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Beware the UIC Train to Paris – cross border rail for dignitaries only

4166912838_3c94ded9ea_oIn 2009 the United Nations Climate Change Conference was held in Copenhagen. The UIC organised a special night train (pictured) for dignitaries to be able to get from Brussels to Copenhagen by rail – the Climate Express. By 2009 regular night trains to Brussels were already history, and in 2014 Deutsche Bahn axed its Copenhagen – Amsterdam / Basel / Prague service. I wrote about the hypocricy of this on my blog here.

So fast forward to 2015, and we are at it again. The latest round of COP (COP21) negotiations is in Paris 30th November – 11th December 2015, and the UIC is at it again – its public relations department is already going into overdrive, with a dedicated website and Twitter account about the train(s) they will run to get people to the conference.

The trains will run to Paris, the hub of SNCF that has abolished the vast majority of its national night trains, and cancelled all of them to Spain and Germany. The country that has such a lousy collaboration with its neighbour railways that its timetables are a mess at Irun-Hendaye and it doesn’t sell tickets at Genève or Ventimiglia even though it runs trains from both. Set this against the wider background of decreasing numbers of international connections across many borders in Europe as I have documented on this blog.

So here’s an idea, journalists and reporters – rather than swallowing this nice PR from UIC, ask why regular passengers do not have access to similar services as the dignitaries do. Ask the dignitaries and politicians what the last time was that they actually travelled on a long distance rail service, and ask what they are doing to save and improve cross border rail in the EU.

Yes, rail is a green way to travel. But organising cross border trains for publicity purposes is no good – it’s green washing!

[Update 20.4.15, 2230] – turns out there’s a Climate Express that’s activist run. That looks a whole lot better!

France’s LGV Rhin-Rhône best serves… Paris. So much for high speed lines of regional importance!

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 10.43.01

Back when the Rhine-Rhône high speed TGV line (in French: LGV Rhin-Rhône) was being planned it was described that “In contrast to France’s other high speed lines — apart from the bypass round the east of Paris — LGV Rhin-Rhône was conceived primarily as an inter-regional route and not as a high speed link from the provinces to the capitalby Railway Gazette.

The thing is that – in my experience – this line is not actually completing that task very well at all. I am trying to plan a Berlin – (Mannheim) – Béziers rail trip this summer, and the only decent connection going southbound takes me via Paris Est along the LGV Est instead (details here).

So how then is the LGV Rhin-Rhône doing as a non-Paris connected TGV line? These are the only 8 trains that use it towards southern France for my test day, 21st April 2015. Trains marked * are international.

TGV 6886 – Basel SBB-Marseille*
TGV 6839 TGV 6841 – Strasbourg-Montpellier
TGV 6835 TGV 6837 TGV 6826 – Strasbourg-Marseille
TGV 6849 – Strasbourg-Lyon
TGV 9580 – Frankfurt (Main)-Marseille*

The connections with Germany are especially poor – this is just one daily through service. The connections to Stuttgart, Nice and Barcelona that Railway Gazette hopes for have of course not materialised.

Using the LGV Rhin-Rhône towards Paris – it’s a lot better! 16 trains a day! Mulhouse is especially well served, with 12 services a day to Paris Gare de Lyon.

TGV 6700 TGV 6704 TGV 6706 TGV 6708 – Mulhouse-Paris
TGV 6745 TGV 6749 TGV 6765  – Besançon Viotte-Paris (uses only part of the LGV Rhin-Rhône)
TGV 5152 – Mulhouse-Lille (via Paris Airport CDG)
TGV 9588 – Freiburg (Breisgau)-Paris*
TGV 6886 – Basel SBB-Paris*
TGV 9206 TGV 9210 TGV 9218 TGV 9222 TGV 9226 TGV 9230 – Zürich-Paris*

So this is French railways again behaving as they always do – it is always all about Paris. Everything else is secondary.

(some numbers amended since initially publishing this, thanks to assistance from Twitter – the main point stands though!)

Now Dresden-Wrocław trains are cancelled for good – third piece of bad news for PL-DE rail this winter alone

Following the end of the Berlin – Wrocław EC Wawel (early December 2014), Frankfurt(Oder) – Poznań RegionalExpress trains (end December 2014), we now have the news that Dresden – Wrocław RegionalExpress trains will cease at the end of February 2015. News of this cancellation can be found here in Polish (Google translated), and from the rail company here (Google translated). Currently it seems there are no plans to make things connect at Görlitz to allow passengers to change trains there – the Polish news story makes reference to passengers needing to take a bus instead. The reason given for the cancellation is inadequate funding on the Polish side.

This leaves Poland – Germany rail connections in a very sorry state indeed, and Wrocław now has no rail connection at all with Germany. The southern part of the Poland – Germany border is especially badly served.

Here is the map of rail connections between the two countries from the end of February 2015 (click to enlarge):

Continue Reading

The tricks of EU cross-border rail – Berlin-Bruxelles-St Gallen-Berlin

I have just completed the booking of the tickets for a rail trip in April, just under 3 months ahead of my departure. Booking the trip required so many tricks and odd tactics that I’m writing this blog about it, in the hope that others can learn from it, and perhaps politicians could act to help solve the chaos? Anyway, I’m not holding my breath on the latter, but if you’re keen on the former, here goes.

My itinerary:
1. Berlin – Brussels, any time on Friday 10th April 2015
2. Brussels – St Gallen, any time on Wednesday 15th April 2015
3. St Gallen – Berlin, departing after 1400 on Thursday 16th April 2015
Cheap tickets in Germany are available 92 days ahead of travel, and in France 3 or 4 months. So this timing is good to be able to get low cost tickets.

My criteria:
Only trains. No buses. Tickets as cheap as possible, and tickets that cannot be exchanged or refunded are OK. Willing to take a slightly longer journey, or change more times, if it saves money. Reservations on all trains except in Switzerland (where I’ve never had to stand, and hence never reserve).

My cards:
A Deutsche Bahn BahnCard 25 (saves 25% on any DB ticket, has RailPlus for 25% savings internationally (although this didn’t help here), and gives free local transport sometimes in Germany (see below) – card costs €62 / year, and allows collection of points with bahn.bonus comfort), and a Thalys TheCard loyalty card (no saving on ticket – earns points).

1. Berlin – Brussels
There are essentially three ways to do this trip.
a. Berlin – Köln DB ICE, and Köln – Bruxelles DB ICE
b. Berlin – Essen DB ICE, and Essen – Bruxelles Thalys (or the same, changing in Köln rather than Essen)
c. Berlin – Düsseldorf DB ICE or IC, and Düsseldorf – Bruxelles in a DB IC Bus
Option a. is the easiest to book – it can be done end to end with DB on DB’s website, but for 10th April the cheapest ticket is €59,20 single (€79 without a BahnCard), departing at 0647. You need to add €4,50 for a seat reservation, and €2.25 (1/4 of a 4-Fahrten-Karte) for a BVG ticket to get to Berlin Hbf to the price of this ticket, giving a total price of €65,95.

Option b., with a change in Essen, does not even show up on DB’s website, and Thalys tickets cannot be booked on DB’s website at all, although Thalys trains are still listed in DB’s timetable. Doing a search for each leg of the trip gives me a 0647 departure from Berlin, arriving Essen at 1034, and leaving at 1124 on a Thalys and arriving at Bruxelles-Midi at 1432 – note this trip is just less than an hour longer than with the DB ICE option a. However the Berlin-Essen ticket is just €21,75 (+€4,50 reservation), and this includes a free connection in the Berlin public transport to get me to the station with the CityTicket option. This is really silly – a Berlin-Essen ticket has CityTicket included, but a Berlin-Brussels ticket does not. The Essen-Bruxelles Thalys ticket was only €19, booked from Thalys TheCard website so I earn points. Total price: €45,25 – this is the one I booked.

If I’d followed DB’s suggestion and changed in Köln onto the Thalys instead, the cost would have been €56,25 + €4,50 for Berlin-Köln (0746 departure from Berlin), and €19 for the Thalys from Köln to Brussels – €79,75 in total.

Option c. I eliminated as I refuse to take buses, but it is the cheapest – just €29,15 for the ticket, €4,50 for a reservation, and €2,25 to get to Berlin station with the BVG – €35,90 total.

Right, so that’s part 1 of the trip complete – booked for a low price, but with two separate tickets off two separate websites, and using a connection that is not even listed in DB’s timetable.

2. Brussels – St Gallen
Here the routing is easier, because there is essentially only one way to do this trip – Bruxelles-Paris with Thalys, Paris-Zürich with TGV Lyria, and Zürich-St Gallen with SBB/CFF. The problem however is the trip is in three countries, one of them not in the European Union. Oh, and the Swiss Franc has just appreciated 20% this week…

Searching DB’s timetable throws up an immediate problem. Thalys arrives at Paris Gare du Nord, and the TGV departs from Gare de Lyon – 2 stops on the RER. But DB adds 70 minutes for this transfer – too much. So I took matters in my own hands, and found a Thalys that arrives 45 minutes before the TGV leaves. So my route is: Thalys Bruxelles-Midi 1013 – Paris Nord 1138, Paris Lyon 1223 – Zürich HB 1626, Zürich HB 1639 – St Gallen 1753.

The question then is how to book all of this. Neither Thalys nor Capitaine Train (dedicated French rail booking site) could give a combined price even Bruxelles-Paris-Zürich, let alone as far as St Gallen. Loco2 could give a price for the whole trip but this price – £66,50 (roughly €87,00) seemed high. SBB could give a price for Paris-St Gallen, but this too – CHF 59,00 (or approx €59,00) was costly. It turns out that both SBB and Loco2 were suffering because of the price for only the Zürich-St Gallen part, and were using a standard price of CHF 30,00 for this – more than the price for Paris-Zürich!

So undeterred I set out to find prices for each leg separately – €22,00 for Bruxelles-Paris on the Thalys TheCard site, €25,00 for Paris-Zürich with Capitaine Train (sorry Loco2 – here your £25.00 had a very uncompetitive exchange rate!), and – best of all – €14,20 for Zürich HB-St Gallen with Deutsche Bahn. Here I used by DB rail trick (fully documented here) to book Zürich HB-St Gallen-Kempten (Allgäu) (first station to which SparPreis works – doesn’t work at Lindau Hbf), with an interim stop of 80 mins in St Gallen to make sure it booked me on the 1639 departure from Zürich. This gives a total price of €61,20, and I simply will not take the St Gallen-Kempten(Allgäu) part.

Note also that none of these connections contains the Paris Gare du Nord – Paris Gare de Lyon transit ticket. I have some old carnet tickets left over from a previous trip to Paris – so €1,41 for that trip (1/10 of a carnet), giving me a complete cost of €62,61.

So that’s part 2 complete. Part 3 should be easy…?

3. St Gallen – Berlin
This part is easier than the other two as it can all be booked, in all cases, off the DB website. But the question then arises: what route to take in order to get the cheapest ticket – remember also leaving after 1400. DB gives two main options – departing at 1419 and changing at Buchloe, Augsburg and Göttingen, with a journey time of 9 hours 7 minutes, and a price of €29,20 (+ €4,50 reservation), or two changes at Memmingen and Ulm and a longer journey time of 10 hours 12 minutes, but for €89,20 (+ €4,50 reservation)! Plus both of these routes have tight connections onto RegionalExpress trains, that aren’t super comfortable services either.

This is where DB’s “Zwischenhaltestelle” (interim stop) option comes in. I’d noticed the destination of the train from St Gallen was München, so I put München Hbf as the interim stop and, hey presto, 2 changes, 10 hours 12 minutes journey time, no regional trains involved, and €29,20 (+ €4,50 reservation) for the whole lot. Add the €2,25 BVG ticket when arriving in Berlin and it makes €35,95.

So there you go – Berlin – Brussels – St Gallen – Berlin, with comfortable trains, for €143,81. With 6 tickets requiring 6 separate bookings on 3 websites (3 DB, 2 Thalys TheCard, 1 Capitaine Train), and 3 local public transport tickets.

The value of a BahnCard 25
For this trip, my BahnCard saved me money as follows:
€2,25 for the trip with the BVG to Berlin Hbf from home
€29 (standard) – €21,25 (reduced) = €7,25 for Berlin-Essen
€19 (standard) – €14,20 (reduced) = €4,80 for Zürich-St Gallen
€39 (standard) – €29,20 (reduced) = €9,80 for St Gallen-München
That’s a saving of €24,10, and 74 bahn.bonus points earned towards further benefits. Make 3 long trips a year somewhere in Germany and the BahnCard 25 pays for itself.

These prices do not cover local transport to my final destinations in either Brussels or St Gallen – I do not know these yet, so cannot calculate them. In Brussels the cost of a single on the STIB network is €1,25 (1/10 of a 10 journey pass on a MOBIB card).

If something goes wrong (the Bruxelles-Paris is delayed, meaning I miss my Paris-Zürich train), I am not sure how I am covered – although both of those tickets are separately covered by CIV.

Creative Commons Images from Flickr
ICE2 by kaffeeeinstein, taken July 31 2009
Thalys by Lars Steffens, taken May 30 2013
Thalys PBKA by Darkroom Daze, taken April 2 2013
TGV Lyria 206 by Nik Morris, taken September 2 2013
Re 460 by Gerard – Nicolas Mannes, taken June 2 2011
EuroCity München by netzroot, taken April 26 2014
ICE 2 by TrainPhotography.de, taken on February 8 2014
ICE Göttingen by Michael Day, taken on June 20 2008

So you want the cheapest Barcelona-Paris rail ticket? Complex


I have started to plan a journey for late spring 2015, and one part of it will be a Barcelona-Paris TGV trip. How, I wonder, do I get the cheapest tickets on this service?

For a start the tickets I need are not yet available – FR-ES TGV and AVE services have a 120 day rolling booking horizon, while connecting TGVs in France have a 3 month horizon.

But anyway, to the ticket booking… Continue Reading

Frankfurt(Oder) – Poznań regional trains axed from 1st January 2015


Following my post about the final EC Wawel, and the funding absurdity for PKP’s new high speed trains in Poland, here’s yet more bad news when it comes to Germany-Poland rail connections – the two daily regional trains each way in each direction between Frankfurt(Oder) and Poznań will not run from 1st January 2015, stopping only 5 months after they were first re-instated with some fanfare. Die Welt reported about the new train, and the German Foreign Ministry welcomed the establishment of the new connection.

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 11.25.46News about the cut can be found (in German) in the DBV’s newsletter here, and this relates to a DB Regio press release about the closure that can be found here. This is the vital section:

Mit Bedauern hat DB Regio Nordost die Entscheidung der PKP PR zur Kenntnis genommen, die erst im August 2014 eingeführte Verbindung zwischen Frankfurt (Oder) und Poznan zum 31. Dezember dieses Jahres einzustellen, da die Leistungen auf der polnischen Seite nicht finanziert sind.

Basically the Poles don’t want to run the service, and hence it will be axed. 4 EuroCity trains each way each day will continue to link Frankfurt(Oder) and Poznań, but those have limited stops along the way.

The problem – alluded to in the DBV press release – relates at least in part to the available rolling stock. The new service used DB 646 class DMUs for the connection, despite the fact that the line between Frankfurt(Oder) and Poznań is electrified the whole way.

The problem of course is in the detail – German signalling, and 15kV electrification for the short run to the marshalling yard just to the west of the river bridge, and Polish signalling and 3kV electrification for the main part of the route on the Polish side. The only passenger locomotives approved for through working are PKP’s Class 370 designed for express passenger trains, and even those require a change of driver at the border, and there are not enough of them to put them into service on regional trains. Neither PKP nor DB owns regional EMUs capable of running on the other side of the border.

As if this were not enough, funding for the Dresden-Wroclaw regional services are only guaranteed until February 2015, according to World Car Free Network (point 7 in close here).

So much for improving German-Polish relations across the border! When it comes to railway services, things go from bad to worse it seems.

How €93 million of EU money prevents Polish trains being used EU-wide

16036201402_1dc0cb950b_hPolish Railways PKP has just launched its Pendolino EIC Premium service – a fleet of brand new, 250km/h capable Alstom trains that connect Gdansk, Warsaw, Wroclaw, Katowice and Krakow. The trains are the first capable of speeds greater than 200km/h in central and eastern Europe, and were hence launched with some fanfare. Alstom even has a swanky video about them here.

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 16.48.23Yet one frame of the video, shown here, caught my eye “Ready to cross the borders” it says, and the technical specification of the trains means they could run on German, Czech and Slovak electrification systems as well as Poland’s. But a line in Railway Gazette’s story about the launch caught my eye:

However, certification for international operation is not seen as a priority, as the trains are restricted to domestic services for an initial 10 years under the terms of a grant from the EU Cohesion Fund which covered 22% of the project cost.

Could this, I wonder, really be true? EU money obliging PKP to use the trains only on national routes? Isn’t that contrary to all of what the EU stands for, trying to foster cross-border cooperation?

The sad answer is yes, this is indeed true, but the story is a little more complicated than Railway Gazette explains.

€93 million was indeed granted to PKP IC for the purchase of the 20 Alstom trains, contributing 22% of the purchase cost of the 20 trains and the maintenance depot. However EU Cohesion Funds are normally allocated only for infrastructure, or for regional rolling stock. These PKP trains were to be deployed on long distance InterCity routes. This meant that the €93 million Cohesion Fund grant (from DG REGIO) was classed as State Aid by the European Commission’s DG Competition, as explained in DG Competition’s press release here.

This press release led me in turn to the competition case that can be found here, and specifically this PDF that explains the Commission’s reasoning. The important paragraph is this one:

  1. The Commission considers that, because of the targeted nature of the investment aid, the aid does not compromise the effective opening of the international passenger transport market and cabotage following the entry into force of the third railway package.

Basically DG Competition is arguing that if these trains were deployed on international routes, the state subsidy for their purchase would distort the international railway market that is theoretically open to competition. Deploy them in Poland, where the argument about territorial cohesion can be applied to justify the grant, and this is OK. Of course there is currently not a single long distance international line to or from Poland where there is any competition in passenger rail.

So there you have it. The European Union, as a criterion for granting Poland €93 million for new high speed trains, prevents these trains being used internationally. This comes of course at the same time as Berlin – Wroclaw cross border services have been axed, and the EU is funding ghost airports in Poland.

I despair.

(oh, and as if that were not absurd enough, the new trains don’t even have wifi!)

A rail postcard from Forst (Lausitz)


Dear Violeta*,

I’m a regular long distance rail traveller, and when things used to go wrong with EU-wide rail I would write postcards here on my blog to your predecessor, Siim Kallas. You can find old postcards from Hendaye, Göteborg and Liège. This is my first postcard to you, but I fear it will be one of many.

wreath-smallToday I was at Forst (Lausitz), on the German-Polish border. This was a sad, and very special trip, for it was the very last ever departure of the EuroCity “Wawel” train between Berlin and Wrocław (Breslau). Trains have been running between those cities for 161 years, or about 50000 days, but today was the last one. A wreath was laid at the station in Cottbus to commemorate the final departure, and a saxophonist played a lonesome tune on the platform.

Berlin and Wrocław were, of course, previously in the same country, and indeed it took less than four hours between them in the 1930s. If today they were still in the same country I rather suspect the service between the two would not be axed.

How does that make you feel as the European Commissioner responsible for transport?

The EU is supposed to make Europe grow together, not apart. But now all the passengers on this connection will have is a poxy bus. I cannot imagine anyone ever laying a wreath to mourn the final departure of a bus.

The final train was, I suppose, fittingly depressing. Two carriages were missing from the train, and the heating and doors were broken on one of the other carriages. The train left Berlin 15 minutes late.

European rail of course cannot go on like this – if rail is to be viable it needs to build on the joy and comfort of the train, and focus on passenger comfort. The bus that will replace the train has on board wifi, but very few EU-wide rail services do.

What, I wonder, are you doing about this as Commissioner?

Some low-cost changes to infrastructure could improve things a lot at the German-Poland border, as Michael Cramer MEP explains (PDF here) – have you made the case for this to Mr Juncker in for his €315bn investment package?

Anyway, until next time, have a good weekend and safe travels. There are people out there that want EU-wide rail to work, and we’re hope you do too!

* – Violeta Bulc is European Commissioner for Transport. More about her here. Photos from the last trip on EuroCity Wawel can be found on Flickr here.