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EXPLAINED: What you need to know about Germany’s new long-distance rail timetable

Starting December 13th, German national railway Deutsche Bahn will kick off several new routes, as part of a larger improvement plan. Here's what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about Germany's new long-distance rail timetable
Archive photo shows a high speed train in Hamburg.

From Sunday onwards, rail customers between Berlin and Hamburg will experience the biggest milestone of Germany's new nationwide train table.

During the day, ICE, Intercity and Eurocity trains will now run there every half hour on average between 6am and 10pm.

Sixty instead of 45 trains will travel daily between Germany's two largest cities.

“I am pleased about this good starting signal,” Federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU) said in advance about Germany’s new train time table, which goes into effect on Sunday December 13th.

READ ALSO: Trains to travel between major German cities every 30 minutes

The changes are part of a broader 'Deutschlandtakt' plan, which over the next years will see train services in Germany made more efficient, expansive and punctual, according to Deutsche Bahn.

What are the biggest changes in the new timetable?

There will be 14 new direct connections between Berlin and the former federal capital Bonn – a route on which many government officials still prefer to fly. In future, the Bahn aims to reduce the journey from nearly five to four hours.

The ICE4 now also runs between Cologne and Berlin, which means more seats than before, plus a bicycle compartment.

More and faster connections are available between Munich and Zurich (12 times per day) with trains operated by Swiss Federal Railways. An additional daily ICE journey Hamburg-Munich train should also bring better connections for passengers from Lüneburg, Uelzen, Celle and Augsburg.

Yet there's a downside as the prices are going up slightly: on average, long-distance tickets will be one percent more expensive from Sunday, and local tickets 1.5 per cent more expensive.

Super-Sparpreise (Super Savings) and Sparpreise, however, will remain unchanged, as will the prices for Bahncards 25 and 50, which respectively give customers a 25 and 50 discount.

However, customers are still saving money overall: travelling by train became ten percent cheaper in 2020, with the reduction in value-added tax (VAT) at the beginning of the year.

Photo: DPA

Part of a larger plan

So what is the “Deutschlandtakt” all about? The new timetable model is supposed to make travelling by train easier and faster. Plans have been fine-tuned for years. 

Here's the idea: trains arrive at important transfer stations at roughly the same time and depart again shortly afterwards. Long transfer times of half an hour and more should then no longer exist.

The role model for the plan is Switzerland, where a fixed-interval timetable has been in place for decades. By 2030, Deutsche Bahn aims to extend the half-hourly service to other large cities, dreaming of a “metropolis-connecting S-Bahn”.

But there is still a lot of work to be done. Although there were only a few passengers, every fifth long-distance train was late in November, according to Deutsche Bahn data.

The fact that four long-distance trains now run between Hamburg and Berlin in two hours instead of the previous three is only one building block for the Deutschlandtakt.

Future changes

Deutsche Bahn, however, says it will be a few years before the next plans are implemented.

When the new Wendlingen-Ulm line and the new Stuttgart station are in operation, Stuttgart and Munich as well as Stuttgart and Frankfurt will be connected every half hour from the end of 2025, as will Frankfurt-Cologne and FrankfurtHamburg.

There is no date yet for Berlin-Cologne, for which the section between Hanover and Bielefeld must first be upgraded.

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Could sleeper trains offer Germans cheap, low-carbon travel across Europe?

Several political parties in Germany have said they want to bring back sleeper trains in order to meet carbon emissions targets.

Could sleeper trains offer Germans cheap, low-carbon travel across Europe?
A sleeper train in Austria. Photo: dpa/APA | Georg Hochmuth

The Green party have said that they want to put state subsidies into night trains that will connect Germany with cities as far flung as St Petersburg in the north and Lisbon in the south.

According to the environmentalist party’s plans, 40 night rail lines could connect 200 destinations across the continent including islands like Mallorca, which would be linked in by train and ferry.

The Greens want the EU to buy a fleet of sleeper trains that could travel at speeds of between 200 km/h and 250 km/h.

The CDU have also announced plans to rebuild the country’s sleeper train services.

Deutsche Bahn stopped its last sleeper service in 2016 citing the high costs involved in maintaining its fleet that was not recuperated through ticket sales.

Earlier this year the state owned company said it had “no plans” to purchase new sleeper wagons.