Swiss (and German) adventure: the postscript

Posted by David Lassen
on Monday, September 26, 2016

A Deutsche Bahn ICE train approaches Frankfurt's main station during the author's unscheduled stop there. (Photos by David Lassen)

Also in Frankfurt, a French TGV trainset awaits its return trip after arriving from Paris.

I touched down at O’Hare Airport on Friday afternoon, closing the book on my second European trip for Trains, my fifth journey across the Atlantic overall. As always, I found time overseas to be memorable and enriching, and as always, I was ready to get home.

A few final thoughts before getting back to the day-to-day routine, before going to work on the first of a few stories from the trip that will eventually appear in the magazine:

• It would be difficult to understate how disappointed I was with the performance of the Deutsche Bahn while I was in Germany. I was in the hands for the DB for three trips, each scheduled to have one train change:  Zurich-Nuremburg, Nuremburg-Berlin and Berlin-Zurich. The railroad let me down on two of those trips. I missed a seven-minute connection on the way to Nuremburg (by no means an unusual bit of scheduling) because my first train was exactly seven minutes late; I made it off the first train just in time to watch the next one depart. And the train into Zurich was so late that it was annulled in Frankfurt, requiring an hour wait to catch a train that was, as a result, filled with two trains’ worth of passengers. In both cases, I arrived at my destination more than two hours’ late, and since those were my only evenings in either city, essentially lost my opportunity to see even a small part of either one.

Because the train out of Frankfurt was so packed, I had to stand for about a half-hour early in the trip. The only reason it wasn’t longer was that I’d headed to the customer service desk as soon as I arrived in Frankfurt, anticipating such a problem, and had my first-class reservation rebooked. The agent found what was literally the last seat available, even if it wasn’t quite for the entire journey. (In normal circumstances, I might have done the rebooking myself online — Wi-Fi is free to first-class passengers on the DB — but along with everything else, the on-train Internet wasn’t functioning.)

I’ve heard Deutsche Bahn is no longer the flawless operation it once was, and I believe it — based not just from my own experience, but on conversations with other passengers. If and when I get back to Germany, I will be a little more conservative (perhaps pessimistic is a better word) when it comes to trip planning.

• There was one positive out of those two dysfunctional trips: To get to Nuremburg, I ended up riding from Karlsruhe to Frankfurt on a French TGV running direct from Paris, and I was very, very impressed. It seemed to me to have a much smoother ride than the first- and second-generation Deutsche Bahn ICE trains I rode elsewhere. This was true even when the train was living up to its name (TGV, you’ll recall, stands for Train à Grande Vitesse, or “Train of Great Speed”), rolling along at 246 kilometers per hour, a rather brisk 153 mph.

• Living in the transit-poor Milwaukee area, I am truly envious of Europe’s more enlightened approach to public transit — not just the extensive systems in most cities, but the efforts to encourage their use. When I checked into my hotel in Bern, Switzerland, I was given a card good for transit use for the duration of my stay, and a copy of my hotel reservation was good for transit to get me from the train station to the hotel. (Other Swiss cities have similar programs.) And when I went to a soccer game at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, my ticket was good for public transit from five hours before the game until 3 a.m. the morning afterward.

Switzerland, though, may have the best deal of all. Its Swiss Travel Pass essentially covers all ground transportation. (A handful of operations — the Glacier Express and the GoldenPass Chocolate Train, for example — aren’t covered, because they’re tourist-oriented, rather than Point-A-to-Point-B transportation. But even the Glacier Express gives a 50 percent discount to passholders.)

As Maurus Lauber, CEO of the Swiss Travel System, told our tour group in a talk at the Swiss Museum of Transport, “Switzerland has 260 different transportation companies. But you have a ticket in your pocket which allows you to travel on all those 260 different companies. And I think in no other country in the world can you buy a ticket that you can use for the tramway, for the high speed train, for the boat … and with the same ticket, you can even go into 500 museums. So the cooperation in the Swiss transportation industry is on a very, very high level.”

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