Clockwork

That’s how the German train system runs. Actually, it’s how most continental train services run, unlike the disorganised overpriced garbage with out-of-date rolling stock we’re stuck with in the UK.

I booked my ticket the day before I travelled online through www.bahn.de. Simple to use, in English and German and providing timetables, crossovers onto buses, and so on. The prices offered generally come in two flavours: very early bookers (I’ve never been able to get one of these) and usual price. On some trains there’s a first class option as well. The thing is, the regular price is always available even if you book thirty minutes before travelling.

None of this “£20 two weeks before and £120 on the day” nonsense as we have in the UK. Experience tells me this results in a carriage full of reserved seats with three people occupying any of them when the train pulls out of London. Offices just pre-book all the cheap seats in case any of their staff need them. It’s cheaper than booking when they’re required.

So armed with all my details and a credit card, I forked out €32.90 for a 3-train/1-bus 3 1/2 hour journey from Bielefeld to Weeze Airport, the budget version of Dusseldorf. Compared to an early-booking UK train, this is marginally expensive but what you have to take into account is the reliability and swiftness of the journey. The only issue I had was that the ticket must be printed out, but as long as you’re prepared for this it’s fine. The printout even includes your detailed schedule right down to the platform numbers you arrive at and depart from.

Can you imagine booking three trains over a three-hour journey with as little as ten minutes to connect at each station in the UK? You’d be lucky to get from the first to the second without missing one. Here, no problem. The busier routes are serviced by double-decker carriages so there’s more chance of a seat, and they’re clean, tidy and much quieter than almost any train I’ve been on back home.

As you approach each station a tannoy announcement and an LED screen tells you where you’re about to arrive. No more leaning against the glass trying to read the platform sign that’s 20m away and at a slight angle.

The bus I caught from Melanie’s was dot on time. It dropped me in town exactly as scheduled so I had a chance to get lunch before I reached the station. The first train was bang on time and I settled down with Nelson De Mille’s Cathedral to read. Around 90 minutes later I hopped off to make my first connection. Referring to my printout meant I didn’t have to search departure boards for the platform number, just walking around. There I got chatting to an English squaddie off to visit some friends. He’s been stationed in Germany for quite some time and is thinking of settling in the south once he leaves the army. Good luck to him.

Of course, the train was on time though a little crowded. Twenty minutes later I arrived at stop two, changed to the (on-time) third train and shortly after hopped off at Weeze station. A 100m walk got me to the airport shuttle – price included in my ticket – and exactly as scheduled on the piece of paper I had in my hand, arrived at the airport.

Good grief.

We’ve had private and public rail services. We’ve had bidding wars. We’ve fined companies for being crap and thrown money at repairs and upgrades. Yet all we have to do is look a few hundred miles away and virtually every country in Europe puts us to shame. Even the Romanian trains were more reliable than ours, including the so-called “Gypsy” service.

Anyway, I’m safely ensconced at Weeze Airport awaiting my flight to London. I’m about to spend virtually every cent I have on a sausage roll and an orange juice so that I don’t have to withdraw any more cash. As far as dinky airports go, it’s nice enough. Plain, but shiny and clean. Nothing to do, no free wi-fi (not a surprise), and one overpriced bar/cafe but I’m only here for an hour before my flight is called.

Three hours from now I’ll be cursing the immigration staff at Stansted again…

Later…

I wasn’t. Breezed through due to the flight landing early so we didn’t clash with the larger flight that followed on behind us. Even the luggage dropped off the carousel in record time. I got to the bus stop for my easybus half an hour early and was allowed onto the bus before the one I had booked. Nobody checked my ticket (bah – £7.50 wasted) and the driver shot down the M11 and through London like a bat out of Hell.

The ninety minute scheduled journey took a shade over an hour and I tumbled onto first the Victoria and then the Northern Line down to Liam’s place in darkest Croydon. I was met by my host at the Underground station and we headed for the most important building in the area – Liam’s local real ale pub. We sank a couple of pints and a devoured two bags of salt and vinegar crisps. The things you miss when you’re away from home.

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