Travelling the slow way, on iDBUS

These are dark times for European rail travel.

While the annual timetable change on the 9th of December was a memorable day for high speed rail, a large number of long distance trains were shortened, confined to one or two days a week, or axed altogether. No more Amsterdam-Beijing with only one change of trains in Moscow, for example.

I can image that, for a lot of national railway companies, night trains are something of a puzzle. Until recently, France had an extensive network of night trains, bringing you from Paris to every corner of the country with their Lunéa trains. And while they still exist today as ‘Intercités de nuit’, their number has been decreasing each year. Advertising by the national rail operator SNCF ranges from poor to non-existent, as high speed daytime services on the same routes give them easy money and more passenger turnover. Why cater to the slow traveller anyway?

For this reason, among all these cutbacks, it was quite interesting to see SNCF launch a long-distance bus service, iDBUS, which does exactly that: it creates a slow alternative. And, of all routes, they chose Paris-London, and Paris-Brussels. Two routes where Eurostar and Thalys trains bring you from A to B in under two hours. So why would people take a bus that travels 9 hours from London to Paris?

Cheaper?
Well..yes, but not in a spectacular way. At least not if you book two months in advance. I use Eurostar frequently, and if you book a few months in advance, the price difference between iDBUS and Eurostar is not that large. If you want to travel to London tomorrow, however, it becomes interesting. A Eurostar ticket for today or tomorrow costs at least €120, an iDBUS ticket will set you back about €55 for the London-Paris trip. Even 1 hour before departure.

But if you book two months in advance, is it really worth travelling the slow way..on a bus?

To find out, I decided to test it on my way back from Yorkshire to Belgium.  Instead of taking the last Eurostar of the day, I booked a seat on the overnight iDBUS from London to Lille (halfway on the London-Paris route), and made notes along the way:

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22:00 London Victoria Coach Station, Gate 6
Coach stations are quite special. Wherever you go in the world, there is nothing more interesting than a place where people are waiting for a bus. I travelled through quite a few bus station in China, and they were all indistinguishable from each other: Victoria station could easily have been one of them. It is not the most attractive spot in London, and it looks like something from a by-gone age, but it communicates exactly the kind of atmosphere you associate with coach travel.

My coach is not due until 23:30, but I spend my time observing. The next bus at the gate is the 22:30 to Aberdeen. It takes nearly 12 hours to go all the way to Scotland, 7 more than the fastest train, but tonight it is full. Mainly elderly people and students, it seems. The man sitting next to me, a 85-year old northerner from Carlisle, opens a tin of biscuits and tries to seduce the two 70-somethings across the aisle, but they fend off his advances by claiming that Scottish shortbread does not agree well with their false teeth. As the departure bell sounds, both pepperpots and Don Juan de Carlisle stumble off towards the coach outside.

At 23:00, the iDBUS staff arrives, and does a quick passport and ticket check. Perfectly bilingual. Very polite. A few moments later, all passengers (there are only 7) are led towards the coach, where the driver scans my ticket and shows me where to leave my luggage.

One thing that is immediately apparent  when you board the coach is the smell. Everything smells new and leathery. Like an expensive taxi service. I suspect it is part of their client-binding strategy, and a way to distinguish themselves from the 48 hour Eurolines bus to Kiev, but it does work. It creates a sense of security and trust. The seats are excellent and very large. There’s a 220V plug on every seat. And on-board Wi-Fi. Included in the price.

23:30 iDBUS
After a short introduction of the on-board facilities by one of the two drivers and a brief ‘sleep tight’, the bus sets off across midnight London. One of the nice things about night travel, either by train or by bus, is the way you travel through suburbs, cities and countryside as a silent observer. The first hour or so, the coach travels through London, past Battersea, Vauxhall and the southern suburbs towards the M20 to Kent. You can see the city slowly falling asleep, as people leave pubs, walk drunk along (or on) the road, and go home. The best way to see a city alive, is by travelling through it.

1:15 Folkstone Channel Terminal
Here, I should point out the difference between the day services and the overnight service. iDBUS uses the Chunnel to cross the Channel to France, so the time spent waiting at the Channel Terminal depends on the availability and timing of shuttle trains. During the day, this takes only half an hour or so. At night, there’s a 90 minute pause on the parking lot, because there’s one train every 2 hours. But this isn’t really important, as you’re asleep anyway. In very much the same way as night trains sometimes spend a few hours at a station to change locomotives (or simply to stretch time to make you arrive at your destination at daybreak).

3:10 Le Chunnel
The bus drives through Customs (from what i’ve heard, passport checks occur on board on some coaches) and into the awaiting Shuttle train. What follows is all very futuristic. Train closes, spaceship health and safety announcements are made, and 30 minutes later (or 90 minutes, if you count the time zone) the carriage opens up again and you drive off on the wrong side of the road. You can leave the bus during the crossing to stretch your legs, but really, the shuttle train isn’t that interesting. It’s really just a hollow tube on wheels.

6:24 Lille Europe Station
14 minutes later than the scheduled arrival time, the iDBUS pulls into Lille, and stops on the upper part of Lille Europe. The driver makes it a ‘point d’honneur’ of saying goodbye personally to everyone leaving the coach here. In fact, he’s leaving the coach as well, as another chauffeur team boards for the remaining leg to Paris. Nevertheless, it’s a service you don’t get on a TGV.

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The Catch?
There is none, really. Though, if you’re not used to travelling by night in a bus, then it might be a bit tiresome. I admit I didn’t sleep a lot, but that had more to do with the excitement of discovery than my discomfort. As there were only 7 persons on the bus, I could spread my little travel ecosystem over the seat next to me. I can imagine that a full bus is something quite different. Then again, there’s more comfort and leg room than in a 1st Class seat of a TGV.

Overall…
Excellent slow alternative to the Eurostar. Almost spot on time. Well-trained staff. Leg room.
What more can you wish for?

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The Borealis Express

 

 

2500 km across Europe in three trains.

Kopenhagen – Köln Hauptbahnhof –   City Night Line 40483   –   1260 km / 11h32
Köln Hauptbahnhof – Paris-Nord –   Thalys 9420 – 523 km / 3h13
Paris-Montparnasse – Agen –   TGV 8535   –  717 km / 4h19

 

As i mentioned before, i like travelling by train. In two weeks i will try to cross Europe from Copenhagen (Denmark) to Agen in the south of France through Cologne and Paris in 24 hours. (23h43 actually, but never mind that). Last year  my train had no heating and broke down along the way to Berlin, so i’m eager to know what awaits me this year.

However, i’ve taken my precautions. Instead of a rather unhealthily short one hour time window between two trains in Cologne like last year, i have a comfortable 2.5 hour gap to catch up with any delays i might encounter, and arrive safely on time for my high-speed connection to Paris.

Along the journey, i will twitter and, where possible, blog about the temporary microcosms that trains really are…

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.

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”