Fast(er) down the track at last

Germany's high-speed train era began in the spring of 1991


“Twice as fast as driving, half as fast as flying” – this was one of the slogans Deutsche Bahn (DB) used to publicly launch its new train in 1991. The first-generation Intercity-Express (ICE 1), designed for high speeds of up to 280 kilometers per hour and even pictured at its launch on a German postage stamp, began regular service on June 2, 1991. Siemens technology was on board the DB flagship and its predecessor, the InterCity Experimental.

Rail mobility for the 21st century – The launch of ICE 1

It was a media sensation when, on May 29, 1991, ICE 1 trains starting from five different cities – Bonn, Hamburg, Mainz, Stuttgart and Munich – reached their final destination at the new Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe station simultaneously, and – in the presence of 3,000 invited guests – German President Richard von Weizsäcker announced the opening of high-speed rail services in the Federal Republic of Germany.

Regular high-speed rail services began with the ICE 593. This high-speed train started its journey at Hamburg – Altona station at 5:53 a.m. on June 2, 1991, and was scheduled to reach its destination, Munich central station, at 1:20 p.m. However, the first passengers to enjoy a trip at 250 kilometers per hour were those aboard the ICE 794 from Stuttgart, which set off exactly one hour later on the same day but took the direct Stuttgart – Mannheim express route. At that time, the ICE 593 was approaching Hanover at 200 kilometers per hour and would only accelerate to 250 kilometers per hour after Hanover. But it could go even faster: as of May 1995, the ICE 1 traveled at the technically permissible maximum speed of 280 kilometers per hour on tracks especially approved for the purpose.



With its two power cars and 13 center coaches, an ICE 1 train had an impressive length of 384 meters. But another aspect was more important: the reduction in travel time. Passengers traveling from Hamburg to Frankfurt/Main now reached their destination 62 minutes faster, the journey from Hanover to Würzburg took 84 minutes less, and the the travel time from Hamburg to Stuttgart was cut by nearly two hours.

Faster and faster, slowly but surely – A brief look at the history of travel speeds

Germany’s rail history began on December 7, 1835, when, traveling at speeds of 24 to 30 kilometers per hour, a steam-powered train named the Adler ("Eagle") covered the six kilometers from Nuremberg to Fürth – without any stops en route – in 12 to 15 minutes. However, these travel times were achieved only during rush hours since – outside those hours – the Adler was powered for cost reasons by horses.

Seeing a convoy with 200 people approaching, rolling by and drifting away into the distance, as if of its own accord, not at lightning speed, but quickly and unstoppably, contrary to all previous experience, is truly impressive. The puffing and fuming of the emitted steam […] do not disappoint either.
Morgenblatt für die gebildeten Stände (literary journal), December 17, 1835

In the years that followed, additional rail lines were added, gradually making rail travel somewhat faster. Between the early 1850s and the end of the 1870s, average travel speeds increased from 41 to 47 kilometers per hour. The launch of the D train in 1892, which went hand in hand with – among other things – the use of more powerful locomotives, doubled travel speeds over the course of the next two decades. The new long-distance train was named for its Durchgangswagen (corridor coaches), which allowed passengers to move within the train from carriage to carriage.

Using electricity instead of steam power made travel even faster, as test runs by Siemens & Halske (S&H) proved. In 1901, one of the company’s high-speed railcars traveled at 160 kilometers per hour on the 23-kilometer Berlin-Marienfelde to Zossen military railroad. Two years later, on October 6, 1903, this speed was increased – for the first time in the history of rail technology – to more than 200 kilometers per hour. 


As could be expected after all the successes [...], the entire electrical equipment of the Siemens carriage also performed quite well during this memorable trip, in spite of the enormous stresses and strains caused by starting on the relatively short route, and the overheard line system worked just as flawlessly.
Berliner Tageblatt (newspaper), evening edition of October 6, 1903

More than 60 more years were to pass before train passengers could travel at 200 kilometers per hour. On June 26, 1965, at the International Transport Exhibition in Munich, where – among other things – a replica of the Adler locomotive was displayed, DB carried passengers at this speed for the first time on the Munich to Augsburg line. The E 03 express locomotive developed by Siemens made this achievement possible. However, when the exhibition ended on October 3, 1965, the high-speed trips – which also attracted a great deal of international attention – were discontinued.



Normal rail services still operated at a rather leisurely pace: in the early 1980s, the travel speeds of the intercity trains introduced in the early 1970s averaged just over 100 kilometers per hour. The locomotives available at the time and the existing rail lines made higher speeds impossible. So-called high-speed transport in Germany would only really begin with the ICE and its corresponding high-speed lines.


Trial runs at world-record speeds – The InterCity Experimental   

 In 1983, DB commissioned an “InterCity Experimental.” Numerous companies, including Siemens, were involved in the development and construction of this multiple-unit locomotive, which was powered by three-phase AC technology and known from 1984 onward as the ICE V – with the “V” standing for Versuch (trial). Test runs of the ICE V locomotive started in 1985, during which a speed record was set in DB’s anniversary year: on November 19, 1985, a speed of 324 kilometers per hour was recorded on the roughly fifty-year-old line between Rheda and Oelde.


But the locomotive could travel even faster and attain world-record speeds: on the new Fulda to Würzburg line built for ICE operation, the ICE V reached 403 kilometers per hour in the Mühlberg tunnel and 406.9 kilometers per hour in the Sinnberg tunnel, consigning the 380-kilometers-per-hour record set by the French TGV high-speed train on February 26, 1981, to the history books.


Big, compact and heavy – Siemens technology for the ICE 1

It’s a nice coincidence that Siemens technology for the ICE 1 came from Nuremberg – the city where Germany’s rail history began. Both the Nuremberg Machine and Apparatus Works (NMA) and the Nuremberg Transformer Plant were involved in providing electrical equipment for the train’s power cars, for example, by supplying transformers, traction motors and capacitors. Other companies also supplied components for the railcars’ electrical equipment, but Siemens was in charge.


ICE 1 power cars were just under 21 meters long, weighed 78 tons, had an electrical output of 4,800 kilowatts and were – as Siemens stated in a 1990 press release – “an electronic bullet.” Each power car was equipped with a compact 5.22-megavolt ampere transformer, mounted under the car body between the bogies of the power cars, and ultimately ensured that the traction motors were operated with three-phase alternating current.


With a total weight of five tons per power car, the Siemens capacitors were sometimes housed in man-size cupboards and were heaved into the power cars by crane. Exposed to voltages of several thousand volts, they helped get the ICE on its way.

Optimistic future dreams – Cutting journey times, using the Berlin to Cologne line as a test case

In 1903, the average speed of the S&H high speed railcar on the Zossen to Marienfelde line was 175 kilometers per hour, the locomotive traveled 200 kilometers per hour for "only" 90 seconds. The average speed tempted contemporaries to conduct a mathematical experiment taking the 577-kilometer line from Berlin to Cologne as an example: the S&H high-speed railcar could travel this route – which took nine hours by train in 1903 – in just three and a half hours, thus reducing travel time by around 60 percent.


Despite optimized routes and the use of high-speed trains, it’s not quite that fast even today. The ICE currently takes an average of just under five hours to cover the 475 kilometers between the Berlin and Cologne central stations. That’s neither twice as fast as driving a car nor half as fast as flying, but it’s the more environmentally friendly alternative for long-distance journeys from A to B.




Dr. Claudia Salchow