Travel Review: European rail systems

With the bulk of my travels behind me I’ve decided that I’m going to try and do a series of reviews of things you experience in every country you go too (trains, planes, major tourist destinations), but I’ll start with this and just hope I get further.  Anyhow, train systems!  I’ve done a lot travelling on trains, which is fine by me, because I love a good train journey, but when you cover hundreds of kilometers by train in nine countries you get a good sense of what makes a train system good and bad.  So here it goes, a thorough review of every train system I’ve encountered in Europe!

Deutsche Bahn (DB)

112233456I’m best acquainted with Deutsche Bahn, the national rail system serving Germany, which is pretty good, but for how good the system is overall there are some flaws.   Let’s start with the good though: if you’re in Germany, you can get to just about any town or village using DB and there is no major city that isn’t well connected by rail.  The network is dense, reaching every corner of the country, has high frequencies of service, and runs on time.  The trains are modern, clean, efficient and well equipped with at least bathrooms on all trains and entire dinning cars on the ICE high-speed trains.  The ICE are also very well designed: they’re actually almost elegant and just have a sleekness and classiness that goes a long way to improve the passenger experience.

Now, like all things in life DB is still not perfect. The biggest problem with DB is speed.  Yes, the ICE is a system of high-speed trains, but their running speeds are significantly lower than those of peers in Europe and Asia.  Barely any of the system has normal running speeds of greater than 250 km/hr and even less at speeds greater than 270 km/hr. Combine that with a high stop frequency and trips can slow considerably.  A trip from Freiburg to Berlin lasts about 6.5 hours.  Covering a distance of about 800 km, these trains are only getting to about an average speed of 120-130 km/hr for the entire trip.  If that could be increased to even 200 km/hr you could get on the ICE after lunch in Freiburg, do four hours of work and be in Berlin in enough time to shower before a concert that night.  That’s the big no-no.  The other  is the fact that free Wifi is not provided.  Really?

Score: 7.5-8/10

Iarnród Éireann (Irish Rail)

Irish_rail_logoI never would have thought that one of my most enjoyable train experiences in Europe would be in Ireland, bur Iarnród Éireann proved me wrong!

I took the train between Dublin and Cork and only wished that the system was more extensive, because including reasonable fares, the journey was smooth, punctual, and comfortable.  The trains were very clean and included foodservices.  And the best part is?  THERE WAS FREE WIFI!!! And it worked. It was such a joy and such a huge boon for me, because it allowed me to do way more with my time.  Really, it was a lovely experience and I would highly recommend using Iarnród Éireann if in Ireland.

Of course there is the downside: the trains could’ve been faster.  Unlike in Germany, Ireland is frankly too small to really justify a high-speed rail system; the country is small enough fortunately that moderate speeds are all that’s necessary to make trips quick and reasonable, but still there were stretches where trains had to share one track, which of course meant somebody would have to yield from time to time.  That added perhaps anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to the trip.  Still, according to Wikipedia trains will usually run at about 100-140 km/hr, which is still faster than in the USA and took overall about 1-1.5 hours less than by car.  In addition to that, the system is not quite as extensive as it could be and there are still a considerable number of towns within a half hour journey of Dublin even that are only accessible by car or bus.

Score: 8/10

Österreichische Bundesbahn (ÖBB)

high-speed_trainsMy first experience with ÖBB was way back in 2008, when I visited Vienna for the first time.  I took a regional train from Vienna to the Melk where there is a famous and beautiful monastery. From what I remember the regional train was very similar to those in Germany run by Deutsche Bahn: clean, frequent, well serviced facilities, and extensive. While the country is served by ICE trains from Germany, ÖBB runs it’s own ‘high-speed rail’ service called RailJet.  I put high-speed rail in ‘-’ though, because it’s questionable how ‘high-speed’ it is.  Yes, these trains run significantly faster than anything we see in the States, but it is slower than anything else called ‘high-speed’ in Europe. That said the service isn’t that too terrible, except it’s been very crowded the two times I’ve taken it.  I’m not sure what the booking policy is, but they are literally cramming people on, which on a 4-6 hour journey between Vienna and München is really uncomfortable. There are full food services and clean bathrooms, but no free Wifi and the crowding is disconcerting.

Score: 6.5-7/10

Nederlandse Spoorwegen (Dutch Railways)

This was another lovely experience, and I’m not saying that because of a bias that has developed for the Dutch and the Netherlands, but because this is a really fantastic system with one glitch I’ll mention soon.

1Much like Ireland, the Netherlands is a small country, but unlike Ireland it has about four times the population. Trains are an integral part of getting people around and a fine job they do at it! The fortunate thing about the Netherlands being small is that it doesn’t take very long to get anywhere even at moderate speeds. The system succeeds in that it thrives on density, frequency, clean trains, and free Wifi.  All of these combine to make a great train system even at moderate speeds.  The national system is more like a commuter system even: people will commute from their jobs in Den Haag to homes in Amsterdam using the national system. That isn’t even really something you see on the Amtrak line between Milwaukee and Chicago, even though it is a shorter trip from there to Chicago than from Kenosha with the commuter train.

Now, about that glitch: part of the Dutch rail system is NS Hispeed, the high-speed rail operator. As of now, high-speed trains run from Amsterdam to some major German cities (including Berlin and Frankfurt/Main) as well as Brussels and Paris. Well that’s a good, but the downside is that these are all foreign services and the Dutch-Belgian partnership to develop high-speed links between different points from Brussels to Amsterdam is struggling. The high-speed system called Fyra now only run on a portion of the original and planned system. It’s a good thing ICE and Thalys (see below) pick up the slack.

Score: 9/10

Thalys

Thalys1This rail system is the only non-state owned or specifically state-sponsored system I used, The high-speed trains connect Paris with Amsterdam and Brussels, Brussels with Köln (Cologne) and other cities depending on the season. It is really convenient when travelling within France and the neighboring Low Countries and the speeds make the idea of flying or driving seem ridiculous. Unfortunately the prices a tad high, but not unreasonable and much more reasonable the earlier you book. The trains were of course clean, well serviced, and included comfortable seats and full food services.

Generally, it is difficult to say much bad about the trains and service once you’re on the train or at the station. In fact one of my favorite things about Thalys is a detail I noticed at the ticket office: screens above each counter not only included travel times and train information, but told customers the languages spoken by the sales representatives, which I thought was great little customer service detail. However, this is in contrast to the website, which is terribly managed and makes buying tickets online a joke. In contrast Deutsche Bahn, which has an incredible website. Oh, and no free Wifi.

Score: 7/10

Renfe

AVE-Renfe-Train-with-Spanish-CountrysideRenfe is the state sanctioned rail system in Spain, the system is now a leader in high-speed rail service and a goal is to expand service so that all major cities are a 2-4 hour journey from Madrid.  This was the first time I ever rode on a train that went faster than 300 km/hr and would never have noticed had I not seen the speed advertised. I think the system is great: its efficiency, good timing, speedy, clean, well designed and comfortable.  Although the overall system is not nearly as extensive as it is in Germany of the Netherlands for example it reaches all the major cities.

So far, so good.

The system’s downsides aren’t considerable and have more to do with minor inconveniences. One is that unlike in many other major European cities one of the biggest stations in Madrid is a considerable distance from the city center; add that to the fact that you still have to go through security because of the threat of terrorism and some of the comforts that give train travel an advantage over air travel begin to get lost. Additionally there is no free Wifi (that’s a theme) and the train I was on at least didn’t have a café or restaurant car. Also, the website had only language options for Spanish, Basque and Catalonian.

Score: 7/10

SNCF

SNCF (Société Nationale de Chemins de fer Français), the French national rail system, had some serious things going for it and going against it. The system is fast.  And I mean fast.  Many lines run trains at speeds exceeding 250 km/hr and some at speeds greater than 300 km/hr, including the route to Germany from Frankfurt and Stuttgart. If anybody in Europe knows high-speed_trainswhat high-speed rail is all about it is certainly the French (and their neighbors the Spain). The trains are clean, efficient, run at regular intervals, connect most major French cities or will in the near future if they don’t already, and including amenities such as a restaurant car (however, no free Wifi).

The downside for me was mostly the website and aesthetics.  The trains, some of which are double-decker and make you feel a bit crammed inside), have an ugly exterior color (grey in contrast to the shocking red Thalys trains or sleek white ICE trains) and a strange bright purple, red, pink design scheme on the inside that just seemed tacky and uninspiring. It seemed like some strange faux-futuristic reference to the 80s or 90s. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it had neither the simple elegance (or respectable simplicity) nor the classiness of other systems (cough* Deutsche Bahn cough*).  The website itself was awful too. It was difficult to book a train online, but the fortunate thing for people coming from Germany is a great partnership with DB that allows people to circumvent the unfortunate SNCF website and use the well-designed DB website.

Other upsides to SNCF though are that trains bring you right into the center of Paris: c’est fantastique! Another upside is required seat bookings, so there isn’t any of the crowding that I’ve seen on other systems.

Score: 7-8/10

České dráhy (Czech Railways)

I took ČD twice: once from Vienna to Prague and once from Prague to Kraków on a night train. Both experiences were less than ideal, but not terrible. In any case it’s not much more than I would expect from a trip on Amtrak. It was slow (it took longer to get from point A to point B with the train than it would’ve taken with a car (about 2-3 hours longer on both routes), the trains were crowded, and there was always an odd lack of bathroom facilities. Perhaps the cars were older than they looked.  The staff was not very helpful either. They didn’t even seem to be around much. I can say that the night train had the worst staff of all. If you’ve never taken a night train, it is very important that you get on the right carriage, because often the train will be uncoupled at various points and sent in different directions, so you don’t want to end up in Moscow when you’re heading towards Athens. Anyhow, at the station in Prague, not a single staff person on the platform seemed capable of explaining to me which carriage was which (they didn’t have clearly marked numbers), so how I was supposed to find my carriage and sleeping cabin? Eventually I did find it, but it took the power of two women from Spain and myself to figure it out.  Generally not the best experience, but the website was great!

8492125303_a1ea11f880_mOn a side note, the night train was not that bad otherwise. You are woken up about a half hour before arriving at your destination and it is nice being able to sleep somewhere while moving, rather than having to spend a day on the road. You want to keep an eye on your things, but generally I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.

Score: 6-6.5/10

On a side note, I’ve never taken a night train before, but I have to say it was a really interesting experience that I kind of enjoyed. There has always been something about train journeys at night that I liked, so this was perfect. Being in the train is comforting at night, when there is nothing but darkness outside, and this trip especially was entrancing. As you go deep into the Polish and Czech countryside the mystery of night seems to grow. I entered a world I had never seen before, but I had only my imagination to feed my inquiries. From my berth I was able to peek out the window. From there not only did I see the increasingly foreign sounding names of Czech and Polish cities far off the beaten path, but the skeletons of history: the old Soviet era infrastructure still trucking along in a rapidly modernizing world, the abandoned train cars and wagons, empty and underused freight cars, impenetrably dark birch forests. The silence of the passing rail yards and country was eerie in that it you mind has nothing stopping it from thinking. What kept going through my mind was what had happened on these routes: immigrants making their way to Vienna or the US form the old Austro-Hungarian provinces, troops heading to and from the front, transports of Holocaust victims, Soviet industry, and modern day night trains full of tourist all share the same routes. I guess it’s the just the demanding forward march of time.