Monday, March 01, 2010

Everybody's Jumping Everybody Else's Train

Legroom (on the Thalys
from Köln to Paris)
Several years ago, I was interviewed for a USA Today article about why I prefer flying over taking trains within Europe. Young, single, impatient me expounded the virtues of speed and price. Less time in transit meant more time to drink the local libations, after all.

Fast forward to 2010. I'm older. Married. And wiser, though that's debatable. What's not debatable is that flying sucks, almost without exception. If it's not the airlines nickel and diming you, it's the security establishment mocking your sensibilities by putting you through its theatrics.

The 45-minute flight from the aforementioned article now takes at least 4.5 hours door to door, will cost you at least triple in hidden fees and surcharges, and will generally be an unpleasant experience. The 5-hour train ride it was compared to may still be slow despite the greater number of high-speed services, but nowadays, it will likely cost less, make it on time, and allow you to get on board with all of your luggage, your own lunch, and your dignity.

Furthermore, with most rail services being nationally owned (or at least government subsidized), there's little chance you'll be left high and dry by a bankruptcy. You know, like when a group of you book tickets to a bachelor party on a discount Slovak airline, and due to said airline's bankruptcy, leave the bachelor and the best man high and dry in Bratislava. (True story. Ask the assholes at SkyEurope.)

Beyond all that, as I mentioned in last week's post on Hungry Amateurs about eating in London, trains are bringing glamour back to travel. Maybe even a little romance.

A first-class ticket on a high-speed train is certainly nice... Our Eurostar trip to London in late 2008 was an absolute pleasure, however brief, with champagne, lunch served with proper silverware, and chatting with a few dozen of our newest Welsh geezer friends.

Being on a Belgian train network
means big Belgian beers.
But you don't need all that to have a relaxed, comfortable, and leisurely ride through Europe. If you're looking to move about freely, chit chat with other passengers, and even get a little boozy with your honey bunny, I've got two words for you: Bar car.

Not that anyone doesn't know about the bar/snack train that's available on just about every main line in Europe... But on this past weekend's trip from France to Germany and back, we found serious bliss in the bar car.

First, there are often (as is the case on Thalys trains) four sets of quad seats on the bar car. If you can get these seats (and don't mind a bit of noise and passers-by around you), take them. Being with a maximum of 15 other people in the car – and likely no snotty kids – you're better off than even the 60 people per car in first class.

Even if you can't land these seats, don't worry. Hang out in the bar car anyway. If you're paranoid, you can bring your luggage with you, and if you're somewhere in between, you can leave your luggage in the rack at the end of the car, looking up from your Duvel or Leffe or champagne once in a while to make sure it's not gone.

The clusterfuck at Cologne (Köln) Hauptbahnhof after
most regional trains were canceled due to Atlantic
storm Xynthia on 28 February.
Of course, train travel isn't without its share of headaches. While they don't get up in the air, they're also subject to delays and cancellations during storms, what with trees falling on tracks, building materials flying through windows, and snow shorting out entire trains.

Yesterday, for example, our scheduled 4-hour trip from Düsseldorf, Germany to Paris, France (via Cologne, Germany and Brussels, Belgium) took somewhere in the neighborhood of seven hours.  This was due to the massive storm raging all over western Europe, as well as unrelated delays caused by the previous week's head-on commuter train collision in Belgium.

On a plane, this sort of delay would've been a nightmare, an irritation, and a royal bitch all rolled up into one.  But thanks in no small part to the bar car, it was still a pleasure – more time to spend with my squeeze, and with some good beer.

Of course, it was exhausting, so you'll have to wait 'til I recover a bit if you want to know any more about the trip itself.


  1. That article was written in 2006. the Eurostar between London and Paris wasn't completed until 2006? I could have sworn it was completed before that.

  2. Not to mention, if your train is delayed, you are generally in a downtown metropolitan area as opposed to being stuck in an airport.

  3. @Eddo - The super-high-speed train didn't go online until 2007, I believe. Although it got up to a respectable speed by 2002/2003.

    @Njon - Tell me about it... We took advantage and had trappist ales at my favorite bar in central Brussels when we were laid over there!

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  5. Hmmm, yeah now that I recall, I think we took it late 2005/early 2006, and the trip was around 4 hours long as opposed to the 2hr 15 minutes long that the article cites.

  6. I love the trains. In Germany, it usually only makes sense to fly if you're going from Munich to Hamburg, for example - any shorter distance and you're pretty much better off taking the train. Given how far away the Munich airport is from downtown, it's really not practical.

  7. Indeed... that goes for pretty much anywhere in Europe now, although they don't have enough high-speed rail in Italy or Spain yet, and buses are actually the fastest thing going in the Czech Republic.

  8. The romance of riding trains still hasn't seeped out of my mind. Flying, however, is like a test of patience and pain tolerance.