Posts Tagged ‘Trains


ANOTHER little engine that couldn’t

Thalys.. deceiving, isn't it?

Ah, Europe! The land of convenient and affordable train travel! Where you can hop on any locomotive and ride that rail from country to country and see everything you’ve ever dreamed of with total ease, freedom and, of course, speed.

This, at least, is what they tell you.

Those of you who have read my previous post about train travel know that even the European rail can let us down sometimes, but everyone says it almost never happens. And since lightning doesn’t strike twice, as they say, I was more than a little surprised – not to mention bitter – when the trains let me down again. And when I say let me down, this is what I mean:

Saturday 13 June 2009, times are approximate

9:00 am: I ride my bike to Amsterdam Centraal.

9:26 am: I am seated comfortably on a Thalys train as it pulls away from Amsterdam right on time, due to arrive in Paris Nord at 1:35 pm that afternoon. I am going to Paris to spend the weekend with my brother, sister, and brother-in-law before they come to Amsterdam. I haven’t seen them in almost 6 months.

11:30 am: The train makes a routine stop at a little station in a town on the Netherlands/Belgium border.

12:30 pm: The train is still sitting at the station. No one has given us any information.

1:30 pm: They finally make an announcement. The train cannot continue on this track and is turning back to Amsterdam. We are instructed to go outside the station, where buses will pick us up and take us to the central station in Antwerp, where we can catch another Thalys train to Paris. We herd outside, where we join a crowd of about 300 people from other trains that faced similar fates. There are no employees or officials, no buses, it’s not clear where or when they’ll be stopping at the station, and it’s very, very hot. I debate getting on a train back to Amsterdam and calling the whole thing off. If it’s anything like the last time this happened to me, it could take all day.

2:00 pm: An unmarked bus pulls up to the curb, and the crowd surges toward it. I wrestle my way through the mob and manage to get one of the last seats. There are people packed into the aisles and fighting each other as the bus pulls off toward Antwerp.

3:00 pm: The bus arrives in Antwerp. No one has told us where to go or when the train would be leaving for Paris, so I wait in a long line at the international travel desk. Once at the front, an employee tells me that the Thayls train from Antwerp will probably also be delayed for an indeterminate length of time, so we have to go to Brussels and take a Thalys from there. She gives me a new ticket.

4:00 pm: Train leaves from Antwerp to Brussels.

4:45 pm: Train arrives in Brussels, but I realize the woman at the info desk didn’t tell me which station the Thalys would be leaving from. I assume it’s Brussels Centraal, so I get off there. I can’t find the train on the departure screens, so I wait in line again at the international travel desk. I ask to confirm the Thalys train going to Paris at said time. “Yes, that train is on time,” the employee said, “but it’s not leaving from this station.” Momentary panic. Fortunately I have enough time to get to Brussels Midi before the Thalys leaves.

5:15 pm: I wait with a crowd on the platform designated for the train that will finally take us to Paris. There is already a train sitting there but no one is let on. People are confused. They make an announcement in French that our train is actually leaving from another platform, so a mad luggage-toting race down the escalator and through some corridors ensues. They let us on the correct train – people who had actually reserved this train and many who, like me, were on the final leg of a relentless chain of delays. I sit down but am soon approached by a spry French gentleman in his 60s; he insists that I stay in his seat, that he’ll stand and let me know when his legs get tired so we can switch. Things are starting to look up.

5:30 pm: The train departs. The people sitting on the aisle floor next to me – a man from Colorado with a few missing teeth, a gold chain necklace and a Loony Toons tattoo (a walking definition of white trash) and his overweight 9-year-old daughter – won’t stop talking to me.

6:15 pm: I give the seat back to the French gentleman. He lets me sit on his suitcase in the aisle. I make myself comfortable and immediately notice that the people I am sitting behind (trash from Belgium this time) are watching a movie on their laptop. I then notice that it is amateur porn. Hardcore amateur porn. In such a crowded train, with people looming over them in the aisles, they must realize they’re not the only ones who can see this woman’s elastic orifices. I mean, who does that? After the glorious grand finale, they turn off the movie and start playing solitaire.

6:45 pm: With my in-car entertainment over, I resort to my iPod and with Yann Tiersen soothing my nerves I look out and realize the beauty of the countryside between Belgium and Paris. The sun is warm and low over the hills and everything is glowing.

7:30 pm: The train arrives in Paris Nord. I take a deep breath and head for the metro.

8:00 pm: I walk up to the hostel where I am meeting my siblings and see them through the window. I jump up and down, waving wildly, and I know immediately that 11 hours of delayed train travel was worth it just to see them 2 days before I would have anyway.

But seriously, what the hell?


The Little Engine that Couldn’t

When it was time for me to leave Deutschland on a 4:00 pm Sunday train out of Munich, I arrived at the station early to make sure I caught the train to make it home before midnight; better safe than sorry, I always say! I climbed aboard the trusty locomotive, found my assigned compartment, and stared dumbly at the German sitting in my seat. “No reservations,” he said. It had changed to a first come, first served situation, and an old train.

And with the events that followed, it’s a miracle I ever made it back to Amsterdam before the sun rose the next day…

Sunday (times are approximate):

4:00 pm – On the first leg of the journey, a 5-hour train from Munich to Duisburg. I am standing with my heavy backpack outside the WC in the rattling connector between two cars, next to a German man who doesn’t speak English but is able to suffocate me with breath worse than the stench coming from the toilet behind me.

4:20 pm – I find a seat on the floor in the narrow aisle outside the compartments.

5:15 pm – Enough passengers get off in Nuremburg that I am able to get a seat by a window. I relax.

5:30 pm – They begin to make announcements in German to which the other passengers react negatively. I cannot understand a word. Announcements occur roughly every 15 minutes.

6:45 pm – The train arrives in Frankfurt, not Duisburg, and it is the end of the line. The girl next to me tells me to go to platform 18 to catch a direct train to Amsterdam. No one knows what happened with this train, but at least they’ve given us accurate instructions for next steps.

7:00 pm – I buy a Coke and a water in the station, not bothering with food.

7:10 pm – I find an aisle seat (again, no reservations). It’s a new train and I feel relieved. Surely, nothing will go wrong with this one.

8:00 pm – I am enjoying Running with Scissors, which I found on my train from Amsterdam to Munich and am now extremely thankful to have it. The breathing of the woman next to me sounds like a helicopter with the engine dying.

8:15 pm – They begin making announcements in German to which the other passengers react negatively. The German announcements are very long, around 5 sentences, and after each one they say in English, “Ladies and gentlemen, there will be a slight delay. We apologize for the inconvenience.” The announcements occur roughly every 10 minutes.

8:30 pm – Announcements are made in which they mention Amsterdam multiple times. The helicopter next to me does not speak English and I have no idea what is going on.

9:00 pm – I finally get up to ask the people in front of me to translate. What I gather is that there was something on the track, we had to go back, there is a delay, but ultimately this train will go to Amsterdam.

9:30 pm – The train makes a routine stop in a small town near the Germany/Netherlands border.

9:45 pm – The train is still sitting there.

10:00 pm – All the lights turn off, then back on.

10:15 pm – The entire train makes a sad noise and then shuts off. We sit in darkness. I am staring at the sign outside with the name of the town, but can no longer remember it and it is too small to easily find on a map for the purposes of this post.

10:30 pm – More announcements. The man speaking sounds tired. I move up a seat and befriend the woman across the aisle. Her name is Ambaar and she is returning to Utrecht (near Amsterdam) from a 3-week trip to India. From now on she will translate all the announcements for me and provide pleasant conversation.

10:45 pm – I use the WC. It has no running water. I then go to the cafe car where they are handing out free food, and bring a club sandwich and a jumbo Twix back to my seat.

11:00 pm – The train people admit defeat and announce, “Ladies and gentlemen, this train is out of order.” We wait.

11:30 pm – They are sending for a bus to come get us and bring us to Amsterdam. We will have to wait 1-2 hours for the bus to arrive. They offer to let people stay in this tiny town at a hotel for free.

Monday (times are approximate, as I am barely conscious by this point):

12:00 am – Announcement: there will be no bus. Instead there are taxis assembled outside that will take us to the city of Arnhem, where we will then get a bus to Amsterdam. Everyone walks outside. There are about 60 people, and outside we find only 2 taxis, each one holds 6-8 people. Now we are waiting in the cold.

12:15 am – Ambaar investigates and only one taxi is going to Arnhem. We slowly creep through the unmoving crowd and are the first ones in the taxi. Off we go through fog and darkness with about 8 others.

1: 00 am – We arrive at the train station in Arnhem. The cab driver lets us out and sends us to the other side of the large station where there are busses already waiting.

1:10 am – We get to the other side, and there are no busses. Only cab drivers offering to take us to Amsterdam for 200 euros.

1:30 am – I am waiting outside the empty station in the cold in Arnhem with about 15 strangers. Ambaar has taken a cab to Utrecht. I feel like I’m on Survivor. Perfect strangers placed on a deserted island and forced to figure it out. People are heckling cab drivers and debating possible solutions. I stand quietly.

1:50 am – Still waiting, cold, and growing nervous.

2:00 am – A train station official comes outside to find out who we are. There are taxis assembled on the other side of the station to take us for free to Amsterdam. People begin to run. Yes, run.

2:15 am – I get in the front seat of a taxi with 3 others in the back, and we leave for Amsterdam. I am phsycially incapable of keeping myself awake.

3:30 am – We arrive at Amsterdam central station. The trams are no longer running. Another woman and I convince the cab driver to go into the city and take us to Keizersgracht. He gets lost, and I direct him the rest of the way. After only 2 weeks in the city, I am proud of myself for this.

3:45 am – I pay and walk down the street to my front door.

4: 00 am – I call a friend at home. Someone has to hear this.

4:15 am – I sleep.

7:15 am – My alarm goes off, and I go downstairs to get the boys ready for another week.

This post is about as long as my journey was, so kudos to you if you got through it. I thought German trains would be efficient and reliable, and when they weren’t, I thought the officials could figure it out. They couldn’t.

The end.

Prost! to travel. Anything can happen.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
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