“ Deutsche Bahn AG (Deutsche Bahn Holding; abbreviated DB AG, DBAG or simply DB) is the successor of the former state railways of Germany: the Deutsche Bundesbahn of West Germany, the Deutsche Reichsbahn of the German Democratic Republic and the West Berlin VdeR. The Deutsche Bahn AG was founded on January 1, 1994 and, contrary to its predecessors, is a public limited company. As of 2007, all of its shares are still held by the Federal Republic of Germany, though privatisation is planned. The legacy of the former state railways (like civil servants formerly working for one of the state railways) is held by the Bundeseisenbahnvermögen. The group is the largest German railway enterprise and one of the largest transport corporations in the world. About two billion passengers are served each year. „
I've travelled with Deutsche Bahn many times. It's not as efficient as you might imagine.
Some of the time, it has been OK, although it has never really lived up to its brand promise. But delays and cancellations are all too common. And communication is defniitely not a strong point.
Last weekend, however, Deutsche Bahn proved that not only are they not all that efficient - they simply don't care.
I was on my way home to Ireland on short notice - my Dad had been taken into hospital and was given 50/50 odds of making it through the weekend.
My 06:52 high speed train from Freiburg to Frankfurt Airport was 15 minutes late. They waited until we were on the train to tell us that due to a "technical disruption", this train - which normally reaches speeds of around 300km/h - could only travel at 80km/h. Which meant I was going to miss my flight.
After searching in vain for a DB representative on the train who might be able to suggest an alternative route, I got off at the first stop - Offenburg. There was no one to be found there either.
My plane ticket had already cost an arm and a leg, so I couldn't buy another one. Finally I decided the only option was to get the train back to Freiburg and try to change my flight. There was one in 7 minutes. On the way to the platform, I met a guy in a DB uniform. Turned out he was the driver of the train to Freiburg. In a last ditch attempt, I asked him if he could help, and tried to explain the urgency. He simply wouldn't listen. He said I should try the info desk. I explained that there was nobody there. He told me I should wait. But if I waited, I'd miss the train to Freiburg - and the next one was in an hour. I asked if he could at least sign my ticket to show that I had been on the train to Frankfurt, so that I could get a refund. He didn't want to listen. "Ich kann nichts dafür," he said ("I can't do anything about it"), and walked away.
Five minutes later, I was on the way back to Freiburg in tears, terrified that something would happen with my Dad while I was trying to sort out the mess that DB had created for me. After all, if they had simply warned us that the train was going to be delayed, I wouldn't have stepped on it in the first place - I would have driven to Frankfurt by car.
I finally got to Dublin. And, thank the gods, my Dad is doing better. Which is of course the most important thing.
But frankly, I will do everything possible to avoid travelling with Deutsche Bahn again.
I was so looking forward to travelling to Vienna through the Rhine valley on the night train. I imagined gazing up at flood lit Austrian castles under the stars, eating a meal in the dining car amongst crystal and porcelain, clinking wine glasses with my husband as we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. Somehow, the whole vision took place in black and white and amidst steam and whistles (think The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps or Brief Encounter)
Could the reality ever live up to my ideal?
What is the City Night Line?
This is a service operated by Deutsche Bahn that runs through Europe, connecting cities in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Italy.
The service operates specially designed trains incorporating couchettes and sleeper cabins as well as seats and (apparently) cushioned axles for a smooth ride, and therefore a good night's sleep.
Why Did We Choose the City Night Line?
In 2008 my husband and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. We had been away for a weekend to Umbria on our 5th anniversary where we'd vowed to do similar each 5 years and so we were looking for a suitably romantic way to mark the achievement that is 10 years of marriage. My husband travelled by train to Berlin a couple of years back and noticed on the Cologne to Berlin leg of his journey that you could get a night train from Cologne to Vienna. Due to my work, we are fortunate enough to have international rail passes that provide discounts on rail fares, so this had the potential for being a cost effective option for us.
I found the idea of a night train from Cologne to Vienna really appealing - a bit of an adventure and romantic in an old-fashioned way. When we had a look on www.seat61.com (more on this website later in the review), I was sold on the whole idea because of the following description:
"The train travels along the famous Rhine Valley between Koblenz and Frankfurt, so if you are in a sleeper and your compartment happens to be on the left-hand side of the train, switch off the lights and watch the Rhine pass by, mountains and castles lit by moonlight, while sipping a glass of Riesling. Wonderful!"
Information and Booking
I have to say that I find the prospect of travelling by train in Europe confusing, in particular knowing how to best plan your route. Take the UK Rail Network with it's 20 odd different Train Operating Companies, each offering heaven knows how many different fare options and some operating on the same line but offering very different services. All of this can be confusing to a new comer, but add in the fact that you want to go through several different European countries and this could get very confusing.
Our starting point was the website www.seat61.com, which is run by a rail enthusiast. Given the status of this website, I wouldn't rely on it solely for travel information as there is no guarantee that it is up to date and accurate, but as a starting point for considering your options, I found it to be very informative and easy to follow. It seems to have won some pretty serious awards (including best website award at the Guardian & Observer Travel Awards 2008) as well, so it is obviously generally well thought of.
Once we'd got the basics of what we wanted to do, we contacted the Deutsche Bahn call centre in London. You can go on their website (www.bahn.co.uk) for timetables, availability information, pricing and you can purchase your tickets in this way. The website is pretty well laid out, but we didn't use it because we needed to get our discounts, which had to be done over the phone.
We made several calls to the call centre because we were booking very early and the different legs of the journey were only available for booking at a certain period of time ahead of departure, so I rang once to get information, again to book the Eurostar Leg and finally to get the DB legs. I found the staff to be not only very helpful and polite, but also enthusiastic. When I explained the trip that we were undertaking one operator was genuinely interested in it and offered advice about what to do in Cologne whilst we waited for our connection. You can contact them on 08718 808066. I would say that if you fancy travelling in Europe by train, but don't know where to start, they would probably be really helpful in helping you to plan your trip.
Connections, Travel Planning and Punctuality
Our trip to Vienna went like this:
- Eurostar service from London to Brussels
- Thalys service from Brussels to Cologne
- City Night Line service from Cologne to Vienna
Working out which train to get for each of these legs is actually trickier than you might imagine. Whilst the staff at the DB Booking Centre were really helpful, you still have to make a call about what connections you are going to make and how much time you allow.
Making sure we were on time to catch a Night Train was really important. Missing it would have meant finding accommodation for the night and then buying another ticket for a train the next day.
In the event, we ended up spending much longer than we needed at Cologne waiting for our connection especially as this was the only train in the trip that was late. The upshot is that we could have got up and left home later than we did and spent less time waiting at Cologne, but for peace of mind I think we probably did the right thing giving ourselves plenty of time between each connection.
The whole trip nearly didn't happen as the fire in the Channel Tunnel took place soon after we booked and for quite a while we were unsure as to whether the first leg of our journey would happen at all. Fortunately, about 2 weeks before we left they announced a new timetable and around 1 week before we left we were assigned a firm seat. Luckily, we'd decided to hold on and not purchase a flight instead as the cost of the flight would not have been refundable. The whole thing was pretty stressful, to be honest, but there is no one to blame for this and Eurostar were clearly doing all they could to operate as effectively as they could in a difficult time.
Well, this was not a particularly cheap way of getting from London to Vienna to be honest. If you want to get there quickly, then you would be far better off getting a flight. Flights are available for around £120.
For us, though, the journey was part of the weekend and the first night away was to be spent on a train rather than in a hotel and you have to bear that in mind when comparing the prices.
We also got our tickets cheaper because of our discounts and our decision making process would have been a lot different if we hadn't had that. Because we had discounts we were able to choose the more luxurious modes of travel, so we went First Class in Eurostar and took a luxury cabin on the City Night Line.
The total cost of our trip (London - Vienna) was £140 Per person, so just slightly more than flying. Without the discounts you are looking at around double this. If you are happy to travel overnight in a seat and will be travelling standard class on Eurostar, you might be able to squeeze the price in under that of flying.
Catching the Train
We caught the City Night Line from Cologne, or rather Koln Hauptbahnhoff.
Our connecting Thalys train from Brussels arrived a couple of hours ahead of our City Night Line connection. Cologne cathedral is literally right outside the station and there is a large square with steps leading up to the cathedral where visitors mill and locals meet up. We idled away some time looking around the cathedral, eating in a nearby café and ringing Nana and Grandpa to check up on the kids.
Koln Hauptbahnhoff is large, full of shops and cafes, but not a particularly attractive place to hang around. There was an intriguing luggage locker system, where you put your luggage into what looks like a locker, but is actually a sort of luggage lift which takes your case away underground and stores it, then collects it again when you enter in the code that you are given at the time you deposit. We had visions of never seeing our case again, but we needn't have worried.
The train was late. Not a good start to be honest and the trouble was that because we didn't know how late it was going to be, we ended up sitting on the platform waiting for it for around an hour, whereas if we had known it was going to be that late we would have gone for a coffee. Given that the train was due to leave at 20:06 and we'd been travelling since first thing, we were by now pretty tired and could have done without the wait.
We were able to determine which part of the platform we needed to be on by consulting a diagram on the platform and our ticket so that when the train pulled in we were able to get on the correct carriage straight away. A steward checked our tickets and showed us to our cabin.
The cabin itself was small, but well designed. We had two beds (like bunks), a table and two chairs, an area for hanging clothes and storing bags and a shower/toilet room. It was clean and the bedding was crisp and fresh. Towels were supplied.
There is a large window the length of the carriage which arches into the roof so you are able to look up at the scenery. Blinds afford you privacy and shut out the station and other lights once you want to head off to sleep.
We rather liked our cabin, small as it was, but if you are not very mobile, it would have been a real challenge. You ascend a couple of pretty steep steps to get to the upper cabins, of which ours was one, and getting up to the top bunk was quite a feat - there was no ladder and you had to just stand on the bottom bunk (trying not to squash your travel companion) and heave yourself up. I'm pretty impressed I managed it without straining any muscles, but maintaining any decorum whilst doing so was simply not possible.
The shower was miniscule, but worked and was hot and we both used it and were glad of it to freshen ourselves up in the morning ahead of our arrival.
Food and Refreshments
I'd love to give you a blow by blow account of our dinner in the dining carriage, but I'm afraid that there was a technical problem which meant that there was no dining carriage on our train.
This was a real let down. Fortunately, my husband had insisted on buying crisps, chocolate and wine at Cologne station. I'd been saying that this was over the top as I wanted to have a proper meal on the train, but in the event these snacks ended up being our evening meal and I was might glad of them!
The steward brought us coffees (which we had to pay for) and a small bottle of wine each (which was complimentary). He was very attentive and polite. We sat in the privacy of our cabin and drank and munched into the early hours.
In the morning, the steward brought us breakfast, which was included in the price of the ticket. This was pretty impressive and comprised a croissant each, a yogurt, a roll, cheese, various hams and jams and marmalades. There was orange juice and the choice of coffee or tea. It was a filling and tasty breakfast.
The Sleeping Experience
Well, I found sleeping on the train quite difficult.
Firstly, there is the simple fact that you are somewhere quite different/alien, which always makes it difficult.
Then, there is the movement of the train. It is not so much that there is a constant jostling and noise, because there isn't. It is more the fact you stop and start. As a commuter who is automatically programmed to wake when the train stops to make sure I don't miss my stop, each time we stopped I woke up, wondering where we'd got to on our journey.
Actually, the beds are quite comfy and if you are so disposed you probably could get a good night's sleep on the train, but it just wasn't for me.
Well, it was not the romantic experience of my imagination in that we did not dine amongst crystal and porcelain, but instead ate crisps and chocolate, nor did we see any mountains and castles - we passed through the Rhine valley in the early hours of the morning when we were attempting to sleep. We did, however, have the privacy of our own cabin and we enjoyed taking the time to just sit, talk, gaze out the window at the lights of the cities and suburbs that we passed through. We talked, reminisced and laughed, all of which was pretty special thinking about it.
The reality may not have lived up to my idealised imaginings, but in a world where we are in a constant hurry to be somewhere, I found that travelling by train and taking 24 hours to get from home to Vienna, actually gave me the time to unwind, relax and to talk. Passing through France, Belgium, Germany and Austria on our journey gave us a real sense of what our trip meant (geographically speaking) and it felt really good. If travelling for you is as much about the journey as the destination, then I would definitely recommend the City Night Line.
I don't like to say that it was disappointing, because that would somehow devalue the experience and I certainly don't want to do that as I have very fond memories of it. It was an experience and it was fun. I probably won't repeat it anytime soon, but nor would I rather not have done it. I will always look back on it and smile.
I have lived in Germany for just over 2 years now, and as I don’t have a car over here, I have relied almost exclusively on public transport, and the trains of Deutsche Bahn (the German railway network) in particular, to get around on my travels. While there have been some dodgy moments, I can say that the service offered to rail passengers in Germany beats anything on offer in Britain into a cocked hat, even if the locals here do like to moan and whinge if a train is a couple of minutes late! The opinions I have read on train travel in the UK, coupled with my own frustrating experiences of the railways on my visits to England, have left me with the overwhelming impression that the newly-privatised network in Britain has a hell of a long way to go. The old British Rail slogan (in the good old days of a slightly more reliable, national rail service) was ‘We’re Getting There’. Well, it seems that they’ve only succeeded in taking several steps back from wherever ‘There’ might be, which only emphasises the gulf in quality between, say, Thames Trains and Deutsche Bahn. I’ll start off by detailing the different types of trains and services provided by the German railway network. The slowest and most basic trains you will come across (and the ones I use the most frequently) are RE (Regionalbahn) and SE (Stadtexpress, meaning ‘town express’, which is misnomer if ever I’ve heard one!) – these stop at all or most of the smaller stations on any given route, and are generally the oldest trains you will see. Some of these old ones are pretty grubby, with smelly toilets, uncomfortable high-backed fake leather seats and temperamental heating, but you get what you pay for! However, the old trains are gradually being phased out and replaced by new double-decker efforts, which are excellent. They are equipped with better PA systems, electronic destination boards, working facilities and comfortab
le seats, but the only problem is that the bridges on some lines are too low to allow the double-deckers to pass underneath. This is the case on the line that runs from Heidelberg through Walldorf, so we’re stuck with the old trains for getting to and from work. The next step up is the IR train (Inter-Regio), and these ones stop less frequently, covering larger distances – typical routes for this level of train are Karlsruhe – Nuremberg, or Heidelberg – Norddeich Mole. The IR trains are faster and cleaner, and also provide a buffet car and roving snack trolley, and the toilets are cleaner as well, which is always an important consideration. There is a mixture of compartment and open carriage seating as well, normally with a designated smoking area for every 2 or 3 carriages. Journeys on IR trains are slightly more expensive, but still not anything to compare with prices in Britain! Above this, you have the EC/IC (EuroCity/InterCity) services. As the name suggests, these run between major European cities, without too many stops, so quite often you will be on a train that is composed entirely of carriages from the French, Swiss or Italian railways. The Swiss trains are the best of the lot, as you have plenty of legroom, the seats in second class are lovely and plush and all the trains are air-conditioned, but the German equivalents aren’t far behind. You have to pay a supplement of 7DM to upgrade your ticket to EC/IC level, but it’s worth it, believe me! These trains have an onboard bistro and bar car if you’re on a long journey, in addition to a well stocked (if expensive) trolley service. You get a comfy seat, plenty of room, and the extra 5DM it costs to make a seat reservation is normally well spent. These services are used to capacity on most routes, especially at weekends so unless you are boarding at the start of the line, it is often worth reserving a seat. However, the top of the range servi
ce is to be found on ICE (InterCityExpress) routes. The supplement for these trains is 12DM, I think, but once again you will really notice the difference. These are the next generation of high-speed rail travel, and the ICE trains are constantly being updated by Deutsche Bahn. The terrible accident at Eschede (near Hamburg) a few years back prompted a large-scale rethink in train safety and construction, and the new units are equipped with all the latest features, including Neigetechnik (tilting technology). British Rail tried to introduce something similar in the 1980s, I think, and it was dismissed as being too expensive, but no such claims were made here. The new trains rocket along specially built tracks at over 200 kph, but inside the carriages you seem to just be gliding along. The lightly tinted glass prevents any glare from outside, you can plug your headphones in to the socket in your seat and choose between a selection of onboard radio stations (or watch a video on the screen implanted into the seat in front, if you’re in 1st class!), sit back and relax in your sofa-like seat and watch the world go by. There is also a restaurant carriage, and a bar car, as well as the trolley service, should you feel a thirst coming on during the journey. The ICE is the most expensive way to travel by train in Germany, but even on those routes (between all major cities across the country), there are still plenty of ways to get a bargain. The best way to get a cheap deal is to log on to the Deutsche Bahn website (www.bahn.de), which can also be viewed in English. This gives you a full timetable for travel within Germany, as well as enabling you to plan your travel in most other European countries, thanks to links to other national networks. The Surf&Rail ticket offers excellent value, but can only be booked online, and for certain routes. Alternatively, if there are more than 6 of you travelling in a group, then you can get massive discounts on longer journe
ys – for example, 8 of us travelled from Mannheim to Munich on the ICE (1st class), for the princely sum of 70DM (23 quid) each, return. Not bad at all. What about the stations, though? Well, Deutsche Bahn are currently in the process of renovating and rebuilding all the major stations across Germany. The first ones to get the new look were places like Hanover (thanks to the Expo 2000) and Leipzig, but now all the major stations are being refurbished. Mannheim is almost complete, and a complete overhaul is planned at Stuttgart, as the current facility is handicapped by being an end station, a situation common to many German cities (Frankfurt, Munich, Leipzig and so on). This means that shopping and ticketing facilities are being radically improved in all stations as well, with the introduction of the new touch-screen ticket machines being a particular bonus. These can be switched into English, French, Spanish and Turkish with one touch (can you imagine a service like that in Britain?), and you can use any major credit card to buy your tickets. The smaller stations are gradually being smartened up as well (although the funds for Wiesloch-Walldorf haven’t even extended to giving it a lick of paint yet, sadly), with smaller-scale improvements to the buildings and platforms. However, there is some discussion in the German media as to whether the men in charge of the railway network are actually intending to make a concerted effort to improve RE and SE services, or whether they are going to succumb to the same fever that swept Britain in the 1960s and cut out many local services, concentrating on high-yield long-distance travel instead. Hopefully, this will not be the case as the local services, in the Heidelberg area at least, are generally pretty busy, and cutting out the local trains would only serve to alienate many travellers who rely on such services to get around. Rail safety is not as much of an issue in Germany either, than
ks to the obvious presence of the railway police at many stations. The security is generally taken for granted here – I have only seen large-scale police action twice in stations, once in Berlin on the way to a football match in Cottbus, and once in Hanover, where several policemen were in the process of detaining a nutter with a knife. You just feel safer travelling on trains here, even late at night and on your own, which can only be a good thing. Basically, despite the fact that trains do seem to be delayed slightly more often than they were when I lived in Hanover, that is just about the only thing I can find to complain about with the German railway system. The trains are generally clean, prices are reasonable (with plenty of cheap tickets if you know where to look), and by and large, the services run on time, and you can’t ask for much more than that.
I've travelled on trains in Germany twice. Once in first class on a very flash ICE train, and the second time in second class on a bog-standard regional train. The thing that struck me about both trains, was how clean they were. First class on the ICE train was like something more akin to first class on aeroplanes than anything we are used to on trains. Reclining leather seats with footrests and television and information panels in the backs of the seats in front. Large wooden tables with folding sides to make it easier to get in and out of your seat. Large "pods" with glass and wooden walls around some seats so they have more privacy. The best bit is something that is actually illegal in this country...the first class carriage I was in was the last carriage in the train, and the wall between the carriage and the drivers cab was glass, thus meaning we could see all the way down the track behind us. Great! Another bonus of first class was the speedometer. A glass panel on the wall which shows a digital read out of the current speed of the train. Finally, first class on these brilliant ICE trains is cheap. Very cheap. Second class on the regional train was very basic. In fact, it was more basic than even the oldest little put-put trains in Britain. However, the standard of cleanliness was far superior, the fares were less than half the price of an equivalent length journey over here, the trains are faultlessly reliable, down to the minute, and the stations are so well thought out, with little conveyer belts up all the stairs for your luggage. Brilliant!