Sunday, 27 September 2015

Austrian Adventure - Part 1

Through my involvement with trentbarton, I have become familiar with the range of ticketing equipment produced by INIT.  Having driven a few shifts for trentbarton, I find their machines to be streets ahead of any others I've used in terms of their features and ease of use for drivers, and the transaction data available behind the scenes has been hugely helpful in planning recent service changes.

Within the management team of trentbarton we have been developing some very exciting ideas about how transport ticketing might evolve over the next few years and I was therefore delighted to have the chance to join a number of colleagues on a trip to meet INIT at their headquarters in Karlsruhe, Germany, and talk through our ideas.  Of course it's far too early to reveal what we discussed - other than to say that it will hopefully turn into something very exciting - more of that anon.

But I decided to tag on a couple of days' leave and go travelling.  Although I have travelled fairly widely in Germany and been through Karlsruhe many times on trains, I have never visited the city and in general I have neglected the southern part of Germany.  I also wanted to revisit Austria after many years' absence, and in particular wanted to visit Innsbruck - another city I have never previously explored.

Other more insightful, cutting edge blog posts may be in store, but this one is nothing more than a report of my trip and some pictures to look at.

My interest in transport extends beyond buses and trains and indeed I am an aviation freak - especially when it comes to commercial flying.  I am one of not many people who visits airports for fun.

A prior engagement down south meant that whereas my colleagues would be flying from Birmingham, I would fly from Heathrow and meet them in Germany.  I was secretly delighted by this as it gave me an opportunity to stay in an airport hotel and indulge my big kid obsession with the aeroplanes.  So while my colleagues were getting an early night ready for 4am alarm calls to drive to the airport, my trip started with a relaxing evening in the restaurant of the Thistle Hotel, enjoying dinner and a glass of wine while watching a stream of British Airways planes heading to and from Terminal 5.

The Thistle boasts that it is the only off-site hotel to be linked directly to Terminal 5, and the link is provided by automated pods.  These funky little devices whizz around a network of tracks linking the terminal with its car parks and provided a novel way of starting my trip - compensation for the very early start.

My flight to Frankfurt was on a British Airways Boeing 767, great excitement for me as I have never been on one of them before, and very comfortable and spacious it turned out to be.  Most of my recent air travel has been with the low cost carriers so as well as luxuriating in acres of legroom I was quite surprised to get free food, and the cheese and ham croissant certainly went down well.  Soon we were approaching Frankfurt, where we found ourselves making a parallel approach with a United Airlines Boeing 747, which made a very graceful and elegant sight as we flew alongside for ten or fifteen miles.  Rare indeed to get such a good view from above.

Our trip to Karlsruhe was by ICE, all very smooth and straightforward, and the afternoon yielded excellent hospitality and very productive discussions about the future with INIT.

Karlsruhe celebrates its 300th birthday this year and every night over the summer they have been holding sound and light shows at the castle.  Our hosts insisted we should see this, and they were absolutely right, it was stunning.  Huge projectors lit up the whole frontage of the building with incredible lighting effects and patterns, all set to music.  No good me trying to describe it here - there's no way you can experience it without seeing it - but it warrants a mention because it was absolutely superb.

The city is famed in transport circles for its tram-train network.  The main station is some distance from the city centre so much of the suburban rail network is provided by tram cars, which then head off the rails and on to the tram lines as they come into the city so they can serve the city centre.  Impressive and clever, and I was quite surprised by the extent of the system, with trams operating twenty or thirty miles into the hinterland.  A tram-train system is currently being developed for South Yorkshire, albeit with rather more modest ambitions at this stage, but I look forward to seeing that materialise.

For the record, here is a tram:

It should be said that this tram wasn't going very far at all, and was just running on the city network. 

Having finished our business early on the second day, we had a few hours to kill before the others went off to catch their flight.  The tram nearest to INIT HQ was line 5, and the destination "Rheinhafen" effectively means Rhine Port.

One exciting feature of the German transport network is the extensive use of the river for transporting freight, and one can stand on the banks of the Rhine and watch a constant procession of river barges.  The prospect of having an actual port right by the tram line was too exciting for a transport nut like me, so I persuaded the others that we should stay on the tram right to the end of the line just to see if we could get a grandstand view of the port activities.  It was raining, so they agreed.  But sadly the line petered out in the middle of a labyrinth of motorway sliproads, so we caught the next tram back into the city and passed away the time drinking beer instead.

There is a huge construction project underway in Karlsruhe at present, apparently to place the tram lines underground, and this means that large parts of the city centre are being dug up.  Clearly this has implications for property in the affected areas, but it seems some people are willing to go to great lengths to avoid the loss of old buildings - we had to question how many beers we had consumed when we spotted this rather literal interpretation of the concept of moving house...

Karlsruhe hotels appear to be both expensive and in short supply, so once the others had departed back to Frankfurt for their evening flight, I caught a train the short distance south to Rastatt, where my hotel room was not only much cheaper but overlooked the main railway line heading south to the Swiss border, which gave me a grandstand view of a continual stream of freight trains, ICEs and tram-trains.

My plan for day three was to cut across the south side of Germany and into Austria.  Although it doesn't look that far on the map - a mere 200 miles or so as the crow flies - the topography makes it slow going, and the "direct" route via Stuttgart and Ulm didn't hold much attraction for me as I have been that way before, and I was all about the scenery.

I have never explored the Black Forest, so the first leg of the day was a long train ride from Rastatt to Konstanz through the heart of the mountains.  This promised to be a hugely scenic ride, and indeed I'm sure it is.  However, it was raining hard all morning and the cloud base was low.  It was hard enough to see anything at all through the rain-smeared train windows, and such scenery as was visible disappeared very quickly into the murk and gloom.

However, I saw enough to be convinced that it ought to be a stunning journey, and I will simply have to go back.

The entire morning was consumed staring at mist and cloud, so it was a relief when the rain cleared as we arrived in Konstanz.  This is a tourist town, on the banks of Lake Constance (Bodensee to the locals).  The town itself holds no particular appeal for me but the location is superb, with stunning views across the lake.

Konstanz is adjacent to the Swiss border - indeed there is a customs post (unmanned of course) - halfway along the platform at the railway station.  Such is the interaction of the various transport systems that Swiss local trains provide local rail services entirely within Germany, as seen here:

The lake itself has shorelines in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, and as a keen Europhile I am in my element here.  Current events meant that the question of national borders was very much the hot topic of the day in the news, but I love the fact that people move seamlessly between adjacent countries in the course of their daily lives and the borders themselves are irrelevant.

In planning the trip, I had been frustrated by the fact that all the rail routes around the edge of the lake were time consuming or involved long detours and I was keen to complete the trip in daylight.  It had therefore been a revelation when I realised that the answer wasn't to go around the lake at all, but across it, taking advantage of an hourly link between Konstanz and Friedrichshafen provided by Der Katamaran.  There is quite an extensive network of ferry and catamaran links criss-crossing the lake, but many of them appear to cater for the tourist market with just one or two sailings per day.  This on the other hand is an all day every day link for commuters and shoppers as well as visitors, and my lunchtime journey had a reasonable load of business travellers.  The fifty five minute crossing provided a very relaxed and civilised interlude to the day, on a very comfortably appointed vessel offering plug sockets and free wifi as well as an extensive offer of refreshments from a well appointed bar.  Highly recommended.

By the time we arrived in Friedrichshafen persistent rain had once again set in, to the point where it was uncomfortable to walk around.  It looks like an attractive, compact town that will warrant a repeat visit - not least for the chance to have a nose round the Zeppelin Museum and Dornier Museum.  But I hastened to the main railway station looking forward to the main event of the day, the InterCity train to Innsbruck through the Arlberg mountains.

Twenty years ago, when I was discovering Europe on my own for the first time, Germany and its surrounding countries were covered by an extensive network of loco-hauled InterCity and EuroCity trains.  All of them named, often following long, highly improbable itineraries that would wend their way from one side of the continent to the other, usually taking all day to do so.  Careful scheduling meant that these trains would dovetail to provide absolutely unwavering hourly or half hourly frequencies between main towns and cities, but each individual train would follow a unique route.  Often the trains themselves would comprise a wide variety of coaching stock assembled from the various countries it served, and it was not at all unusual to see four or five different types of coaching stock in the same train.

Much of this network has been swept away now to be replaced by high speed trains operating as fixed units, offering consistent journey patterns on standard routes.  While this provides a very good offer for the day-to-day user, for the transport enthusiast it means that much of the character of inter-city train travel has been lost.

Some such trains do still remain however, and I had been delighted to discover that there is one direct link a day between Friedrichshafen and Innsbruck, provided by a train which originates in the north German town of Münster and gradually heads south on a long, winding twelve hour itinerary.

I had about an hour to wait and the monotonous rain was at least partly relieved by some variety in the local transport scene.  As with many parts of Germany local train services are contracted out to private operators by the regional transport authority.  Around Friedrichshafen, the local trains are called BOB (that's the Bodensee-Oberschwaben-Bahn of course - it rolls off the tongue).  There was also an appearance from one of the many low cost long distance coach operators that have sprung up across the country in recent years, proving that a lime green waistcoat is a must-have fashion accessory for any discerning coach driver.

When the InterCity train finally appeared, it was well worth the wait - a long rake of ÖBB coaches hauled by a pair of 1970s diesel locos.  Real throwback stuff and hardcore train porn. 

To compound the excitement, the train reverses at Friedrichshafen so we were treated to the locos running round the train.

The journey itself was glorious.  After a fairly mundane twenty minute run to Lindau, where the Austrian ÖBB locomotive was attached and our German DB locos left behind, the rain eased off a lot and the mountain scenery became spectacular as we made our way through the Arlberg into Austria.  It is hard to describe a journey like this with sufficient superlatives, there really is nothing nicer than relaxing in a train seat and watching some of the world's most glorious scenery drift past the window.

Operationally it is easy to see why such trains have become an endangered species.  Several reversals and loco changes must make them hellishly expensive to operate, yet the train was probably between a quarter and a half full when we left Friedrichshafen and certainly didn't get any busier.

The rolling stock itself seemed quite tired and the customer service wasn't top notch either.  I joined the front coach, which became the rear coach at Lindau, and we were all ordered to move into the next coach because ours would not be continuing.  Then when the Austrian crew came round shortly afterwards everyone going beyond Bludenz was instructed to move two coaches further forward.

The idea that all the coaches don't go all the way through to the destination is not unusual - European loco-hauled trains often do things like that.

What was frustrating is that when my ticket was first checked between Friedrichshafen and Lindau nothing was said, and I clearly wasn't the only one because the coach was about third full when we were told to move, and the tone of the guard was as if we should have known.  And when we were moved, we could have been told to move three coaches rather than settling down and being moved again.  Either way, to be moved once is mildly annoying, twice smacks of incompetence.  And then to compound it all, when we arrived at Innsbruck three hours later, all three coaches were still attached to the train, just locked out of use.  Presumably there must be a reason for that but I'm struggling to think of what, beyond a tiny saving in electricity.  Perhaps someone can tell me the answer.

We nearly didn't arrive in Innsbruck at all.  Shortly after passing into Austria, we were informed that the line was blocked due to overhead line problems at a place called Flirsch (other people's railways do have the same problems as ours!).  We were held for fifteen minutes at Bludenz and then a further forty five minutes at St Anton Am Arlberg awaiting further information.  I could deduce from careful interpretation of the live train info on the ÖBB website that the train before ours had been terminated there and the passengers taken forward by coach.  Not that that would have been a particular problem - the journey would have been equally scenic and the journey time maybe even quicker.  But I had a great seat with a panoramic window view and I didn't want to give it up!

Luckily I didn't have to.  The problem was resolved.  We continued, an hour late but that wasn't a major problem for me.  The journey was everything I hoped it would be and more, and I can't wait to do it again.

The delay meant that we arrived in Innsbruck as it was getting dark.  So after admiring everything the bus interchange outside the station had to offer, I decided not to go sightseeing and headed for my hotel.  The route took me about fifteen minutes on foot, through some of what we would euphemistically call "good bus territory" with some interesting characters of the kind that only seem to emerge after dark.  Some people might have found that off-putting but I was really happy - at large and off the beaten track in a foreign town.  Pretty soon I was ensconced in the Ramada Innsbruck Tivoli and looking forward to a day discovering Innsbruck...

1 comment:

  1. The co-operation between transport providers around Lake Constance is quite impressive. There is a day ticket, the Tageskarte EURegio Bodensee, which ignores national (and currency) borders - it is valid on local and regional bus and rail services in parts of Germany, Switzerland and Austria surrounding the lake. It's also valid on the lake itself on the Konstanz-Meersburg and Romanshorn-Friedrichshafen ferries, but as far as I can tell it isn't accepted on the catamaran from Konstanz to Friedrichshafen.

    I'll be writing it up on my own blog at some point, having spent a few days in and around Konstanz last month.