Thursday, 23 February 2012

From A to B

I wasn’t expecting much of a view from an Aachen hotel window, so to throw open the curtains to be greeted with the imposing sight of the Marschiertor was a welcome bonus. The Germans do mediaeval quite well, and this imposing edifice – once the southern gate of the city walls – has survived in amazingly good condition from its construction in the late 13th century.

Originally built to keep out the Belgians and Dutch, the natives eventually stumbled upon a far cleverer way of controlling their international neighbours. Allowing their cross-border cousins to believe that they had seduced the Aacheners with the tantalising combination of beer and cheese, the locals dismantled the wall and replaced it with a stunningly mediocre line of dismal concrete office blocks and hotels, in which Belgian and Dutch visitors are imprisoned on a daily basis.

The Marschiertor itself was retained to provide an attractive backdrop for visiting transport enthusiasts to use in their photos, and as we emerged from the Ibis Aachen Marschiertor and sank ankle deep into the three inches of snow that had coated the ground overnight, the three of us entertained the locals with our synchronised camera-pointing.

Each choosing our own vantage point in the snow a few metres apart from each other, so that each of our pictures would be truly unique and not in any way almost identical, our excitement at capturing a good shot of a bus passing in front of the ancient gate would be superseded by the excited yelp of one us announcing “there’s one coming the other way”, whereupon three lenses would swing round in unison, occasionally to be followed by the hysterical cry of “it’s a Belgian one!”

During the fifteen minutes of live cabaret it became clear that the overnight snowfall and arctic temperatures had not caused the transport system to break sweat and all was clearly running normally. We duly set off up the road to the main railway station, our mission today to explore the Rhineland and bordering Hunsrück hills, ending up in the riverside city of Mainz.

One of the most amazing bargains you will find anywhere on the European railway system is the Schönes Wochenende Ticket – literally the “nice weekend ticket”. It allows unlimited travel on either a Saturday or Sunday for up to five people on local and regional rail services throughout the whole of Germany for 40 Euros – essentially unlimited travel throughout the country for as little as 8 Euros (roughly £7) each. In our case there were three of us, which pushed the cost to a whopping £10 each!

I can remember travelling in Germany when the Schönes Wochenende Ticket was first introduced and the local trains were packed with people taking advantage of the incredible value. These days I guess it has become part of normal life and people don’t go out of their way as much to benefit, so we were able to kick back and relax with almost an entire coach to ourselves on a glorious sunny morning, as we pulled out of Aachen Hauptbahnhof on the 09:51 Regional Express to Cologne.

The ticket does not allow travel on InterCity, EuroCity or InterCity Express trains and this does discourage longer distance journeys, although it is still possible to cover vast swathes of the country on regional services. Our plan for today was to use a series of such trains to cover the trip to Mainz, with a side trip on a branch line I have always been curious about, but never found the opportunity to sample – the Hunsrückbahn from Boppard to Emmelshausen.

However, whereas our instincts were to make it up as we went along, the frequency of the Hunsrückbahn is now only every ninety minutes at weekends and this meant that we couldn’t afford to leave things entirely to chance. Neither terminus is a particularly big place, Saturday afternoons are pretty quiet in most German towns and we didn’t want to run the risk of being becalmed for a lengthy period somewhere with nothing useful to do. We also fancied mixing buses and trains and this meant some planning of connections, especially as wanted to enjoy daylight for as much of the journey as possible.

So while the others stared out of the window at the beautiful snowy landscape, I was running endless journey options through the DB Journey Planner on my phone. Indeed so engrossed was I that I completely failed to notice when the snow ran out and normal scenery resumed – a point that escaped me until we were leaving Cologne on our next train almost an hour later!

I had however worked out that our travel options would be optimised if we were to take the train from Cologne to Koblenz, the bus from Koblenz to Emmelshausen and then the train from there down to Boppard, and this meant being in Koblenz by 12:30 at the latest. Unfortunately, because of our leisurely start to the day, the earliest possible arrival in Koblenz by regional train was 12:42!

The only way to avoid the itinerary dragging slowly through the afternoon was to cheat and catch an InterCity train from Cologne to Koblenz which would have us there by around 11:45, but this in turn required a fairly tight connection at Colgone. So, while the others ran outside the main station to take arty photos of the city’s imposing cathedral, I worked the ticket machine and trebled the cost of our day’s travel buying three singles for the next leg of our journey.

However for me the chance to travel on an InterCity was well worth the money. They are without doubt my favourite German trains for all the wrong reasons. Once the pinnacle of continental rail travel, they are now the epitome of faded glory. While the regional services are generally neat, compact and efficient, and the streamlined ICEs storm across the nation in a purposeful and businesslike fashion, the InterCity trains meander across the country on long and improbable itineraries, not going fast or directly enough to compete with the ICEs for genuine long distance customers, but priced and marketed to make them unattractive for local journeys.

Some InterCity trains that happen to cross international boundaries enjoy an enhanced status, being branded as EuroCity. This branding was first used in 1987, just in time for the teenaged me to burst onto the scene of European train travel. With each pair of trains being named, usually I recall for famous individuals, and with the possibility of coaches being provided by any of the national railways through whose countries the train passed (and often a mixture within the same train), this heightened the sense of occasion and drama, and there was nothing more thrilling than to stand on a continental platform and watch a EuroCity pull out heading for a remote city in a distant land.

These days the EuroCity brand just means the train has an even longer and more improbably itinerary than a normal InterCity, and our conveyance for the fifty minute hop to Koblenz was EC101, which had left Hamburg at 06:30 that morning and would eventually arrive at Chur, in a remote corner of the Swiss Alps, over twelve hours later at 18:43 that evening. To complete the magic, it was a Swiss Railways (SBB) coach that conveyed us for our short trip up the Rhine Valley.

I was reluctant to leave the train at Koblenz – I could have quite happily stayed on board until Switzerland – but it was now over two hours since my travelling companions had last taken a photo of a bus and they were getting restless. Luckily for them, Koblenz has a new, gleaming bus station in front of the main railway station, and while I sat at the departure stand guarding the bags, my compatriot nutters had a photographic orgy, sprinting the length and breadth of the station capturing vehicles of all colours, and bemusing at least one local driver in the process.

The ride out of Koblenz to Emmelshausen proved to be a scenic triumph, and where better to enjoy it than aboard the most lurid of all European bus porn, the Citaro LE. This variant of one of Europe’s most popular bus designs is one of the best examples of interurban bus designs you will encounter, solving the traditional Citaro problem of a very messy back end, with a raised rear section allowing all forward facing seats, while keeping the refined qualities of the marque.

I was hoping that the view would be pleasant, but the reality surpassed my expectations. The route out of Koblenz enjoys a vertiginous climb into the hills, such that barely five minutes after leaving the bus station you have a panoramic view over the majestic Rhine river, the roads and railways snaking along the riverbanks and the steep slopes behind on the right bank.

Eventually the steep ascent gives way to more gentle, rolling terrain, often with views miles into the distance, occasionally surrounded by forest. The ride to Emmelshausen was one of the most pleasant hours of bus travelling I can recall, on a gorgeous bus with such great scenery being beamed in through the windows. Not for the first time that day, it was a chore to have to disembark.

Emmelshausen was a lot more industrial than I had expected, albeit there was not much happening on this Saturday afternoon. A small town of around 5,000 inhabitants, it took only a few minutes for us to walk the length of the main street, leaving us around an hour to kill until the departure of the train to Boppard.

The large number of eating establishments – ranging from kebab shops to an upmarket Italian restaurant – surely reflects the weekday industrial population, as a community of this size would never support such a quantity. We picked an unprepossessing but welcoming cafe, where the Gulaschsuppe was warm and wholesome, an ideal antidote to the biting cold outside.

Our departure from Emmelshausen was aboard the Hunsrückbahn, a privately operated railway run by the Rhenus Veniro company. Many regional services in Germany have been contracted to private companies, bringing colour, variety and interest to the local railway scene, and our plan was to travel on as many as we reasonably could. This was the first, and was notable for the driver greeting all the passengers as he walked through the train before departure – not an unusual event as were to discover.

This line makes a precipitous descent through yet more stunning landscape, clinging to the side of a hill with a sheer drop on one side of the train. The line is so steep that the train feels as though it is crawling along, trying to keep its footing, and it is only sad that the line is so short. After barely twenty minutes we had arrived in the riverside town of Boppard, scene of my first ever visit to Germany on a school trip in 1986, and gateway to some of the most spectacular scenery Germany has to offer!


  1. Another interesting post about your travels Phil!

    Something that's always bemused me is how traditional flip-dot destination displays continue to be so popular in continental Europe (even on new buses and trains), particularly in Germany it seems.

  2. A typical account of the usual Uncle Phil antics, with sufficient detail for those of us with an interest in transport rather than an interest in Germany. Keep up the good work - but when will you be visiting some less orderly systems?

  3. I do like Germany, for all I think that (along with Switzerland) it's not the public transport nirvana it's sometimes portrayed as - that 90 minute headway on the branch so it can be run with one unit instead of two being a great example.

    Luke, I don't know if you've been to Belgium? De Lijn in Flanders keep their flip-dots because they use less power than LED (or so they say) and because they stay in the last position set - which means that buses in depot will display their fuel and or maintenance status; at Brugge's depot when I visited one Sunday there were ranks of buses all displaying "GEFILLT" (fuelled).

    Can I second Anon's request for Uncle Phil to head further afield? I'd love to see what you make of Romanian buses, for example - try Bucharest's dirt-cheap but dodgy Oyster-stye smartcards, Alba Iulia's demonstration of modern public transport complete with Romania's only double-deck service bus (Turkish), Medias (near Timisoara) where buses are still run in the liveries of their former operators (Swiss Postbuses abound) and all vehicles have a plain-clothes inspector aboard, and so on. And then head for Bulgaria and Sofia, where there are many, many German vehicles running around displaying their last German route and destinations.
    Oh, and lots of trams, too. :)

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    I never know quite who I'm writing for. I never quite know if anyone actually reads this blog and I never look at the stats so it's always a nice surprise when people feel moved to comment! I suppose in so far as I bother about these things, there is always going to be a strong transport bias but I try not to be so technical as to bore readers with less specialised interest. There's nothing to stop people commenting if they ever want more detail on any particular subject.

    I have always been drawn to Germany and Switzerland and indeed northern Europe in general. Because they enjoy such orderly transport systems there is a risk that things can be boringly efficient, but on the other hand I quite like it that way - usually I go on holiday for relaxation rather than a challenge!

    I do not currently have any plans to launch myself at any less orderly systems, but I'm open to sponsorship offers!!!

    1. I would have though Bangkok would provide wonderful opportunities to use a range of buses, undergrpund and elevated rail, river boats and a network of elephants.

  5. I was amused by your comments about the Citaro LE. I agree about the better seating layout at the back, but I have noticed, just in the last few days, that some of the operators in my area are specifying them with the inward facing seats over the rear wheels, similar to the more conventional Citaros. Seems a wasted opportunity, to my mind. Additionally, I'm over 6', so I find most of the rear rows just too high to see properly out of the windows, but there's one row directly behind the centre door which is OK.

    However, one of the local operators has just received some Citaro 2 artics, and these have a dismal mid-grey interior, which is particularly dark around the turntable area - another factor that makes artics unattractive to passengers.

    I share your views about the IC trains - the windows are deeper than on the ICEs, so you have a better chance to see the scenery - when it isn't hidden behind pink sound deadening walls!