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What is the difference between der Zug and die Bahn (besides the gender of course)? When should one be used and not the other?

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    I think technically as user1583209 says the Bahn is the rails or the track and Zug is the machine that is moving stuff around on the track. But maybe in everyday-talk that distinction is not made but the different bahns are rather a distinction if they tracks go under ground if they go in or close to cities or between cities et. cetera.. – mathreadler Dec 12 '16 at 21:53
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    Both words are really broad in their meaning and might be interchanged quite easily but also have their distinct meaning where it can not interchanged. I really like the simple translation answer below: train::Zug, railway::Bahn. It is quite similar in English. Zug is a bit broader probably: e.g. it is used for platoon in German. – Thomas Dec 12 '16 at 22:35
  • The existing answers are definitely incomplete and/or not generalized enough. Or could someone please elaborate on how they explain the differences between D-Zug and S-Bahn, Autozug and Autobahn, Flaschenzug and Papierbahn? – Alexander Dec 13 '16 at 21:13
  • @Alexander: Both Bahn and Zug can be used in many contexts. In transport the main difference is that Bahn provides the "track" or infrastructure that keeps the vehicle on a prescribed path and Zug is the vehicle that uses that track. Papierbahn is a different context. Here "Bahn" just implies that it is a straight long piece - usually on a roll. – Volker Dec 14 '16 at 13:18
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There are plenty of situations where Bahn and Zug can be used interchangeably:

  • Both words can denote a concrete track-based vehicle ("Meine Bahn kommt."/"Mein Zug kommt.").
  • Both words can denote the concept of a train ("Ich fahre mit der Bahn nach München."/"Ich fahre mit dem Zug nach München.").

When they are not interchangeable, though, or when both words are used together, Bahn leans towards describing the infrastructure or network, whereas Zug rather denotes the concrete vehicle, which is either track-based or composed of several connected vehicles:

  • Railway companies or systems will usually call themselves ...bahn, hardly ever ...zug.
  • Railway companies will call their vehicles exclusively Zug, especially when it gets more technical/internal ("Zugschluss", "Zugnummer", ...), but also when talking about the vehicles towards customers ("Zugdurchfahrt", "Zug fällt aus.", "Zug wird abgestellt.", "Zug wird in ... geteilt.", ...).
  • Even some vehicles (or other moving things) that do not run on a track are sometimes called Zug. For instance, this can be the case for large trucks with heavy trailers ("Sattelzug"), but also for parades that move through a town ("Faschingszug").
  • The word Bahn is also used for some non-track-based systems, such as aerial cable cars ("Gondelbahn").

Lastly, note that using either word (in particular Zug) to describe a concrete vehicle is reserved to track-based means of transportation. While aerial lifts are called Bahn such as "Gondelbahn", the vehicles/transport cabins are never called Zug or Bahn.

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    It may be regional language use difference but I would not say: Meine Bahn kommt. It sounds off. As to Gondelbahn: it is a track based vehicle, just that the track is above the vehicle. See also Schwebe-Bahn in Wuppertal. – Volker Dec 12 '16 at 17:15
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    @Volker: Yes, preference for Zug/Bahn is quite certainly regional. Here in the South-West, "Meine Bahn kommt." and "Ich steige in die Bahn." sound a lot more natural than " Mein Zug kommt." or "Ich steige in den Zug.", while my contacts from Northern Germany seem to prefer the version with "Zug" in these cases. – O. R. Mapper Dec 12 '16 at 17:36
  • "concrete track-based vehicle" I take it you mean "concrete" as in "non-hypothetical/metaphorical/imaginary" rather than "a substance composed of rock, sand and cement". -- I had a momentary confusion as to if Germany had a significant number of concrete track vehicles compared to the normal steel track ones. – R.M. Dec 12 '16 at 17:51
  • @R.M.: Haha, yes. "concrete, track-based", not "concrete-track - based". The only thing often made of concrete in German railroad tracks are the sleeper plates. – O. R. Mapper Dec 12 '16 at 17:59
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    Also "die Bahn" is sometimes used as synonym for the company "Deutsche Bahn". – QBrute Dec 13 '16 at 9:21
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Bahn (which means something like "track") in general is anything that runs on rails or is otherwise bound to a track. For instance Straßenbahn, U-Bahn, S-Bahn, Seilbahn, Magnetschwebebahn, Eisenbahn These words are used when talking about the type of transport in general, e.g.: "die Berliner S-Bahn...", "Ich nehme die S-Bahn und nicht das Auto"... Also, as a general term it can be used to refer to the railway network (Bahn=railway) and also to "Deutsche Bahn", the german railway company.

Zug (from ziehen, to pull) refers to the train (locomotive plus coaches/wagons). Typically long distance trains are called Zug, while local trains are called S-Bahn, Regionalbahn, Stadtbahn, or similar. However Zug can also be used in the context of S-Bahn, U-Bahn, when referring to a specific train or to technical terms, e.g. "Zugnummer", "der Zug fährt ab", "die Züge der Berliner S-Bahn"

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    I think this is incorrect. After all, when denoting a specific set of connected cars, it is definitely usual to speak of an "S-Bahn-Zug" or a "Stadtbahn-Zug". At least, a "Regionalbahn" is just as much a "Zug" as a long distance train ("Fernbahn"). – O. R. Mapper Dec 12 '16 at 16:15
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    Well, although somewhat obscure, S-Bahnen run by DB have a Zugnummer, and a lot less obscure (actually, quite visible), plenty of S-Bahn systems have very visible labels saying things like Vollzug and Kurzzug in their S-Bahn stations. Likewise, the electronic entertainment screens usually say "Zug fährt ein" or something similar when an S-Bahn arrives. Add to that typical S-Bahn messages such as "Dieser Zug entfällt heute." or "Zug wird abgestellt." – O. R. Mapper Dec 12 '16 at 16:33
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    You might also want to add that "Bahn" also implies some sort of connection between two or more locations. It's this sense of connection that is used when talking about "die Bahn nehmen", as you normally don't care which specific train is used to get you to your destination. This difference gets shown quite well in a sentence like "Der Zug wurde gestrichen" (the train was cancelled, most likely this time only) or "Die Bahn wurde gestrichen" (the connection was cancelled, so no more trains are planned for this connection). (I'm using "gestrichen" in the meaning of "crossed out", not "painted") – hoffmale Dec 12 '16 at 18:38
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    @userunknown : I specified that I meant "track-bound" here. – user1583209 Dec 12 '16 at 20:36
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    It might be useful for a speaker of English to think about "I got on the subway" "I took the light rail into town" "I traveled by rail" "I traveled by train". If you're talking about goods transported by X, like say as a fraction of GDP, they would probably say rail. But if I said "half of fuel transportation is done by train" you would still understand. "Subway" is almost always used for both the system and the vehicle, but signs in the subway will refer to "this train stops at" or "5-car red line train coming in 10 minutes", etc. All I'm saying is that the ambiguity kind of "translates". – msouth Dec 12 '16 at 21:45
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Bahn is simply "Railway" and Zug is simply "Train".

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    "Bahn" has certainly more meanings than that – user1583209 Dec 13 '16 at 10:00
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user1583209's answer is correct as to the concept of Bahn and Zug.

"Bahn" is more general and denotes the mode transport (using some sort of rail device) and also the company running the railway network. "Zug" is the physical object . My answer relates to the second question of usage:

Ich benutze die Bahn um zur Arbeit zu fahren. I commute by train. ("Bahn" by itself clearly implies the main railway network, not S-Bahn or U-Bahn or Seilbahn etc. Eisenbahn is a bit old fashioned but means the same thing as Bahn.)

Die Bahn hat ihre Preise um 6% erhöht. [this is the company]

Der Zug ist entgleist. The train is derailed. Ich steige in den Zug. I get on the train. [this is the actual train with locomotive and carriages attached. Trains carrying goods are called Güterzug.

And in reply to the comments to above answer: an "S-Bahn Zug" is the actual object, the city-rail-train that you step into but in common usage the word Zug is often omitted in this context. It is perfectly fine to say: Ich steige in die S-Bahn - as well as :Ich steige in die U-Bahn.

However to say: "Ich steige in die Bahn" sounds slightly odd to me. People will understand what you mean but "Zug" is definitely better in this context.

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    Zu rail device: Was ist mit Eisbahnen? Zu Zug als physisches Objekt: Der Zug der Zugvögel. "Ich benutze den Zug um zur Arbeit zu fahren" geht genauso wie "die Bahn". "Ich steige in die Bahn" ist in Berlin vollkommen normal. – user unknown Dec 12 '16 at 20:08
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    Sorry, but you can not limit "Bahn" to the main railway, it is not clear as this. – Thomas Dec 12 '16 at 22:27
  • @Thomas: Yes, I will clarify: "Ich benutze die Bahn um zur Arbeit zu fahren" strongly implies that you use the main rail network because the word "Bahn" is also generally used for the company. If you used the S-Bahn or the U-Bahn and wanted to convey that you would have to be specific. – Volker Dec 14 '16 at 13:02
  • To: @user unknown: Yes, Bahn can be used for any form of transport which uses a device or technology to keep the vehicle on a fixed path - unable to be freely steered into any direction by a driver. Eis-bahn qualifies, but that digresses from Lucas's question - as does other possible meanings in different contexts of the word "Zug." – Volker Dec 14 '16 at 13:28

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