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Tales from the fast trains

Germany is getting closer, thanks to the new generation of rail transport.

During the research for my new travel book Tales from the Fast Trains: Europe at 186mph, I made three trips to German cities, travelling from London St Pancras. The first was to Frankfurt, with an ICE train from Brussels for the last leg of the 5hr 56m journey. It arrived seven minutes late, and as we pulled into the Hauptbahnhof, a steward very politely announced in English: “We are very sorry. Zere was a problem with ze high-speed line in ze run up to Liège.”

My girlfriend and I were taken aback – delays of much more than seven minutes go without apology back in Britain (as any British traveller knows only too well).

But, for me, catching trains in Germany has always been a punctual affair; I remember travelling by train between Nuremberg, Frankfurt and Cologne to report for The Times on the England football team’s venues before the 2006 World Cup and being flabbergasted by the way we moved away precisely on time.

On this occasion our weekend in Frankfurt – seeing Goethe’s old house, drinking Ebbelwoi (apple wine), climbing the Frankfurter Dom – was also memorable for a tour we took of the red light district around the Hauptbahnhof. We met our guide at the station, learning from her of the importance of trains when Bismarck was unifying Germany in the 1870s, and then going on a tour highlighting the problems of prostitution and drug use in the streets nearby. Junkies literally injected right in front of us. It was a sad and shocking experience.

There weren’t junkies by the station in Cologne, where I arrived bang on time with an old university friend: 4h 9m from St Pancras. Cologne seemed like a perfect high-speed weekend destination, right next to the station, with so many fine art galleries, history museums and Brauhäuser serving cold Kölsch (Cologne beer) close by. There are plans for direct services on ICE trains from 2013, and I’ve got little doubt that 186mph tourism from the UK will really take off soon.

My third journey was actually by slow train for a short day-return hop to Trier after travelling down high-speed tracks to Luxembourg. What a lovely little city… and so unusual to see so many Chinese tourists heading for the house where Karl Marx was born in 1818. Like all the other trains, the Trier service arrived and left just as scheduled.

If only, if only, if only… it were the same in Britain.


Tales from the Fast Trains by Tom Chesshyre is published by Summersdale, price £8.99

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