A rail postcard from Aachen

Dear Violeta,

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.

5 thoughts on “A rail postcard from Aachen

  1. This reminds of my even worse experiences back in autumn/winter 2011:

    On the outgoing journey on 04.12. I expected the luxury Problem of having to wait a bit over 2 hours in Brussels South station – but Deutsche Bahn kept me entertained: Shortly before arriving in Frankfurt, an announcement asked passengers for Brussels to stay on the train (ICE 720) because the Brussels train (ICE 14) would not run. We were deliberately held for a couple of minutes before leaving Frankfurt main station, as scheduled for ICE 14. We then made all of the many possible stops and detours (to Cologne airport) on the rather short Frankfurt-Cologne highspeed line.

    Siegburg, the last stop before Cologne, is still well out of the traffic-congested greater Cologne area and would provide good access for any bus replacement service in the direction of Belgium via the A565/A61 motorway avoiding the congested greater Cologne area altogether on this slightly longer route. When we had just left Siegburg, however, a replacement bus service leaving from the middle of congested Cologne (i.e. Cologne coach station just behind Cologne main railway station) during the busiest rush hour was announced. The conductor gave the usual explanation as always when you ask for the reasons of questionable decisions: “I agree with you, I just don’t know why THEY decided to handle it this way.” Funny thing, by the way: They always say THEY – never WE….

    On arrival at cologne station, which I happen to know very well, I rushed out of the train and had just nearly reached the back Breslauer-Platz exit when an announcement caught my attention: “The replacement train to Brussels is now arriving on platform x!”

    After a sudden U turn out of full running speed I finally arrived at the replacement train where I happened to see the chief conductor of ICE 720, who still kept his good mood and said: “I know, it’s all rubbish what I say!” A few minutes later (too few for anyone in order to return who had run faster then me out of the back station exit to look for the announced replacement buses there) the replacement train left and stopped at Düren, where we had to change to a train arriving from Brussels and returning there with us. Finally, this was probably the best decision they could have made, and the luxury problem of spending more than 2 hours in Brussels shrunk to a short stroll around the station to stretch my legs.

    I am not really complaining about technical problems – but rather the way replacement services are handled – especially if certain breakdowns are apparently quite common like on the Brussels-Cologne route….

    Anyhow, my return trip from London made me enjoy an unforgettable example of teamwork between Railteam members:

    Also my roughly 8th and 9th Eurostar trip to and from London in EST 9161 on 04.12 and 9116 on 07.12. occurred without any noticeable incident – maybe we were just a couple of minutes late, I don‘t remember. While waiting for the departure in London, I noticed some Railteam advertising brochure praising their teamwork and promising “just hop on the next available train”.

    http://www.railteam.co.uk/for-your-journey/railteam-services/

    http://www.railteam.co.uk/why-railteam/our-alliance/

    So far the theory – here comes a really impressive practical example of Railteam teamwork:

    Well aware of the permanent ICE problems, especially on the Brussels route (I personally encountered just 1 trip out of about 6 without any incident), I checked the status online in my stopover hotel in Brussels: The ICE 18 on 08.12. from Cologne to Brussels had left Aachen with an ICE-minor delay of half an hour or so but was diverted in Belgium via the old line. Therefore it was supposed to arrive in Brussels 1:28 h late. So I expected it to return as ICE 15 with a 10- to 20-minute delay and walked to the Brussels North station nearby. When I arrived there, I found out that it had meanwhile been “supprimé” (what not every other German would-be passenger might have found easy to decipher).

    Although I was perfectly aware of the de facto ICE vs. Thalys war (the battle grounds have actually just been extended from Belgium to Germany), I was still lulled by the Railteam advertisement promises read the day before. So I dared to ask for permission to go to the Brussels South station in order to hop on the next available Thalys train THA 9437 at 13:28h. I could thus have spent relaxing additional hours in Brussels (where I don‘t come that often any more)… As expected, I was told the hard teamwork facts of Railteam life and referred to the next intercity IC 509 to Eupen instead; from Liège there would be replacement buses to Aachen. (Later on, this was changed from Liège to Verviers.) I don’t think many passengers would have used this option of spending about 3 hours more in Brussels than booked – so I can’t really see any availability problem that would have given a substantial reason to refuse the fulfilment of the hop-on-the-next-available-train promise! It only seems to exist on paper, really!

    The IC train took the highspeed line between Brussels and Liège (55 road kilometres to Aachen main station or 122 to Cologne main station) and then continued via Verviers (33 road km to Aachen) and Welkenraedt (18 road km to Aachen) to Eupen (19000 inhabitants, 19 road km to Aachen) – where it usually seems to stop virtually empty (at least it did the few times I rode it a few years ago).

    The engine had apparently no problems whatsoever, switching from the old-network 3kV DC voltage to the highspeed-line 25kV 50Hz at full-speed – neither with different signalling systems. I wonder if it would really have been incapable of stopping in Aachen instead of Eupen after calling in Welkenraedt in a true team spirit? 3kV DC voltage and crocodiles (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Crocodile) extend well into Aachen main station, So I really cannot see any technical problems – maybe it would need an additional licence by the infamous EBA (Eisenbahnbundesamt) to enter just a few km into German territory, however…

    Rerouting the IC from Eupen to Aachen would have been the best solution from the passengers point of view, of course.

    Where have the old Belgian engines gone, which provided reliable service between Cologne and Ostend (without engine change) already 30 years ago ? And even today a few Belgian trains regularly run on the regional line between Aachen and Liège. Could one of them in a real teamwork effort really not be used in order to provide a RAIL replacement service on this quiet Saturday morning – at least only for the last few FAST rail-km from Welkenraedt to Aachen – rather than the extremely SLOW city-street descent from the motorway exit?

    Could DB not rent only one single reliable Thalys train and run it as an ICE-replacement shuttle between Aachen and Brussels, until new, hopefully more reliable ICEs, are available? On the other hand, they did rent a TGV on the Frankfurt – Paris route to replace an ICE – so why not here??? For some reason I just do not understand, DB and SNCF (the Thalys majority owner) are capable of cooperation between Paris and Frankfurt/Munich and now even Marseille – Frankfurt – but are fiercely fighting each other between Brussels and Cologne. And the fiercest fighting has been going on already for many years in Belgium, where the minority owner NMBS/SNCB is obviously fiercely fighting against themself.

    If under these well foreseeable and repeatedly occurring ICE breakdown circumstances, rail team members are apparently incapable or unwilling to consider any other teamwork solution than providing 3rd party bus replacement service, they are in my opinion openly declaring the bankruptcy of the Railteam alliance!

    After all, there are Belgian regional trains between Aachen and Liège! Could not just a single one of them at least shuttle the mere 15km or so between Welkenraedt or Aachen – or even between Liège and Aachen via the highspeed line? Or rather newer models if they cannot go via the highspeed line?

    As I have found out by now, I am not the first person making such proposals: For already a very long time, these problems occur over and over again (German only):

    http://www.ice-fanforum.de/index.php?mode=thread&id=179007

    http://www.aachener-zeitung.de/lokales/aachen/intercity-aus-belgien-soll-bis-aachen-fahren-1.335439

    When we approached Liège, I actually considered taking such a regional train instead of the replacement bus and asked the conductor. He said I was not supposed to use it on my own and should rather stick to the official replacement bus service provided; the regional train was far too short to cope with all the would-be ICE passengers. (If I could have seen two hours into the future I would have precisely known what to answer to this argument… ) Knowing my passenger rights (as far as hopping on the next available train with our without compulsory reservation is concerned) I did not care, but he told me the next regional train to Aachen would leave in about an hour and a half. Staying on board and changing to the replacement buses would bring me to Aachen much quicker, anyhow. This argument finally convinced me and I stayed on board.

    At Verviers station, guidance by NMBS/SNCB staff was very good: It was already announced in the train which station exit to use, and at the top of the stairs there was even someone with a sign “Bus Aachen” pointing to the correct exit!

    After we had crossed the border to Germany and started our slow descent crawling down along Aachen’s city streets to the station, I checked the trains from Aachen to Cologne online and found that our ICE 15 was apparently waiting for us: It was expected to leave with estimated 85 minutes delay. Although I rather expected a delay of 90 to 95 minutes, I did not get suspicious; delay estimates usually tend to be a bit too low.

    When we arrived at Aachen main station, there was no guidance by DB staff whatsoever, passengers were just left to themselves. When I ran into the station and looked at the display I could not believe my eyes: Our ICE had apparently just left a few minutes ago!!!

    THIS is the largest scandal in my Brussels to Munich ordeal: Why could DB not let this train, which was already 85 minutes late anyhow, wait for another five minutes or so in order pick up the hundreds of passengers that should have boarded it in Brussels or Liège in the first place? There are many ICE trains between Cologne and Frankfurt and many local trains bridge the short 70-km distance between Aachen and Cologne, Was the turnaround time in Frankfurt a problem? They could have let it turn at Frankfurt airport. For some reason I do not understand at all, someone had decided to let this train go probably nearly empty when the replacement buses had nearly reached the station!!! This added about one hour to the delay of the Brussels passengers travelling further than Cologne. Finally, they all ended up in overcrowded local trains from Aachen to Cologne and thus had to change yet one more time. (Most of them had a lot of luggage and I was actually one of the few passengers from Brussels travelling light.)

    I looked for a service point in order to get a certification of the delay, which would allow me to take other than the originally booked trains within Germany. I could not find it. The travel centre was besieged by fellow Brussels passengers. I saw a member of DB staff with a red “Information” cap. When I excitedly asked him about the ICE he confirmed may fears: “It has just left!” I asked him: “Is there a service point here?” He answered in a very helpful way: “Do you see one here?” I asked him if he could certify the delay (about 3 minutes before the scheduled departure of the next regional train to Cologne, which was expected about 10 minutes late according to the display, however). He insisted on seeing my ticket, which (i.e. the first page of the online ticket showing all booked trains) was not sufficient as he then insisted on the 2nd page showing the detailed timetable information. He took his time reading all the details and even answered interruptive questions by other stranded passengers telling them to which platform to run in order to catch the next Cologne train leaving any minute (this was 1 minute before the scheduled departure time of the train RE 10917, displayed about 10 minutes late). My voice is already rather loud under normal circumstances (because of the hearing disabilities of my mother), it probably even got a bit louder when asking: “Why can’t you just certify that I am so and so many minutes late right now?” Although I did not use any impolite language he answered something like: “Wenn Du nicht gleich still bist, zereiß ich das Ding und es fliegt im hohen Bogen in den nächsten Papierkorb!” / “If you don’t shut up right away I’ll tear this thing and throw it into the next litter bin” (Notice to non-German speakers: He used the colloquial “Du” form of addressing people which unlike in Dutch or Spanish is very rude to a stranger in German; if someone addresses a policeman in this way he will be prosecuted.) Although as a 58-year old man I was not used to this sort of language, used against naughty school boys, any more, it made me shut up instantly- I grabbed my ticket and also ran to the next regional train to Cologne.

    When I arrived at the platform about 2 minutes after the scheduled departure time, the train was already full of fellow passengers from Belgium and still displayed “about 10 minutes late” also on the platform. As I thus had apparently about 8 more minutes to board, I went to the front of the train, which I hoped to be a bit less cramped.

    After missing some trains normally calling at Mannheim for about 8 minutes, I am fully aware of the fact that the displayed delay refers to the arrival time – even when it is shown below the departure time. So far I was not aware that this effect of trains leaving earlier than displayed can also happen with trains turning around and returning with a totally new train number. (Actually, in the Munich region they normally still display “on time” when the incoming train is e.g. 30 minutes late with 10 minutes scheduled turnaround time.). I am also used from e.g. Munich or Berlin that before a train leaves its terminus (late or not) there will be short announcement “Board!”, then “Stay back!”, and only then the doors are blocked.

    But when I had just reached the 2nd or 3rd door from the front, it was silently locked and the driver looked out of the window. When I asked him (in quite a loud voice as he was quite a distance away from me) to let me in, he said he was already late. I told him I was already extremely late from Brussels and he should let me in. He replied: “Only if you ask me in a humble way!” Meanwhile I had realized that unlike a German proverb the customer is not the king in DB trains and that the only method getting me still onboard was a fallback to kindergarten behaviour patterns. So I folded my hands and begged: “Bitte, bitte!” / “Please, please!” The mighty king of the train generously unlocked the doors, and the train finally left Aachen main station about 4 minutes late with me onboard. The display still read “about 10 minutes late”, of course…

    I have read about a growing number of violent attacks on railway staff, and I could never understand why someone would do such a thing. By now, I know: In fact, for a short moment I had felt the sudden urge to run to the driver and hit him in the face, but as peaceful man I had managed to overcome this totally unusual feeling.

    I had survived the worst by now, but some minor things were still to come:

    Since then nothing has improved. I wrote to the European commission to improve passenger rights – no changes… Well, in Germany things have actually become much worse by now: Prices now urge you to buy separate tickets for short- and long-distance trains – but if you do DB will force you to buy a new ticket if you miss your booked DB long-distance train because of a delayed DB short-distance train – 2 separate contracts = no passenger rights.

    Meanwhile I use my car much more for travelling in Europe than I used to…

  2. A perfect example – unfortunately for you – of how one can have great trains but a dismal system for ticketing and rail travel problem solving. Our railways are among the best in the world, but the way cross-border or even multi-operator journeys within the same country are managed has remained stuck in the last century. Compared to differences in track gauges, signalling systems and other technical issues, this one should be easy to fix. As long as this isn’t the case, you need to be a real “aficionado” to persist travelling long(ish) distances by train. Thank you, Jon, for highlighting this!

  3. It works the same in Sweden. There was a story some time ago about a guy who had booked a through ticket from somewhere to Stockholm with a change of trains somewhere on the Malmö-Stockholm line. SJ runs a train on the line approximately once an hour, while Transdev runs a train twice a day or so. Unfortunately for this guy, he had booked a ticket with Transdev, so he was forced to wait for the next Transdev train instead of taking the next SJ train.

    The compensation rules, as written in EU law, do not talk about the number of papers you receive from the railway company but about contracts. If all of the trains are part of the same contract, then you get compensation based on your arrival time to the last station. If there are multiple contracts, then you are in trouble if a connection breaks. In Sweden, you may get one “ticket” per railway company, but if you’ve booked a through ticket, then it’s still one “contract”.

  4. Blimey Jon, that’s a shameful performance. What happened to Railteam’s promise of real time updates on cancellations and delays?

    John

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *