How Not to Travel by Train

You’d think going from London to Berlin by train would be a fairly straight-forward deal. There’s the Eurostar to get over (or through, as it were) the Channel, and once you’re on the continent, you have train tracks all over. And it’s not that expensive, either. I paid 50€ for my one-way ticket; Eurostar from London to Brussels, and ICE trains from Brussels to Cologne and Cologne to Berlin, respectively. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Except… It never worked out that way.

Let’s chronicle what shall officially be known as my Train Fiasco of 2012.

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platform 9

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London—Brussels

When I booked my ticket, nowhere did it give me any additional information. This wasn’t the first train trip I’d done—although it was my first time on the Eurostar—, so I knew the ins and outs of train travel fairly well. I knew that, contrary to airports, you have to be at a station about ten minutes before departure time, because unless you get on at the very first stop, your train will only arrive two or three minutes before departure anyway. And since nobody told me anything else, I assumed it would be the same for the Eurostar.

Hah, if only… As I mention in my London post, Tiana dropped me off at St. Pancras International. We got there more than twenty minutes before departure, usually ample time to say goodbye and find my seat. I had thought about going even earlier, but in an effort to be less anxious about these kinds of things, I had decided against it, thinking that twenty minutes would be enough. But once I got there and saw there were actual ‘check-in’ counters and security checks, I was suddenly worried. And I was right to be worried; a few minutes after I got there, the staff was shouting to see if there was anyone left on my connection. I hadn’t even made it through security yet, so I waved madly until they noticed me… and was promptly picked out of the crowd by security, who said they wanted to ‘take a look at my electronic equipment in my suitcase’. I was beyond baffled because there was, aside from two chargers (for my iPad and my phone, respectively), absolutely nothing electronic in my suitcase. My camera, my phone, and my iPad were all in my camera bag around my shoulder. I even told the security lady this, but she said she was only interested in my suitcase.

At that point, I got a little suspicious, but there wasn’t anything I could do, so I just waited while hopping up and down on the spot because I was nervous I wouldn’t make my train. I told the lady that, too, but she said she couldn’t promise anything. ‘Great,’ was literally all I could think. She then proceeded to take everything—and I mean everything, from said chargers over my dirty underwear down to my pocket knife out of my suitcase. After she had determined there was no interesting electronic equipment in there, she had me put it all back in, except for my knife and nail scissors. The little pocked knife I had bought for Africa and my good ole pair of nail scissors. That are apparently not allowed on a fucking train.

I don’t understand what they’re afraid of. That I’d attack a fellow passenger? In all honesty, I could do far more damage with my heavy tripod than with a goddamn pair of nail scissors. But what was worse is that, just like with the ‘check-in’ time, nowhere did it say during the booking process that certain items weren’t allowed on the train. I apparently should’ve just magically known somehow. Which isn’t ridiculous at all considering that that’s the only bloody train I’ve ever seen with such rules.

That alone was enough to ruin my travel day. But it was only the beginning.

The Eurostar—not very fittingly, what with the fancy name and all—turned out to be a rancid old thing; dark greys and browns everywhere, with tiny windows and little to no personal space. And the ‘Chunnel’ is the most boring thing of all. But I guess I should’ve expected that, at least.

Two-ish hours later, and with no delay, we arrived at Bruxelles Midi…

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Brussels—Cologne

…where my connection was supposed to depart 17 minutes later. Since the Eurostar can’t really be delayed—and if it is, that’s talent—, 17 minutes would be more than enough time to make a connection. Again, usually there are no security checks, etc. etc. We all know how trains work. Usually.

Upon arrival, because my ticket didn’t specify a platform, the first thing I did was check one of the paper schedules. Surprisingly, my connection wasn’t listed at all. One of the staff ladies was just standing nearby, answering a few questions, so I jumped right in with mine, too. She looked at her little sheet of paper and told me my train would be on platform 5.

Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Oh, if only you’d been there…

On the way to platform 5, I walked past one of those digital schedules and checked again, just to make sure. Platform 5? Hahahahaha, you wish. The schedule said my train would be ‘departing from another station’. That was all it said; not even what station, let alone why or when or how. By this point, a few other people looked very confused, too, so I walked up to a pair of elderly English ladies who apparently also had the connection to Cologne, and then we were joined by a young English guy who even had the entire same connection as I did, all the way to Berlin.

With only a few minutes to go until our original departure time, we stopped another staff person, a man this time, who told us to take a different train from platform 13 that would get us to the other station (Bruxelles Nord), and when one of the English ladies told him that our connection was supposed to be in just a few minutes, he said we’d still make it if we hurried because our train was late anyway. Well isn’t that nice to know?

We sprinted to platform 13, the English guy carrying one of the ladies’ suitcases—she probably hadn’t imagined having to run around half the station, let alone sprint up stairs with her suitcase—, only to find the platform empty, safe for one Belgian (I think) lady that was also trying to get our train. That didn’t feel right at all, especially once a train got into platform 11. So we all ran down again and back up on the next platform, and that was finally the right train. Still not our train, mind you, but the one that would get us there.

The second stop was Bruxelles Nord, and there, finally, was our train. But because we didn’t know how much time we’d have before it would leave, we all just jumped through the closest door and then had to make our way through half the train, carrying our luggage and bumping into people left and right. At the very end of the train, I finally found the seat I had reserved. The sign said the seat next to mine wouldn’t be taken until Liège—one stop later, half the trip between Brussels and Cologne. I was absolutely fine with that because by then I was feeling sweaty and gross and out of breath and just wanted to relax for a few minutes.

Except that at Liège, the announcement came that the train was broken and we’d all have to get out. Now, normally, DB (and I assume the same is true for other train companies) has to get a substitute of some kind. They did not. Instead, they simply told us—and this was the only thing they told us—that on the next platform, there would be a train that would take us to Aachen and Cologne. Except, that turned out to be a lie, because the train only went to Aachen, not Cologne. (I don’t even want to know what those people did that had to go further than Cologne; I believe the train was scheduled to end in Frankfurt. But nobody cared about those people at all.) So an entire ICE train full of passengers squeezed into an old, fairly shabby-looking regional train (even slower than German RB trains, if you know what those are). People sat in pairs on single seats—including yours truly, cuddled up to some Flemish guy—and in groups of three on double seats. And even then there wasn’t nearly enough space for everyone; most people had to spend an hour or more (I lost track of time at some point) standing, somehow holding on to their luggage.

By that point, I had called the boyfriend and asked him to look up and then text me some new connections. I don’t have one of those fancy smart phones, mine turns nine in a few months and barely has colours on its display, so I needed his help. But since neither of us knew when I’d be arriving at Aachen, let alone Cologne, he couldn’t really help me much. The one new connection he did find, another ICE from Cologne to Berlin, was already cancelled. Just like that, an entire train cancelled. There was supposed to be a substitute of some kind there, although he couldn’t find out when and where, so that didn’t really help. I had resigned myself to either calling him again once I got to Germany, or queuing at one of the ‘service points’ in Aachen.

Thankfully, the guy opposite me had a smart phone and was looking up how to get to Cologne for himself and his friends. He told me that he’d found a regional train (an RE for those of you that know German trains) would be leaving Aachen for Cologne a while later. We did make it in time for that one; we even had to wait twenty or so minutes in Aachen along with a whole bunch of others. I had lost sight of the English people in Liège, but by then, I had found new people to commiserate with, including one lady who was livid about the entire affair—understandably so. At least the RE wasn’t very crowded, I got myself a nice seat with enough space for my bag and suitcase, and spend the hour it took us to get to Cologne just looking out the window. Nothing new for me; I take RB and RE trains all the time to uni.

In Cologne, where most people got off along with me, I had barely left the train when I was already looking around for an ICE to Berlin. In a surprising plot twist, there was one standing right next to mine, and I just hopped in.

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Cologne—Berlin

Now, usually, you have tiny signs above each seat that are turned on whenever somebody booked a specific seat. The signs say from which start point to which end station the seat has been reserved. If there’s no sign, it means anyone can sit down there, even people who didn’t pay extra to have a specific seat. I did pay extra, but by the time I had reached Cologne, my train with my seat in it was long gone and already halfway to Berlin.

And in this train, unlike all the others I had been in recently, including the two that I paid extra for to have a reservation when I went to Italy and back, nobody had bothered to use the signs. All they said—and all of them at that—was ‘clear if necessary’. Very helpful, that. So I carried my suitcase, bag and tripod through part of the train, until I found an empty seat. I shoved the suitcase above the seat and sat down. Before I’d even reached the seat, the train had already left the station, so I really only managed to get the connection because I ran from one train to the other. Remember this, that’s gonna be important again in a minute.

Because while everything was fine for the first half of that leg of the trip, things changed once we hit Hanover. I had managed to doze off, but then the seat next to me (that had been free for a bit) was suddenly occupied and I was woken up rather unceremoniously. A few minutes later, once most of the train had filled up, an elderly man came walking up to me, pointing at my seat. Or his seat, as it were; he had paid to have it. So I, naturally, had to leave and carry my suitcase yet again through half a train to find some of the staff. And that’s what put me over the edge, the guy I talked to.

Not only was he absolutely unhelpful, he was also snotty and rude. And that’s now how you do customer service. I told him about how I’d missed my connection because a train had broken down, and how I didn’t have a seat anymore. He just said that all I could do was ‘try the very last compartment’ because apparently, that’s where the non-reserved seats are? Doesn’t make any sense, but whatever. I then told him that I had paid for a seat and why there wasn’t a way to get me one now. And that’s when he got snotty, told me that I would’ve had to ‘rebook my reservation on a train station when changing trains’, to which I replied that I had had exactly one minute to change trains in Cologne. He just shrugged in a ‘whatever’ kind of way, and I knew then and there that he didn’t care one bit. So I resigned myself to that, and just asked again if there was no seat for me even though I had paid for it. He repeated that I ought to check the very last compartment, and added in that snotty tone of voice to ‘hurry up’ because the next stop—in just a few minutes—would be Wolfsburg, where all the commuters get on. Which means that not only did I have to carry my suitcase, bag and tripod through half the train again, but I also had to do it in a rush.

I did eventually manage to grab a seat, shortly before all the commuters got on, and I even got to keep it aaaaaaall the way to Berlin…

Where, after more than an hour of delay, I finally arrived. On the way, it had looked like there would be far more of a delay, but more than an hour is still a lot if your entire trip wasn’t supposed to be more than nine or so hours. Because I wasn’t just going to take it this time (like I did with the 45-minute delay when I came back from Italy), the boyfriend and I immediately made our way to one of the stupid ‘service points’. I was so mad at this point that I would’ve gladly kicked somebody. And hard. Instead, we lodged a complaint.

That, too, was one of those rude moments. I didn’t know exactly how long my delay had been, but I knew it was more than an hour. When I told the lady at the ‘service point’ precisely that, she tried to turn that into ‘an hour’. Because if the delay is up to an hour, rather than more, they don’t have to pay as much of the ticket price back. Bastards… Anyway, the boyfriend insisted on it having been 65 minutes, and once we looked it up, even the lady had to admit we were right. This meant that I would get 25% of the price back, plus the money I paid extra for the seat I didn’t have. That isn’t a lot with a ticket price of 50€, but I wasn’t willing to leave a single cent in their hands if it legally belonged to me.

My main problem wasn’t the delay, or the fact that the train broke down. These things happen. But the absolute lack of customer service was ridiculous. No announcements whatsoever, nobody to ask, that snotty guy? And then on top of all of that, the ‘service’ lady tells me, when I bring up the problem of my pocket knife and nail scissors, that it ‘probably said those weren’t permitted somewhere on the booking website’. I asked if she meant in tiny, hidden print, and she said ‘probably, yes’. Great service!

No way was I gonna give them any money I didn’t have to. They’ve transferred the money by now, so at least that’s done, but I’ve already told the boyfriend that no matter how much he might love trains and going places in them, I will not give DB a single cent in the near future. I don’t mind flying somewhere within Europe, say, to Croatia, and then taking (local) trains there, but no DB again. Perhaps never, certainly not in the near future.

So to conclude this post, here is a hearty SCREW YOU to DB and pretty much anyone who works in their service branch. I have yet to find a helpful DB ‘service’ person.

This has been the Train Fiasco of 2012, zänk juh for träwweling wis deutsche bahn.

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(Photo come Jonas Ginter, licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.)

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