The Intercity-Express (ICE) connecting Brussels with Frankfurt/Main via Köln is probably the least reliable train I’ve ever experienced. The catalogue of problems I have had with this service stretches back years, right from when the service was first introduced. I do at least 4 return journeys a year on the ICE between Brussels and Köln, and sometimes as far as Frankfurt, and the problems are so common so as to have become a pattern.

Today we departed from Frankfurt on a series 403 ICE that can’t operate under Belgian 3kv DC current, so we had to cross platforms at Düren onto a waiting series 406 train that has waited 20 minutes before departing. The reason for this – as so often for this route – is presumably technical problems with the series 406 trains, with a 406 doing Brussels-Düren-Brussels and a 403 Frankfurt-Düren-Frankfurt.

The problem today was hence known right from departure in Frankfurt/Main (and @DB_bahn confirmed it to me on Twitter), but no announcement was made until after Köln – essentially the train manager was telling untruths about the destination until then… The first rule of transport customer service is to inform people what is going on – in the train DB failed to do that.

More generally, in the past I’ve had trains cancelled completely (and without warning, and without any alternative transport means provided), trains that stop at Aachen while the driver has to re-boot some computer systems and a warning voice blares out “Störung, Störung, Störung“, trains that have been re-routed onto the old lines in Belgium, and – at the very least – nagging delays of between 5 and 20 minutes. I do not currently recall the last time I took the ICE on this route and completed the journey without some sort of problem. As if to compound matters, DB increased its service on the route from 3 to 4 trains a day at the end of 2010.

Essentially it strikes me that the service is part of DB’s attempts to gain market share on the route, preparing the ground for through services to London from December 2013. Cheap tickets on the route are surely part of that strategy too.

At least through services to London will use the new series 407 trains, but for the moment persistent technological problems have not been solved, and today and past experience shows there is also scant attention to customer service.

Seriously DB, if you’re going to be a serious rival to Eurostar, you’re going to have to do better than this.

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  1. IMHO, you’re right Jon. I’ve taken the same service >12 times in the past year. The first train in the morning invariably has pick pockets on and has rarely managed Brussels to Cologne on time despite the characteristic DB slack in the timetable. In the opposite direction, when a connection is needed in Cologne, I’ve routinely spent the hour after Frankfurt Hbf coercing DB staff to give information on how I’d get home. As things stand, there’s no way DB can match Eurostar on service and I look forward to being able to take a Eurostar train London to Frankfurt.

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