Needing to go to Munich to record a TV interview, I decided to go by train, Munich, at the southern border of Germany is around a nine hour journey which meant taking three days for a journey that, at a pinch could have been undertaken in one. But as it was far more pleasant and with a lot of work to do on a book, it was a perfect way to travel.
I was routed by Brussels on the outgoing journey but came back via Paris, which gave me the opportunity to travel on Eurostar, DB and a TGV. I also learnt a few things about European, and particularly, German train travel, and it is by no means all good news. But let’s start with the positives:
- Travelling by train to European destinations has become easier Eurostar, having taken over Thalys, which ran a network of high speed services centred around Brussels and Paris has become more aware of the potential of ensuring good connections with ongoing services. Nevertheless, there is still much integration to be done. The German travel agent which organised the trip still had to send the Eurostar tickets in a separate email from the ongoing journeys, as joint continuous tickets are still not available. With Eurostar services soon to begin their fourth decade, having started in 1994, it really is shocking that it has not linked with other networks to enable proper through ticketing.
- European frontiers have all but disappeared. On the journey between Brussels and Köln, we were diverted after Aachen and popped into a bit of Holland before arriving at just half an hour late at Kö At one point my phone received four ‘you are now in….’ messages in the space of two minutes. Europe is merging into an entity while we have sailed out of it. The delay caused by engineering works had been built into the timetable ensuring that the connections were still available.
- The trains are well used. Covid has been forgotten and the trains have filled up again. Indeed, just as in the UK, they were really rammed on the Sunday I travelled south with every platform crammed with travellers. Indeed, so much so, that the train heading for Munich was held up by desperate guards trying to get people who had no reservations off the train.
- The ICE rolling stock is magnificent. They so roomy and comfortable, run very smoothly and seem to have lots of space, both for luggage but also for those extra facilities like play room for toddlers and a meeting room for business people.
- Catering is so much more varied and better. Oh, gosh, this did make me envious. The ICE trains offered a proper range of meals and snacks, as well as good beer, for about the same as you would pay at a station. And there was the offer of hot pasta dishes, which were perfectly eatable and tasty croque monsieur on the TGV where, actually the range is not as good.
It was at the stations where European travel really beats the UK. The range of fresh beautifully made sandwiches is incomparable. At the bigger stations, there are several competing bakeries each offering fantastic ranges of sandwiches with different types of bread, all freshly made and with no ghastly shrink-wrapping to sweat in. I suspect it is the high rents charged by cash-strapped Network Rail and train operators which accounts for the limited range at UK stations with very few independent cafes able to pay them and we end up with endless Upper Crust and Costas offering such limited fare. Definitely scope for some European bakeries to compete here,
And now for the not so good.
- The cost is high. I was not paying but it was over £200 each way, probably more than double the plan, though, of course, I had no taxi fares or exorbitant airport shuttles to and from airports. Eurostar is a particularly high price, not least because of the excessive track charges it has to pay for HS1 and the Channel Tunnel. Moreover, there is still no fares structure that encourages long distance journeys by discounting the price per kilometre for such trips. There is, despite years of attempts, little effort by the various European rail companies to join together to offer serious competition to the airlines.
- It’s not just in the UK that the Nobody Gives A Damn Railway thrives. I was surprised at the lack of ticket checks. On board, it was always ages – and therefore several stops where non payers could have got off – before the conductor came round to check tickets. Remarkably, on the French TGV three hour journey between Mannheim and Paris, no one came round to check the tickets, though they happily made announcements about the ‘Franco-German’ team on board.
- While on the subject of announcements, there were very few. As someone who has regularly complained about the white noise of constant injunctions to shout it, suck it and stuff it, I was delighted that I could work or doze with little interruption. However, at times it could have helped to have a bit more information, especially over late running trains and the reasos for them. Fortunately my only serious delays – 40 minutes and 10 minutes respectively – did not involve any tight connections but as someone tweeted to me on the first day, ‘train travel in Europe can be an adventure’. It shouldn’t be.
- Signage is terrible One brilliant legacy of British Rail is the signage and provision of information at stations. It is something which regular travellers like me take for granted but it is notably an area where we excel. At Brussels Midi, there was a late platform change and I struggled to find precisely where the platforms were. Fortunately, it was only platform 5 to number 7 so I was in broadly the right place, but just caught my train by two minutes. On my return, I took the underground at Munich and came up the escalator (no barriers or ticket checks by the way) and saw lots of signs for bahnhofplatz, but not for the trains themselves. And when changing trains, there was much the same issue with little good signage.
- DB is not a happy railway. There has been quite a lot of publicity about this and the source of the problem has been identified by a lack of investment in the infrastructure over the years. However, I would add that there is an all to obvious lack of personnel. The main reason for the poor timekeeping on DB is the lack of spending on infrastructure over the past few years while the organisation was being primed for a privatisation that has now been abandoned and an expansion plan that involved taking over various European railway companies, which has also now been jettisoned. However, I saw very little evidence of people on platforms, even at busy times, blowing whistles and waving flags which, while seeming archaic, is actually a key way of ensuring prompt despatch. With much media complaint about timekeeping – there was an item on the national TV news about it on the day I arrived in Munich – DB does seem to be keen to restore faith in its network but everyone I spoke to seems exasperated by the performance of their much used railway.
Just to show, too, that we are not unique about messing up infrastructure projects, my return train stopped at Stuttgart and I asked a couple of passengers about the ongoing and much delayed attempt to turn the terminus into a through station, a project which started in 2010 and was optimistically named 21 but is now scheduled to be opened in 2025, though my fellow passengers thought 2030 would be optimistic. The cost has more than doubled to 9.2 billion euros and still rising.
Nevertheless, despite these issues, and a couple of trains there were late, it was a fabulous and memorable journey, so much better than trekking out to Stansted or Heathrow and landing at an airport similarly well out of town. Now if the railways could just get their pricing sorted….
Dishonest politicians must be held to account
Mark Harper, the transport secretary, continues to obfuscate over the true nature of his department’s economics. In a press release that verges on the dishonest rather than plain misleading, he claims that money saved – £8bn no less – from cutting HS2 will now be spent on filling potholes.
This is a terrible distortion of the way economics works. First, the money ‘saved’ from scrapping HS2 does not exist. It was future borrowing which will now, over an 11 year period, apparently be used to fill potholes. But this is what is called operating or current expenditure, which is accounted for very differently from capital expenditure, and in any case has nothing to do with railways or, indeed, the North which is only getting part of the money. So a railway for future generations is being used to make up the shortfall in routine operating expenses of the roads. This from a government which had claimed – but now lost forever – green credentials.
The worst aspect of this is that Harper is an accountant. He knows better. Yet his smiling face appears on the front of the press notice bearing this ridiculous news. That is why this is borderline lying. He knows he is misleading the public but seems not to care. As for the railways, it’s Gone with the Wind again: he does not give a damn.