s when the Nazi government wanted to protect the railway monopoly. The present government has reversed this decision and long distance bus services have sprung up all over Germany.
There are many bus companies, too many to name and since there is extreme competition between the companies some of them will not last long. In fact, two companies have folded in the autumn of 2014 and ADAC, the German motor club has ended its joint venture with Deutsche Post.
The MeinFernBus company offers accompanied bicycle transfer for up to five bikes a trip. The company offers trips all over Germany. See the website. Prices are much cheaper than trains, but the journey times are longer. You can book your bike online. Bike transport costs nine Euros a trip. We realise that you are coming to Germany to cycle not to sit on bus, but Cologne for example is a major hub for low price airlines and if you want cycle in the Black Forest or around Lake Constance then the Cologne/Düsseldorf to Freiburg services could be very interesting. The website is at www.meinfernbus.de in English and German. ADFC members do not need to pay for their bicycle transport. Is this an idea for the CTC?
There are at least two areas offering bicycle transport by bus and rail to encourage cycle tourism:
- Volgelsberg NE of Frankfurt am Main: Free transport of bicycles on any of the six Vulkan-Express routes at weekends and public holidays from 1st May until the end of October with an hourly or two hourly cadence designed to mesh with regional train services. More information from www.vgo.de. Reservation is recommended.
- Northern Rheinland-Pfalz NW of Frankfurt am Main: The Regioradler service offers nine routes from the Moselle and Rhine Valleys up into the hills of the Hunsrück (for Hahn Airport amongst other places) and the Eiffel. In addition there is a service along the Moselle Valley. Services run from May until October. Not all buses run everyday. Some run daily, some Mondays to Friday and some weekends and public holidays. More information from www.regioradler.de. Reservation is not only recommended, it is essential at weekends and on public holidays. These services do transport e-bikes, but not tandems or recumbents. Trailers can be transported if there is room.
Diversions in Germany
A Regional Express winds its way through the Black Forest
© Deutsche Bahn AG
Our favourite trip in Germany is the long climb through the Black Forest from Offenburg to Villingen. Passing through spectacular scenery, the route is 94 miles long, and ascends 650 metres through 39 tunnels and over two viaducts.
Something that we regret not doing is the special offer some years ago of a week-long trip around some of the termini of the CityNightLine system, sleeping on the train every night and spending a day in cities such as Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. With a Brompton as hand luggage it could be good fun, even though you might need a shower by the end of the week. There are no plans to repeat this service. Sadly, the Amsterdam and Copenhagen CNL services will cease in December 2014.