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Trainspotting - John C. Kirk

Feb. 12th, 2012

11:34 pm - Trainspotting

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Last summer I spent a few days travelling around Europe. Basically, I took the Eurostar from London to Paris, then another train from Paris to Frankfurt for a wedding. Afterwards, I came back to Paris, then went down to Disneyland. Finally, I came back through Paris again, and took the Eurostar back to London. I knew about the wedding several months in advance, but I didn't really plan it properly; this is partly because I spent most of the time preparing for my LEJOG attempt.

Hopefully there will be some advice here that's useful to other people. In particular:

It was also interesting to observe how different countries handle public transport: I think that the UK would benefit from adopting some of those ideas.

I prefer to travel by train rather than by air, since I think it's better for the environment: the electricity to power the trains could theoretically come from any source, whereas planes have to use oil, and the efficiency problems of electric car batteries don't apply when the electricity is used instantly. It also feels a lot more civilised, e.g. I'm allowed to take bottled water with me and I can get a bit more leg room.

I took the Eurostar to Paris when I went cycle camping in 2010, so I had some idea of what to expect, and I did some more research online. In particular, I knew that I'd have to change between two different stations in Paris (the equivalent of going from Kings Cross to Waterloo within London). In 2010 I took the Metro from Gare do Nord to Montparnasse, but in this case it was quicker to just walk from Gare do Nord to Gare de l'Est.

Still, I'm getting ahead of myself. The first step was to actually buy a Eurostar ticket from London to Paris. You can do this online, then print out a 2D barcode which will get you through the turnstiles at the station. Unfortunately, I didn't have a printer at home (I've since bought one) and this was the night before I was due to leave so it was too late to use a printer anywhere else. Plan B was to turn up at St Pancras and buy a ticket there. I made a note of the train times (including the subsequent train from Paris to Frankfurt), and I knew that I had to check in 30 minutes before departure. However, even though I stayed up all night, I still managed to arrive late, so I had to catch a later train than I'd intended; I really should have packed sooner. I was able to buy a return ticket at the station, but it was more expensive (since I was travelling at a different time of day): £244.

Anyway, I got to Paris ok, and found my way to the other station, even though I got slightly lost and it took me longer than the predicted 10 minutes. I then had to get my next train to Frankfurt. I couldn't get a return ticket, so the best I could do was a 1-way ticket from Paris to Frankfurt on SNCF. Also, the only seats left were in first class, so that cost €199 (£180). In fairness, there was plenty of legroom so I was very comfortable. They also offered a complimentary newspaper, with a choice of two languages. Unfortunately those two languages were French and German, so I declined.

I changed trains at Karlsruhe, and I was impressed to see that they had lots of recycling bins at the station. Each bin had separate compartments for different materials, and there were several bins spaced out along the platform so that you didn't have far to walk. I went to the loo while I was there, and they had some big lockers for luggage. These were similar to the lockers you see at swimming pools: the idea is that you can stick all your bags in there while you use the facilities, then pick them up again a few minutes later. It was coin-operated, but you'd get your coin back afterwards (like a supermarket trolley): you swapped your coin for a token, which would open the appropriate locker. Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out how to get it working. They had some pictures, and there were only a limited number of buttons, so I'm sure that I tried each permutation. E.g. "put my bags in, close door, then insert coin" or "insert coin, then put bags in". Whatever I tried, the door opened and my coin came back. Still, I'm sure that it's convenient if you know how to use it. The lockers were made by Locktech, but I can't see anything relevant on their website. In the end, I just carried my bags into the loo with me.

While I was waiting at the station, I saw a DB Bahn train:

DB Bahn

That's a double-decker train, which I've never seen in England, although I remember reading about a proposed design in the Rail Riders magazine when I was at school. (I think the main objection was that there were too many low bridges for it to be feasible.) Based on the bike logo with the number "12" next to it, I assume that means that each carriage can take 12 bikes. If so, that's a very enlightened attitude, and I'd definitely like to see the same thing over here.

After another train journey, I reached Frankfurt. I went to McDonalds (or rather the "McCafe") and tried to speak the local language. However, when I specified "Mittel" chips I just got a blank look from the guy behind the counter, so I had to resort to English and pointing. I'm pretty sure I got the right word, so maybe it was just a problem with my accent.

My next job was to find somewhere to stay. I figured that the places right next to the station would be quite expensive, so I wandered around the nearby streets until I found somewhere that was close enough to be convenient but far enough to be cheaper. I found the Hotel Columbus, which charged €104 (£94) for two nights. That's rather more expensive than my camping trip in Breton, but it's not bad for a major city. They charged €3 for wifi internet access, which is pretty reasonable: this gave me 24 "online hours", so I was nowhere near my quota by the time I left, even though I arrived on Friday evening and left on Sunday morning.

On Saturday morning I took a local S-Bahn train from Frankfurt. The only confusing point here was that they didn't have ticket barriers, and I reached the platform without seeing anywhere to buy tickets, so I had to backtrack to find a machine. While I was waiting at the platform, I bought a Coke from the vending machine. (This was before my caffeine withdrawal.) I've used several vending machines before, and they all work the same way; you pay your money, then a can/bottle will be pushed off the relevant slot and drop down to the bottom of the machine for you to collect. However, this machine was a bit different:

Vending machine

There's a "trough" at the bottom, and when I made my selection this rose up to the relevant row. The bottle was then just nudged forward a few centimetres, rather than plummetting down to the bottom of the machine. The trough then moved again. On the right hand side of the machine, there's a black bit underneath the keypad, and that's where you collect the drink. The trough moved to this height, then there was some kind of piston on the left that pushed the bottle all the way along to the right. At that point, I could rotate the black bit to remove the bottle. This meant that the contents hadn't been shaken up (an obvious advantage for fizzy drinks) and it all worked very smoothly.

On Sunday morning, I checked out of the hotel and went to the station so that I could get a train back to Paris. I did like the poster outside the station, advertising the forthcoming "Smurfs" film. I haven't actually watched the film, but because I was in Germany the poster was labelled "Die Schlümpfe"; I just think that's a funny sounding word.

Anyway, I went to the ticket machine and selected the train that I wanted. It asked me for my preferences, e.g. facing forwards/backwards and whether I wanted a window or aisle seat. I entered all this information, but then it said "no matching seats are available". I tried again with different options, and got the same result. In fact, I went through every possible combination, and each time it told me that there weren't any seats available. I think that's a poor user interface: if the train is fully booked then it should just say that upfront.

In the end I queued up at the counter: they told me that I could have just sat at the bar and paid on the train, although by this point it was too late because I'd missed the train. (It would have helped if I'd got up earlier.) Oh well, live and learn. There were no more direct trains to Paris, so I had to buy a ticket to Cologne (aka Köln Hbf) for €42 then sort out the next leg of my journey from there. Curiously, my debit card was rejected, but I had enough cash to pay for a ticket so that wasn't a problem.

Once I got to Cologne, I tried to buy a new ticket to Paris. The staff on duty said that the only seats available on the next train were in first class; that was annoying, but I decided that I could live with it, rather than waiting a few hours for the next train. However, my card was rejected again, and I didn't have enough cash for the expensive ticket, so I had to abandon that plan.

I phoned my bank to find out what was going on. However, I didn't have enough prepay left on my PAYG phone, and I couldn't top it up because the cashpoints were rejecting my card. Instead, I had to use a payphone, using my remaining coins. I got a bit nervous when they put me on hold, because I could see my supply rapidly dwindling! Basically, the bank were suspicious about the sudden transactions from a foreign country, so they'd blocked my card. Once I convinced them that I was really me, they unblocked it. I belatedly remembered reading something on the bank website, saying that I should warn them in advance about foreign travel to avoid precisely this situation. Ah well, live and learn; that phone call cost me €4.90.

By this point, I'd missed the next train, so I had to wait for a later one (costing €109). Since I had some time to kill, I decided to explore the local area.

There was a model railway inside the station which caught my eye:

Model railway

This wasn't just an ornament; it was more like an arcade machine. You could put in coins, then control the trains inside, much like the way I used to play with Hornby trains as a youngster.

When I left the station, I was surprised to see a huge cathedral right outside:

Side of cathedral Front of cathedral

I went inside for a quick look around, and it's strange to think that I was completely oblivious to this when I was inside the station.

Once I caught my next train, I paid for internet access with Telenet/Thalys. However, this was quite expensive (€6.50), and very flaky. What's more annoying is that the clock was always running, even if I turned off my netbook for half an hour. I think it would have been much fairer to count "online hours", the same way that the hotel did.

From Paris, I took the RER A train to Disneyland. This is another double-decker train:


The DB Bahn looked a lot like a bus: you could step onto the lower deck or take the stairs to the upper deck. The RER is a bit different, since the lower deck is below platform level, and you have to take stairs to get down to it.

RER lower deck RER stairs

If you have a wheelchair or a pushchair/pram then I assume that you'd stay by the doors, since you can't reach either deck without taking the stairs. However, I think this approach has potential, particularly for London Underground: it should be easier to dig a deeper trench than to raise bridges.

All in all, a more expensive trip than I'd anticipated, but fortunately I had enough money saved up to cover the costs. I'm glad I went, and if I make a similar trip again then I should be able to make it a bit cheaper.