Inexplicable chaos ensues

I have posted before about my love of Swiss trains. They are efficient, clean, on time. You can go almost anywhere in Switzerland by train, from quick connections between major cities to airports and mountain resorts. You can bring your bike, your luggage or your dog (for a price). All pretty well hassle-free.

Best of all, trains cross borders. I used to travel regularly from France to Switzerland and once took the tilting train all the way to Venice. Surely it was not unreasonable to imagine we would have a similar experience in Germany?

Wrong. We took the train several times on our recent trip to Northern Germany, and every single time the train was late. Even when it was on time they managed to lose time along the way and arrive late. Plus, the experience of the German train system was confusing, uncomfortable and generally less than pleasant.

I’m not complaining. I mean, we are just coming out of a pandemic here in Europe. Being able to travel again, even while wearing masks, is a privilege. Besides, Germany had just experienced some terrible floods in the west and while this did not directly impact our journey, the whole Deutsche Bahn network was affected.

It started with our first connection from Basel to Hamburg. An earlier train had been cancelled and therefore ours was packed to the hilt. This is where I made my first mistake. Assuming that because no one books seats on Swiss trains that this would be the case on German ones. Wrong again. Virtually all of the seats had been prebooked for various legs of the journey so we found ourselves scrambling, laden with luggage, from one car to another looking for seats.

Basically, booking a ticket on a train does not reserve you a seat. That is a separate process, one that is rarely used in Switzerland except for large groups. So we bounced around for a couple of hours until the controller finally found us two seats that were still free (for which we had to pay for a reservation — go figure!). Except they were only free until the next stop, when new travellers boarded and claimed their seats. So we moved again. It seems that the German system is a little wonky also when it comes to the reservation system, so even the controllers don’t know if seats are free or not.

We had plenty of time to joke about it. ‘Do Better’ was my husband’s suggestion when I asked what DB stood for (Deutsche Bahn). And we amused ourselves with finding different names for the train we took, an ICE (Inter City Express). Hence the title of this post.

I vowed not to fall victim to the musical chairs game again. So for our trip to Sylt on the North Sea, we also reserved seats. In first class for good measure. All good, right? Wrong.

It started out fine. We got to the Dammtor station in Hamburg on time for our scheduled departure. As in Switzerland, there is an information panel on the platform showing the train configuration, and our wagon was supposed to be on the end of the platform where we were waiting. Except when the train arrived it was the opposite end. So we lugged our bags to other end of a very long train to discover….chaos. We boarded the train but couldn’t find our seats. People were standing in the aisles looking confused. A harried controller was running around trying to help people who did not look happy.

As everyone was speaking German, I was at sea. Husband, who speaks the language reasonably well, also seemed confused. So as soon as I got a chance, I asked the controller if he could help us, apologizing and asking if he spoke English. He did. In fact, I think he was happy to help some lost-looking English speakers as the disgruntled German passengers were getting nasty. It turned out that one wagon of the train (ours) had broken down, so all of the people booked into that car were without seats. Thankfully he found us a free compartment in second class which we gratefully accepted.

On the return from Sylt, the train was far less full so the seats we had booked were sort of unnecessary. But the train lost time between stops, waiting for unexplained amounts of time. At one point, an announcement was made in which I understood a few words: kinder (children), spiel (play) and polizei (police). It seemed that a group of children were playing football on the track and we had to wait for the police to come and remove them.

Train travel is slow travel. We weren’t on a tight schedule, and the whole beauty of the train is being able to read, watch the scenery and relax. But German trains are old, for one thing, and not comfortable for long trips. Infrastructure needs updating. Electrical systems are lacking. For example, there was nowhere to plug in and charge our phones.

Our last journey from Hamburg to Basel was another story. We had booked the Night Jet, a special train with sleeper cars that travels between European cities overnight. First class to boot! There was even a car and compartment number on our tickets, so I was fairly confident we wouldn’t have to scramble.

Arriving on board, the controller scrutinized our reservation with an expression that did not bode well. The compartment we had booked through the Swiss website simply didn’t exist!

As the train left the station, we stood waiting for what seemed like an eternity while they tried to figure out where to put us. Finally we were led to our sleeping compartment. It was on the upper level, with access via narrow stairs that were highly impractical for navigating suitcases, and inside were two bunk beds under a sloping ceiling. The space was so small we could not both be standing up at the same time, or at least not without being intimate. The beds were made with pillows in the far corner, so that we would be sleeping in a sort of tunnel, our feet towards the window. Being claustrophobic, I immediately switched this around so my head was near the exit. Even husband, not normally worried about such things, insisted we keep the blinds up so we wouldn’t feel quite so closed in.

There was a small sink where were able to perform ablutions before going to bed. Several bottles of water had been provided, along with glasses and some unchilled frizzante. But the toilet was down stairs and down the hall, so I kept my liquids to a minimum.

Not long after we turned out the lights, husband was asleep. One of his gifts, aside from his sense of humour, is the ability to sleep just about anywhere. However, although I was on the lower bunk and less exposed to the problem, I was unable to sleep with the lights from passing towns making a strobe effect. So I got up and closed the blinds.

Then, just as I was nodding off, the gentle movement of the train doing its thing to lull me to sleep, we hit a bunch of curves. The old train strained against the tracks, groaning and jerking as the contents of our compartment began to rattle. We hit a particularly tight curve and the cupboard doors in the compartment flew open, the bottles fell off the sink and the glasses came flying out. I got up and managed to stash everything so it wouldn’t move again.

Sometime later I was finally about to fall asleep again when the compartment door, despite being locked, flew open, filling it with light and exposing us to the (thankfully empty) corridor. I got up again and double-locked it. After that, it’s all a bit of a blur. At one point during the night, the train stopped somewhere for a quite some time and then performed some sort of manoeuvre. When it got going again, instead of being at the end, we were at the front. It was actually a bit better after that as it seemed we travelled more or less in a straight line.

Still, the Night Jet was bit of a nightmare. Only I didn’t get to sleep long enough during our 8-hour trip to actually have one.

When we arrived in Basel, I did a little namasté of gratitude.

However, the inexplicable chaos continued. When we got home, an ice (ICE?) storm with massive hail stones had just happened, wreaking havoc on our little town. Nothing too serious, thankfully, but here is what happened to the exterior blinds on one window in our apartment.

Have you ever taken a memorable train trip?

25 comments

  1. margaret21 · August 6

    I can’t cap your stories, which are probably better in the telling than in the journeying. I’d love to take trains more for travel in Europe, but it’s an expensive option. We won’t fly again, which sends us back to the car. Which slightly dents the green credentials we’d like to have

    • MELewis · August 6

      Definitely more fun to tell than to live through. But I do feel that the bad stuff is worthy of sharing. Otherwise people may believe that things are as perfect as some of the pictures! Interesting that you won’t fly again. Is this for carbon reasons or for fear of the enclosed spaces and potential infection? We will have to get back on planes eventually to see family in Canada but I’m not particularly looking forward to it. Until then, the train it will have to be as neither of us enjoys long hauls in the car.

      • margaret21 · August 7

        We’d decided ahead of Covid for carbon reasons, but yes, if we had family outside Europe it would have to be a different story. My husband, who lived in Germany as a young man for a while was shocked to read your post, as he remembered The Good Old Days.

  2. pedmar10 · August 6

    Only taken train on business trip necessary, took the TGV once to show my boys and that is it. Car is king all over Europe for us! Cheers

    • MELewis · August 6

      Interesting. In just a small sample, two are car lovers! It certainly affords the most freedom, although the TGV is probably the fastest way to get in and out of Paris to province. $$$ though.

      • pedmar10 · August 6

        I go to Paris and drive in by car ::)

  3. Kiki · August 6

    Oh gosh, Mel, that’s pretty bad…. I’m only thankful that it wasn’t our CFF/SBB to be blamed for all the craze!
    One of my (our) worst experiences happend in England. Before we even lived there, we went for a weekend to search for a short term habitation. We said after a horror trip which would make exploding the space here: If THIS is what awaits HH at his new job and our new life abroad, hell, it wasn’t worth the effort…
    Another memorable trip was with family, small child, small dog, grannie and sledge, skis, suitcases, baskets, food and drinks, for a week of ski holidays in the Valais. Sadly, the train got stuck in the Lötschberg tunnel and as this was in February, it was getting really cold really fast. Then, little by little the lights dimmed until they were no longer lit, the heating was off already a long while ago, we sat there with no information, a small child, a dog with needs, a tired grandmother and two adults who didn’t know what to propose next to keep peace…. I don’t remember the cause, an accident, an avalanche…. whatever! Upon arriving in Brig, we couldn’t continue our trip as the people from their lodgings on Bettmeralp and other places couldn’t leave, new ppl couldn’t enter – total chaos. Clever me figured out that we needed a hotel ASAP and we secured the last big room at a place some 1.5km outside of Brig. We were more dead than alive by the time we arrived – and we were the LUCKY ones, as we had a place to stay until next morning!

    • MELewis · August 6

      Well as much as the Swiss trains are reliable, I suppose when accidents do happen, they really do! My story is nothing next to yours, I can only imagine how uncomfortable it must have been to be stuck with a little one and a dog, plus Grandma to boot! 😣 Sounds like you managed to make the best of a bad trip.

      • Kiki · August 6

        it resulted in a pretty good story to tell… 🙂

  4. Ally Bean · August 6

    What a mess! I’m glad you got a story out of it, but did it really need to happen? Like you I’m amazed that German trains weren’t reliable and would never have slept soundly in those conditions. Yet you carried on admirably.

    • MELewis · August 6

      Surprising,isn’t it? Yet I got the feeling from the resigned expressions on many people’s faces that this kind of problem was the norm in Germany. It seems they have a lot of work to do to bring their rail network up to Swiss standards! Keep calm and carry on is not my strong point, but sometimes you just have to grin and bear it.

  5. George · August 6

    Maybe Germany needs another Hitler, didn’t he make the German trains run on time. Seriously always drive, it’s the better way.

    • MELewis · August 6

      Oh dear, Dad. Really not funny and in incredibly bad taste even for you! 😖

  6. Dale · August 6

    Wow… Definitely a trip to remember and regale your guests with for years to come…

    • MELewis · August 7

      Thanks, Dale! Definitely one for the memory box and a bit of entertainment for readers of this blog. 😉

      • Dale · August 7

        Of course. 🙂 You will laugh more later when you retell it in years to come 😉

  7. Becky Ross Michael · August 6

    What an experience! I’ve traveled by train quite a few times, and it USUALLY goes well. One winter, however, there was unusually cold weather in Texas and the switching things on the tracks froze. We were stranded in place for quite some time. Glad you’re safe; I wondered about you when I read about all the terrible flooding in Europe!

    • MELewis · August 7

      Nothing like being stranded, eh? Especially in extreme weather (although I would fear the heat even more!). Thanks for your concern, we are indeed fortunate compared to many others. The rivers are still high but the sun is beginning to make an appearance.

  8. Colin Bisset · August 7

    Not surprising that schadenfreude is a German word, perhaps, but I’m glad your writerly eyes took it all in for our delectation. I love train trips, especially any in Switzerland and Japan, but we’ve had some horrors in Italy (non-existent trains despite being sold tickets, etc) and, of course, in the UK (which sounds reassuringly close to your DB experience). But I love station architecture and how different the trains are in different countries so I am generally forgiving…

    • MELewis · August 7

      Thanks for reminding me of this wonderful word. Now I know why I sensed a gleam of triumph in the eye of all those people who claimed our seats! 😂 I also love train station architecture, especially Zurich and Lucerne as the platforms are right at street level.

  9. Vanessa in France · August 7

    I love travelling by train, but it is incredibly frustrating when things go wrong, like the litany of failures you describe. I must say I’m surprised that the German railway system isn’t more efficient. I was equally surprised by the smooth running of the Italian trains when travelling around Italy. Mind you, this was 30 years ago. Things might have changed.

    • MELewis · August 7

      It’s easy enough to see when things go wrong on trains, unlike planes where it’s all a bit of a mystery. I also have a good memory of the train in Italy a few years back but it was only a one-off. As you say, things change and certainly hope they will improve in Germany. When it operates as it should (as the Swiss ones do), the train is a good compromise between driving and flying.

      • Vanessa in France · August 7

        I have never liked flying, although I had to do a lot of it for my business for the first 15 years or so of our life here. I’m not sure if I will ever go on a plane again. Much prefer train, but of course that restricts the places one can visit.

  10. Al in France · August 8

    Well, what a fun trip that turned out to be. I am also very fortunate that wherever I lay my head I am usually asleep within seconds. But you have reminded me of an utterly awful train trip many years ago in Russia whilst it was still the old Soviet Union. The overnight train from Moscow to the then Leningrad (St Petersburg) was full of rather drunk soldiers, shouting and singing all night! This trip was made in the depths of winter and the carriage was unbelievably overheated with no way of adjusting the temperature. To make matters worse, the toilets at the end of the carriage were completely flooded with…..!!! I have never wanted a journey to end so much. Not to be repeated I can assure you. Happy travels next time.

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