You are at Munich station picking someone up from a train about to arrive. Perhaps your wife and baby. Behind you, a brand new ICE 4, the smell of new train wafting out the doors. A futuristic bleeping sets in, the doors close in a flurry of flashing LED lights .
So this is the future, and I'm in it. Wow. With a subtle, soothing sigh the breaks release and the train noiselessly sets itself in motion, gliding majestically out into the sunlight.
You scratch your armpit and adjust your shopping bag. They should be here any moment.
Suddenly, a text message:
we can't get into our platform. It is blocked by a broken down train.
You look up from your phone, up the line, and there you see it: that vision of things to come, the ICE4, speadeagled across the points of four platforms, grinning like an oblivious python. 45 minutes later it draws back to the platform it left and expels its passengers. It only made it 100 yards towards Hamburg.
You take your wife and baby home an hour late to a lunch of warm beer and cold chicken.
The ICE 4s are the biggest order ever placed by Deutsche Bahn. For more than €5 bn they ordered 130 of these trains, with a contract in place for 300. This train is set to become the backbone of German fast rail transport.
As Deutsche Bahn is owned by the German state, it was important that German manufacturers got a slice of this lovely cake. In this case it was Siemens and Bombardier.
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The carriages are made by Bombardier in Görlitz, a city that has been making trains for 160 years, while all the electrical stuff is supplied by Siemens from all over its engineering empire.
OK, I get it. Enough background.
After the unfortunate first meeting, things got much better. I've been on the ICE 4 several times and can now tell you what it is like.
On my first trip I got on at 5:55 AM and saw the LED-lighting in action. Apparently it adjusts to the time of day in all sorts of colours. All I saw was orange in the morning and white as the day progressed. I loved the orange light.
Since then all I've seen is white - presumably it is controlled manually and whoever controls it forgets about it. It would be interesting if there was a light setting for crowd control, for calming down mutinous passengers on an overcrowded, delayed ICE.
The ICE 4 is formed of twelve extra-long coaches. It is painted in the usual white with a red line along its side. The train has three first class carriages, a restaurant car that has some first class seating as well as the compartment for parents with toddlers, and nine second class carriages.
The carriage numbers are painted on - Deutsche Bahn has learnt the hard way that nothing beats good old analogue.
All of the carriages are open plan seating. The only actual compartment is the one for parents with toddlers.
Its top speed is 250km/h. Though not as fast as the first generation ICE (280km/h) or the ICE 3 (330 km/h), this is ample. On a network plagued by engineering (or the lack of it), trains rarely attain their top speed. A faster train would have cost more with no benefit whatsoever.
As the carriages are very long, they have to be correspondingly narrow to remain within the German loading gauge. The reduced diameter is noticeable. This is also why the ICE 4 has little gangways that roll out to bridge the yawning gap between the train and the platform.
The second class comes with standard 2+2 seating (that is, two seats each side of the aisle).
Though some of the chairs are arranged in blocs of four grouped around a table, most are arranged two-by-two behind each other, always facing the middle of the carriage.
Thus whichever direction the train is travelling, half of the seats are facing backwards, half forwards.
What is wise of DB is to have generous, easily accessible luggage racks.
All in all this is a fairly pleasant second class experience, much nicer and more spaceous than the rather cramped second class on the ÖBB Railjet with its frozen-spinach coloured seats and linoleum floor or, God help us, the smartie-coloured man-trap that is SNCF's TGV Duplex.
There have been many complaints, in fact mass hysteria about the new model of seats Deutsche Bahn has installed in the ICE 4. People have been saying they are torture chairs from hell.
Perhaps there is something wrong with my back (I did do ballroom dancing for ten years) but I find them superbly comfortable.
They have a nice high head and proper ears that support your head nicely as you snooze. They do not recline, instead the bottom bit slips forward, pulling the back rest after it. The benefit is that a reclining seat doesn't invade your space, thus preventing aircraft-style brawls.
I also like the little displays on the head-rests, showing from where to where the seat is reserved. This is easy to see and to read.
The free Wifi works well enough wherever there is a decent LTE signal. This isn't everywhere, but that is hardly Deutsche Bahn's fault. In the second class each device is allowed 200MB of data volume
The first class comes with 2+1 seating and leather chairs. Apart from being made of leather and spaced a bit further apart, they follow the same design pattern as those in the second class. They aren't more comfortable.
The carpet is the same and so is the Wifi signal. The only difference here is unlimited data volume per device.
Why go first class? It's breathing space and elbow room more than the seats that make first class more pleasant on the ICE 4.
Have you got a baby? I have, these days, and I love that Deutsche Bahn has a nice separate compartment in which you can let it run around. Or breastfeed.
Sometimes people with nowhere to sit will find their way into the toddler's compartment, but they cannot complain. And if you roll up with a baby, you can make them move.
This is something Deutsche Bahn has solved very well: the toddler's compartment is next to the guard's van, so there is always someone to help you, the restaurant car is next door, and there is a nice toilet with a changing mat. It is all very well done, on all ICE and Intercity trains.
Until the ICE 4 was introduced, it was dogma that no bicycles are allowed on ICEs. The German bicycle club never stopped lobbying for this to be changed.
Now that many Intercities are being replaced with ICEs, DB has grudgingly accepted that the ICE 4 has to transport bicycles. So it has a small section with eight slots for bikes. These have to be reserved at the cost of €9.
Some smart people think that if they have their bicycle in a bag or a cardboard box it can go free as baggage.
Wrong. The other day on my Flixtrain, running at full capacity, I found a man blocking six seats with his bicycle in a nylon holdall. I went mad. I made him put it where it belonged and charged him the full bicycle price - the alternative being he pay for six seats.
The only bikes that can go free are the truly collapsable ones that fold into a small carrier bag.
Anyway, I haven't tried to load a bicycle into the ICE 4, but the set up looks usable. Just remember: carriage 1 is for bicycles and you need a reservation. As many older ICEs don't take bikes, it is wise to book as far in advance as you can.
Now for my one big complaint. A preposterous amount of seats on this train have no window, or a tiny sliver of one. Since trains have started to be measured in price per seat and kilometre travelled, window seats have gone out the window. This is one of many symptoms of the bottom-line doing the designing on the ICE 4.
Now, when booking a seat on an ICE, if the train you are dealing with is an ICE 4, you are likely to specify a window seat and find yourself next to the wall. At the same time, the spacious and desperately needed baggage racks afford your suitcase a fantastic view right next to the window.
This is just really cack-handed design, an example of DB's bean counters shitting on us passengers. It could have been avoided, but all that mattered was cost. Bizarrely, the first class is just as bad as the second class.
I go to great lengths for you, my readers. One of these lengths is to walk from end to end on the ICE 4 with a furrowed brow, muttering to myself, writing stuff down. I even had to explain myself to the guard.
I have compiled a list of all the seats that have no window. And believe me, it is long. You can find the list of all the unwindow-seats as a handy download in the e-guide library. If you subscribe to my email list you have free, life-long access to my e-guide-library - even if you unsubscribe.
When I went to university, nearly everyone I met was starting a degree in Business Administration (me, I enrolled in Russian Linguistics). Wherever I went, everyone was studying this thing. They still are. "Why?" I asked. "Well," they said, "you can do anything afterwards, and work for anyone".
Business Administration is neither a science nor a humanity. It is an ideology. As a university subject it is as divorced from science as Marxism-Leninism was in East Germany. Business Administration's central premise is scarcity. There is never enough of anything, especially money, so it has to be saved. You have to cut costs and close your factories.
Now this vast army of Business Administrators has been let loose on the world and is saving money everywhere, meaning that everyone has less and works more.
The brightest Business Administrators work for PwC, Accenture and Roland Berger, the Angels of Downsizing. The dull, stupid ones end up working for Deutsche Bahn, laying waste to everything they can cross out with their red pencils. Night trains, for instance.
Business Administrators shift the focus from making quality products to making money. They have destroyed Cadbury's, they have smashed Wedgwood, and they've got their teeth deep into Marks and Spencer's.
At Deutsche Bahn their influence is ever more noticeable, and the ICE 4 is a good example.
But I digress.
The restaurant car is very nice, with both a bar area and a proper seated restaurant section. They have nice Bitburger beer on tap and an astounding variety of quite tasty, reasonably priced food.
Of course it is all warmed up, but real food has long disappeared from Western trains, and as it goes, this is quite good. It is much better than the hospital food DON serves on the Railjet these days, but it cannot compare with a Polish or Slovak restaurant car, where your food is still cooked to order.
Unfortunately even in the restaurant car the windows and seating are not on speaking terms. Sip your coffee and admire the beam between the windows.
At the very front and at the very rear (carriages 1 and 14), if you get on through the door nearest to the driving cab and then turn towards the driving cab, you enter a small section of eight seats in second class or six seats in first class which feels nicely closed off from the rest of the train and where the seats are perfectly aligned with the windows.
It is a dead end, so you don't get any confused people barrelling backwards and forwards bellowing the place down. Only drivers pass through. Though open to anyone, people seem to avoid it.
Sadly, you can't see into the driving cab, since you ask. DB has done away with that.
I have tried to put myself into the shoes of various travellers and work out where I can recommend who sits. Here is what I have come up with:
You are fine almost everywhere. Most of the seats are two-by-two. Consider going first-class if there is a good deal. If you want to ensure you have a window, download my guide to the un-window seats on the ICE 4 and reserve yourself something nice. I would probably get myself something not too far from the restaurant car.
As a group between four and eight people I would try and snaffle the secret area in carriage No. 1, about which I waxed lyrical earlier. Bring your own food and drink and forget about the distant restaurant car.
Whenever I've tried to reserve a seat in the secret area outright it has been unreservable, yet when I got on the train, nothing was reserved. It is possible that these seats are always unreserved.
Book yourself the toddler's compartment if you can - you have to be travelling with a child under six to get it.
I cannot emphasise enough how great the toddlers' compartment is. The so-called "family area" is just the same as everywhere else, only that it is noisy and smells of sausage and hard-boiled eggs.
If you cannot get the toddler's compartment, try and get yourself somewhere else, anywhere else, with a table, or the secret section in carriage No. 1. If travelling with a baby and there is no space in the toddler's compartment, make for the secret section, as it is peaceful.
Germany is one of the rail-pass friendly countries. There are no compulsory reservations on any DB trains. So you can use all ICE trains without paying a penny extra.
If you are in a group, the same advice applies as for any other group. If your are tired and want to sleep, make for the secret section in carriage No. 1.
If you want to spread out on the floor and picnic, again, carriage No. 1 is best for you, provided the bicycle area is empty.
Big warning: on one of my trips, the WiFi signal barely reached the secret section. If you value WiFi, best go somewhere else.
Having been on the ICE 4 several times I have discovered that I like the infamous seats. They are comfortable and have the best headrests I know of in German rail.
I like the toddler's compartment and I think the restaurant is a very pleasant place to be with its new, discreet colour scheme and its bar area.
What I really like is the two secret, quiet compartments at the front and the back of the train. Another good thing is that they seem to have installed lots of toilets that are easy to find.
Also well done is the ample space for luggage. I resent that it blocks windows, but the benefit is you can have your luggage near where you are sitting.
What is really bad is the window/seat situation. This never used to be a problem, why does technical progress mean window seats with no windows? It is just sloppy can't-be-fuckedness.
When I go to the restaurant car from my lair in carriage 1, I have to go through nine or ten coaches that look exactly the same, and are very long and rather narrow.
After the third carriage this gets rather unsettling. As most people are wearing their DB-faces they all look the same as well. I lose track of where I am as I stumble through winter upon winter of discontent.
The first ICE was devised at the end of the 1980s to reclaim the elites for rail travel. It was a luxury train from the start. No expense was spared.
No redesign has been able to banish the feeling of comfort and luxury from the ICE 1. If an arm-chair could be a train, this would be it.
The ICE 4 is from a world light-years away - a clinical, hyper-optimised, homogenised dystopia. The elusive "elite", even elite Deutsche Bahn staff, goes everywhere by air, even within Germany - this is not their train.
From its very inception the ICE 4 was supposed to be cheap and to transport as many homogenised consumers as possible, ensconced unspeaking in their virtual realities, plugs in ears, eyes on screens. Maybe this is why they haven't troubled to align the windows with the seats. Our windows are on our screens.
Don't let this happen. Travel, don't be transported. A train trip is something to be experienced and savoured. Looking out the window, with the landscape drifting by, lost in thoughts you might not have had otherwise. It is possible, even on this train.
I hope now you know how.
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