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:
- Changing Trains at Brussels Midi
- First Time on an ICE 3
- First Class Lounge Seating
- From Brussels to Köln
- Lunch on the Train
You can see how I got on changing trains at Brussels Midi after the gallery.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Don’t forget that you can share this post with your friends using buttons below, while if you have a WordPress account, you can use the “Like this” button to let me know if you liked the post.
Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: UK to Berlin by Train, Part I – Planning | Brian's Coffee Spot
Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: UK to Berlin by Train, Part II – Eurostar to Brussels | Brian's Coffee Spot
Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: UK to Berlin by Train, Part IV – ICE to Berlin | Brian's Coffee Spot
Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: Berlin to Köln by ICE | Brian's Coffee Spot
Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: Köln to Mainz by Train along the Rhine | Brian's Coffee Spot
Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: Köln to Flint in a Day by Train | Brian's Coffee Spot