European travel by train, post-Covid

Köln Dom

Since leaving planes behind pre-Covid, I have been travelling by train regularly between London and Munich. It can be a very stressful journey because connections are invariably missed. Deutsche Bahn is not having a good time at the moment. For example, whilst writing this, I am writing this on a train that has picked up a technical fault and goes no further than Köln (it should be going to Brussels).

I cannot remember the last time that I had a trouble-free journey. There is always a problem. Here are the most common:

  • technical fault on train (the train does not arrive, or it does and gets cancelled on the spot)
  • detour to avoid damaged overhead lines and failed points
  • failed AirCon (whole coaches closed)
  • bad weather (which now increasingly means hot weather)

So, going out from the south coast of England a couple of weeks ago (midweek), my first leg was delayed (Hastings to Ashford, 0615). I took a slower train to London (0620), changing at London Bridge. I reached the Eurostar terminal (St Pancras Int) with 5 minutes to spare (before the check-in closed at 0830). Important here is just to go to the front of the queue and ask to get straight to the gates and through security.

I usually give myself a lot of connecting time in Brussels (careful of thieves, they are active and I have had a bag stolen, use the cafes). Eurostar arrives in Brussels at around five-past the hour. Deutsche Bahn ICE usually leaves at 25 past the hour. It is according to The Man in Seat61 a recognised change. But 20 minutes is not long. I usually allow more for the next train (in my case 1425, Brussels – Frankfurt). Often this train is cancelled or starts at Liège. If the latter, there are plenty of trains to Liège. Take one. But if the former, travellers need to get to Aachen. This is not possible from Liège. If readers end up there, then the place to go is Welkenraedt. From there, it is possible to get across the border on a small local train to Aachen, and from Aachen to Köln and from there options are available to go south, east or north in Germany and beyond.

Where delays are involved, DB conductors do not care whether passengers are on their booked train or not. So, It is not necessary to ask in the Reisezentrum to validate a ticket (I used to do this), for general travel. Just get on. I do not print out my tickets these days. They are stored on the DB app, DB Navigator (right). The app records the journey and sends updates. Take screen grabs where cancellations occur (DB does take them from your app shortly after the cancellation notification, so it is good practice – readers may want to claim back money, too).

On the way back, I was booked on 0746 InterCity train Munich to Frankfurt (left). The app had warned me early of a 10-minute delay; the train was 40 minutes late leaving Munich after experiencing engineering works between Salzburg and Munich (though the app reported a technical fault on the train as the cause). I had given myself a 45 minute change time. The app allows users to specify how many minutes are preferred for changing – I set mine to at least 30 minutes, but increasingly that is not enough. On this first leg of my journey the app kept saying that the connection would be met in Frankfurt. And then not. And then once again possible (erreichbar). In the end it was 4 minutes. A bit of a run from platform 11 to 18 (the station is a dead end, so there are no stairs). It was all rather in vain. The ICE to Brussels developed a fault at Köln and went no further. I waited for the next scheduled train two hours’ later (having given myself this extra time in Brussels to accommodate such a failure). I squeezed on, only for the train to develop a fault at Aachen. So then it was back to Welkenraedt, this time with two ICE trainloads to be accommodated on a two coach electric train! The Belgian rail staff keep their distance. Not everyone got on. From Welkenraedt there is a direct train to Brussels Midi (Oostende service).

Now I did not think that I was going to be confronted by two failed ICEs in one day. At Köln I could have taken a regional service to Aachen, and from there to Welkenraedt. That would have given me time to get to Brussels. Though I held back because the immediate next Aachen train was itself cancelled. I chose to wait for the ICE. I should have thought that something might have gone wrong as my way out was plagued by two failed trains. But I edged my way forward. But Eurostar is a bottleneck. There is only one tunnel (and not enough trains).

To finish the story I arrived Brussels at 1900 (missing the Eurostar comfortably). On the train I used Booking.com to find a hotel in the vicinity of the station. The only meaningful option was Park Inn. Pretty standard. Been before. I also booked a Eurostar ticket for 0852 on Sunday morning. €200 – about double what I paid for the original ticket. Ultimately I was lucky to get a ticket as I had no seat options other than that allocated.

Advice –

  • keep a mobile phone charged/charging (use the power on DB trains – though do not forget an adapter)
  • ensure that you have roaming
  • always go forward – though decisions are tight. I am disappointed that I did not go for the Aachen-Welkenraedt option in the first instance. I would have made the Eurostar
  • always assume something will go wrong – ensure you have room on credit cards for unexpected payments (I heard some people on the train trying to book a hotel with insufficient credit).
  • I appreciate that is a bit of a privilege, but a bunk bed in a hostel in mid-summer in Brussels will cost €100. Sleeping in the station really is not recommended
  • always carry food and water.

I’ll work out how to claim back money for failed services and post again.

I’ve also got something to say about Germany’s €9 ticket. Great idea but comes with some systemic failures.

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