I almost feel sorry for all the harsh words I’ve written about both Deutsche Bahn and Virgin Trains in the past – almost, but not quite. They managed on this occasion to contribute to a more or less trouble-free journey from Edinburgh to Berlin and back via Aachen and Cologne. That doesn’t really eradicate all their past mistakes from my memory, and I will always have a contingency plan in the back of my mind in case things go horribly wrong in future. Of course in some ways the success of travel plans depends on luck in any case. We were lucky on this occasion that we didn’t plan on travelling a few days later than we did, when Eurostar travel was seriously disrupted by strikes.
I’ve lost count of the different forms of transport we used during this latest trip. Trains, of course. The U-bahn and S-bahn in Berlin – is it just me, or is the S-bahn spookily like the El in Chicago? And in fact, isn’t Berlin quite a bit like Chicago in some ways? Trams. Taxis. But the weirdest one of all was probably the Schoko-Express, or Bimmelbahn, in Cologne.
We took this little train – that looks so innocent and friendly, and is actually as scary as some of the fairground rides I’ve been on, because it runs along ordinary streets, in the middle of the Cologne traffic, and on occasion has to get out of the way rather too quickly when four fire-engines come up behind it, as happened when we were on our way back from the Chocolate Museum. Once we had done that, the idea of travelling back from London to Edinburgh with Virgin Trains definitely lost some of its capacity to scare us.
12th June: OK – if I’ve ever complained about the UK railways, I apologise wholeheartedly. Not to Virgin Trains, obviously, as none of the other European companies has so far abandoned me on the platform at Carstairs with a shouted instruction to ‘get on the next train that comes along’ although on my DB trip last Saturday they came close, only it was at Copenhagen not Carstairs.
I write this part of the post on a DB train that was supposed to take me to Cologne in a first class sleeping compartment, but not only did my coach not appear with the rest of the train in Copenhagen, apparently because of the after-effects of bad storms in the north of Germany, but the train isn’t going to Cologne at all. I’ve managed to find a couchette somewhere + the conductor has ‘promised’ to throw me out on the platform at Dortmund at five o’clock in the morning, from where I am desperately hoping they might still get me to Brussels in time to catch my Eurostar connection. As they will only have about 7 hours to do that, in the morning, I don’t think I’ll be holding my breath.
And by the way, I won’t be able to post this for a while because there’s no WiFi on the train and all my gadgets are running out of power as there are no power points. Also I have had to ingest another of DB’s nasty cheese, mayonnaise and gherkin sandwiches and will probably be unable to sleep. I know from past experience it’s almost impossible to sleep in a couchette anyway.
In the morning – 13th June.
So far, so good. I lulled myself to sleep after a while by devising a contest to find the worst train operator in Europe, but I couldn’t make up my mind if the honour would go to Virgin Trains or Deutsche Bahn. Will have to think that through later.
I think I may be on my way to Cologne now, although of course it’s hard to tell.
A little later – yes, this seems to be Cologne. Cathedral just outside the station, check. Starbucks on the square, check. Lack of functional public WiFi, check. I still quite like Cologne, and at least I seem to be here in plenty of time for my connection to Brussels. You may detect a note of uncertainty in my tone. That’s because almost every train on the departures board here is showing delays or reduced numbers of coaches.
A little later again… waiting for Eurostar at Brussels Midi. The thalys train got us here from Cologne very smoothly. I’ve checked in before almost everyone else so came through passport + customs in no time. I just couldn’t face the stress of hanging around in yet another station wondering if I was in the right place or not. At least with Eurostar it’s all so formal that you can’t really go wrong – but I might yet find a way. Just eaten a great piece of quiche in one of the station cafes – no weird cheese and gherkin sandwiches here.
An hour or two later: in the tunnel.
Another hour or so later that same day: back to the splendour of East Coast first class travel.
There may be more railway pics later once I collate the results from all my devices.
7th June: I decided to keep on writing posts although it has been impossible since I left the UK to find WiFi that works, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to get them online.
I got up so early that there’s a lovely sunrise going on as we leave Cologne and head for Hamburg by what seems a circuitous route but may not be, my knowledge of geography being on the sparse side. There are more people about than is usual in Edinburgh at this time of day.
I don’t want to sound as if I am in the pay of East Coast trains, but having just breakfasted on a rather odd cheese sandwich with mayonnaise and gherkins, washed down with warm Coke, both of which I had to talk the lady in charge of the on board bistro into selling me after she had insisted she had no food or drink, I am not sure why we seem to have the idea that our trains are worse than anyone else’s. The seats on this IC train are uncomfortable too and the lights in my compartment aren’t working.
Just changed on to an ICE train in Hamburg with 10 mins to spare. So far, so good, but I haven’t found out about the coffee situation yet.
Ah – just received a coffee voucher so there must be coffee on this train somewhere. I’m waiting until after Puttgarden to go and look for it – that’s where the whole train drives on board a ferry.
A bit later… that was exciting! It’s hard to believe the whole train just goes inside the ferry – but it definitely does. It has its own part of the lower deck, with buses etc alongside. All the passengers get off and go upstairs, where there are duty free shops, restaurants and other shops. The crossing takes 45 mins and I was slightly miffed only to have found somewhere to buy chips as we were nearly there.
DB have now redeemed themselves with coffee in real mugs.
Ok – now they’ve counterbalanced the coffee by getting us stranded in a place called Nykobing on the flimsy pretext that the train has broken down. This is very annoying as it means I will probably miss my train to Stockholm and my ferry to Finland tomorrow. I am trying hard not to panic. When will there be WiFi again? Will I get to the conference in time to present my very important paper? Aaaaaah!
It isn’t as bad as missing a train, of course, but waiting for a train can be a little trying, especially when the station is extremely busy – as St Pancras is today. Still, I can sit and admire the architecture for a while. There are lovely Victorian tiles on the upper floor and of course the lovely roof which I will try and photograph later.
Just heard the first train announcement in French, which makes me realise I am well on the way.
Something I hadn’t noticed before is that it’s hard to see where the Eurostar info is – but I think the last time I used it there were three of us travelling together, which was a good plan – one to mind the luggage, one to forage for food and one to wander about until they found the departures board.
A bit later + still no WiFi….
Well, they seem to be letting me leave the country anyway – probably too intimidated by my passport photo to stop me!
A bit later… Help! I’m in Belgium.
Bruxelles station, waiting for Thalys train to Cologne. After rushing like mad to get to the right platform, I had to wait for the train. Still no working WiFi. Stopped at Liege and Aachen. Very warm and sunny. Playing Beethoven on Kindle and have beaten the computer 3 times at a word game. My hobnob flashback has melted in the heat… would that make a good password for spies? Or have I been travelling for too long?