Brian’s Travel Spot: UK to Berlin by Train, Part III – ICE to Köln

The driving cab of my ICE 3 on the platform at Köln, having brought me from Brussels Midi, where I changed for the final leg of my trip to Berlin in May 2022.Welcome to the third instalment of my Travel Spot series about travelling from the UK to Berlin by train. Part I covered planning the trip, which was far more complicated than I’d hoped. I discovered that the cheapest/most convenient option was to buy a Eurail pass, which covered my whole trip, with a bonus day trip thrown in for good measure.

I made the journey at the start of May, my itinerary taking me from Guildford to Berlin in a day, travelling via Brussels and Köln. I wrote about the first leg of the journey, which saw me arrive in Brussels Midi onboard the Eurostar, in Part II of the series. From there, I had two more trains left, both German high-speed ICE services. This first, from Brussels to Köln, is the subject of today’s instalment (Part III), while the second, from Köln to Berlin, is covered in Part IV.


As usual, I’ve split this post into the following parts:


You can see how I got on changing trains at Brussels Midi after the gallery.

  • The second leg of my journey, from Brussels Midi to Köln, the shortest of the three.
  • Step one: take the escalator down from Platform 2, where my Eurostar has just arrived...
  • ... into the bowels of Brussels Midi station, where a corridor runs under all the platforms.
  • In theory, you just keep walking in that direction until you find your platform. However...
  • ... before setting off, always check the monitors. My train (12:25 to Köln/Frankfurt)...
  • ... departs from Platform 3, which is the next one over, so I don't actually have to go...
  • ... any further. I know enough French to read that first class is in the last two carriages.
  • Well, I say I don't have to go any further. I still have to drag myself and my luggage...
  • ... up the escalator to the platform. Almost there!
  • And look! It's my train. More importantly (since I'm in first class), it's the back of the train!
  • In case you're wondering how far I've come, that's the Eurostar over there.
  • Right, let's find my coach. I reserved a seat and am in Coach 29 (Wg. 29 on the ticket)...
  • ... which just so happens to be the very last coach on the train. Each coach has these...
  • ... neat indicators by the doors which are very hard to photograoh. You can just see 29.
  • However, I've got 15 minutes to kill, so, naturally, I'm going to walk to the front of the train.
  • There are two first class coaches at the back, one of which contains the rear driving cab.
  • Next is a second class coach, followed by the bistro coach. After that, there are four...
  • ... more second class coaches, ending with the driving cab (on the last second class coach).
  • The view north along the platform in the direction of Köln.
  • And here's the front of my train, basking in the warm spring sunshine. Okay. Time to walk...
  • ... all the way back along the length of the train (at least it's only eight coaches) and get on.
The second leg of my journey, from Brussels Midi to Köln, the shortest of the three.1 Step one: take the escalator down from Platform 2, where my Eurostar has just arrived...2 ... into the bowels of Brussels Midi station, where a corridor runs under all the platforms.3 In theory, you just keep walking in that direction until you find your platform. However...4 ... before setting off, always check the monitors. My train (12:25 to Köln/Frankfurt)...5 ... departs from Platform 3, which is the next one over, so I don't actually have to go...6 ... any further. I know enough French to read that first class is in the last two carriages.7 Well, I say I don't have to go any further. I still have to drag myself and my luggage...8 ... up the escalator to the platform. Almost there!9 And look! It's my train. More importantly (since I'm in first class), it's the back of the train!10 In case you're wondering how far I've come, that's the Eurostar over there.11 Right, let's find my coach. I reserved a seat and am in Coach 29 (Wg. 29 on the ticket)...12 ... which just so happens to be the very last coach on the train. Each coach has these...13 ... neat indicators by the doors which are very hard to photograoh. You can just see 29.14 However, I've got 15 minutes to kill, so, naturally, I'm going to walk to the front of the train.15 There are two first class coaches at the back, one of which contains the rear driving cab.16 Next is a second class coach, followed by the bistro coach. After that, there are four...17 ... more second class coaches, ending with the driving cab (on the last second class coach).18 The view north along the platform in the direction of Köln.19 And here's the front of my train, basking in the warm spring sunshine. Okay. Time to walk...20 ... all the way back along the length of the train (at least it's only eight coaches) and get on.21
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My Eurostar arrived on time in Brussel Midi, leaving me exactly 20 minutes to make my connection, which departed at 12:25. Although this doesn’t sound very long, in practice, changing trains at Brussels Midi is fairly straightforward, particularly on the way out (returning through Brussels Midi is more involved since you have to check-in for the Eurostar as well as going through security and passport control, something I found out when I returned from Amsterdam in June 2018).

The only possible fly in the ointment was the Belgian Passenger Locator Form, which was a requirement for passengers travelling from the UK (since 23rd May 2022, a Passenger Locator Form is no longer required). This had to be filled in prior to the journey and, in theory, the Belgian authorities had the right to check the forms on arrival, although in practice, checks were only conducted sporadically. Fortunately, there were no checks taking place when I arrived, so I was able to walk straight off the platform, although I can imagine that if checks had taken place, the queues could have been considerable.

If you’re interested in learning more about changing trains at Brussels Midi, the ever-useful The Man in Seat 61 has a comprehensive guide, including details of a short-cut that you can use. As it was, my connection was made with the minimum of fuss. My Eurostar arrived on Platform 2, from where I descended on the escalators to the long corridor which runs under all the platforms across the width of Brussels Midi. However, I didn’t have to go far, since my ICE (which was going to Frankfurt via Köln) was departing from Platform 3 (if you arrive on a Eurostar for Amsterdam, you might even find that your ICE is on the opposite platform, so you don’t even need to go downstairs!).

I trundled up to Platform 3 to find my ICE waiting for me. I’d booked a seat in coach 29, the last one in the train, the escalator conveniently depositing me a few steps from the back of the train. However, with 15 minutes to kill, I decided to walk myself (and my luggage) all the way along the eight coaches of my ICE to the front (mostly for the photos), before making my way all the way to the back again and getting on.

You can see what I made of the train after the gallery.

  • My seat was in this small compartment right at the back of the train. However, let's do a...
  • ... quick tour of the rest of the train. This is the other half of my coach, which is first class.
  • There are single seats on one side and pairs of seats on the other.
  • At the far end, doors separate us from the next coach, coach 28, which is also first class.
  • Each coach has these information screens by the doors (which are only at one end).
  • The toilets are in this coach...
  • ... followed by three compartments on the right. The first seats four people...
  • ... while the next two, seen here looking the other way, seat six each.
  • After more conventional seating, we're onto the next coach, which is second class.
  • This has conventional seating (2 x 2 this time) followed by compartments on the left.
  • I made it as far as the restaurant (bisto) coach, which was next. This has four tables...
  • ... in first class configuration, followed by a standing area with four of these oval tables...
  • ... two on each side.
  • A narrow corridor leads past the kitchen to the counter at the front. It was very busy, so...
  • ... I couldn't get a good photo. Instead here's a closed bistro counter from another journey.
  • After that, I headed back to my seat, which is where I'll end my tour.
My seat was in this small compartment right at the back of the train. However, let's do a...1 ... quick tour of the rest of the train. This is the other half of my coach, which is first class.2 There are single seats on one side and pairs of seats on the other.3 At the far end, doors separate us from the next coach, coach 28, which is also first class.4 Each coach has these information screens by the doors (which are only at one end).5 The toilets are in this coach...6 ... followed by three compartments on the right. The first seats four people...7 ... while the next two, seen here looking the other way, seat six each.8 After more conventional seating, we're onto the next coach, which is second class.9 This has conventional seating (2 x 2 this time) followed by compartments on the left.10 I made it as far as the restaurant (bisto) coach, which was next. This has four tables...11 ... in first class configuration, followed by a standing area with four of these oval tables...12 ... two on each side.13 A narrow corridor leads past the kitchen to the counter at the front. It was very busy, so...14 ... I couldn't get a good photo. Instead here's a closed bistro counter from another journey.15 After that, I headed back to my seat, which is where I'll end my tour.16
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This was my first time on an ICE (short for InterCity Express) for over 20 years. I travelled a lot by train in Europe in the 1990s, largely before the widespread introduction of the ICE (which first entered service in 1990). That said, I do remember taking the ICE in the late 1990s, pretty much following the same route as this trip, and marvelling as we raced across central Germany at speeds of over 200 km/h.

That journey would have been on an older ICE 1 or ICE 2, but waiting for me on the platform was a newer ICE 3, which entered service from 2000 onwards. In contrast to the ICE 1 and 2, which have separate power cars, the ICE 3 has driving cabs in the first and last coaches. If you’ve not seen one before but think it looks familiar, that’s because the Eurostar e320, which I’d just arrived on, is based on the same family of trains, the Siemens Valero.

Unlike the e320, which is 16 coaches long, the ICE 3 is a much more manageable eight coaches, with two first class coaches at the rear, followed by a single second class coach, a restaurant (bistro) coach, then four more second class coaches. I’d reserved a seat in coach 29, at the far end of the train, having opted for the quiet zone, a nifty little self-contained seating area immediately behind the driving cab. The rest of the coach has a fairly standard layout, with pairs of seats on the right and single seats on the left. Mostly these are in airline configuration, but there are table seats for four (right) and two (left) half way along.

The other first class coach has a very different layout, starting with a pair of toilets (for use by passengers in both first class coaches) followed by three enclosed compartments of the sort that I remember from UK train travel up until the 1990s. These were on the right as I went forward, with a corridor on the left. The first is slightly narrower than the others, with four seats, two either side of a central table, while the other two have the same layout, but, being slightly wider, each has six seats. The other half of the coach has the same configuration as the first, with pairs of seats on the right, single seats on the left and two tables seats (one four-person and one two-person) half way along.

The second class coach that follows has a similar layout, albeit reversed, with the conventional seating first, this time with pairs of seats on either side. Again, most are airline style, with two pairs of table seats. The second half of the coach has the same compartments, only these were on the left, with the corridor on the right, the main difference being that the narrow compartment has five seats instead of four. Overall, everything felt much more spacious than comparable British trains, where everyone and everything is crammed in that little bit more. Even the aisles down the centre of the second class coach felt that little but wider.

I made it as far as the restaurant (or bistro) coach, although from looking at on-line seat maps, the remaining four second class coaches mostly have standard configurations, with pairs of seats on either side, the occasion table set thrown in for good measure.

The bistro starts with a small seating area in a first class configuration, with two four-person tables (left) and two two-person tables (right) for those who want a sit-down meal with table service. This is followed by a standing area, with two tall, oval tables on each side. The space then narrows dramatically, a narrow corridor on the right running past the enclosed kitchen. At the far end you’ll find an open counter where you can order. There are two more tall, oval tables here, then it’s the end of the coach.

I’ll talk more about the dining options later in the post, but for now, that concludes my tour of the ICE 3. You can see what I made of my seat after the gallery.

  • I was seated at the back of the train, in the lounge area in first class, in coach 29.
  • There are just eight seats, three sets on two on the left and these two on the right.
  • The space where a ninth seat might go has been left free for luggage.
  • Each row of seats is slightly higher than the one in front, while right at the front, a glass...
  • ... wall separates us from the driving cab. The glass has variable transparency by the way.
  • I was in seat 96, one of the pair of seats in the back row, by the window.
  • My seat and its pair. There's space behind for more luggage.
  • My seat on its own. It was really comfortable.
  • I also had plenty of legroom (and room on the floor and under my seat for bags).
  • At seat power was under my seat and to one side.
  • It was easy enough to get to, even with an adaptor and a chunky power pack.
  • The only odd thing is the table, which folds down from the back of the seat in front.
  • So far, so good. It's nice and big, plus it's very stable. However, this photo is misleading...
  • ... since the seat in front is both offset slightly and not quite parallel.
  • As a result, if I wanted to use my laptop square on, I had to perch it on the corner...
  • ... of the table, which is where I'll leave you.
I was seated at the back of the train, in the lounge area in first class, in coach 29.1 There are just eight seats, three sets on two on the left and these two on the right.2 The space where a ninth seat might go has been left free for luggage.3 Each row of seats is slightly higher than the one in front, while right at the front, a glass...4 ... wall separates us from the driving cab. The glass has variable transparency by the way.5 I was in seat 96, one of the pair of seats in the back row, by the window.6 My seat and its pair. There's space behind for more luggage.7 My seat on its own. It was really comfortable.8 I also had plenty of legroom (and room on the floor and under my seat for bags).9 At seat power was under my seat and to one side.10 It was easy enough to get to, even with an adaptor and a chunky power pack.11 The only odd thing is the table, which folds down from the back of the seat in front.12 So far, so good. It's nice and big, plus it's very stable. However, this photo is misleading...13 ... since the seat in front is both offset slightly and not quite parallel.14 As a result, if I wanted to use my laptop square on, I had to perch it on the corner...15 ... of the table, which is where I'll leave you.16
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Since I knew what trains I would be taking on my journey to Berlin, I’d reserved seats for the two ICEs. Given that the train was quite busy, this proved to be a wise decision, at least for this leg of the journey. Not knowing much about the train, I’d opted for a seat in the quiet coach and, completely by chance, had ended up in the lounge area, the best part of the whole train.

There are two quiet coaches, the first and last of the train (ie the ones with the driving cabs), one of which is first class. While the whole coach is a quiet zone, each has a lounge area, a small, self-contained cabin between the doors and the driving cab. This is a world of its own, a sliding door separating it from the rest of the coach, while at the front, a glass wall separates it from the driving cab. This has variable transparency, which, depending on how it’s set, lets you look past the driver and through the front windscreen!

In all, there are just eight seats in first class lounge (the second class lounge has 10 seats), with three rows seats, each slightly higher than the one in front due to the slightly sloping roof, which gets lower towards the (driving cab) end. The first and second rows have a pair of seats on one side and a single seat on the other (looking towards the driving cab, the single seats are on the right, while in second class, these are replaced by a pair of seats). The final row just has the pair of seats on the left, the space on the right left free for luggage, which makes up for the lack of any overhead luggage racks. You can also put luggage behind the pair of seats in the last row, while there’s plenty of space on the floor around and under each seat for smaller bags.

I was booked into seat 96, which is in the back row by the window. If I had a completely free choice, I’d take seat 102, the single seat at the front, while avoiding 101 and 105. These are the window seats in the middle row, which are offset from the windows, resulting in a limited view. There’s free Wifi (which was patchy, but more reliable than the Eurostar Wifi) and at-seat power, with a single two-pin outlet under the seat on the right-hand side. It’s not the most accessible position, but I’ve had a lot worse. The seat itself was very comfortable and spacious and, unlike on many trains, each seat in the pair was completely independent of the other, only sharing a small table-like structure between the seats.

The strangest feature was the table, which folds down from the back of the seat in front. While large and stable enough for my laptop, the seats aren’t quite in line, so the one in front is slightly offset. To make things worse, the seats aren’t quite parallel either, so front of the table is at an angle of about 15°, which meant that I had to perch my laptop on the corner of the table to have it square on to me!

Other than this one quirk, I really loved the lounge seats, ending up sitting there on another two journeys on the trip. I settled in and, right on time, we set off for Frankfurt, via Köln.

You can see how the journey went after the gallery.

  • 12:25 and time to leave Brussels Midi. It's a big station, Brussels Midi. I know that I'm...
  • ... at the back of the train, but after a minute we still haven't cleared the platforms!
  • From Brussels Midi, the line runs through/under central Brussels.
  • Eight minutes later, we've reached our first stop, Brussels Nord.
  • That's my ICE by the way. You can't quite see my reflection in the window.
  • And we're off again. 10 minutes after leaving Brussels Midi, we leave Brussels Nord...
  • ... trundle slowly through the Brussels suburbs...
  • ... past various suburban stations...
  • ... and frieght yards.
  • It takes us 20 minutes before we're really out of the city and into the countryside...
  • ... where we start to pick up speed on our way to Liège. It's quite flat out here...
  • ... as we speed along HSL 2, the dedicated high speed line between Brussels and Liège.
  • Here comes our second stop, Liège.
  • The station was rebuilt as part of the construction of HSL 2...
  • ... resulting a rather pleasing, and very modern, station.
  • From Liège, the train uses regular lines...
  • ... before transfering to HSL 3, another dedicated high speed line. This cuts through...
  • ... the hills on the Belgian side of the German border, with a mix of tunnels and viaducts.
  • For some reason, I missed Aachen station completely. This is a view of Aachen just after...
  • ... we left the station. The train runs through the Aachen suburbs...
  • ... before hitting the open country and the hills to the east of Aachen.
  • Here it's a case of broad valleys with hills in the distance...
  • ... as once again we are on a dedicated high speed line.
  • Not that we are going particularly fast: 160 km/h is 100 mph for those who are interested.
  • 35 minutes after Aachen, we're on our final approach to Köln, which is where I'll leave you.
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The middle leg of my journey, one the ICE from Brussels to Köln, was both the shortest in terms of physical distance (around 225 km) and journey time (1 hour and 50 minutes). It was also had the slowest average speed, at around 120 km/h. In comparison, the Eurostar, which runs on high speed lines for its entire length, managed to cover 360 km in just over 2 hours, at an average of 175 km/h.

Part of the reason that the ICE 3 (which is capable of speeds of up to 320 km/h) takes so long is the number of stops (there are three between Brussels Midi and Köln). However, for much of the journey through Belgium, the route is a mix of dedicated high speed lines and upgraded conventional lines, often with maximum speeds well below 200 km/h. It’s particularly slow through the centre of Brussels, where it mostly runs under the city, before it stops at Brussels Nord to pick up more passengers. In all, it takes 10 minutes to cover the four kilometres between  the two stations.

If you don’t have a seat reservation and are looking for a free seat, the overhead indicators will let you know which stations a seat reserved from/to. However, it will only say “Brussels”, which could be Brussels Midi or Brussels Nord, so don’t assume that its occupant didn’t get on if a seat is empty once the train has left Brussels Midi.

In my case, the seat next to me was reserved from Brussels to Frankfurt (or “Frankfu” according to the character-limited LED display), but my seatmate only got on at Brussels Nord. Fortunately, the two seats in front were free until Aachen, so he sat there instead. As an added bonus, no-one got on at Aachen, so he didn’t move back, leaving me with two seats all to myself for the whole of the journey.

It took us 20 minutes to clear Brussels and its suburbs, swapping glorious blue skies for a misty afternoon as we made out way through the Belgian countryside. We picked up speed, travelling on HSL 2, a dedicated high speed line connecting Brussels with Liège, our second stop, where we arrived at 13:12. This is a very modern station, rebuilt as part of the construction of the high speed lines between Brussels and the German border.

The line is at its most interesting after leaving Liège, cutting through the hilly countryside via a series of tunnels and viaducts on its way to the German border on HSL 3. Shortly after crossing into Germany, the train reaches Aachen, where we arrived at 13:35. From there, it’s just another 70 km to Köln, which takes a surprisingly long 40 minutes, despite the train running on a dedicated high-speed line through the hills east of Aachen. There are some more interesting views through the hills before the line reaches the broad plains west of the Rhine.

Before we reach Köln and the end of this particular journey, I want to tell you about the ICE service, which includes lunch on the train, my first experience of ICE dining. You can see what I made of it after the gallery.

  • The onboard catering menu for Deutsche Bahn, the German national railways.
  • It's a very impressive offering, opening with a page of vegetarian options.
  • There's a page for breakfast (left) and hot drinks (right)...
  • ... with another page for lunch (left) and another for sweets and cakes (right).
  • Then there are snacks (left) and dinner (right), all with plenty of vegetarian/vegan options.
  • There's also a two-page spread for soft drinks, beer and wine.
  • I decided on something light for lunch: leek and potato soup, plus an espresso.
  • By the time I'd finished and paid (I ordered, ate and paid at my seat), I was approaching...
  • ... Köln, where I had to change trains for another ICE to Berlin.
  • I'll leave you with this view along my ICE 3, the roof of Köln station soaring overhead.
The onboard catering menu for Deutsche Bahn, the German national railways.1 It's a very impressive offering, opening with a page of vegetarian options.2 There's a page for breakfast (left) and hot drinks (right)...3 ... with another page for lunch (left) and another for sweets and cakes (right).4 Then there are snacks (left) and dinner (right), all with plenty of vegetarian/vegan options.5 There's also a two-page spread for soft drinks, beer and wine.6 I decided on something light for lunch: leek and potato soup, plus an espresso.7 By the time I'd finished and paid (I ordered, ate and paid at my seat), I was approaching...8 ... Köln, where I had to change trains for another ICE to Berlin.9 I'll leave you with this view along my ICE 3, the roof of Köln station soaring overhead.10
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Overall, I was impressed with the level of service on the ICE. There were frequent announcements, which were in French, Flemish, German and English, and there was a ticket inspection just before Liège. Meanwhile the level of mask wearing, which had been so disappointing on the Eurostar, was excellent, with everyone wearing masks throughout the journey.

My plan had always been to have lunch on the train, having heard a lot of positive things about the German railways bistro. There are certainly plenty of options when it comes to getting your food, including taking a seat in the bistro itself, where you can enjoy table service, although with just 12 seats, it’s a bit of a lottery. Alternatively, you can walk down to the bistro, order your food (which comes in disposable containers with wooden cutlery) and eat it standing at one of the oval tables, or bring it back to your seat. Finally, if you’re in first class, there’s the option of ordering online or from one of the stewards who comes the through the train.

I was unaware of the online option (you can also find the menu online), so instead waited for the steward, who arrived at 13:10, just before we reached Liège (and just after the ticket inspection). I was furnished with a printed menu, offering an impressive range of food, from breakfast, lunch and dinner through to various snacks, sweets and cakes. Even better (from my perspective) was the range of vegetarian and vegan options, offering a genuine choice in each section of the menu.  There’s also a wide selection of hot drinks, soft drinks, beer and wine. It certainly puts British train catering in the shade.

Since I was also planning on eating dinner on the train to Berlin, I went for a light lunch. When the steward came back to check on me, I ordered the leek and potato soup. My food arrived less than 10 minutes later, delivered to my seat in a ceramic bowl with real cutlery. It was very tasty and just what I needed. I’d also ordered an espresso, served in a proper cup, which, while not looking too promising, was actually rather good, if a little bitter for my tastes. However, I suspect that I’d have loved it 10 years ago! Either way, for train coffee, it was rather impressive.

The steward came around a little later to clear things away and to take payment (card or cash) which made a civilised end to a very pleasurable dining experience. By this time, we weren’t far from Köln and, before long, we were coming to a halt at under the soaring roof of this magnificent station, where I had to change trains for my ICE to Berlin.


This concludes Part III of this Travel Spot series about my journey to Berlin. You can read about the final leg of the journey, onboard an ICE from Köln to Berlin, in the next instalment.


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4 thoughts on “Brian’s Travel Spot: UK to Berlin by Train, Part III – ICE to Köln

  1. Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: UK to Berlin by Train, Part I – Planning | Brian's Coffee Spot

  2. Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: UK to Berlin by Train, Part II – Eurostar to Brussels | Brian's Coffee Spot

  3. Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: UK to Berlin by Train, Part IV – ICE to Berlin | Brian's Coffee Spot

  4. Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: Berlin to Köln by ICE | Brian's Coffee Spot

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