Trans-Atlantic parallels in train travel

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Sunday, October 28, 2018

Two weeks ago, I returned from a thoroughly enjoyable month in northern Europe. The focal point of the trip was attending the global rail industry’s premier biennial trade show in Berlin known as InnoTrans, but I also took the opportunity to sample rail passenger services in Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. I will be profiling several of these operations in greater depth at this blog over the coming weeks. I would like to start, however, by sharing some broader observations from my experience as someone intimately familiar with North American passenger railroading and rail transit.

Interior of a sold-out late-1980s-built first-class (NSB Komfort) coach on a locomotive-hauled Norwegian intercity train traveling from Oslo to Trondheim on Oct. 11, 2018. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
In many ways, juxtaposing the extensive and highly developed passenger train system that most Europeans enjoy with its money- and attention-starved American counterpart is like comparing apples with oranges. But there are some useful insights to be gleaned simply from the passenger’s experience. To start with, I found very few coach seats in Europe — even First Class seats, which are generally a touch more commodious than those in Second or Standard Class (which I also experienced) — that rival the comfort afforded by Amtrak’s coach seats (particularly those found on bilevel Superliner-equipped trains). Amtrak’s seats may lack the wrap-around headrests and ergonomic back support that come standard across the Atlantic, but they are wider, cushier and generally afford more legroom. I also prefer the reclining seat back to the slide-forward chair, though the former is more invasive to the person sitting behind you.

Amtrak could learn something from the national railway of each country I visited in terms of providing comprehensive passenger information and helping travelers seamlessly connect with other trains and with local transportation services. Germany’s Deutsche Bahn (rivaled closely by the Swiss Federal Railways) is the stand-out exemplar for interconnectivity. DB’s smartphone app can be used to plan a complete journey from any train station or transit stop in the country to any other, allowing the traveler to compare prices and travel times. For passengers not willing to pay the premium for faster, limited-stop InterCity Express or InterCity trains, it is possible to make longer trips entirely using interconnecting regional trains (operated by DB or by one of a couple of dozen independent open-access operators that use DB’s reservations and ticketing system). 

Screenshot of Deutsche Bahn's app, showing a hypothetical journey from a bus stop in the Berlin suburb of Henningsdorf to Copenhagen by way of Hamburg.
This app also provides train schedule and connection information well outside of Germany’s borders, though it only accommodates ticket and seat reservation purchases for services with at least one stop in Germany. Particularly impressive to me is that the app can tell you well in advance which track or platform a given train will depart from and update you in real time if that changes. Once a user adds a chosen itinerary to “My Journey,” the app will send push notifications when the train is about to arrive, when it is time to get off, and where to locate a connecting train. I was able to make many connections that were scheduled for three to seven minutes between trains, even when these weren’t cross-platform transfers (which they were about 30 percent of the time).

If DB’s app could somehow be combined with that offered by the Swedish national railway, SJ, it would be something close to the perfect rail app. While the DB app excels in planning a journey in advance, the SJ app — using GPS to track both your phone and the train — lets its users stay up to date while in transit, showing a diagram of the train to simplify finding one’s reserved seat and displaying estimated arrival times and the departure times and tracks available train and local bus or tram connections at each upcoming station. Simply bringing up the app on the “My Trips” tag allows you to bring up a scannable ticket showing your train, car and seat numbers, and another tap shows you the real-time status and connection information.

An SJ Intercity train bound for Gothenburg calls at Kil, Sweden, on the crisp fall afternoon of Oct. 5, 2018.
Although its mobile app is lacking in comparison with DB and SJ, the railroad that impressed me the most with overall customer service, making me feel welcome and valued as a client, was the Norwegian State Railway (NSB). I twice spoke with knowledgable, understanding, English-speaking agents on the telephone, and every on-board and in-station employee I interacted with was kind and courteous. NSB’s sleeping cars, however, lack dedicated attendants — beds come pre-made, passengers claim their room keys upon checking in with the conductor in the cafe car. (more on this service in a future post). Norwegian and Swedish intercity trains also have the highest quality and greatest variety in food and beverage service that I experienced this trip, provided entirely in a cafe or self-serve format and not included in the First Class ticket price.

NSB’s in-station advertising and other marketing materials (though most are only in Norwegian, I was able to comprehend them with the assistance of the Google Translate app) does a commendable job of reinforcing reasons for people to take the train, including better seeing the country and lowering one’s carbon footprint. One of NSB’s ad campaigns featured photos and names of individual commuters, heralding them as "Everyday Heroes," stating how long they’ve been commuting by train and thanking them for helping take cars off the road and reducing emissions.

Trams and buses converge in front of Leipzig, Germany's massive central station -- Europe's largest train station by physical size -- on Sept. 19, 2018.
In summary, Amtrak (and VIA Rail Canada) has the edge over the average European railway in terms of seat comfort and the quality and selection of food on board (the average Amtrak or VIA train compared to the average European intercity train; regional and local trains have either no food service or simple snack & beverage vending machines). But thanks to decades of consistent investment in the rail mode for the six decades during which it was nonexistent on this side of the Atlantic, Europe far outpaces North America in the key features of a passenger train system that make it viable: frequency, reliability, interconnectivity, and trip-time competitiveness with driving. We’ve still got a lot of catching up to do.

An NSB commuter train showing an example of the "Everyday Hero" ad campaign thanking individual commuters for being part of a traffic and climate solution.

A Norwegian family of five enjoys the playroom on board an NSB Family car traveling from Bergen to Oslo on Oct. 10, 2018.

The NSB playroom from the outside.

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