Summer 2022: the €9 ticket holiday – 1

Travel

There is a certain normality currently as I sit on ICE928 heading to Frankfurt and then Brussels. What is not normal is that the trains are running to time and my Eurostar connection is within reach. This is not normal!

Me waiting at Frankfurt (Oder)

Nor is a holiday facilitated by train journeys courtesy of the €9 ticket. This ticket has been available since June 2022 and allows unlimited travel on regional services, buses, U-Bahn and trams. It is wonderful and has taken us from one end of the country to the other. The DB Navigator app is the essential companion. The downside is that sometimes the demand generated by the €9 ticket has not been met by DB or the private rail operators. It has been difficult to board trains, let alone get a seat. But on the whole, trains have been on time and reliable. And people have been polite. On the whole.

So, we wanted to go to the Baltic coast. We also wanted to go into Poland to visit a place in Eastern Poland called Elbląg – the birthplace of my beloved’s mother and trace the movement of the whole family seeking to avoid a confrontation with the Red Army as it pushed back the Nazis and established what we now refer to as the “Eastern Bloc”.

We made it to Berlin on one day and then visited the Reisezentrum in Berlin Hauptbahnhof to book tickets to Elbląg. There were two substantive problems. First, demand for trains in Poland is high. It’s the summer and “walk-on” is not always possible. Second, as others have noted, booking trains – or even just getting tickets for cross-border services – is thwarted by insufficiently integrated IT systems. Or just insufficient systems. Buying tickets online or through an app is not easy. We did not try it. We used the Deutshe Bahn Navigator to provide times, as well as Koleo. Since looking more deeply into this, I have found another online option, Polish Trains, though I have no way of validating this site. (as buying tickets online or through an app in Poland is not easy).

Oder – the border between Germany and Poland

We delayed our journey by a day and bought tickets as far as Zbasznek via Frankfurt an der Oder and Rzepin. We thought that buying a ticket at Rzepin should be straightforward, but there is always something about border towns. The stations are often either not open or simply building sites. The towns themselves may be a good walk away. It was difficult to find a café, or a bank as we needed some cash (Poland is not in the Eurozone). We did find a bank and the bank machines dispensed cash, though in unwieldy-denominated notes. Most shops do have card payments, but I dare not look at how much it costs per transaction.

Ticket machine at Rzepin – not in the most obvious spot

We managed to buy a ticket using the machine (right) to Poznan. We stayed overnight and carried on the following day, but not without a 90-minute wait in the queue at the station ticket office. In the end we took regional trains from Posnan to Elbląg (via Bydgoszcz, Tczew and Malbork). For the return journey we did book ahead and got a seat on the direct InterCity service Elbląg to Szczecin. Another overnight stay and another ticket purchase problem. I asked the conductor on a Germany-bound train whether we could buy tickets on board (as there was another long queue at the ticket office and the two auto ticket machines were out of order). She basically said no, but as we discovered the following day, it is possible, but at a greatly inflated price. It was about €20 to get to Pasewalk (below left) – advanced purchased more like €2. By the morning the ticket machines were again functioning, but unable to sell tickets across the border. Though you have to go through the motions to discover this. The touch screens assume you have a paw rather than a finger, so it is easy to mess up and have to start again.

The semi-derelict station at Pasewalk – fantastic font though

I am learning something about border crossings. We crossed the German/Polish borders at two different locations (hin und zurück). Both services were operated by Deutsche Bahn – both were diesel traction and made up of two coaches. It is very similar to what I experienced in recent times crossing the border between Germany and Belgium. Welkenraedt, for example, is not an obvious place to cross from Aachen (Liège, surely?). But the border history of European countries cannot be ignored. They are located where checks could be made, identities validated.

Polish railways are quirky like in most countries. This is partly due to the EU which requires a split between infrastructure and operation, and partly to facilitate operational efficiencies – essentially separating longer-distance Inter City services from regional services and freight. To that end, in Poland the Inter City services are run by PKP (Polskie Koleje Państwowe) centrally and the regional services, (Przewozy Regionalne) are just that, regional and managed so. Additionally the Gdansk areas has its own brand, (SKM). There is no inter-operability between PolRegio and Inter City. Over many routes they compete with one another. Though those aforementioned auto ticket machines can dispense both.

InterCity train services, Poland

The Inter City services are fantastic. They run using refurbished rolling stock manufactured in the 1980s (the plates in each corridor specify exactly when they were built. The locomotives seem to be of more recent vintage. They are not high speed. They have many timing points. But they do seem to be reliable. Many have European power sockets, but no wifi. That is for East to West. North to South has some impressive new Pendolino trains but seemingly they run fast not so often as, again, the infrastructure cannot support it. That said, I saw lots of evidence of infrastructure renewal using equipment from Alstom and Bombardier.

The units used for regional services seem to be more modern, with a few exceptions – Malbork to Elbląg being a case in point.

The PKP (right) logo is interesting. It has a period design and the obligatory arrows associated with mobility – and railway mobility in particular.

Naturally, the younger company, PolRegio has a much more modern appearance and a bit more of primary colour. The livery of the trains reflects this, too. Though exactly what it is supposed to say, I’ve no idea. PolRegio seems to be enough. But what do I know about design?

Elblag tram
Elbląg tram

Most of the cities that we have visited have street trams. Elbląg, not a huge place, has a complex network of trams. Some of them are dated – rustbuckets, even (left). They run – in certain parts of the city over beautifully grassed avenues. They are a delight (we did not ride the trams, but they sat with me as characterful as the art – see blog entry 2).

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