We need rails.
I’m very fond of train travel. In fact, i rarely use any other means of transport on distances longer than a few kilometers, unless there really is no other option. I would have gone to China by train if it wouldn’t take me 8 days to get there (and 8 days to come back, of course) and if I had had some more weeks of holidays to spare. Over the past 16 months, i’ve travelled 52,000 km by train, of which 24,000 were travelled on the 55 kilometer stretch of railway between home and work, 14000 on the 350 km TGV line between Brussels and Paris,and 6000 km within China. The remaining mileage was spent entirely on European railways, with a few escapades to France, Germany and Italy along the way.
Of course, this has meant I’ve had my fair share of delays, strikes and other problems along the way. But that really isn’t the point. Any means of transport is subject to those troubles, and after all travelling IS meant to be a bit adventurous . But by train, you can just sit back and enjoy the scenery, as it glides past your window.
There is one kind of train in particular that brings back the mythical railway experience and still has a hint of the good old Express-feeling: The international intercity night train. France still has a national night train network, and a few trains from Paris still go across borders to Spain and Italy, but the times when you could travel from Paris to, say, Budapest without changing trains are over. What remains until this day is a network of trains between mainly Switzerland, Germany and Austria called City Night Line, run by Deutsche Bahn. It is, without any doubt, the most thrilling kind of railway travelling you can do within Europe, but sadly enough a fading remnant of what it once was in the glory days of nightly travel.
Last Christmas, when temperatures hit -16°C in Belgium, France and Germany, i tempted fate, and boarded the Paris-Moscow ‘Perseus’ service to go to Berlin with my girlfriend. Yes, there still is such a thing as a Paris-Moscow train, although it is reduced to one sleeper carriage, pulled by the Paris-Berlin/Munich train, and coupled to the Berlin-Moscow train in Berlin Ostbahnhof . It will take you 48 hours and the train will need to change tracks at the Russian border, as the distance between both rails doesn’t match, but it will take you through the Rhine Valley, the Schwarzwald, the remnants of East Germany, and the icy steppes of Poland, Belarus and Russia. But we were getting out at Berlin. Or were we? As the train rolled out of Paris-Est station, it soon became clear the heating wasn’t working in our carriage which, with the snow outside and temperatures below -12°C, wasn’t that promising a prospect.
By the time we arrived at Strasbourg a thin layer of ice had formed on the windows, and most of the people on the train had frozen feet, pacing up and down the train to look for a spot where the heating was still on. Ironically, the (empty) Moscow-bound carriage was the only one that had some form of heating, which led to a fierce competition to conquer a spot in the corridor. The rest of the people, such as ourselves, had to find more innovative ways to unfreeze, such as exchanging spare pairs of socks and blankets. As the engine wasn’t powerful enough to make the heating work it also had some problems pulling the train, and soon we were running two hours late. German railways efficiency came into play, and we were given the authorization to get off in Mannheim and upgrade without any cost to the posh luxury of the German high-speed service, the ICE.
For those who are unfamiliar with the ICE, i can only tell you to try it some day, as it is a refreshing experience. Coffee and newspapers are served at your seat (yes, in second class), the train interior looks like a futuristic rolling version of the Ritz lobby, and once inside you can’t hear the outside world. It’s like the Starship Enterprise, on rails. And it also runs on time, which is quite a unique experience for people used to Belgian and French railways. The train manager on the Mannheim-Hannover ICE was ‘really sorry for the delay of about 1.5 minutes’.
Our luck had soon run out, however, as the Hannover-Berlin train got stuck behind a night train that had broken down further down the road and had to wait in case the stranded passengers on the other train had to be evacuated by ours. For one hour we waited as the railway engineers tried to start up its’ engines to clear the rails. And when they finally abandoned, and our train could continue on the other tracks, we could make out the letters painted on the side of the immobilized carriages we sped past.
“Perseus ‘Paris-Berlin’. Sleep tight, while we carry you across Europe”