Deutsche Bahn IC train leaving Cologne Hauptbahnhof (photo © hidden europe).
When British Railways introduced the Inter-City brand in 1966, no-one could possibly have anticipated how the idea would be emulated and adapted by railway administrations across Europe. The name actually predates 1966. Our 1961 Bradshaw shows in Table W152 that a fast morning express from London Paddington to Wolverhampton was called The Inter-City. That 9 am departure dashed to Wolverhampton in 2hrs 40mins. But here the name was applied to just a single train — not to a wider family of services. That broader usage appeared in 1966 in Britain, when Inter-City edged its way into everyday language — nudged along by TV advertising campaigns to promote the new brand. It came with a distinctive blue and white livery that was soon being seen on trains at main-line stations across Britain.
The notion of grouping premium trains together and promoting them as a coherent brand seems nowadays so incredibly obvious. Within a few years of its UK debut, Inter-City was a name that was popping up on trains across the continent (sometimes abbreviated just to IC and in time increasingly being rendered as the hyphen-less portmanteau InterCity).
West Germany followed the British lead and introduced the IC brand in 1968, reserving it for regular-interval, first-class-only services between principal cities.
Brands work because they are predictably consistent. But when it comes to Inter-City, the scene across Europe today is neither predictable nor consistent. It is mightily confusing. In Britain, the brand has been dropped completely. Looking across Europe, it is only in Switzerland and Ukraine that the prefix IC is still reserved for the top-tier of domestic daytime fast trains.
In Switzerland, IC trains are composed of smart, modern rolling stock, some of it double-deck, and many of these services have a full-service restaurant car. All Swiss IC trains have first and second-class accommodation. These are hop-on-and-ride services — no reservations are necessary.
Move to Ukraine and IC really counts for something. The name is reserved for the fastest daytime trains between the country’s half dozen largest cities. Ukraine has just ten electric trains that run under the IC brand. The first of these nine-car trains went into service in time for the Euro 2012 football championships. They are chic and comfortable and, in a country where most trains are dreadfully slow, these Korean-built trains cut a fast dash across the Ukrainian landscape.
Train classifications are remarkably variable from one country to another. And that applies particularly to the IC brand. Over decades, the value of the brand has been progressively eroded as many countries have introduced new premium brands that are very much better than IC.
Thus in France InterCités trains are markedly slower and less well appointed than the sleek modern TGVs that criss-cross the country. But InterCités is nonetheless a distinctive brand in France — one which strikes a slightly retro note. French rail operator SNCF qualifies InterCités with the tagline “les trains classiques SNCF.” Since early 2012, SNCF has more assertively promoted InterCités, even taking other product lines such as Téoz, Corail and Lunéa and assimilating them into the InterCités brand. All French InterCités trains are comfortable and all but a small minority of daytime InterCités offer first and second-class accommodation. But expect variety. Some InterCités trains in France are just regional TER trains rebranded for InterCités use.
In Germany, an IC train is conspicuously inferior to the ICE (with lower fares to match). Ukrainians surely smile at German ICs that run to destinations that are not remotely city-like. German ICs even serve remote branch lines to terminate at rural outposts like Dagebüll Mole (on Germany's North Sea coast) or Oberstdorf (in the Alps). In Ukraine, you know that an IC train will be very new and very reliable. In Germany, IC is a very variable beast. You’ll run across ICs with an impressive rake of 14 carriages which include a full-service restaurant car. Yet other ICs in Germany might be just six carriages long with no on-board catering at all. One of the nicest IC services in Germany is the daily IC 2071 from Hamburg Altona to Dresden Hauptbahnhof. This particular train happens to be run by Czech rail operator Ceské Dráhy (CD). Ironically, CD don’t actually run any IC services in the Czech Republic — so this shows that how complicated the whole question of IC branding has become.
In Sweden, IC plays second fiddle to Snabtåg, while in Italy, an IC service is a very humble long-distance train, with none of the flair of the much faster Frecciarossa. The latter speed nonstop from Rome to Milan in less than three hours. The fastest IC takes more than twice as long.
The best ICs in Belgium are extremely comfortable trains — the hourly IC services that run right across the country from Oostende to Eupen are in this category. Shift to lesser routes and you may find your Belgian IC train is an ancient multiple unit, no better perhaps than what you might expect on local suburban services in and around London.
The IC brand pops up in many other European countries. In Finland, it is a consistently high-quality product that always has two classes of accommodation (called Extra and Eco). But it is not the fastest category of train. For speed, look to the Pendolino services (shown by the prefix S in many timetables).
Cut to Croatia and the IC is a very different creature. The afternoon train from Zagreb to Cakovec (IC 570) is the only train of the day on that route to enjoy the IC brand. It is a second-class only train with no on-board refreshments. Seat reservations are compulsory.
Austria has tried to customise the generic IC brand for national use. One tier of Austrian domestic services are marked as ÖIC trains (that ‘Ö’ stands for ‘Österreich’). If you chance on a train in Austria with merely the IC prefix, then it has certainly escaped from Germany.
So there is no simple answer to the question “what is an IC train?” It could be a top-of-the-range express. It could be a local train with pretensions.
In Germany, Deutsche Bahn has recently launched IC bus services. In 1987 the West German Bundesbahn started a chain of hotels under the InterCityHotel brand. Today, there are some three dozen hotels in the group. The Deutsche Bahn (as successor to the Bundesbahn) still holds a share in the group, which is nowadays partly owned by the Steigenberger group.