Today I am writing to you from Aachen, and I am not here for the Christmas Market. I am here because I am stuck due to the immense incompetence of European railways and the lack of basic collaboration between them in the interests of passengers. This story is going to be a bit long, but hell, I have more than an hour hanging around here due to the mess, so let me get started.
Back on 18th October I booked my train ticket from Berlin to Brussels, the first leg of a trip that will take me to the UK for Christmas. I checked the prices for Berlin – Brussels on SNCB Europe‘s site as they can book both Thalys and ICE trains, and found a connection on an ICE leaving Berlin at 0749, getting to Köln at 1209, then departing on a Thalys from there at 1242 and arriving Bruxelles Midi at 1432. The cost was €64.25, 1st class, with a BahnCard 25.
But then when I got to Berlin Hbf this morning I soon realise there is problem number 1. The Berlin – Köln ICE was to be diverted via Essen rather than Hagen today, adding 40 minutes to the journey time. Arrival at 1249, and a missed Thalys. I had received no notification of this from SNCB Europe with whom I had booked, despite them having both my telephone number and e-mail address. SNCB Europe seems to have no Verspätungsalarm e-mail system as Deutsche Bahn does.
The train manager on the ICE suggested instead taking a RegionalExpress RE7 from Hamm (Westfalen) to Köln instead, arriving 1238 in Köln. Tight, but possible. However just 2 minutes before that train was due to depart from Hamm it was announced the service would be 30 minutes delayed (problem number 2), with no information ahead of time in DB’s mobile app about that – presumably RE7 is operated by National Express (and they have well documented issues), not DB? Of course National Express (and their equally useless equivalent EuroBahn) can only operate in Nordrhein Westfalen thanks to liberalisation of railways in the EU.
Anyway, I searched around and found a connection from Hamm to Aachen in a RegionalExpress, Aachen to Welkenraedt with a regional service, and an IC from there to Bruxelles Midi, arrival at 1700. The kind lady at Hamm told me that I would be OK as far as Aachen, but would need to speak to the staff in Aachen about the cross border part.
So I duly went to the Thalys office at Aachen (yes, they have a separate ticket office from DB, which strikes me as a bit silly) to enquire whether, as a result of the earlier DB rerouting issue and missing my Thalys, I could just take the regional train to Welkenraedt, and the IC on to Brussels. “If you pay the full fare you can take it!” the surly guy in the Thalys office told me. “This is all due to issues out of my hands” the guy said. “The problem is with Deutsche Bahn,” he continued, pointing towards the DB Reisezentrum. Problem number 3. All the Thalys guy could do would put me on the next Thalys train – departing 1723, arriving 1832 in Brussels! It was about 1415 when I was at Aachen station.
At this point I admit I rather lost it and shouted at the hapless Thalys guy. Not only was there a regional train due to leave for Welkenraedt at 1504, but also an ICE to Brussels before the next Thalys as well – departing 1621 arriving 1735. And I could take neither of these. And I had actually booked my tickets from SNCB, the operator of the Aachen – Welkenreadt and Welkenraedt – Brussels services. The Thalys guy just shrugged.
How can it possibly be that having missed the high speed premium train I am not actually allowed to take the slow speed crappy regional one instead?
I then went to the DB Reisezentrum to ask them, and at least the staff were much more friendly than at the Thalys office. You can take the ICE, but not the regional service, they told me. But you will need a Railteam stamp (in reference to the Railteam Alliance) – and we don’t have that but the Thalys guy does. “But I’ve just talked to him!” I said, “and he says I can only take a Thalys!” So the lady from DB went to the guy from Thalys and they both argued about the fact that neither of them had a Railteam stamp. Problem number 4. So the DB lady wrote me an explanation instead, and put a DB stamp on my Thalys ticket. Let’s hope it works shortly.
But even if these trains work it is not going to be the end of it. I am now going to end up in Brussels at 1735, a delay of 183 minutes. More than three hours. But problem number 5 will be to try to actually get compensation. A delay of more than 2 hours should mean I can get 50% back. But although I booked the whole ticket together from SNCB Europe, I actually received two tickets in one PDF. When I had a similar issue in the opposite direction last year (a delayed Thalys meant I missed my ICE), SNCB Europe refused to pay any compensation whatsoever. I fear that is what will happen this time as well. I’ll update this blog entry once I hear from them.
So how then, Violeta, when what ought to be such a simple trip, ends up with such a never ending stream of problems, why would people actually take the train?
I was not provided the right information ahead of time (problem 1), any real time information (problem 2), faced rail firms that blamed each other and gave me incorrect information (problem 3), was not allowed to take a slower regional train when I couldn’t take the high speed one (problem 4), and I am likely to not get any compensation (problem 5).
What, I wonder, are you and your Commission colleagues doing about all of this?
Anyway, until next time, safe travels!
[UPDATE 8.2.2017, 1000]
So in the end point 5) did not prove to be a problem. I contacted SNCB Europe who initially told me that I would be entitled to 50% compensation of only the DB part of my ticket. I responded to them stating that, no, the problem was known ahead of time, and I ought to hence receive 50% compensation for the entire trip. SNCB Europe said they would look into this, and in the end enquired with Deutsche Bahn who then reimbursed me 50% of the Thalys part of the trip as well. SNCB pointed out to me that this was an exceptional case, but it is worth bearing in mind – if a delay is due to something foreseen then it’s worth pushing the company that issued the ticket to see if they can secure the passenger extra compensation.