Rail journeys

Travelling to European destinations means travelling by low-cost airlines for many people. I want to show that trains are an alternative to not only short-, but also mid-distance flights.

I know, the bigger the distance, the slower railing is relative to flying. It's more complicated (and time-consuming) to plan a journey. And, I'm afraid, it usually costs more. But if you need to, you can work better on a train than in the oxygen-poor aircraft cabin; you see and understand how the landscape of Europe changes from one region to the other; you can stop in beautiful cities for sightseeing; trains let you meet the ordinary people of various nations as you ride through different countries; you can visit friends and have programmes on the way as you'd never be able to if you were flying; you get to avoid those horrible airport departure lounges; you can relive the old-style grandeur of travelling; you can dine in dining cars; and last but not least, trains are much more environmentally friendly than aeroplanes.

Flying on holiday is a sin, according to the Bishop of London, Rt Revd Richard Chartres.1 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found in 1999 that aviation was responsible for 3.5% of human produced global warming in 1992 (both CO2 and non-CO2 effects), and predicted a between 2.6 and 11 times increase in absolute contribution to warming by 2050.2 The fuel consumption of a modern airliner is roughly as much as if the same distance was driven by one mini car for each passenger on the plane (about 3 litres per 100 kilometres and per passenger). There is a user-friendly but sophisticated calculator to estimate the CO2 emission attributable to one flight passenger on any chosen journey. Compare this to the 1.2 tonnes per person per year CO2 emission target that we need to achieve by 2030 to avoid catastrophic global climate change.3

Right, you ask, how about trains? They win hands down in energy efficiency. Full stop. Look up in this great comparison how the high speed electric trains do against all sorts of private and public transport means. Further to energy efficiency, for example in France where 77% of the electricity came from nuclear power in 2007, carbon dioxide emission from travelling by the famous TGV is apparently marginal compared to emissions from flying the same route.

Let me share my passion for distance railing by telling the stories of my journeys and giving tips how to do it. I did one trip from Oxford to Budapest (then I flew back), later I ventured to do two return trips, one return trip from Oxford to Berlin, and a further one from Oxford to Berlin then on to Budapest. I know the British, the Hungarian and the German railways pretty well; the Belgian, the Austrian and the Swiss ones increasingly well; but I'll never get the hang of the French one... Just kidding!...

I have a similar, ever increasing list of the flights I have ever taken, but let's be clear that I'm not proud of any trips I've flown, and I always feel uncomfortable when I fasten my seatbelt before take-off.

Here is the story of my journeys. All times are local times. Further, technical advice comes afterwards.

Join me, and make a statement by taking the train!

1 The Sunday Times, 23 July 2006. Transcript from an interview for BBC Radio 4, broadcast on 24 July 2006. In other media sources, e.g. Daily Mail, 23 July 2006.
2 Section 4.8 of the Summary for Policymakers in Aviation and the Global Atmosphere, or a short summary.
3 George Monbiot: Heat; How to Stop the Planet Burning, Allen Lane, Penguin Books, 2006.


Journey 1

Leg 1

Tue, 30/10/2007, 4:00Oxford (GBr)
Wed, 31/10/2007, 8:51Wien (Vienna) (Aut)

Leg 2

Wed, 31/10/2007, 17:43Wien (Vienna) (Aut)
Wed, 31/10/2007, 20:32Budapest (Hun)
London Paddington05:41
Underground, Bakerloo line
London, Paddington05:xx
London, Charing Cross06:xx
London Charing Cross06:25
Dover Priory08:26
Dover Priory08:40
Dover Terminal08:45
Ferry, SeaFrance
Calais Ville13:28
Boulogne Ville14:05
Boulogne Ville14:38
Paris Gare du Nord17:20
TGV 2457
Paris Gare de l'Est18:24
Wien Westbahnhof08:51
Wien Südbahnhof17:43
Bruck a.d. Leitha18:09
Bruck a.d. Leitha18:14
A trip with an InterRail Global Pass. (I'll explain this at the end.)

I could have had some three hours to look around in Bruxelles, where I had never been before, but this fell through as the port of Calais didn't let my French ferry in due to the high volume of traffic. We spent half an hour going around in a circle on the Channel, during which we were overtaken by a ferry of the other, non-French company. Aargh. It then became necessary for me to travel via Paris. I caught the first TGV on the new Eastern line which takes you to Strasbourg in no time (it was a mere 3 euros with the Pass). Unfortunately I hadn't been expecting this and hadn't printed out a map of Strasbourg so I didn't know where to go and what to see there. The night train to Vienna was fine, and free.

I had a classy time in Vienna. Doing some sightseeing on my way did I go to see a contemporary Chinese art exhibition in the Museum of Modern Arts (Museum Moderner Kunst, MUMOK) in the MuseumsQuartier. I ended my day in Vienna with Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cakes) with a friend who lived there and whom I hadn't met for ages.


Journey 2

Leg 1

Fri, 11/04/2008, 04:00Oxford (GBr)
Fri, 11/04/2008, 23:25Aalen (Ger)

Leg 2

Sat, 12/04/2008, 15:35Aalen (Ger)
Sat, 12/04/2008, 18:31München (Munich) (Ger)

Leg 3

Sat, 12/04/2008, 23:45München (Munich) (Ger)
Sun, 13/04/2008, 07:26Sopron (Hun)

Leg 4

Sun, 13/04/2008, 11:45Sopron (Hun)
Sun, 13/04/2008, 12:04Fertőszentmiklós (Hun)

Leg 5

Sun, 13/04/2008, 18:29Fertőszentmiklós (Hun)
Sun, 13/04/2008, 21:08Budapest (Hun)
London Paddington05:41
Underground, Bakerloo line
London, Paddington05:xx
London, Charing Cross06:xx
London Charing Cross06:25
Dover Priory08:27
Dover Priory08:40
Dover Terminal08:45
Ferry, SeaFrance
Calais Ville12:31
Lille Flandres13:48
RegionalExpress 19953
Lille Flandres14:40
InterRegio 5017
Aachen Hbf18:26
Aachen Hbf18:49
Köln Hbf19:42
ICE 615
Köln Hbf19:54
Stuttgart Hbf22:08
Stuttgart Hbf22:22
Augsburg Hbf17:29
ICE 519
Augsburg Hbf17:52
München Hbf18:31
München Hbf23:45
Wien Westbahnhof06:02
Underground, Line U6
Wien, Westbahnhof06:09
Wien, Philadelphiabrücke06:15
Wien Meidling06:25
This was an action-packed, very well organised tour of Europe, again with an InterRail Global Pass.

This time it was the French railways which prevented me from seeing either Bruxelles or Paris due to a sold out TGV and a delay. So I took a direct route to Aalen. The InterRegio train from Liège to Aachen was quite an encounter: against all reasonable expectations the train looked like some vintage ex-Soviet underground, and was a commuter train in practice. In Aalen I visited my cousin and his family, and stayed for a night. In the morning we looked around in the town centre complete with the weekly market.

After lunch I set off to Munich. I chose a less direct route avoiding the Stuttgart-Munich main line. The reason being that you get to see more if you leave the well-trodden paths and you're less likely to have the chance to travel on any such line again. On my way I could have a glimpse at the Bavarian Railway Museum in Nördlingen from my seat.

In Munich a friend from Oxford was waiting for me with a ticket to a ballet première at the Bayerische Staatsoper where she was working then and could get a press ticket for me for pennies. In the intervals she talked to (and consequently introduced me to) several influential personalities of the world of ballet. I was even taken backstage where she put my rucksack into the female dancers' changing room for the evening. I did enjoy the performances too! It was a remarkable night. (This report will hopefully justify the issuing of a press ticket to me!)

I skipped the première party to move on to visit a second cousin and his family in West Hungary. I had been invited for lunch so I had time to spend in Sopron beforehand, a beautiful little town there. Fertőszentmiklós is so far from Budapest that my cousin and I very rarely see each other. This occassion was a good opportunity to catch up and, in fact, to get to know each other.


Journey 3

Leg 1

Wed, 23/04/2008, 18:05Budapest (Hun)
Thu, 24/04/2008, 11:19Locarno (Che)

Leg 2

Thu, 24/04/2008, 12:12Locarno (Che)
Thu, 24/04/2008, 13:56Domodossola (Ita)

Leg 3

Thu, 24/04/2008, 15:25Domodossola (Ita)
Fri, 25/04/2008, 09:03Paris (Fra)

Leg 4

Fri, 25/04/2008, 12:31Paris (Fra)
Fri, 25/04/2008, 23:25Oxford (GBr)
Budapest-Keleti Pu.18:05
Zürich Hb06:20
Zürich Hb08:09
Locarno FART12:12
Milano Centrale17:05
Milano Centrale19:20
TGV 6560
Paris Gare de Lyon09:03
Paris, Gare de Lyon09:xx
Paris, Chatelet Les Halles09:xx
Underground, Line M7
Paris, Palais Royal−
Musée du Louvre
Paris, Gare de l'Est11:xx
Paris Gare du Nord12:31
Boulogne Ville16:08
Boulogne Ville16:13
Calais Ville16:49
Ferry, SeaFrance
Dover Terminal19:30
Dover Priory19:35
Dover Priory19:52
London Victoria21:47
Underground, Circle line
London, Victoria21:xx
London, Paddington22:xx
London Paddington22:21
A trip with an InterRail Global Pass. And my brother.

He came to visit me in Oxford, then a friend in Leeds and then flew home. His concept was to check out Swiss trains and the Alps, then turn South and catch a night train from Milan to Paris. This particular train would have let us sleep some ten hours without interruption instead of just six or so with a more direct connection.

We spent our time in Zürich trying to recover from a tiring ride (we didn't get much sleep in the brightly lit carriage). Anyway, we had been there previously and weren't very interested.

We had enough time in Locarno to walk down to the shore of Lago Maggiore and soak up the splendour of this town. Then we got on the narrow-gauge FART train to Domodossola. If I say tram, you will have a more accurate picture of what it's like. The line is beautiful. It winds through the mountains, over bridges, in narrow cuttings. Everything is so small and close, you can almost pick fruits from trees in neighbouring orchards reaching out from the train. It was an astonishing experience. Domodossola was also worth a visit.

Milano Centrale is a most impressive, enormous station. A nasty surprise awaited us here: the night train we were hoping to take had already been sold out, as we were told in good English by the man in the international ticket office. Strangely enough, when he was searching for alternatives he used the German railways' website instead of some Italian page. It's anyone's guess how much one should read into this. The most reasonable alternative he could come up with involved spending five hours of the night in Geneva. It was miserable. The station there was closed for the night, we had to stay in the subway. It was cold. We didn't dare to fall asleep. Then we weren't able to stay awake on the TGV to Paris.

Neither of us had been to Paris before so we both enjoyed the little walk we had there. We were at the Notre Dame, walked along the Seine and saw the Louvre Museum from the outside.

On the train from London to Oxford we found ourselves in an initially awkward, but gradually easing situation which became the funniest experience of the trip. Our company in the open carriage was four Oxonian firemen who were returning from a night out to London to celebrate the birthday of one. We could gather they hadn't gone to the capital to remain sober. They were chatting and laughing so loudly that nobody in the carriage could ignore their conversation.

The thirty-odd-year-old birthday boy started off with praising David Cameron: `When he wins the next election he'll set the ball rolling at last. The country really needs the ball to be rolling as things are now, don't you think so, Ma'am?' Our fireman addressed random passengers and sat down next to them. At the same time he didn't end the chat with his colleagues and got them involved in his mingling. `Because of the immigrants, they take our jobs', carried on with a touch of political incorrectness, but it was all right in that situation. He said he was actually disappointed with both big parties. He'd vote British National Party as a protest. `Well, if you wanna protest', came some firefighter response, `then don't vote. That is the way to show disinterest.' `And what do you think, Sir?' `You know the thing is there are so many jobs we British simply don't do', as the calming argument went, `but at the end of the day somebody must do them, like taxi driving.' After a few more slightly xenophobic (but never intimidating) remarks a Pakistani-looking man in a suit felt obliged to interrupt the conversation. `I beg your pardon, Sir, don't complain about me at least, if I may ask you. I was born in the UK, my first language is English, I'm educated, an office worker, and pay taxes.' `Sure, Sir, the problem is not with you, of course.' Another Pakistani joined in with a remark, but the two soon got off after a friendly farewell to our fireman.

The intensity with which the firemen exchanged witty remarks reached its climax when he found female company. `And what do you do, young lady?' `I'm studying in Oxford', came the reply with an American accent. `And where are you from?... No, don't tell, let me guess... Pennsylvania?' `No, Boston.' `Then you must be a great Patriots fan, aren't you' — they went on chatting a bit about Boston. The firemen were very sociable and genuinely friendly, as it had emerged, and got many of us on board involved in their conversation. They certainly kept us entertained.

`And how about you, Sir?', turned our man to a potbellied guy. `I was an athlete, even held a world record.' `In what?' `What's your guess?' `Erm, ..., wrestling?!' `Ha, no, let me help: track and field.' `Then the discus... or hammer-throwing...' `Well, no, in 1000-mile racewalking.' `What, what's that, is there such a thing?' `Yes, look, here's an article about me', and there he took an article out of his briefcase, with a big photo, an article cut out of a paper thirty years back, glued to cardboard and wrapped in cellophane. `What a man, what a man', he passed it around to all his mates. They were all shocked and couldn't help laughing. `What a man', he carried on, `who has an old article on him at all times, just in case, and who shows this to random strangers...' `Hey mate', he started mocking him, `you know, you have put on a few pounds since then. And you had more hair...'

We arrived to Oxford in elevated spirits, where having a shower was a real treat.

(I'm grateful to my brother for his help in writing this.)


Journey 4

Wed, 18/06/2008, 05:06Oxford (GBr)
Wed, 18/06/2008, 19:23Berlin (Ger)
First Great Western
First Great Western
London Paddington06:30
Underground, Hammersmith & City line
London, Paddington06:xx
London, King's Cross and St Pancras06:xx
Eurostar 9114
London St. Pancras08:05
ICE 15
Köln Hbf14:15
ICE 651
Köln Hbf14:49
S 75
Berlin, Savignyplatz19:23
This was a business trip when I treated myself to the Eurostar and the Channel Tunnel. (Well, one knows they'd be reimbursed.) I could allow myself a train one hour later than my usual first train of the day at 4 o'clock. I had ordered all tickets online and received the German ticket by air mail. Everything went smoothly. On the Eurostar I had got Seat 61. (And then once again on the way back from Berlin to Cologne.) Had a nice waffle in Bruxelles, and saw the Autostadt in Wolfsburg from the train.


Journey 5

Sun, 22/06/2008, 09:xxBerlin (Ger)
Sun, 22/06/2008, 20:48Oxford (GBr)
S 75
ICE 952
Köln Hbf14:09
ICE 14
Köln Hbf14:44
Eurostar 9153
London St. Pancras19:03
Underground, Hammersmith & City line
London, King's Cross and St Pancras19:xx
London, Paddington19:xx
First Great Western
London Paddington19:42
A nice feature of the third generation German ICE trains is that there are some passenger seats directly behind the cockpit separated from it only by a glass wall. At one end of the train they are first class, at the other end second class. With plenty of luck (being an early bird?) my reservation from Cologne to Bruxelles was for such an aisle seat in the very first row, right behind the driver and the windshield.

When I found this out, I was euphoric, and anxious. First I thought I'd get travel-sick from it. The other worry I had was that we were sitting quite high and I felt the train would topple over any minute. The track seemed so narrow from there above. I had to get used to this. After we had set off I realised the obvious: the reason why high speed trains can be fast is that the curves are very long and gentle. You feel as safe as on a normal train because the clear area around the tracks is just as much wider and the distance of unobstructed visibility is just as much longer as is required by higher speed.

This was a memorable experience.


Journey 6

Leg 1

Tue, 16/12/2008, 04:00Oxford (GBr)
Tue, 16/12/2008, 16:09Ghent (Bel)

Leg 2

Tue, 16/12/2008, 18:24Ghent (Bel)
Wed, 17/12/2008, 09:31Nürnberg (Nuremberg) (Ger)

Leg 3

Wed, 17/12/2008, 12:38Nürnberg (Nuremberg) (Ger)
Wed, 17/12/2008, 21:03Fertőboz (Hun)

Leg 4

Thu, 18/12/2008, 08:50Fertőboz (Hun)
Thu, 18/12/2008, 14:4xBudapest (Hun)
First Great Western
London Paddington05:40
Underground, Bakerloo line
London, Paddington05:xx
London, Charing Cross06:xx
London Charing Cross06:25
Dover Priory08:27
Dover Priory08:40
Dover Terminal08:45
Ferry, SeaFrance
Calais Terminal12:30
Calais Gare12:35
Coach, ligne bcd
Calais Gare13:05
(+5 min
Dunkerque Gare13:50
(+5 min
Bus, Line 2B
Dunkerque Gare14:10
Adinkerke/De Panne14:54
De Panne14:59
Gent St. Pieters16:09
Gent St. Pieters18:24
InterRegio 5021
Aachen Hbf22:26
Aachen Hbf22:49
Köln Hbf23:42
ICE 609
Köln Hbf23:53
Karlsruhe Hbf03:35
(+45 min
Karlsruhe Hbf04:57
Augsburg Hbf07:39
Augsburg Hbf08:22
Nürnberg Hbf09:31
ICE 25
Nürnberg Hbf12:31
(+7 min
Wien Westbahnhof17:22
Underground, Line U6
Wien, Westbahnhof17:xx
Wien, Philadelphiabrücke17:xx
RegionalExpress 2835
Wien Meidling18:43
Sopron, Csengeri utca20:35
Fertőboz, Obszervatórium20:59
(+4 min
Fertőboz, Obszervatórium08:50
Sopron, Csengeri utca09:11
Coach, Kisalföld Volán
Győr, autóbusz állomás12:00
(+10 min
Budapest, Bocskai út13:37
(+23 min
Budapest, Móricz Zs. körtér14:1x
Budapest, home14:4x
It's hard to think of anything as unexpected as hearing someone saying `Hi' to you at ten to four in the freezing morning from a mob of ten, all waiting to be let into the closed railway station of Oxford. It was a friend heading for Edinburgh via London. He just wanted to see his parents as early as he could. So I had good company for the first bit.

There had been some indication of industrial action on the French railways which I couldn't verify. Basically, the Eurostar website mentioned the industrial action, but I couldn't find any more English language information nor French student when I could really have done with some help. Either way, I decided to take a coach and cross the border to Belgium as quickly as I could.

This move let me arrive to Ghent at dusk. With Christmas lights switched on, a Christmas market and an ice rink downtown, I was genuinely impressed by this picture postcard Flemish city. Everyone should go and see it. I tried the local speciality, the mastel, and bought Belgian chocolates (praline) and nougat to take home. And this was only meant to be a mere run-up to a visit to one of the oldest and grandest Christmas markets of Germany, the one in Nuremberg.

The Christkindlesmarkt of Nuremberg was very nice indeed. So many booths lined up, and so much to see: handcrafted Christmas tree decorations, toys, and Lebkuchen (German Christmas cookies). Small groups of kids were apparently doing some task, running around with sheets in their hands, asking questions from sellers. The market poured out to surrounding streets where there were representative traders from sister towns and greengrocers' stalls. The whole market was so heart-warmingly old-fashioned.

There was still a long way to go to reach Fertőboz, where I stayed for a night at a friend's. He was working for the Geophysical Research Institute and had managed to secure a small flat in his benefits package. Let's not scrutinise the fact that his flat was in one of six huts of an observatory in a forest, basically in the middle of nowhere, where his sole company was a dog and some equipment which records atmospheric electricity and Earth magnetism. He is a great guy, it was good to catch up with him.

There certainly was a country in Europe in which the rail workers were on strike, namely Hungary. Fortunately the regional railway GySEV/ROeEE took me to Győr, but there I had to catch a coach to Budapest. To round the trip off in an environmentally friendly way, I bought a ticket and took a tram home instead of giving my parents the chance to pick me up by car.

Being on the move gets me see the real world, at the same time holds me back from being in the virtual world which we increasingly perceive as reality. So when I arrived home, I was the last to learn the sad, sad news that Subaru had announced their immediate withdrawal from the World Rally Championship on the first day of my journey. So it goes.

Looking back, I spent some 10 days on trains in 2008!


Journey 7

Leg 1

Thu, 01/01/2009, 08:xxBudapest (Hun)
Thu, 01/01/2009, 19:53Stuttgart (Ger)

Leg 2

Fri, 02/01/2009, 01:26Stuttgart (Ger)
Fri, 02/01/2009, 22:22Oxford (GBr)
Budapest, home08:xx
Budapest, Moszkva tér08:xx
Underground, Line 2
Budapest, Moszkva tér08:xx
Budapest, Keleti pályaudvar08:xx
Budapest-Keleti Pu.09:10
Wien Westbahnhof12:08
ICE 24
Wien Westbahnhof12:40
Nürnberg Hbf17:24
Nürnberg Hbf17:41
Stuttgart Hbf19:53
CNL 418
Stuttgart Hbf01:26
Köln Hbf05:45
Köln Hbf07:17
Aachen Hbf08:09
Aachen Hbf08:35
Gent St. Pieters11:35
Gent St. Pieters12:57
Lille Flandres13:53
Lille Flandres14:03
Calais Ville15:20
Calais Gare15:xx
Calais Terminal15:xx
Ferry, SeaFrance
Dover Terminal18:00
(+5 min
Dover Priory18:05
(+5 min
Dover Priory18:22
London Victoria20:17
Underground, Circle line
London, Victoria20:xx
London, Paddington20:xx
First Great Western
London Paddington20:35
(+22 min
(+23 min
First Great Western
I skipped the New Year's Eve parties to leave home in the morning. I happened to be in Vienna at the time of the New Year's Concert so I felt it was very appropriate to listen to it on the Austrian national radio.

My only stop was in Stuttgart where I met a friend. I was briefly shown around the downtown and then we had dinner in a nice restaurant. I ate a local speciality, Käsespätzle.

I had already booked a couchette place for my night train to Cologne in Nuremberg. By that time all seats had been sold out. Travelling lying horizontally was a very strange experience for me: things were moving in unexpected directions.

In Cologne I had just enough time to visit the famous Cathedral, which, very conveniently, opened at 6am. After that I was racing to Oxford as quickly as I could.

Now some stuff for the geeks. This time I had a GPS receiver with me which recorded my position every half minute. Apart from the failure to record data on the Vienna—Nuremberg—Stuttgart—Cologne—Aachen section the log is as accurate as one can expect it to be and is really interesting. The shielding of the radio signal may suggest that German carriages are made of massive amounts of steel!


Journey 8

Leg 1

Sat, 25/07/2009, 05:00Oxford (GBr)
Sat, 25/07/2009, 19:23Berlin (Ger)

Leg 2

Fri, 31/07/2009, 19:00Berlin (Ger)
Sat, 01/08/2009, 09:1xBudapest (Hun)
Coach, Oxford Espress
Oxford, Gloucester Green05:00
London, Baker Street06:16
Underground, Hammersmith & City line
London, Baker Street06:21
London, King's Cross and St Pancras06:26
Eurostar 9114
London St. Pancras07:53
ICE 15
Köln Hbf14:15
ICE 651
Köln Hbf14:49
EN 477
Berlin Hbf19:00
(+10 min
Budapest-Keleti Pu.08:32
(+3 min
Underground, Line 2
Budapest, Keleti pályaudvar08:40
Budapest, Moszkva tér08:5x
Budapest, Moszkva tér08:56
Budapest, home09:1x
I was on another tour of duty to Berlin (which is by no means a bad thing). This time I bought an online ticket from Deutsche Bahn that I needed to print off (no air mail was used). On weekends the rail service to London is less frequent, so I had to weigh up the option of travelling by train to London but getting up an hour earlier against simply taking a coach when I wanted to travel. I chose the latter. Yet again everything went smoothly, nothing to write home about. It's becoming a custom for me to eat a waffle (with whipped cream and strawberry or raspberry sauce) in the Häagen-Dazs shop at the Bruxelles-Midi rail station.

As no ticket was offered online for the night train from Berlin to Budapest, I decided to buy it as soon as possible in the hope that I get the promotional price. Unfortunately, six days before the actual departure time, by the time I enquired in Cologne, all reduced-price tickets had been gone. I had to pay a hefty price. What I got in return was two nice stretches of track. The first one was at dusk between Berlin and Dresden where the line leads through a forest. Our train entered Hungary in the morning from Slovakia via Štúrovo and Szob and approached Budapest running along the Danube. I strongly recommend trying out the rail line through the Danube Bend; I think it's one of the nicest in Hungary.


Journey 9

Sun, 28/02/2010, 05:06Oxford (GBr)
Mon, 01/03/2010, 01:10Leipzig (Ger)
Coach, Oxford Espress
Oxford, Gloucester Green06:00
London, Marble Arch07:22
Underground, Central line
London, Marble Arch07:32
London, Oxford Street07:36
Underground, Victoria line
London, Oxford Street07:38
London, King's Cross and St Pancras07:43
Eurostar 9116
London St. Pancras08:57
(-5 min)
Thalys 9433
Köln Hbf16:15
(+7 min
Car (hitchhiking)
Köln Hbf19:30
An Oxford-based reader might have picked up on that Oxford Espress coaches don't usually stop at Marble Arch. This time road constructions forced the service to divert to Marble Arch avoiding Baker Street.

By the time of my travel, Eurostar traffic to Bruxelles had been restored following the Halle train collision, in which on the 15th February around twenty people were killed. As we approached the Belgian capital, I actually saw damaged carriages loaded onto flat-bed carriages on a nearby track, and debris in open-top carriages. There were still two police cars parked on the road next to the rail tracks. The inevitable delay caused by this disturbance had been overestimated by Eurostar, hence the rare occurrence that we arrived before the scheduled time.

I bought the Thalys ticket at Bruxelles-Midi station and enjoyed a waffle at the Häagen-Dazs establishment. Because of the accident and delays near Bruxelles, I hesitated until the last days whether to travel by train. It wasn't immediately certain that I could arrive early enough to be able to check into my room in Leipzig. For example, there wasn't enough time to order the first Thalys ticket online, and I had to get the second sent to my accommodation in Leipzig.

In Cologne there was a strange buzz in the air when I got off the Thalys train. I found a delayed ICE 817 heading in the direction of Frakfurt Flughafen, to where I was travelling. I enquired the ticket inspector and she said that I could take that train with my pre-purchased ticket. So I boarded the train and with a quarter of an hour delay we finally pulled out at 16:35. One of my principles is to take the earliest train that you can take among ones with the same speed, so that if anything happens, you've left that much earlier and you're that much farther.

Now the unpredictable did happen. We stopped at the next station, Köln Messe/Deutz, and stayed there for a half hour. It turned out that due to the stormy weather, train traffic was suspended in that direction. So we drove back to Köln Hauptbahnhof, which was already a mess. Trains were arriving, they were offloading people who couldn't travel on and who were accumulating on the platforms and in the station lobby. Meanwhile, the arriving trains were piling up and were blocking the tracks preventing any sensible traffic flow. There were rail workers with laptops in the main lobby to advise stuck passengers, but the number of enquiries overwhelmed them. I found some comfort in the presence of police officers.

At this stage I was still hopeful: I had the luxury of an alternative route, via Hannover. I queued in the ticket office, enquired, and was given an alternative itinerary. I just had to rush to catch my train that was due to leave in two minutes' time, at 17:48. Note how much time has passed since the ICE 817 had left. So I caught this one, but within a minute of jumping on it through the nearest door, it was announced that all rail traffic was suspended due to the strong wind. It was strong indeed, no question about that.

Now, what do you do 500 kilometres from your destination with no rail traffic? I remembered that there was a flight from Cologne/Bonn to Leipzig, but I didn't remember when, I didn't know where to book a ticket or where the airport was. And hang on, it was so stormy, that the last thing you wanted is being in the air! I looked at a map of Cologne and couldn't find a coach station. And I couldn't think of any friends who lived within reach to crash at them.

I had no choice but to hitchhike. Which is no easy task in the middle of a large city, where most cars are local. However, the Germans include letters in the registration number to identify the home town of a car. So I thought I'd go out of town to some service station or junction and look for a car from the East. I walked for forty minutes, stopped at a promising traffic light, and browsed registration numbers. But the majority were local cars, so I had to give up and return to the centre.

Fortunately I saw a dark blue BMW 3 saloon (from the E46 generation) from Leipzig. The driver did turn up, I explained my situation to him in German, and he agreed to take me to Leipzig. I put my suitcase into the boot, and sat in. He made it clear that he wanted to discuss the money. After all, he was going to drive for me for five hours. He said that the train ticket must have been about a hundred euros, so a seventy euro charge would be reasonable. The train ticket will be refunded by Deutsche Bahn anyway. I accepted the offer, and for the first hitchhiking experience in my life, I paid. Loser.

The ride was a strange experience. I was very tired but I wanted to stay awake. I didn't completely trust the guy. My German wasn't good enough to keep the conversation going, and he spoke no English. We immediately ran into a traffic jam, then the motorway was closed due to an accident. It was dark, with occasional showers of rain, and non-stop high winds with gusts. Once he phoned his girlfriend and was told that fifteen planes were circling above Leipzig, unable to land in the poor weather! He drove with speeds up to a 160 kph, and was explaining how the crosswind was playing with the car. We had two short breaks and arrived four and a half hours later than I would have, had all trains operated according to their schedule.


Journey 10

Leg 1

Sun, 07/03/2010, 08:11Leipzig (Ger)
Sun, 07/03/2010, 11:53Frankfurt am Main (Ger)

Leg 2

Sun, 07/03/2010, 16:10Frankfurt am Main (Ger)
Sun, 07/03/2010, 23:48Oxford (GBr)
ICE 1642
Leipzig Hbf08:11
(+7 min
Frankfurt am Main Süd11:37
(+3 min
S 5
Frankfurt am Main Süd11:43
Frankfurt am Main Hbf (tier)11:53
ICE 626
Frankfurt am Main Hbf16:10
Köln Hbf17:32
(+3 min
Thalys 9456
Köln Hbf17:44
Eurostar 9163
London St. Pancras21:33
Underground, Victoria line
London, King's Cross and St Pancras21:50
London, Victoria21:59
Coach, Oxford Espress
London, Victoria22:30
Oxford, St. Aldates23:48
Thank God, this journey wasn't as memorable as the previous one. Its highlight was a four-hour visit to Frankfurt with the knowledgeable guidance of an old friend from Keble College, the slightly eccentric physicist-turned-banker Dr. Klein. The weather was chilly but fair, or one could say, fresh.


Journey 11

Tue, 20/04/2010, 19:32Budapest (Hun)
Wed, 21/04/2010, 23:38Oxford (GBr)
Budapest, home19:32
Budapest, Moszkva tér19:44
Underground, Line 2
Budapest, Moszkva tér19:50
Budapest, Keleti pályaudvar20:00
Budapest-Keleti Pu.21:05
München Hbf06:15
(+2 min
ICE 610
München Hbf09:08
(+3 min
Köln Hbf14:05
(+1 min
Köln Hbf14:15
Aachen Hbf15:07
Aachen Hbf16:34
(+2 min
(+2 min
Eurostar 9163
(+6 min
London St. Pancras21:33
(+6 min
Underground, Hammersmith & City line
London, King's Cross and St Pancras21:48
London, Paddington21:5x
First Great Western
London Paddington22:21
This journey was organised in quite a haste, with the goals of speed, value and simplicity in mind. This was the time when the eruptions of the Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull volcano forced authorities to close the British airspace for a couple of days. Accordingly, my flight from Budapest to London on the 15th April was cancelled. The rebooked flight on the 18th too. Then I chose to just travel by train instead of waiting further days for the next available flight, which might be cancelled too. The bottleneck in the planning was the Eurostar connection, where affordability decided the day of travel, and I built the trip around that. I was cautious to not only buy tickets in advance, but to make seat reservations as well.

On my way, contrary to my expectation, the night train from Budapest and the Eurostar were the only trains which were full. Actually, the delay of the Eurostar was caused by that it took too long for all passengers to board.

In Munich while I was having my breakfast in front of the central station, two BMW 7 Series saloons turned up. The drivers got out and bought a coffee or something. One of the cars was covered with matt black, distorted bodywork, the kind used for secretive road testing during the development of a new model. The car was the same size as the other one, so it wasn't difficult to guess the model. When they left, the mysterious BMW didn't produce any sound, so I guessed it was a hybrid model.

My Eurostar ticket was valid to connecting trains from any Belgian station as long as it wasn't a high-speed one. So I took my favourite local train from Aachen to Liège and an Intercity train onwards. The main station of the German city Aachen is a border station, so it counts as Belgium in this case. The ticket inspector duly accepted that ticket in Aachen.

It was surprising that my passport was checked only once en route, in Bruxelles, where even UK Border Control officers are stationed to check passengers.

All in all, I spent about twice the money on a journey that by train took three times as much time door-to-door as it would have taken by air.



The thing that makes long-distance railing affordable is the InterRail Global Pass, which gives you opportunity for unlimited free railing in Europe within the purchased period (well, not quite). If you're already 26 years old, although you can still buy a pass, it becomes too expensive to be a real alternative to flying. (But then, first, you ought to look at it as a donation for the welfare of mankind and our planet. Second, fingers crossed, fuel prices will continue to increase, which hits the carbon intensive aviation harder than railways.)

To cross the English Channel I always use a ferry because the Eurostar is too expensive even with the InterRail discount. I've always used SeaFrance because they offer 50% discount for InterRail pass holders. The alternative is P&O Ferries. Unfortunately Norfolkline don't take foot passengers, so there is no ferry to Dunkerque. Drawbacks are plenty. Ports on both sides are far from the rail station, so you need to take a bus (to avoid a half-an-hour-long walk). Ferries are slow, but embarking and disembarking are even slower. You have to arrive 3/4 hours earlier than the scheduled departure time. And you can't accurately estimate when you'll arrive. Which is a nightmare when planning connections.

Let me say some words about the high speed services. I've already mentioned the Eurostar. I can only praise the German ICE (speeds up to 300 km/h, which is actually shown on screens, nice interior, and free with InterRail Pass: although you can buy seat reservation for two euros or so, it's not necessary). I've never tried the Thalys (which runs in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany), because the fare is a bit high even for pass holders. The French TGV is a must for any rail enthusiast. I have had mixed experience with it. With an InterRail pass you do need further seat reservation. When I got a place, it was a symbolic 3 euros. On other occasions I was told that so many places had already been sold that I could only get a place if I had paid full price. On Euronight night trains you can usually get a seat without any surcharge (a seat, not a couchette), but it's always good practice to ask before boarding.

One thing about the InterRail Pass: it is not valid for free travel in your home country. Since trains are much more expensive in the UK than in Hungary, and the Pass costs the same everywhere, I always bought my pass in Hungary. There is a rule (at least in Hungary) which says that the first day of validity of your pass must be within three months of the purchase. At the time of Journey 1 I wasn't sure whether I'd have needed to pay the reduced international price (that you get with the pass) for the whole journey from Vienna to Budapest or only the part in Hungary. Hence I chose to take local trains to the border (Hegyeshalom) and boarded an international train there which I could have also taken in Vienna. As it became apparent, this was unnecessary. The ticket office being closed already, I had a consultation with the ticket inspector on the train. It turned out that the half price international fare from Hegyeshalom to Budapest was cheaper than a full price standard (`inland') ticket so I bought the former from him.

What follow are detailed costings for the journeys. Notice that euros are not accepted by the Hungarian railways, one has to pay with Hungarian forints. To make it easier to understand, I converted prices in forint to euros using an indicative 250 forints/euro rate.


Journey 1

Oxford to Budapest via Vienna
  • EUR 159.00 — InterRail Global Pass, youth, 5 days within 10 days
  • GBP 1.50 — London underground with Oyster card
  • GBP 2.00 — bus from Dover Priory to Dover Terminal
  • GBP 6.00 — ferry from Dover to Calais, with 50% discount for InterRail Pass holders
  • EUR 3.00 — TGV seat reservation from Paris to Strasbourg
  • EUR 8.60 — train fare from Hegyeshalom (border station) to Budapest, 50% reduced international fare for InterRail Pass holders
Total: EUR 170.60 + GBP 9.50

Journeys 2 and 3

Oxford to Budapest return trip via Aalen, Munich, Sopron, Fertőszentmiklós and via Locarno, Domodossola, Paris
  • EUR 239.00 — InterRail Global Pass, youth, 10 days within 22 days
  • GBP 1.50 — London underground with Oyster card
  • GBP 2.00 — bus from Dover Priory to Dover Terminal
  • GBP 6.00 — ferry from Dover to Calais, with 50% discount for InterRail Pass holders
  • EUR 1.70 — underground in Vienna, single ticket
  • EUR 13.56 (HUF 3390) — train fare from Sopron (border station) to Budapest, inland full price
  • EUR 14.31 (HUF 3577.50) — train fare and seat reservation from Budapest to Hegyeshalom (border station), 50% reduced international fare for InterRail Pass holders
  • EUR 10.00 — seat reservation from Milan to Geneva and from Geneva to Paris
  • EUR 3.00 — underground in Paris, 2 single tickets
  • EUR 8.50 — ferry from Calais to Dover, with 50% discount for InterRail Pass holders
  • GBP 2.00 — bus from Dover Terminal to Dover Priory
  • GBP 1.50 — London underground with Oyster card
Total: EUR 290.07 + GBP 13.00

Journeys 4 and 5

Oxford to Berlin return trip
  • GBP 8.00 — return fare from Oxford to London (two pre-purchased single tickets)
  • GBP 3.00 — London underground with Oyster card, twice
  • GBP 104.00 — Eurostar return fare from London to Bruxelles, youth
  • GBP 90.55 (EUR 115.50) — Deutsche Bahn return fare from Bruxelles to Berlin (paid online from pound sterling account), youth
Total: GBP 205.55

Journeys 6 and 7

Oxford to Budapest return trip via Ghent, Nuremberg, Fertőboz and via Stuttgart
  • EUR 239.00 — InterRail Global Pass, youth, 10 days within 22 days
  • GBP 1.50 — London underground with Oyster card
  • GBP 2.00 — bus from Dover Priory to Dover Terminal
  • GBP 6.00 — ferry from Dover to Calais, 50% discount for InterRail Pass holders
  • GBP 1.00 — bus from Calais Terminal to Calais Gare
  • EUR 7.90 — coach fare from Calais Gare to Dunkerque Gare, full price
  • EUR 2.30 — bus fare from Dunkerque Gare to Adinkerke, full price
  • EUR 1.70 — underground in Vienna, single ticket
  • EUR 0.50 (HUF 125) — bus fare from Sopron to Fertőboz, with 50% student discount
  • EUR 0.50 (HUF 125) — bus fare from Fertőboz to Sopron, with 50% student discount
  • EUR 2.70 (HUF 675) — train fare from Sopron to Győr, with 50% student discount
  • EUR 4.08 (HUF 1020) — coach fare from Győr to Budapest, with 50% student discount
  • EUR 1.08 (HUF 270) — tram in Budapest, single ticket
  • EUR 10.26 (HUF 2565) — train fare from Budapest to Hegyeshalom (border station), 50% reduced international fare for InterRail Pass holders
  • EUR 20.00 — couchette reservation from Stuttgart to Cologne
  • GBP 1.00 — bus from Calais Gare to Calais Terminal
  • EUR 8.50 — ferry from Calais to Dover, 50% discount for InterRail Pass holders
  • GBP 2.00 — bus from Dover Terminal to Dover Priory
  • GBP 1.60 — London underground with Oyster card
Total: EUR 298.52 + GBP 15.10

Journey 8

Oxford to Budapest via Berlin
  • GBP 10.00 — coach fare from Oxford to London, student discount
  • GBP 1.60 — London underground with Oyster card
  • GBP 51.00 — Eurostar single fare from London to Bruxelles
  • GBP 80.65 (EUR 91.00) — Deutsche Bahn single fare from Bruxelles to Berlin (paid online from pound sterling account)
  • GBP 120.14 (EUR 135.20) — single fare from Berlin to Budapest (paid by debit card from pound sterling account)
  • EUR 2.40 (HUF 600) — public transport in Budapest, two single tickets
Total: GBP 263.39 + EUR 2.40

Journey 9 and 10

Oxford to Leipzig return trip
  • GBP 15.00 — coach return fare from Oxford to London, student discount
  • GBP 1.80 — London underground with Oyster card
  • GBP 129.00 — Eurostar return fare from London to Bruxelles
  • GBP 44.06 (EUR 48) — Thalys single fare from Bruxelles to Cologne, bought at the station (paid with debit card from pound sterling account)
  • EUR 70 — hitchhiking from Cologne to Leipzig (the rail ticket was refunded by Deutsche Bahn)
  • GBP 73.09 (EUR 81.50) — Deutsche Bahn single fare from Leipzig to Cologne (paid online from pound sterling account)
  • GBP 30.67 (EUR 34) — Thalys single fare from Cologne to Bruxelles (paid online from pound sterling account)
  • GBP 1.80 — London underground with Oyster card
Total: GBP 295.42 + EUR 70.00

Journey 11

Budapest to Oxford
  • EUR 49.00 (HUF 13230) — single fare from Budapest to München
  • EUR 91.50 — single fare from München to Aachen
  • GBP 75.00 — Eurostar single fare from Bruxelles (or any Belgian station) to London
  • GBP 1.80 — London underground with Oyster card
  • GBP 4.00 — single fare from London to Oxford (pre-purchased single ticket)
Total: GBP 80.80 + EUR 140.50


Travelling fast depends not only on the velocity of the vehicle you're in, but very importantly, on not stopping for long breaks. Keep on movin'. A major obstacle to this is that there are virtually no trains between midnight and dawn except for long-haul night trains, called Euronight trains, denoted by EN and a three-digit number, City Night Line (CNL) trains by Deutsche Bahn (in and around Germany), Corail Lunéa trains by SNCF in France, and Sleeper Trains in the UK. (There may be others I haven't heard of.) One soon realises that night trains are the bottleneck in any long-distance trip planning, so one has to arrange everything around them. Unfortunately I don't know of any listing of all night trains though it'd be in great demand. I can't tell how safe night trains are (I've never had problems on them), but there is always plenty of staff on-board and I think that travelling by something for which every passenger had to pay is certainly safer and more comfortable than spending hours in the night in a subway under a closed railway station.

The second advice is to be prepared, very prepared. Plan the journey well in advance, have a Plan B and plenty of Plan Cs and Ds and back-up connections. Trains will be delayed, you'll likely miss connections, and very often you're faster if you take an alternative route instead of waiting for the next train on the same route. There may be industrial actions too. Familiarise yourself with maps of the rail networks you're likely to use. Speed arises from hitting a right balance between travelling in a straight line and using high speed trains.

For instance, there are three or four alternative routes from England to Budapest: one is through Belgium (either through Bruxelles, or avoiding it), then crossing to Germany at Aachen, on to Cologne and South to Munich then on to Austria: Salzburg and Vienna. Or one can branch off at Frankfurt towards Nuremberg, Passau and then Austria. A second route is to go down to Paris, and then on the Eastern TGV line to Strasbourg, then with the real Orient Express (which is not the expensive tourist one) to Vienna. This route is really fast! A third one leads through Switzerland via Basel and Zürich, from where there is a direct night train to Budapest. When I set off to visit my family in Budapest, I might have timetables prepared for all alternatives to be able to optimise my journey en route. If you're as thorough as I am, you will soon realise that when railing is compared to flying, you probably lose more time at planning than during the actual journey!

The harmonisation of arrival and departure times is likely to improve with the formation of Railteam, the alliance of European high speed rail operators, which will hopefully make planning easier.


Trains can be identified by the time when they leave and their final destination. Don't forget to note down the latter into your timetable. However, where they come from is irrelevant and it won't help you find your platform. It is very likely that at any station where you change trains there will be a display listing all upcoming departures with platform numbers. Only small stations lack this facility these days. This should be your first worry after arrival. If you don't see it, always go towards platform 1, that is where the station building is.

Take an alarm clock with you (or use your mobile phone's alarm function). This will allow you to wake yourself up before the station where you need to get off.

I prefer to have buffer time between arrival and departure that I can use to wash my face, refill my water bottles and buy food at the station. I don't like travelling longer than, say, four hours by the same train unless I want to sleep: getting off and walking around is always refreshing, and it will prepare you for further railing.

If you do want to sleep, then try to get a seat in a compartment. Here the lights can often be turned off (look for a switch above the door) and people walking past cause no disruption unlike in an open carriage. On international services ticket inspectors work only in their home countries and alight at the border. So after each border crossing there will be a new inspector who will wake you up to check the ticket once again.

Make sure you have enough water and food for long legs. Water management is a fundamental issue. Take at least two (preferably more) 0.5 litre plastic water bottles with you. One big bottle isn't good: it often happens that they are too big to fit between the tap and the basin. Check that you fill your bottles with drinking water. On carriages the water in the toilets is usually not drinking water. If you're prudent, you don't top up bottles that still have water in them. It may happen that the water you're going to take is not clean, rusty or tastes bad and you don't want to spoil good water with bad. You'd better drink the leftover and fill the whole bottle from the unreliable tap. If it was bad indeed, you can always pour it out and wash the bottle out at the next tap. Don't worry about water temperature: by the time you drink it, it will have cooled down or warmed up.

Often the only place in a station where you can take water is the toilet. These are usually closed for the night. When they're open there can be a charge. Buffets in stations are closed for the night too. This means that you should plan for food and drinks provisions for the night in advance and should go to the loo on the train before you get off. Have toilet paper with you and all the usual stuff. Know where your towel is.

Take a book with you. Preferably one that you don't like but must finish. Waiting and night rides when you can't see anything are boring and will force you to make progress with it. Any such progress will offset some of the time you lose by not flying...

If you plan sightseeing, bear in mind that in the winter days are shorter, nights are longer than in the summer. You can print maps off from Google Maps or from Live Maps. Put them into a transparent pocket so that they are protected from rain (and do the same to your timetable). Oh yes, of course then you will have to carry all your stuff in a backpack. Maybe you can allow one more smaller bag in your hand. A smaller bag will increase the number of possibilities to distribute your valuables between your pockets and bags. You sometimes leave your backpack on the rack at the end of the carriage so have your ticket (rail pass) in your small bag which you always keep at hand.

My timetables

These are the timetables that I compiled and took with me on my journeys. They are plain text files with the extensive use of tabulators. (If columns don't line up try changing character encoding to Unicode.) Sometimes it is helpful to create these files in a word processor instead of a text editor because then you can make longer lines by decreasing the font size. Notice the final destinations (sometimes the preferred connection) at the bottom of columns.

Useful pages