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Taking the train rather than the plane for business travel in Europe: does it work?

Screen Shot 2013-07-25 at 11.39.30Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know I take the train for almost all my journeys, and many of these are business trips. Sean Hanley has asked me to sum up my experiences in a blog entry, so here goes. This post should be read in conjunction with the ones about the Eurostar Aachen trick, and Germany cheap tickets, and all my travel observations are here.

1) Set your limits
The train is not going to be your best bet for every rail trip in Europe. Distances are often too great, and on many routes connections are simply too poor. For example London – Amsterdam / Brussels / Köln / Frankfurt / Strasbourg / Lille / Paris / Lyon / Montpellier / Marseille / Geneva / Zürich should all be viable with just one change, and a journey time of 5-6 hours. London – Hannover / Berlin / München / Milan / Toulouse / Barcelona are too far for most people, or need 2+ changes. Within continental Europe even some short hops (like Milan – Marseille, or München – Prague) have such awful connections that flying may still be the best bet. For timetables I always still use DB Reiseauskunft (in English here) for timetables for my entire trips.

2) Booking tickets
This part needs a blog entry all of its own! This remains the major headache to make EU-wide rail workable. Rail company websites, with the exception of Deutsche Bahn’s, remain pretty damned awful, and often will not give you prices for tickets right through to your destination. Services like Loco2 (UK), Capitaine Train (FR) and Waymate (DE) are trying to make EU-wide booking viable. Buying two tickets for a journey can sometimes be cheaper than one through ticket, even within one country. Working out how and where to split is one of the most time consuming processes when trying to get decent ticket prices. This stuff takes a lot of time and learning still. I always try to avoid the websites of Eurostar, SNCF and Thalys if I can, but sometimes that is impossible, especially if you want to amass frequent traveller points (see below).

3) Book ahead
Think as you would when booking flights – book ahead! Most rail companies allow you to book 3 months ahead, and operate a rolling booking system, where days become available one at a time. Put a date 92 days ahead of your departure in your diary! If you then cancel your trip, different countries’ railways have different systems. DB makes a 15 Euro fee to cancel a ticket, but more or less any ticket can be cancelled, while Eurostar and SNCF tend to make their cheapest tickets impossible to cancel or refund.

4) Ticket collection
Most railways (Eurostar, DB / ÖBB / SBB (mostly), SNCF / SNCB (partially)) have online ticketing systems, where you either download a PDF, or have a barcode on your smartphone. This option, or paper tickets sent to your home address, are almost always preferable to collection of tickets at ticket machines in stations. Always avoid having to collect a ticket at a station in a country other than the country with whose company you purchased the ticket in the first place – it’s very often a nightmare.

5) Points mean prizes
If you travel a lot by train a Frequent Traveller card can be very helpful. Here again DB excels, with its combination of BahnCard and BahnBonus cards giving reductions for regular travellers, and access to lounges in railway stations in many European countries, including Eurostar. While DB and Eurostar lounges tend to be better than SNCF’s, all of them give you a quite place to work with free internet access if you have an hour to spare at a station.

6) In the trains
Quality and amount of space varies enormously. German ICEs generally offer more legroom and headroom than Thalys / Eurostar / TGVs. Spanish and Italian high speed trains generally have more than 2 classes of accommodation to choose from – the higher levels are very smart. For business travel I would never have a problem with 2nd class on DB, but always try to go for first class on Thalys or TGV if I can, if the upgrade is not too costly. On DB it is also possible to book in a quiet carriage – always worth doing. Most French trains are compulsory reservation, while German trains are optional reservation, for a €4 charge. I will always pay this if my journey is longer than an hour.

7) Reliability
I’ve had some delays when travelling by train in Europe, but few serious issues. Some lines (notably Brussels – Köln) are less reliable than others, and night trains are more prone to delay than daytime trains and high speed trains. Also if you use a night train, make sure you book a Schlafwagen (Sleeping Car / Voiture Lits), rather than a Liegewagen (Couchette) – you will not be in a good state for a business meeting after a night in a counchette.

8) Internet Access
My second major gripe, after ticket booking. Too few European rail services are wifi-equipped. Thalys is the only high speed service with wifi, but it’s often so slow so as to be unusable. DB has wifi on some routes only, while no Eurostars and very few TGVs are currently wifi equipped. I partially work around this using a Huawei mifi, but even still I do not have proper internet access on moving trains.

So then, does it work? The answer is yes, but with a few niggling problems, and that it will not work for all business travel in Europe. But the next time you’re travelling for work, try booking it with the train. If you have questions or need assistance then do ask below, or tweet me – I’ll do my best to help! I most definitely do not regret taking the train rather than the plane.

The future of channel tunnel long distance passenger railway services

Screen Shot 2013-06-15 at 13.10.18A small step forward step in the prospect of long distance high-speed train services using the channel tunnel was taken this week, with Deutsche Bahn granted a ‘Certificate B’ to operate trains through the tunnel. This has been a long time coming – in 2010 DB was talking of running trains in time for the Olympics! However this week’s decision is only step towards eventual through services from London to destinations such as Amsterdam or Geneva. Here are a series of the other hurdles to overcome.

Channel Tunnel Safety (train length)
The current Eurostar trains are 387m long, composed of a locomotive at each end, and 18 short carriages in between, and can be split in half if necessary. The idea is that in case of an accident or a fire in the tunnel, at least one door of the Eurostar trains would be close to an escape passage into the safety tunnel – and those escapes are at 250m intervals. DB proposes to run two 8-carriage ICEs coupled together through the tunnel, but passengers cannot pass between the two halves of coupled ICEs (see the coupling in a pic here). So would the ICEs get the safety permit to run? However at no time has a Eurostar ever been evacuated into the safety tunnel through one door. In short: not too complicated to solve.

Channel Tunnel Safety (distributed traction)
Current Eurostar trains have a locomotive at each end, and unpowered passenger carriages in between. Were a fire to break out in the traction or electrical components this would easily be isolated from passengers areas. ICEs, and the new Eurostar e320 sets being procured, both use another system – distributed traction – where all traction and electrical components are under the floor below the carriages where the passengers sit. This could theoretically pose a greater fire risk, and the trains not be granted permission to operate in the tunnel. However Eurostar was itself ready to procure such trains, so must have been confident of approval. In short: not too complicated to solve.

Procurement and approval delays
Both Eurostar’s new e320 trains, and the DB’s new Velaro D ICEs are essentially the same trains, just with Eurostar’s being a 16-carriage version, and DB’s an 8 carriage version. The problem is that procurement of these trains has been beset by delays – Eurostar now admits it will see its first trains only in 2015, rather than 2014 as hoped, while DB’s 16 new ICE were due to be running in 2011 but still are not approved fully, even in Germany. That’s before we come to the issue of approving them for at least Belgium and France, and possibly also Netherlands too. Approval of ICEs has been a nightmare before – current DB ICEs are only allowed to travel at 250km/h in Belgium due to concerns with flying ballast, and approval for the older ICEs on French high speed lines took 7 years to complete. Meanwhile signalling problems continue to beset the Belgium – Germany ICE connection. In short: a nightmare all round. Whatever the companies and manufacturers say, expect timetables to slip.

Security control
Bags of all passenges boarding Eurostars in London, Lille, Brussels and Paris are scanned as passengers enter a secure terminal. This is why passengers are required to arrive 30 minutes ahead of departure. While one might quibble as to whether this security paranoia is necessary, it is nevertheless here to stay. The question then arises how DB, or Eurostar for its through services, could scan bags in different stations? While it might be possible to get a secure platform arranged in Frankfurt(Main) Hbf or Genève, I cannot see how this could easily be done in Köln Hbf, Rotterdam Centraal or Amsterdam Centraal. In short: could be complicated, and may necessitate services not stopping in some stations, or disembarkation (see below).

Passport Control, and the UK Border
The UK is not in Schengen, and this issue has already posed significant problems with the Lille Loophole. The basic idea with Eurostar is that passport controls should be conducted in Paris, Lille and Brussels (so-called juxtaposed controls) and not in London, because if an illegal immigrant gets to London (before a check there), then there is no obligation for Eurostar to transport them back to France or Belgium. The result of this is that for Eurostar’s through service from Aix-en-Provence to London, all passengers are required to disembark at Lille Europe for passport checks (and presumably a security control too), making the France-London journey take 55 minutes longer than the outward trip. DB has proposed that UK border checks be conducted on board the train, but I would imagine that Eurostar also proposed this for its Aix service and was refused. In short: this is the biggest headache, and could – on its own – kill the prospect of cross border through services. But a system of passport checks on arrival would require political will to deliver.

So if you’re waiting for your ICE to Frankfurt(Main) or your Eurostar to Geneva, you might well be waiting a while.

The Lille Loophole – stop London checks on all except 3 trains

Lille-EuropeWhat is the Lille Loophole?
It is a means by which people without the correct identification papers necessary to enter the UK can do so thanks to a loophole in the Schengen rules, as applied at Gare du Midi in Brussels, and to the Eurostar rail service. News about the loophole here.

How does it work?
A passenger buys a ticket for the train between Bruxelles Midi and Lille Europe* (which is allowed) but instead of getting off in Lille, the passenger stays on the train and continues all the way to London St Pancras (not allowed). This is possible because both Belgium (Brussels) and France (Lille) are in Schengen, and hence passengers travelling between these two cities cannot be obliged to show a passport when boarding at Gare du Midi, Brussels, as the Schengen agreement has abolished border controls between the signatory countries. These Brussels-Lille passengers are allowed through a corridor that bypasses the UK Border Authority’s desks at Gare du Midi. Identification and visas allowing someone to be present in a Schengen zone country, and those to enter the UK, are different. Someone may be in Belgium legally, but this might not mean they could legally enter the UK.

What happened?
Previously when travelling from Brussels to London, or Lille to London, a passport check took place only in Brussels or Lille. As a result of travellers exploiting the loophole, UKBA has introduced extra passport checks upon arrival at St Pancras, and UKBA also stamps passengers’ tickets before boarding in Brussels. Sometimes there are also additional passport checks on board the train between Lille and Calais, performed by French railway police. The problem is the 300+ passengers disembarking a Eurostar at the same time at St Pancras can mean queues of up to 20 minutes to leave the terminal, and this can be worse still if two trains arrive at the same time. This means people in danger of not getting onward connections, and this makes Eurostar feel more like an airline with its queues than a rail service.

So what’s the solution?
The little known fact in all of this is that the Lille Loophole only actually applies to three trains each day on the Brussels – London route. These are trains 9133 (1256 departure), 9149 (1656 departure) and 9161 (1952 departure). All other Brussels – London trains, even if they stop at Lille, cannot be booked for Brussels – Lille. In other words, the 7 other Brussels – London trains** only pick up passengers in Lille, and hence no passenger on these trains can bypass the UKBA checks in Brussels.

I was a passenger on train 9157 (1856 departure) on Friday from Brussels to London, but was still subjected to passport checks in London (see my blog post prior to the journey here). Why, I asked the surly UKBA official at St Pancras are you even checking this train because it is not a Lille Loophole train? “It is!” she snarled back at me. “No, you cannot book Brussels – Lille tickets on this train” I pushed. “Do you think I do this job for fun?” was her retort.

Seriously though, is all of this not getting a bit absurd? It is only possible to check in for Eurostar at Gare du Midi once the previous train has departed, so there is not the danger someone accidentally can hang around and get on the wrong train. And that could anyway be solved with a ticket check on the train from a member of Eurostar staff, ensuring everyone was on the right train. A UKBA official I asked in Brussels implied that passengers could hide so as to exploit the loophole, by waiting around for later trains. Where could that possibly happen I wonder? In the loos in the Brussels terminal or something?

All of this then leads us back to a comparison of the Eurostar border with other borders. When you cross to the UK in a car on a ferry or in Eurotunnel not even your luggage is systematically checked. How hard would it be, I wonder, to stow yourself away in the boot of a car? Or on board a yacht sailing across to the UK from France?

As for Eurostar, from the situation where there was an obvious loophole, we now have completely the opposite situation – where even trains to which the loophole would not apply are subject to extra checks. While this is infuriating now, it might even kill the prospect of through Eurostar or DB services from other European cities in future, and damaging rail’s position vis à vis air is a highly undesirable outcome.

* – theoretically the same could be done at Calais Fréthun, but for the sake of simplicity I only refer to Lille in this blog entry.
** – Monday-Friday services. Full timetable here.

A little Brussels-London security paranoia case study – this coming Friday

I have not taken Eurostar recently, but judging by comments posted on my previous blog posts about the service, it seems that the security paranoia that afflicts the route has not diminished.

Anyway, for the first time in months, I am going to be on Eurostar on Friday this week, and am taking my journey as a little experiment.

I will be on service number 9157, between Brussels and London, leaving Brussels at 1856. This is the Brussels – London timetable excerpt (full PDF here):

Screen Shot 2013-04-16 at 14.25.57

Right then. My train does stop in Lille Europe, and not in Calais.

The next task: can tickets even be booked on this service between Brussels and Lille? I used SNCB’s search to check this, and it only shows trains 9133 (1256 departure), and 9161 (1952 departure) – i.e. it will not let me book Brussels – Lille on train 9157. I also checked with the same search on Capitaine Train, and it is even clearer – train 9157 shows up, but the site tells me that booking anything on it for Brussels – Lille is impossible. I have also tried multiple days for my searches, just to make sure that it is not only because one service is full.

So train 9157 does not set down any passengers in Lille, it only picks them up, and beyond Lille it does not stop the whole way to St Pancras. This means that the Lille Loophole does not apply to this service (but would apply to trains 9133 and 9161).

What does this mean for security checks on board this service? It means that a passport check by the UK Borders Authority in Brussels should suffice, and the same for passengers boarding in Lille. No further checks should be needed on board the train, nor at St Pancras.

Let’s see what happens on Friday, because I would be really surprised if that is actually what happens.

[UPDATE: thanks to digging by @philrichardsuk and I, we are now even more confused than we were. It seems SNCB can only offer Eurostar tickets up until 27th April inclusive, at the time of writing, and often only train 9133 (1256 departure), and 9149 (1656 departure) show, and not the 1952 departure. In any case, I think the main gist of this piece holds!]

More Eurostar security oddities

On Tuesday this week I was on Eurostar 9161, the 1952 departure from Bruxelles Midi to London St Pancras, with stops in Lille Europe, Calais Fréthun and Ebbsfleet. Shortly after departure from Lille the train manager made an announcement, telling us that a control of tickets and identity papers would be made between Lille and Calais.

Two youngish, surly French men passed through the train, one wearing a working man’s sweater and boots, the other with a bomber jacket with US baseball insignia on it, each of them with little, fluorescent Eurostar armbands. One asked me to see my ticket.

“What’s the reason for this control?” I asked him in French, as he looked at my ticket and showed no interest in my passport. “It’s just to check the tickets, to see that people have tickets, to see if they are sitting in the correct carriage.” I told him I had moved from the neighbouring carriage, and despite the fact I had an odd DB ticket, he was fine with it and off he went.

Notably this control was not the same as the rail police control from a few weeks ago. I still do not understand its purpose though, not least because my ticket was stamped by the UK Borders control in Bruxelles, and my ticket and passport were checked in London too (the Lille loophole checks). Why do a second level of these checks in the train as well – if that’s what this check was for? There were also 4 civilian security personnel on the platform at Calais, kitted out in bright orange jackets, but notably these were civilian security guards – were they something to do with it too? In the past there have sometimes been armed military present at Calais.

What is going on with all of this?

Eurostar security absurdity, part II

All was going so well. Eurostar 9156 departed on time from St Pancras at 1904, and arrived at around 2057 (local time, as scheduled) at Calais Frethun.

Then nothing. No departure. Silence.

Then the announcement that “for service reasons” we were to wait 10 minutes at Calais. At 2108 a Eurostar arrived into Calais from Lille, presumably the slightly late running train 9161 (the 1952 departure from Brussels – full Eurostar timetable here). A few minutes later our train departed towards Brussels with a delay of about 12 minutes.

After yesterday’s experience my attention was piqued. So I found the train manager and asked him. Why, I asked, was our train delayed? What does “for service reasons” mean? “It was because of staff” he said. Do you mean, I pushed him, that we were waiting for the rail police to get out of the arriving Eurostar and to get into our train so as they can return to Lille? Yes he said.

So once again a delay thanks to the security issue, although – presumably because they trust their colleagues in London – there was no passport or ticket check of passengers in the train between Calais and Lille.

Bring it on: delay without even the faint notion that it’s in the passengers’ interests!

Security paranoia on a journey from Brussels to London (Eurostar)

I’ve just arrived home, having taken Eurostar 9133, the 1256 departure from Brussels Midi to London St Pancras. The security paranoia on the route is now so absurd it’s worth a blog entry.

The first check at Gare du Midi is a ticket check, where the QR code on a print-at-home ticket is checked and an automatic barrier opens. This verifies the validity of your ticket to travel. If your ticket can’t be used in the barrier it can be manually checked by a member of staff. In short, you can’t get into the terminal without a valid ticket.

Second, your passport is checked by a Belgian passport official, confirming you are leaving Schengen. Third, your passport is checked by a UK Borders official, confirming your are allowed to enter the UK, and your ticket receives a stamp. More about this later. (If you are travelling only as far as Lille you do not have to prove your identity, because Belgium and France are in Schengen – the so called Lille-loophole).

Next the metal detector at security is set at such an absurdly high level in Brussels that they oblige you to take off belts and watches. What am I conceivably going to do with a belt on a Eurostar train? Wrap it around the driver’s head and force him to take us all to Paris instead of London? OK, check my luggage and make sure I don’t have a bomb in it, but no more – that’s what they basically do in London as far as I can tell, so why so strict in Brussels?

Then today when the train called at Lille for more passengers to alight and board, we were told on the public address system in the train that there would be additional checks in the train between Lille and Calais. These checks were carried out by a team of 7 French rail police carrying guns and batons, but just checking tickets (and not passports). I asked the policeman who checked my ticket why he was doing so. “Parce-que c’est comme ça” (because that’s the way it is) he replied. I pushed him further, saying that of course I had to have a valid ticket, because how otherwise could I have actually got on the train? “C’est contre la fraude” (it’s against fraud) was the best I got out of him before he moved off.

Now if this really is against ticket fraud, then why these armed police, and not Eurostar staff? And if this is actually a border check rather than a fraud check, why are they checking tickets rather than passports? Or are they actually checking the stamps on the tickets from Brussels (see above), and are hence working with UK Borders in some way? Or is it all just bravado?

It is also most definitely inconvenience – not for the checks themselves, but because the train additionally had to call at Calais (not in the timetable) to let the police off, and due to the stop the train had missed its slot to pass through the channel tunnel, meaning a delay of 15 minutes. The train manager, when announcing the delay, did not say why the delay had happened.

Then upon arrival in St Pancras, not announced to passengers on the train, all passports and all tickets were being checked by UK Borders at the exit. Which – quite frankly – seems to render other checks superfluous. Why bother having a UK Border check in Brussels, and French police check in the train, if you’re then going to check in London too? Plus, due to the small terminal exit and a few hundred people streaming off a train, the checks are not swift in London – I was only through quickly as I always travel in the front carriages of a London-bound Eurostar.

Now I don’t know what the right answer to this is – in security terms. A passport check for all passengers in Brussels (including Lille-bound passengers) would probably be the simplest, but is not legally viable it seems. Passport checks (with auto passport gates?) at St Pancras would be the most secure if the risk is judged to be adequately high.

But two things are clear from today’s experience: the way the checks are currently done does not work at all efficiently, and the communication about why the checks are happening is deeply inadequate. 

In its quest for market share, Deutsche Bahn has forgotten about technology and service on their Frankfurt-Brussels route

The Intercity-Express (ICE) connecting Brussels with Frankfurt/Main via Köln is probably the least reliable train I’ve ever experienced. The catalogue of problems I have had with this service stretches back years, right from when the service was first introduced. I do at least 4 return journeys a year on the ICE between Brussels and Köln, and sometimes as far as Frankfurt, and the problems are so common so as to have become a pattern.

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