One of Europe’s last boat trains offers enjoyable journey

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Monday, December 03, 2018

The concept of rolling a passenger train onto a boat for a stretch of its journey that crosses a sizable body of water is one that has steady fallen out of favor over time. North America once had a handful of them, crossing waterways from the Hudson River to the Chesapeake Bay to the Great Lakes to the San Francisco Bay. Most of these met their demise along with the general decline of passenger trains, fueled by an imbalanced public policy regime that subsidized roads and taxed railroads. 

Passengers disembark from the DSB Hamburg-Copenhagen IC3 train on the lower deck of the Scandlines ferry as it prepares to depart Puttgarden, Germany on Oct. 1, 2018. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
But even in Europe, where trains are still a dominant travel mode, only a small handful of boat-trains remain. Most have been replaced by long bridges and tunnels, representing hefty infrastructure investments that make both passenger and freight train service more fluid and reliable. One such span, the 7.5-mile road-rail Øresund Bridge-Drogen Tunnel combination that opened in 1999 to connect Copenhagen with Malmö, Sweden, across the Øresund Strait, represents the first ever standard-gauge connection between the rail lines of Sweden and Norway and those of mainland Europe. (The only other link is a freight-only, gauge-changing meet between the standard-gauge Swedish and broad-gauge Finnish railways north of the Arctic Circle in Lapland.) 

Between mainland Europe and Scandinavia, only two boat-trains remain: the five daily year-round (plus a sixth in the summer) Hamburg-Copenhagen day trains operated by Danish state railway DSB, and the summer-only, thrice-weekly Berlin-Malmö overnight couchette sleeping car train via Sassnitz and Trelleborg operated by Swedish carrier SJ. I got to experience the former, which I learned will also be replaced by a bridge-tunnel within the next five years, during a month-long Northern European trek in early October. Consisting of six-car sets of 1980s-built IC3 intercity DMUs, these trains utilize ferries operated by German company Scandlines to cross the Femer Belt, which separates the German mainland from Denmark’s most populous island, Zealand. The schedule take six hours from end to end, allotting 1.5 hours between Germany’s second-largest city and the German port of Puttgarden on Fehmarn Island, one hour for the ferry crossing, then two hours from the Danish port of Rødby to Denmark’s capital. It is operated by Deutsche Bahn crews to Puttgarden, where DSB crews take over. All announcements and signage are in Danish, German and English.

The DSB boat-train to Copenhagen pulls up to the platform at Hamburg's main station on Oct. 1.
Upon boarding my 1:30 PM departure from Hamburg’s main station, I was struck by how comfortable the IC3s are, with 2-and-1 First Class seats of generous width arranged around tables perfectly aligned with the large (albeit dirty) windows, and how quiet they are inside compared to other DMUs, including Budd RDCs. (This equipment was among several European designs tested in the U.S. in the late 1990s while Amtrak perfected the concept of what would become the Acela Express.) The ride is smooth and fast over most of the trackage on both sides of the border, which consists of busy double-track main lines with top passenger train speeds over 110 mph. The middle section on both sides of the Belt, however, is slower and consists of less-trafficked single-track lines, parts of which are jointed rail.

One complicating factor of the boat-train arrangement is that the ferry — which also carries automobile, truck, pedestrian and bicycle traffic — is unable to modify its schedules to accommodate the railways. Thus, if the train arrives late at the ferry port (as was the case the day I traveled), it must wait for the next scheduled ferry. Likewise, if weather or another issue throws the ferries off their schedule, the train times are impacted. The ferries depart every 30 minutes, however, so the wait for the next departure is never extremely long unless there’s a service disruption.

Passengers shuffle between trains on the platform at Puttgarden, Germany on Oct. 1. I am boarding the train on the left, which just arrived from Copenhagen via ferry and is about to roll back onto the ferry. The train on the right is about to return to Hamburg.
I boarded my train in Hamburg expecting a one-seat ride to Copenhagen. But I experienced what I’m told is a frequent occurrence that the conductor said over the P.A. was due to “an equipment shortage”: everybody on my train had to disembark at Puttgarden and transfer across the platform to another train, while passengers from Copenhagen stepped off that train to board the one that had carried us. I eventually found the same car and seat number that I had been assigned on the original train, though it was located in a different part of the consist from the previous train.

Once the train had rolled slowly onto the single track on the boat, where it shared the lowest deck with trucks, all passengers were asked to step off and head to the ferry’s upper decks. The crew explained this was “for safety reasons,” but I suspect that it is more to help the bottom lines of the many on-board restaurants and retailers. But I wouldn’t have wanted to remain on the windowless bottom deck anyway (even though the train is connected to the boat’s ground power while the Diesel engines are shut off), since it was a glorious clear and balmy fall day outside. After grabbing a Copenhagen beer at one of the shops, I spent most of the ride on the open deck, looking out at the wide expanse of water and several large clusters of offshore wind turbines, for which the Danes are famous. 

Enjoying the fresh sea air as the Scandlines ferry, with my train on board, crosses the Femer Belt between Germany and Denmark.
The crossing was smooth despite somewhat choppy mid-afternoon water. 15 minutes before we were to dock at Rødby, a tri-lingual P.A. announcement was made for all passengers to return to their vehicles (the train implicitly included in that category). The other passengers and I descended three decks of stairs and climbed back aboard the train. As soon as the boat docked and the forward doors opened, the train inched onto the Rødby station platform and, after a 10-minute stop, we were back on route. The sun set not long after we left Rødby, and the train arrived at Copenhagen Central Station at 7:15 PM, 45 minutes late. Even at that hour, same-day train connections to other points in Denmark and across the strait into Sweden were still possible.

Having part of a rail journey be on a boat adds to the enjoyment of the experience, especially with the opportunity to sit outside in the fresh air, or to have a meal in a full restaurant. Using bridges and tunnels instead to cross large waterways may be faster and more efficient, but there’s something to be said for the more leisurely pace and more experiential ethos that a boat-train entails.

Interior of the First Class section of the DSB IC3 DMU train after departure from Hamburg.

A view towards the Baltic Sea from the train near Großenbrode, Germany.

Another sea view, crossing the Fehmarn Sound Bridge connecting Fehmarn Island to the German mainland.

The train is connected to ground power on the lower deck of the ferry so that its diesel engines can shut off while retaining on-board lights and heat.

Another view from the outdoor deck of the ferry during the 40-minute crossing of the Femer Belt.

View from the train as it rolls off the ferry at Rødby, Denmark, next to a truck.

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