By Bruce Woelfel

This is an especially comfortable and stress-free way to cover the distance between these cities, with much of the trip made up of velvety-smooth high-speed track.

The ICEs (for Intercity Express) are roomy and comfortably-appointed smooth riding trains, more luxurious than French, Spanish, Swedish or Italian designs. Any ICE journey will be a treat for a first-time rider.

Passengers stretch out on comfortable large reclining seats either corridor-style or in roomy five-passenger compartments. The sleek coaches are well appointed, with closets, plenty of luggage space, videos, individual headphones, and most important of all, a smooth ride.

These are the only fast trains in Europe which carry separate dining cars. (The other new designs offer airline type service at your seat.) In addition to the diner, there is a self-service "bistro," which sells snacks and beverages. Coffee in a big mug at your seat or in the bistro is 5 DM.

Rising too early for complimentary breakfast at our Zürich hotel, we had coffee and rolls in the Zürich station and boarded. We passed up breakfast in the attractive dining car and settled back, alone in a glassed-in compartment for five.

An hour later, after a stop in Basel we were in Germany, cruising along at about 100 m.p.h. By 9:40 a.m. we had moved onto the high-speed track and our speed rose to 155. By this time the train had filled with German business people and we were glad we had reserved seats.

The scenery was pleasant, though not spectacular, alternating between tunnels and bright sunshine. We passed through graceful, grassy rolling hills, with brief glimpses of rivers and towns. By the time we stopped in Kassel at 12:15 it was time to eat.

Lunch in the white-linen restaurant was a highlight. We ate tortellini stuffed with spinach with a tangy Gorgonzola sauce and a juicy veal steak with herb butter, mushrooms and thinly-sliced, crisp fried potatoes with a lettuce and tomato garnish. With a 1/3 liter of German red wine and coffee, the bill for two came to 50.30 DM ($35), including tip.

The ICE described here leaves Zürich to Hamburg by ICE (February 1996) daily at 6:45 a.m. and arrives at 2:21 p.m. in Hamburg. The train was available for boarding at 6:20. It is best to reserve a day or so beforehand to be sure of a seat (3.50 DM). If you hop aboard at the last minute, look for an unreserved seat (no card in the slot above the seat). There was a smoking car at each end of the first and second class portions. One-way fares Zürich-Hamburg are $322 first class and $215 second class. For the roundtrip fare double those numbers.

Three ICEs run each day from Frankfurt to Basel and two connect directly to Zürich. High speed service is also available to Stuttgart, Mannheim and Hamburg, about three trains each way per day.