All Posts by Edward

About the Author

After crisscrossing Europe for 6 years as a train conductor, I guide intrepid travellers roaming Europe by rail.

ARkimbz
Apr 23

How to Cook your Favourite @_DiningCar Dishes At Home

By Edward | Dining Cars

How to Cook your Favourite @_DiningCar Classics at Home

When I started my blog two years ago, I didn't see us all trapped at home and all European borders closed. On my Corona page I have been cataloguing the carnage on the European railways.

The dining cars were the first services that bit the dust. In sidings all over Europe, dining cars are standing empty, their cooking ranges cold.

Now. As we are all mostly at home and have lots of time on our hands, how say we do some cooking? Perhaps bring that dining car magic (and I don't mean the microwave) home to our own tables?

With the help of my great friend @_DiningCar I am now starting a series on how to cook your favourite dining car classics while #StayingAtHome.

If you haven't met @_DiningCar yet, check out his Twitter channel. You can also find pictures from his exploits on Flickr.

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The things I do for you

Now more than ever, I go to great lengths for you, my reader. I could have easily slapped together any old recipe and video and thrown them at you. It would have taken me two days, tops. Instead I painstakingly sought out workable recipes, tried them out myself and took my own photos. It took more than three weeks.

Polish Dining Car at Home. WARS: Żurek (sour rye and sausage soup)

Polish Dining Car

Polish WARS dining car. Courtesy of @_DiningCar.

Poland has one of the best dining cars in Europe. Most of the cooking is still done to order.

Żurek is fermented rye soup and one of the signature dishes in the WARS restaurant car, as found on Polish trains and the Moscow-Paris and Moscow-Nice expresses.

If you want to do it properly, you'll need to go to a Polish food shop and get a bottle of Żurek sourdough. Or ferment some rye flour with water and garlic for 4 days beforehand.

Zurek in WARS Dining Car

One of WARS's signature soups, Żurek. Coutesy of Martin Pavlík.

Żurek recipe

Żurek is so ubiquitous in Poland that everyone has their own way of making it. I have tried quite a few recipes before arriving at this one by Polish food blogger Magda from skutecznie.tv.   

I made this for Żurek for Easter Sunday lunch and fed it to my Polish parents-in-law. I know the difference between polite praise and genuine, and their praise was genuine and profuse. So this recipe is proven.

Cooking time: 30 minutes (apparently. It took me 90 minutes). Makes 2 litres

Żurek ingredients

For the recipe in Polish, click here. Below, find my English translation.

  • 500 ml żurek sourdough (you can get this in East European shops in bottles, or make it yourself. 
east european shop

Polish shop in Scarborough

To make 1 litre of your own Żurek sourdough, mix well six spoons of rye flour with boiled, lukewarm water. Add three crushed cloves of garlic. If you have a crust of sourdough bread, put this in too. It helps the fermentation get going. Leave to stand in a warm place (not direct sunlight) for 3-4 days. Stir once again on the first evening. (I had only two days. Here is what I did: I made it all as described, but added a tablespoon of rye sourdough starter {don't judge me}. This kickstarted the fermentation. Then I kept the liquid in warm intensive care. It was ready just in time.)
Dining Car at Home Zurek Sourdough

Home made Żurek sourdough

  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3-4 grains of allspice
  • 4-5 grains of black pepper
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 l water
  • 2-3 ​dried mushrooms.
    (can be left out, but they do enrich the flavour somewhat)
  • 400 g sausage:
    – 250-300 g Polish white sausages ("biała kiełbasa" (white sausage) is the original Polish word. If you can't get Polish, see if you can get something German.)
    – 100-150 g smoked, cured sausages ("swojska, wiejska kiełbasa" in the original Polish, which means home-made, country sausages. These are usually quite coarse and smoked. Even if you use simply 400g of white sausages you'll be fine) 
Sausage comment: Poland has a rich sausage culture and myriad varieties available nowhere else. I have browsed UK-Polish cooking fora. Polish people cooking żurek in England use either very good cumberland sausages or German bratwurst obtainable in Lidl and Aldi. Bangers won't do. In the USA, I really don't know what would be best, but I would aim for high quality and high meat content. I was cooking this in Germany. It goes without saying that my Polish shop was sold out of both ready-made żurek sourdough and biała kiełbasa just before easter. I used Munich White Sausages (Münchner Weisswurst)
  • 100 g smoked bacon
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1-2 tsp of majoram
  • 1/2 glass of sour cream or śmietana. You want something between 10-25% fat. The best stuff is available in East European shops.
  • 1 tbsp flour
  • salt and pepper
  • hard boiled egg (one per bowl of soup is good)
  • optional:
    – 2 tbsp of horseradish, either freshly grated or from a jar.
    – potatoes (diced)
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sausages boiling for zurek

First make the broth by boiling sausages

Żurek method

1. Put the white sausages into a saucepan. Add the bay leaf, allspice, peppercorns and salt. Add water, bring to the boil and leave on a small flame with the lid on.
Let cook while you dice the onions, country sausages and bacon and fry them.

2. Now prepare the fried ingredients.
Peel and dice the onion. Cut the bacon into strips or dice. Chop the country sausage into fattish half-moons or dice.

Dining Car at Home Polish

bacon and onions ready to go

3. Heat frying pan, add the bacon and wait till it starts to render fat. If using dried mushrooms, travel back in time to half an hour before you started cooking and soak them. Add mushrooms. Stir frequently until the pieces start to colour. 

4. Add the onions and fry until they become translucent. Then add majoram and crushed garlic. Stir and fry for a few moments, until the smell of garlic starts to waft up. Turn off the heat.

Dining Car at Home Polish

Bacon, onions and sausage frying

5. Revisit the saucepan with the boiling sausages. These should be ready by now. Take out the sausages and pour the contents of the frying pan into the sausage-broth in the saucepan. Let boil with the lid on for 10 minutes.

6. Peel the boiled white sausages and cut into bite-size chunks. 

7. Mix the sour cream with the flour. Make sure there are no lumps.

8. Now put it all together. Add the żurek sourdough liquid to the boiling broth (before adding give the liquid a good shake). Add the sour cream - first take a few spoons of broth and mix it into the cream, then pour this mixture into the boiling broth. Stir carefully and boil until the flour thickens the soup. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Dining Car at Home Polish

Finishing up

9. At this stage you can add some freshly grated horseradish, if you are that way inclined. I did, and I recommend it. 

Serve hot with bits of sausage in it and hard boiled egg. Fresh bread goes nicely with it.

Dining Car at Home Polish

Żurek ready to eat

Żurek Video

Here is the video of Magda at work making żurek. 

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Slovak Dining Car at Home. Wagon Slovakia: Čiernohorský rezeň ("Čierna Hora Cutlet") 

Wagon Slovakia Dining Car

Wagon Slovakia dining car. Courtesy of @_DiningCar

Čierna Hora is a low mountain range in eastern Slovakia. The Čierna Hora cutlet was invented in Czechoslovak times by Ondrej Antovszký, the chef at the Slovak Writers' Club in Bratislava. His invention has become a signature dish of Slovak cuisine.

Ciernohorsky rezen

Čiernohorský rezeň in its natural habitat, courtesy of @_DiningCar

Everyone coming back from a rail trip in Slovakia will gush about the sounds and smells of real cooking emanating from Wagon Slovakia's restaurant cars. The clatter of pans and the pummelling of schnitzels. It goes without saying that Wagon Slovakia serve the Čiernohorský rezeň.

Čiernohorský rezeň recipe

This recipe is by Marcel Ihnačák, who is a famous Slovak chef. In the video you can see him at work. Kudos to Lidl Slovakia for making such great cooking videos.

Meta comment: The video recipe has you make mashed potato as a side. The Wagon Slovakia menu lets you choose between various sides, and so do I. As the Čiernohorský rezeň is fried, I'd recommend mashed or boiled potatoes. 

Serves 6. Cooking time: 30 mins

Čiernohorský rezeň ingredients

piece of meat

I got a piece of loin

  • 1 kg of pork loin or leg (or steaks if you're buying it ready cut. You don't want anything with bones in it)
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 1 - 2 large potatoes
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp of majoram
  • 3 tbsp of plain flour, plus extra for dusting
  • sunflower oil (I prefer lard or clarified butter) for frying
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Čiernohorský rezeň method

1. cut the pork into 1 1/2 to 2 cm slices. Lay out the slices on a chopping board. Cover with cling film and pound them with a meat tenderiser. Salt and pepper them on one side

Slovak Dining Car at Home

Be sure to bash the slices nice and thin

2. Now make the batter: In a bowl, grate the potatoes on the fine side of the grater, followed by the garlic. Crack the eggs over the grated potato. Season with salt, pepper and majoram. Add the 3 tbsp of plain flour. 

3. Mix well. If necessary, add a little milk or water. You are aiming for quite a thick batter, so don't go overboard.

4. Press the cutlet into the flour so it is nicely coated. Then move it on to the batter. Again, ensure that as much batter as possible coats the meat. This is why you don't want the batter too runny.

Slovak Dining Car at Home

Put the cutlets first through the flour, then the batter. Fry immediately.

5. Fry on a medium heat in ample oil. I like lard or clarified butter for this job, but sunflower is fine. 2-3 minutes each side should do it, but use your senses. You want the batter nice and golden and the cutlet to feel springy rather than squishy.

Slovak Dining Car at Home

Fry in plenty of oil

6. Take out of the pan and pat dry with kitchen roll. Serve with mashed or boiled potatoes.

Slovak Dining Car at Home

Serve with mashed potato and grate cheese over it.

Čiernohorský rezeň video

Obviously I'm not expecting you to understand Slovak. What matters is that you see how it is all supposed to look. I love the sound of Slovak. 

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French Dining Car at Home. TGV.INOUI Bar: Croque Monsieur

SNCF Bar

The TGV bar. Picture courtesy of @_DiningCar

I wasn't looking forward to this. France has led the way in bad train food. However, the ever-positive @_DiningCar took me by the hand and showed me that SNCF does in fact have some edible fare. He told me about SNCF's Croque Monsieur

SNCF Croque monsieur

This is a beautiful, sliiiiightly edgy picture of the SNCF croque monsieur by @_DiningCar. I love it.

Croque monsieur recipe

So I went and looked for a croque monsieur recipe. Recipes abound, in English too, ranging from the BBC Good Food cardiac arrest to grim prison food. Some involve béchamel, some don't.

I wanted something with béchamel on top, but no faffing around with bay leaves and nutmeg (Nutmeg! FFS). In the end I decided on the following recipe as it is simple, yet authentic. 

The amounts differ from those in the video. The proportions in the video are simply wrong. Some intern must have hastily googled them. You can't make roux with 100 flour/40 butter - they need to be about 1:1. I ended up with a mountain of unused béchamel, too.

Makes 4 croques monsieurs. Duration: 40 mins.

Croque monsieur ingredients

  • Bread. Rustic French stuff would be nice. But white sliced is fine. 
  • Ham (the better, the better)
  • Cheese (Comté, Gruyère or Bergkäse would be best, Emmental OK. I don't recommend cheddar - it is too heavy)
  • 30 g butter
  • 1/2 a red onion (I used a shallot)
  • 30 g plain flour
  • 300 ml milk
  • salt and pepper.
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Croque monsieur method

1. Make béchamel. Dice the onion and fry in the melted butter on a medium flame. You want the onions to become soft and golden, not burnt. Add the flour and mix. Let the flour fry for a bit in the butter. Slowly add the milk. That's your béchamel done. Let it simmer for a few minutes.

French Dining Car at Home

My béchamel in the making. Let the flour fry for a little bit..

2. Take your bread and wipe each slice on one side with olive oil. Pop under the grill to toast.

French Dining Car at Home

First a dollop of béchamel, then a slice of ham.

3. When the bread is nicely toasted on the one side, take it out. Lay out the slices on a board (toasted side DOWN) and start to fill them. 

  • First comes a generous dollop of béchamel
  • then a thick slice of ham
  • then some grated cheese

Top each mound with another slice of bread. Top it with another helping of béchamel, then grate more cheese over the béchamel. My croque monsieurs looked like this:

French Dining Car at Home

Ready to go under the grill

4. Grill for 5 minutes. Be careful here: if the grill is too hot your sandwiches will be blasted on the outside and cold on the inside. I had my grill on level 3 out of 5 and the tray with the sandwiches on the second highest level in the oven. 

Mine came out like this. They probably could have had a minute more, but I left it at that.

French Dining Car at Home

Ready to eat

5. Serve. A bit of salad with vinaigrette would go well. And wine, obviously.

French Dining Car at Home

Buon appetito

Croque monsieur video

The video starts at 3'23" because the first three minutes bang on about Jambon de Paris. I like the attitude with which the croque monsieur is made in the bar setting. Low-key and matter-of-factly, not with food-for-the-gods pomposity.

Vegetarian Crocque Monsieur: Introducing the Ed Monsieur

To say I invented this is overstating. I've taken the Turkish pide filling and slapped it into a croque monsieur.

Click here to go to my vegetarian section.

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German Dining Car at Home. Deutsche Bahn Bordrestaurant: Curry Wurst.

DB Intercity BordBistro in the original Interregio design. A rare jewel.

Curry wurst is a German snack eaten everywhere except Southern Bavaria. It is a sausage (a bratwurst) fried, sliced and served in a spicy tomatoey sauce along with a roll or chips/fries.

DB made a lot of people very happy when they re-introduced the curry wurst last year.

Curry wurst recipe

This recipe is straight from DB's website. While I was still working on my Żurek, DB actually came out with a recipe for cooking their curry wurst at home. I tried it out for you and it is supremely delicious and workable. Here is my translation.

Makes 4-6 curry wursts. Takes 30 minutes.

DB Curry wurst peeping out from a pile of microwave chips

Curry wurst ingredients

  • 4 tbsp oil (any cooking oil. I used olive)
  • 2 tbsp concentrated tomato paste
  • 1 tin (ca. 500 ml) tomatoes (my tin was 400ml. Turned out fine)
  • 3 tbsp ketchup
  • 4 Bratwursts (depending on how much sauce you like, the amount will easily stretch to 6 curry wursts. I froze the rest)
Sausage comment: For the sausages, I don't recommend anything cured. Frankfurters are not nice with this. I can just about imagine bangers working, provided they've got at least 70% meat. But German Bratwurst would be best.
  • 30 ml lemon juice (that's roughly half a lemon)
  • 2 tbsp vinegar (I used balsamico)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 3 tsp curry powder (didn't have German curry powder. I substituted this with garam masala)
  • handful of nachos (I left these out)
  • Secret ingredient if you live in Germany: 1 tbsp Munich sweet mustard. Here I departed from the recipe. Some sort of honey-mustard concoction would work too.
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Curry wurst method

1. Heat 2 tbsp oil in small saucepan. Add tomato paste and curry powder/garam masala. Let sizzle on medium for a few moments.

German Dining Car at Home

At the beginning, fry curry powder or garam masala with tomato paste

2. Throw in the tinned tomatoes, ketchup, lemon juice and vinegar. Bring to the boil and let bubble gently on lowish heat. Try and get the tomatoes nice and small with a wooden spoon (I got bored of this and wheeled on the blender). Season with sugar to your liking. Ditto salt and pepper. 

German Dining Car at Home

Sauce is ready. I whizzed it with a blender to get closer to the real thing

3. Fry your sausages in a frying pan for 5-7 minutes (depends on what sausages you've got, doesn't it?). Let them cool down a little bit, then slice. Arrange the slices on a plate and slop a generous sloosh of your sauce over them. Dust it with curry powder ( I used more garam masala and English mustard powder). Scrunch up the nachos and sprinkle over the curry wurst.

German Dining Car at Home

Some might say my bratwurst is too thin. It was all I could get. Flavour was good though.

Serve with chips or a squidgy white roll. And beer.

German Dining Car at Home

Here we go

Curry wurst video

Here is an entertaining and detailed video about how to make your own curry wurst. It is a bit more hardcore than DB's method.

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Where do we go from here?

Well, I hope these recipes go a little way to soothe your lockdown and help you keep your sanity. I realise that they all contain meat, but vegetarians, I've got something in the pipeline for you as well.

If you cook one of these dishes, Let me know in the comments how it goes. Also, if there is a @_DiningCar dish that you would like me to consider, please put it in the comments.

And if you haven't joined my free Rail Guide Europe club yet, consider doing it now. It is absolutely free and gives you access to all sorts of exquisite goodies.

Sleeping on a night train
Mar 12

13 Hacks for Sleeping like a Baby on Any Night Train

By Edward | Night Trains

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13 Hacks to Sleeping on any Night Train

Sleeping on a night train. Silent Hunter asks: "What is your advice for getting a good night's sleep on a sleeper or couchette train?" Here is what I came up with in one morning. I haven't done all of these things yet, but I shall definitely try them next time.

It is always a challenge, sleeping on a night train. Or indeed any environment to which you are not accustomed, be it at your in-laws, under a bridge, or just on a new mattress.


I've racked my brains and screwed up all my years of experience with night trains. I touched this subject in a post I wrote for Amateur Traveler Podcast. Here is what I came up with to help you sleep:

1.

Be tired

"Oh come on, Ed! I thought you said HACKS?" Sorry for stating the obvious, but this is a big one. It helps to be tired. Get this right and nothing else matters. Be up nice and early the morning of your journey and do lots of stuff. Say, trudging around Venice all day. 

2.

Drink

I mean alcohol. If you can. Beer contains hops and hops make you sleep. Beer contains alcohol and alcohol relaxes. Relaxation makes you less tense. This can help with sleeping on a night train. Aim for a small, strong IPA. In Germany, some kind of Export. In Italy, Speciale. Or just have red wine.

3.

Don't drink

Beer contains water and water makes you pee. So don't have too much. There is nothing worse than waking up on a night train and sort of needing to pee and then agonising for hours whether to... 

  • put on your wig and clump down the corridor with your strappy sandals not strapped up? 
  • or just go back to sleep?
The answer to this, by the way, is immediately to get up and get it over with. If you force yourself back to sleep against your bladder, guess what? In the morning, when everybody is going to the loo, you'll be desperate and have to wait. And end up gulping stone-cold coffee half inside your coat as your train stops at your destination. But I digress.
Sleeping on a night train

Polish Rail are very generous with the beverages. It's a trap.

4.

Consider ear plugs

Personally, I don't ever use ear plugs. But other people do. Ear plugs are definitely a thang for sleeping on a night train. The train is moving, there will be noise. 


Once I had a sleeper in which somewhere, behind the cladding, something  kept softly tapping at irregular intervals. It drove me insane and I slept about one hour. I would have needed ear-plugs then.


The Hungarian couchettes that run between Zürich, Munich, Vienna and Budapest have very loud air conditioning. Imagine sleeping on the wing of Concorde. Ear plugs would be good there.

5.

Go for a walk

If you really cannot sleep, don't just lie there, fuming. Put on your wig and your strappy sandals and go for a wander up and down the train.


If you are on a train with a dining car, and it is open, good for you. Have yourself a drink. If there is no dining car, you might still get something from the staff. I remember an American waking me coming at 3.30 AM and buying peanuts and a coke from me.


Go to the very front of the train and watch the engine powering through the night. Then go to the very back and watch the stars spiralling in the vastness of the cosmos as the train winds its way through the dark. Ponder your insignificance.

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6.

Pour your heart out

Chase down the attendant and strike up a conversation. A sleeper attendant is like a barkeeper. If you want to pour out your heart, they are there for you.


Many's the night I've listened to some insomniac's story. Once on the way to Venice I had a beautiful chain-smoking Albanian (let's call her Aferdita) telling me about her forced marriage all the way from Rosenheim to Tarvisio. That's five hours.

7.

Bring sticking plaster, newspaper and blu tack

I'm on a roll now. Keep a small roll of sticking plaster and a little bit of blu tack (Americans: Poster Tack) in your toiletry bag. These can be invaluable for keeping the door of the washbasin shut or preventing said door from vibrating in its hinges. Newspaper is also good for such interventions. 

Sleeping on a night train

Doors can sometimes open or vibrate. Tape, blu tack or newspaper can help fix this.

8.

Try lying the other way

Sometimes it helps to lie the other way. Let's say you are lying in a bottom couchette with your head next to door. Now let's say someone keeps getting up, putting a wig on, fumbling with their strappy sandals and banging the door. You'll have much more peace with your head at the window. 


Here is something fun to try: lie on your back, looking upwards out the window at the stars. Now imagine everything upside down. All of a sudden you are soaring through the darkness, watching the stars drift light-years below you.

9.

Leave your phone alone

Another old hat, but I'm still going to mention it: try and resist the temptation to play with your phone. If you see what time it is, you might feel stressed by how little time you've got left. Then there's the blue light the screen emits. Scientists say this screws up your sleep cycle.

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10.

Master the air conditioning

Most sleeping cars now have air conditioning. Me, I prefer windows, but I'm an old fuddy-duddy. Always have been.

Sometimes the air conditioning can emit very dry air, parching your nose and mouth. This has stopped me from sleeping on a night train, I can tell you. Here's what to do:


  1. if there's a control knob, turn it down to cooler. It won't make much difference, as there is only one unit feeding all compartments. However, cooler air absorbs less moisture.
  2. Moisten (don't soak!) a flannel with water and drape it over such vents as you can find. The main vent is often at the bottom of the window frame. The aim is not to obstruct the air - merely to humidify it as it streams into your compartment.
  3. Don't ask the attendant to turn the air conditioning off. They won't. If they did, it would be 30 seconds before someone else came complaining. 
Sleeping on a night train

Polish Sleeping car compartment

11.

Safeguard your valuables

This applies in all compartments, but especially if sharing with other people.


Put your valuables somewhere safe when sleeping on a night train. You needn't be super original. It's enough that your wallet is harder to find than other people's. Also, spread your stuff about so that if something does get stolen, you don't lose everything.


That said, things don't get stolen that often. More important than anything else is to acquaint yourself with the locking mechanism and use it.


In 2015-2016 we had a terrible infestation with pickpockets on the Munich-Amsterdam line. After Frankfurt I would make a round and check that every couchette door was locked from the inside. Most were open, in spite of my exhortations to lock them.



12.

Book something in the middle of the carriage

This is advanced geekiness, but for some people this makes a difference. I factor it in. When booking, ask to be placed in the middle of the carriage. In couchettes, that is berths 51-56, 61-66 and 71-76. In sleepers it is harder to say, but 31-35, 32-36 and 41-45 are a safe bet. The benefit is threefold:


  1. You are not above squealing bogies
  2. You are far from the loos, so fewer people lumber by
  3. You are further from doors opening and closing.

On the Russian and Ukrainian railways' sites you can choose your berth on a little map. The Nightjet hasn't got this cool feature yet.

13.

Try not to give a toss

If you follow all the above tips to the letter and turn up expecting to sleep, you are doomed to fail. You won't sleep a wink. Sleep is about letting it happen, rather than making it happen. [Insert more trite wisdom about sleep here].


If you really can't sleep, just accept that it wasn't to be. You are more likely to sleep on a night train then.  

Bonne nuit / Buona notte / Gute Nacht / Спокойной ночи

I started off writing 6 tips, then went up to 9 and finally 13 as new ideas kept piling in.


A combination of these tips ought to help you get to sleep quickly on a night train. I have aimed to give you stuff that is relaxing, changes your thoughts and makes you more ready for sleep.


Then when the conductor knocks and brings you your breakfast you'll wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.


This post is part of my Ask Me Anything series. If you want to Ask Me Anything, join the Rail Guide Europe club and shoot me an email...


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Batumi Harbour
Feb 19

How to get to Georgia by Train

By Edward | Ask Me Anything

This post is part of my Ask Me Anything series. If you want to Ask Me Anything, join the Rail Guide Europe club and shoot me an email...

How to get to Georgia by Train

Dagmar writes: I want to go to Georgia by train. Have you got any tips about how to get there? Where can I buy tickets? How does train travel work in Georgia? What does one need to know?

A lovely question for kicking off our Ask Me Anything series. How does one get to Georgia by train? I went to Georgia by train on my honeymoon and am thus well equipped to answer this.


First things First


If you look at the map there are three ways:


  • Across the Black Sea
  • South of the Black Sea via Istanbul and Ankara
  • North of the Black Sea via Russia

Going north via Russia is not an option as it has no rail links with Georgia proper since the 2008 war.


Going south via Turkey is daunting: getting through the Balkans involves multiple changes. Not all trains can be booked online. There is a longish coach journey through Eastern Turkey that you cannot avoid (yet).


Across the Black Sea you get comfortable sleeper trains to Odessa on the Black Sea, followed by a two-night voyage across the Black Sea to Batumi. This post explains how to go via Odessa and the Black Sea.


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1.

Georgia by train and boat via Odessa and the Black Sea


This is the route I went in 2016.


If you have an EU, US or Canadian passport, this is the most painless way as you don't need any visas at all. Furthermore, you can book the whole lot online - all the way from Western Europe to Tbilisi.


You travel through the EU, Ukraine and Georgia. There are regular ferry sailings from Chornomorsk (formerly Illichivsk) to Batumi. This service is all year round and run by Ukrferry. During winter the boat goes twice a week, during the summer more frequently.


Here is how I did it


1. Starting from Munich, I went to Cheb with a Bayern Ticket. Such a humble beginning for such a long journey, but there you go. This ticket I bought on the day.


2. At Cheb, I got the (now defunct) Slovak sleeper to Košice. This I had booked a bit in advance from Czech railways.


3. At Košice, I changed on to a train to Čierna nad Tisou. This ticket I bought at Košice station. It is cheap and cannot sell out.


4. At Čierna nad Tisou I got the border hopper to Chop, in Ukraine.


5. From Chop I went to Uzhgorod in a Marshrutka. This was to cut down my wait. I could have stayed at Chop, but a four hour wait at Chop gets boring.  


Bogie change at Ukrainian border

If you go on a direct Ukrainian service (i.e. Vienna-L'viv) the bogies will be changed at the Ukrainian border.

6. From Uzhgorod to Odessa I went on the Ukrainian Railways' Khadzhibey train. Train №107/108 "Хаджибей/Khadjibey" runs daily between Odessa and Uzhorod. It left Uzhorod in the evening and reached Odessa at lunchtime the next day. This ticket I also got online directly from Ukrainian Railways.


"Khadjibey" is what the clutch of shacks and fortress was called that the Russians nabbed from the Ottomans when they conquered the Black Sea coast. Odessa was founded on the ruins of Khadjibey in 1794,


7. After a four day wait at Odessa, I went by taxi to Chornomorsk and embarked on the Kaunas Seaways to Batumi. This was a two-night voyage. Left Chornomorsk in the late afternoon, arrived Batumi in the early morning. 

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About the Odessa-Batumi Ferry


Here I shall go into some detail about the voyage across the Black Sea. The Ukrferry ships are primarily goods ferries. Ukrferry transports lorries and (freight) railway coaches between Georgia and Ukraine. Most of the passengers are lorry drivers. We foot passengers are a side-hustle. This is why the ferry uses the goods port of Chornomorsk, rather than Odessa.

Ukrferry Chornomorsk

Leaving Chornomorsk. The little ferry in the background is the Caledonia, as seen in Andrea Maria Dusl's film "Blue Moon".

Booking the Odessa-Batumi Ferry

I booked the ticket online and paid for it on the ground at Ukrferry's head office outside Odessa. The booking process has changed since then, for the better. The whole thing can be done in English and you can pay online. 


Getting to the port


The district where the ferry terminal is, is called Burlachya Balka. It is on the southern outskirts of Odessa.


The № 25 bus gets you there from Odessa's main station. It is seventeen stops and currently costs 24 hryvnas (7o¢). In Odessa you usually pay the driver at the front when you get off the bus.


The stop you want is called "Burlachya Balka". It is a request stop and there is no bell to ring. You have to know where you are and bellow (bellow!) "Ostanaveetye pozhaluysta" (stop please) or "Na slyeduyushy" (..at the next stop) or "Burlachya Balka!"


Or go by taxi. I went by taxi. Taxis in Odessa are cheap. Get your hotel to order a taxi for you. Hotels will ring reputable taxi companies that tell you the price before your taxi even arrives. This makes it harder for you to be quoted a fantasy price. 


Meta comment: I just spent two hours looking at maps, retracing my steps and poring over Ukrainian public transport fora. I staked the district out on Google Streetview. My conclusion is that unless you are familiar with post-Soviet transport and speak some Russian, you had best get a taxi to the ferry terminal.


The lengths to which I go for you

I go to great lengths for you, my reader. One of these lengths is to ring up Ukrferry in Odessa and ask what the correct procedure is for 2020. Yes, in Russian. You're welcome.


  • When you have booked, you will receive a booking confirmation. This is not your ticket. You get your tickets at registration.
  • Registration is done at Ukrferry's office in Burlachya Balka, near the harbour at Chornomorsk. It is the highest building in the area and unmissable. 
  • Here it is on Google Maps. And here is the address, so you can give it to a taxi driver: Бизнес Центр "Борей", с. Бурлачья Балка, ул. Северная 41, (Business Centre "Borey", Burlachya Balka, ul. Severnaya 41.
  • Registration of foot passengers takes place before the lorries and railway carriages are processed. This means you have to be at the Ukrferry office quite a while before the ship sails. Exact details ought to come with your booking.
  • A minibus transfers you from the Ukrferry office to the terminal and customs.
Open window on Ukraine-Georgia ferry

No dolphins in this picture


Embarking

The ship moors with its stern to the pier and foot passengers walk on though the same entrance as the cars, lorries and trucks. The low-point of my honeymoon was watching my wife pick her way across the rails in the floor, in the half-light of the cavernous ship's hold.


But then there were dolphins.


sun set on the Black Sea

Dolphins. Completely invisible in the waves and sunset.

What is the passage to Georgia like?

This is a real boat trip. You get to walk about on deck and watch the dolphins and seagulls. You can climb steep metal staircases. And open your cabin window. 


You are fed three times daily in the ship's canteen. There is no buffet or menu. Everyone eats the same food. It is Slavic canteen fare with meat, sides and always a salad. There is no gluten-free or vegan option. Lactose-intolerance? What do you mean, you can't drink milk?


An announcement is made on the tannoy in Russian, Georgian and English - "food is served, don't be late". Seriously, don't be late. They chuck you out of the canteen after 45 minutes or so.

Kaunas Seaways at Batumi

Kaunas Seaways moored at Batumi harbour

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Train Travel in Georgia


Georgia has inherited its railway system from the Russian and Soviet Empires. 



  • Not all parts of Georgia are easy to reach by train. Most major cities are connected to the network, but the trains are not frequent. Even the Tbilisi airport express only runs a few times per day.
  • The eastern wine-growing region of Kakheti has no regular passenger services from Tbilisi. Tracks go as far as the regional capital Telavi, but not trains. I don't know if these will ever be reinstated.

Arid landscape close to Tbilisi

  • it is Russian broad-gauge (1520mm)
  • Night trains have the Russian three-class system (Luxe, Kupé and Platskart). As of 2020 these run between Tbilisi and Ozurgeti (Georgia's tea capital) and between Tbilisi and Zugdidi.
  • Except for on local services (e.g. Elektrichki) you always have an assigned place. And that is where you bloody well sit, too.

I used the Georgian Railway to get from Batumi to Tbilisi. In 2016 this was with rather squeaky Chinese trains. Now this line is served by Georgia's flagship trains - double deck Swiss-designed Stadler sets.


You can only move if the guards let you. My wife was one month pregnant and didn't take to travelling backwards through mountains. I only managed to get us moved by telling the guards that my wife was pregnant.


If you translate the Georgian "she is pregnant" literally, you get: "she is two-souled". Isn't that a beautiful way to say it?  But I digress.


Buying Tickets

You can buy tickets for the Georgian Railways online and up to 40 days in advance.

The e-ticket system is quite easy to use, and it is in English. Sadly this only works for domestic services, so if you want to go to Armenia or Azerbaijan, it won't help you.


I shall shortly be adding guides to booking on Georgian and Ukrainian railways to the Insider Rail Guide library.

My two-souled wife enjoying her Georgian pregnant VIP treatment.

2.

On the horizon: Georgia by train with the Ankara-Baku direct sleeper


It has been postponed several times: The Azerbaijan Railways direct sleeper service from Ankara via Tbilisi to Baku. 


The new Swiss-made dual-gauge carriages are already in Azerbaijan. The border station at Akhalkalaki and the Tbilisi-Kars railway line are finished. Smiling leaders have cut ribbons, watched by men in sunglasses. But the train has yet to enter service.


However, when it does, this will be a supremely comfortable way to get to Georgia by train. If you make it through the Balkans.

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3.

Bonus: Abkhazia via Russia

Abkhazia is a breakaway region that belongs to Georgia, but is currently not controlled by the Georgian government in Tbilisi. It has its own government and you need a visa to enter. 


Abkhazia relies on Russia for protection and is reachable by train through Russia. Indeed, since the 2008 war, Abkhazia is the only part of Georgia with a direct rail link to Russia.


There are trains from Moscow to Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia. During the winter, train № 306M runs every two days, during the summer it runs daily. The journey takes 43 hours.


Bear in mind


If you enter Abkhazia via Russia, you have to leave via Russia. You will therefore need a multiple visa for Russia.


Were you to travel onwards into the rest of Georgia you wouldn't get an entry stamp and thus be entering Georgia illegally.


How I recommend you do it

Until the Azerbaijani Railways Ankara-Tbilisi-Baku sleeper comes online, the route via Odessa is king. Here is what I recommend you do:


  1. Get yourself to Vienna
  2. From Vienna, get the daily Ukrainian Railways sleeper service to L'viv. Spend or don't spend a couple of days in L'viv. Book this online through ÖBB. Check out this post on booking the Ukraine sleeper on ÖBB's site. It costs €72 in a double sleeper.
  3. From L'viv, get one of several overnight trains to Odessa. Spend or don't spend a couple of days in Odessa. The journey takes between 10 and 12 hours. Book this online through UZ. Expect to pay €25/$28 for kupé (4 berth sleeper) or €90/$95 for luxe (2 berth sleeper). Or - get this - €8.50/$9 if you go in platskart, the 3rd class open plan sleeper.
  4. From Odessa, get the Ukrferry service to Batumi. Book this online with Ukrferry. A berth in a standard double outside cabin costs €165/$180. A single in the suite is €380/$420. Budget roughly €350/$380 for two people sharing an outside cabin. If you bear in mind this includes two nights' accommodation, two days' food, plus the chance to see dolphins, it is a good deal.
  5. From Batumi, go on Georgian Railways to Tbilisi. Book online here. 1st class is about €20/$22, 2nd class €8/$9.


Most romantic journey ever


If you pull this off, you are in for one of the most romantic journeys imaginable

Vienna, L'viv, Odessa - the stops along the way are already oozing with romance and excitement. 


Add a two night voyage on a real ship from which you may see dolphins. I certainly did.

Batumi morning

Batumi, rising shimmering from the night horizon


Then arrive in a part of the world that God had kept for himself, but in his goodness gave to the Georgians because of their singing and celebrations.


I can't think of anything better. Please go forth and send me the pictures.


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Astra Transcarpatic Review
Dec 17

Astra Trans Carpatic’s Overnight Service

By Edward | Night Trains

Astra Trans Carpatic: a New Night Train in Europe

I know what you’re thinking, and no:

I paid for my ticket and travelled as a normal passenger.

Astra Trans Carpatic didn’t know I was coming, and if they did, so what? I’m not a famous blogger or influencer. I’m just a weirdo dragging his wife and baby across Eastern Europe by train, because train bloggers don’t go by plane ever.

Astra Trans Carpatic at Arad

Astra Trans Carpatic ready to leave Arad

Astra Trans Carpatic is a Romanian train operator that belongs to Astra Vagoane, who make trains. In February 2017 they started running an overnight service between Arad on Romania’s western border and Bucharest, using their own carriages.

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In the summer months the service is extended from Bucharest to the Black Sea port of Constanța, making it possible to traverse the whole of Romania - from the Puszta through the Carpathians to the shores of the Black Sea - in thirteen hours.

The tidings of a new overnight service in Europe reached me between sobs in the office I had washed up in after Deutsche Bahn axed its CityNightLines and with them my job. After decades of night trains being closed down, this was a lovely bit of good news and I have wanted to pay Astra Trans Carpatic a visit ever since.

Astra Trans Carpatic review

Astra Trans Carpatic ready to leave Arad

Astra Trans Carpatic's Timetable

As mentioned above, the Astra Trans Carpatic traverses Romania from East to West and West to East over night and over the Carpathians. Here is their eastbound timetable, as of 15th December 2019:

Astra Trans Carpatic Timetable

Astra Trans Carpatic 2020 timetable Arad-Bucuresti Nord

07:05 is a great time to arrive in Bucharest. It is wonderful is to watch the Romanian capital stir and come to life.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

Rays of the morning sun creeping down the facade of Bucharest Gara de Nord

Here is the westward timetable, as of 15th December 2019:

Astra Trans Carpatic Timetable

Astra Trans Carpatic timetable from Bucuresti Nord to Arad

The westbound service has perfect timing in every way.

What are the carriages like?

The carriages are built to standard European specifications (for the nerds: UIC-Z, essentially Eurofima from the 1970s and 1980s), meaning they can be used almost anywhere on the Continent - good for when Astra Trans Carpatic goes international, or if they give up and sell the coaches.

They are painted in a wonderfully cheerful yellow-green livery which makes them immediately recognisable.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

The yellow-green livery of Astra Trans Carpatic

Seated coach

Astra Transcarpatic Review

The seated coach on the Astra Trans Carpatic

Last time I travelled overnight sitting up (from Košice to Bratislava, about seven years ago) my companions were a group of gypsies munching bread and sausage in the dark and scowling at me, followed by a friendly drunk who looked like Asterix in a communist polyester suit and ended up embracing and kissing me and giving me slivovitz.

Also, since working on the night trains and regularly seeing what goes on in seated cars at night, I've come to avoid them. But if I had to, Astra Trans Carpatic's car is one I could imagine travelling in.

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Astra’s 2nd class seated car is probably one of the nicest in Romania - it is worlds better than the 2nd class on the ICE or the Railjet, simply because Astra has taken the trouble to align the seats with the windows. On newer Deutsche Bahn trains you may ask for a window seat and find yourself staring at a wall.

Carpeted floor, 2+2 seating, leather seats, functioning air conditioning, sockets for every seat - Astra has done well. Some seats are arranged in sets of four around a decent-sized table.

Astra Transcarpatic Review

Leather seats, a decent fold-out table, sockets underneath

The Couchettes

Astra only does 4-berth couchettes. This is a good thing. 4-berth is much more civilised than 6-berth, better for air-quality and space to move.

The bunks have proper mattresses, a big pillow and a real duvet. You make your bed yourself with linen provided. Thus, though sold as a couchette, it is more like a 4-berth sleeper. Each berth has a power outlet next to the night light. There is a shower at the end of the corridor.

Astra Transcarpatic Review Couchette

An upper couchette bunk on the Astra Trans Carpatic

One of the nicest couchettes I’ve ever seen, on par with the Russian 4-berth sleeper running on the Moscow-Nice and Moscow-Paris services.

Astra Transcarpatic Review

Astra Trans Carpatic Couchette

The Sleeping Cars

Now for the sleepers. Each sleeper carriage has ten compartments with two berths each - Astra doesn’t do T3 berths. Two is the maximum amount of people in a compartment.

This is much higher welfare than the CityNightLine and Nightjet Comfortline carriages that squeeze two more compartments with three berths into the same 26.4 meters of length.

Astra Transcarpatic Review

Astra Trans Carpatic sleeping car

The compartment is carpeted and the walls are clad with faux-walnut. Anything not in faux-walnut is painted a similar ochre colour. The duvets are nice and long, so your feet are covered, and the pillows are a decent size.

Astra Transcarpatic Review

Interior of Astra Transcarpatic sleeper compartment

Three of the compartments have a futuristic en-suite bathroom with a loo, a shower and a sink. Mine was spotless. Here’s one fun Eastern European hack Astra has done: Install an upside-down handdryer as a hairdryer.

The shower was fabulous. Both hot and cold water at decent pressure, cool lighting, no funny smells. Obviously the equipment is new, but I hope they manage to maintain this standard.

Astra Transcarpatic Review

Astra Trans Carpatic deluxe sleeper compartment with en-suite bathroom door ajar

What I particularly like is the lighting. There is an array of switches over the door that controls them. Next to your pillow there are also light switches.

If you turn all the lights off you have true darkness, which is great - in most sleepers you are still left with some sort of LED shining in your face. The Nightjet sleeper has a little white button I feel compelled to cover, and PKP's new and refurbished sleepers have an appalling blue LED blaring all night.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

Clever: the hair dryer in the Astra Trans Carpatic shower

How Astra Trans Carpatic treats you

Having described the train itself, we shall now have a look at the service concept on Astra Trans Carpatic.

Astra Trans Carpatic review

Corridor on the Astra Trans Carpatic Sleeper

In the Evening

After the train sets off the attendant knocks and wants to see your ticket. In my case it was a QR code on my smartphone. All the attendant did was look at it cursorily. No scanning, nothing. Of course, if you are in your compartment and no one else lays claim to it, and they have you on their list, there is no reason to go scanning QRs or looking at ID cards.

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One thing I missed on both my trips was complementary water. I think a bottle of water should definitely be included in the price of one's berth.

On both my trips there were no towels ready in the compartment, but when I asked for them (proSOP, vâ rog) the attendant gave me some straight away.

Astra Trans Carpatic shower

The shower in a deluxe compartment on the Astra Trans Carpatic

In the Morning

In the morning they wake you with a knock on the door. On my arrival in Bucharest there was no breakfast - maybe because it was impossibly early (05:28 AM) or maybe because the attendant had forgotten.

On my arrival at Arad, on my return journey, there was weapons-grade instant coffee and a plastic-wrapped submarine sandwich with chicken and red pepper in it. I don't know what it tasted like.

Breakfast rant

As a sleeping car attendant who has made thousands of night train breakfasts and thrown away almost as many, I think breakfasts are a waste of workers' time, the punters' money and precious food. 

What people need is a hot drink and a small, energising snack to keep the wolf from the door as they drag themselves home or to the next bar. Wagon Slovakia, who do the night trains in Slovakia, get it right with their cup of coffee and waffle bar. No fuss, you drink your coffee lying down and eat or don't eat your waffle bar, or you take it with you for later.

Breakfast on the Astra Trans Carpatic

Breakfast on the Astra Trans Carpatic

Sleeping car people can afford not only to go in the sleeping car. They can also afford food allergies and paleo diets. Then there are vegans. There is no lowest common food denominator a rail company can fall back to, so it is better to keep breakfast as low-key as possible. The Russians have it only on the very best trains, and then it comes fresh from the dining car.

On my CityNightLines so much food was wasted. And it went everywhere as people scrabbled about getting their mobile phones, neck cushions and babies' favourite blankets together.

But I digress.

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The Minibar

The train is not long - only four carriages - and so it doesn’t have the length to support a restaurant car, sadly.

There is a minibar with all the usual stuff on sale - "drinks and light refreshments" is the technical term, I believe. I'd brought my own, so I didn't use it. Once I tried to get water, but couldn't chase down the attendant and lost interest.

Astra Trans Carpatic Corridor

My daughter tries to escape

Lost Property

As a blogger in the service of my readers I am prepared to go to extraordinary lengths. One of these lengths is to forget a mobile phone, a neck cushion and a baby’s favourite blanket on the train.

A shunter found me wandering around the sidings of Arad station. I explained in my best Romanian that I had lost my phone. He made some phone calls and asked my to wait by the casa de bilete.

Half an hour later an Astra Trans Carpatic worker appeared with all of the things I'd left.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

The sink in the en-suite bathroom on the Astra Trans Carpatic Sleeper

Why use this train?

On the whole, most people on their way to Romania will opt for the Euronight 473 Ister from Budapest to Bucharest, or the Euronight 347 Dacia from Vienna to Bucharest.

My reasons for going on Astra Trans Carpatic were threefold:

1. I wanted to review it for the blog

2. Unlike the Euronights, it got me to Bucharest with ample spare time to change onto my onward train to Varna at 12:45 PM. The Dacia arrives too late, and the Ister at 12:05 PM. Only mad dogs and bahn.de think 40 minutes are enough to change onto a once-daily service in the Balkans.

3. It was easy to book online.

Astra Transcarpatic Review

The shuttered art nouveau casino on the Constanța sea front

Pros of using this train

1. It is the only overnight train from the West that gets you to Bucharest with enough time to change onto the southbound 12:45 PM Romania service to Bulgaria and Turkey

2. Astra Trans Carpatic is a new, open-access operator, and like on Italo in Italy and Westbahn in Austria, it shows with the staff: they are exceptionally polite and motivated

3. It has brand-new, luxurious carriages

4. It is competitively priced

5. As mentioned above, it gets you all the way from the Puszta to the Black Sea without changing. Get on at Arad at 20:27, arrive Constanța at 10:35 the next morning.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

CFR Steam Engine in front of Arad station

Cons of using this train

1. You have to get yourself to Arad first. Currently, the latest train that gets you from Budapest to Arad in time for the Astra Trans Carpatic is the IC 75 Transylvania, leaving Budapest at 09:10 and arriving at Arad at 14:39. Any later service gets to Arad too late.

2. You then spend five hours waiting at Arad. However, I found time passed quickly. Lunch, a walk along the river and a small shop. People who like trams: Arad has second-hand trams from all over Europe plying its huge tram network. It's like a tram zoo out there.

Also, the time is well spent getting acclimatised to Romania, Romanian and Romania's plastic bank notes. 

3. You can't use Interrail or Eurail on Astra Trans Carpatic, or indeed any long distance international train tickets.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

Arad is ideal for acclimatising oneself to Romania

How to work the Astra Trans Carpatic into your itinerary, eastwards and westwards

Eastbound

Going east towards Bucharest, you'll want to join the Astra Trans Carpatic either at Arad, like I did, or at Timișoara, the next station up the line. Timișoara is a bigger town with more for the tourist to see. There are no more trains from Belgrade to Timișoara, so one must always come from Hungary.

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I have played around with the timetables and always end up with the IC 75 Transsylvania that leaves Budapest at 09:10 and Szolnok at 10:34. It reaches Arad at 14:39, and if you want to wait at Timișoara you change here onto the 14:44 R 2606 for Timișoara. Wherever you decide to wait, it will be five hours.

When you reach Bucharest the next morning at 07:05, you can get any number of onward trains.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

Outside Arad station is this building belonging to Astra Vagoane with a communist mosaic on it, celebrating Romanian-Soviet friendship - these are rare in Romania, due to Conducător Nicolae Ceaușescu's fitful relationship with the USSR.

Westbound

The new 2020 timetable has made the Astra Trans Carpatic more interesting for westward travel. Coming from Bucharest on your way west you:

  • arrive at Arad at 07:04
  • Get the 08:20 IC 78 Körös to Budapest
  • Reach Budapest at lunchtime, Vienna by teatime and Munich by suppertime.
Astra Trans Carpatic Review

IC 75 "Transsylvania" at the Romanian border station of Curtici, waiting to depart for Arad

Yeah, great, but where do I get my tickets from?

You can only get the tickets from Astra Trans Carpatic. Normal ticket offices run by Deutsche Bahn or ÖBB do not sell them (to say nothing of SNCF). In fact, Astra Trans Carpatic doesn't even appear on Deutsche Bahn's bahn.de online timetables, though it is mentioned in the European Rail Timetable.

At Arad and at Bucharest Gara de Nord Astra Trans Carpatic has its own ticket offices (casa de bilete). You can also just buy your ticket on the train with no surcharge.

I got my tickets online in advance. Unfortunately the ticket buying section is in Romanian only. Fortunately Romanian is one of the easier languages for winging it, especially if you know some French and Italian. Also, if you use the Google Chrome browser, you can have it translate everything quite accurately.

If you need help getting Astra Trans Carpatic tickets online subscribe to my blog to reach me by email or on Telegram, then I can talk you through it.

How much does it cost?

Astra Trans Carpatic has a very simple pricing system. Your fare consists of kilometers travelled plus the class of accomodation you want. Tickets always cost the same whenever you buy them. God I love it
Astra Trans Carpatic Price Matrix

If you like price matrices, enjoy this one. Here is what you pay for the distance travelled

Astra Trans Carpatic Supplements

...and here is what you pay on top for your seat/berth.

Pricing is in the Romanian currency, the leu (RON), which at the time of writing (15th December 2019) exchanges at €1 = 4.78 RON, £1 = 5.73 RON and $1 = 4.29 RON.

Thus Arad-Bucharest in a seat or couchette is 600km second class (97 lei / €20) plus 4.00 lei (80 cents) for a seat or 50 lei (€10) for a couchette - so altogether €19 sitting up or €28 lying down in a couchette, all the way from Arad to Bucharest.

In a sleeper it is 600 km first class plus the supplement for a double or single sleeper or a double or single sleeper deluxe (with the en-suite bathroom). That is 150 lei (€31) for the distance plus 60 lei (€12) for a double, 90 lei (€19) for a double deluxe, 120 lei (€25) for a single or 180 lei (€38) for a single deluxe.

In April 2018 I paid €92 for the double deluxe for my wife and me, from Arad to Bucharest. Our baby went free of charge. I think that is a fantastic deal. My wife said it was the best train she had ever been on.

So what's the ride like?

I'm glad you ask.

It was great. The train goes quite slowly, first across the plains to Timișoara, then up into the South Carpathian mountains and through Wallachia.

I didn't see much, to be honest, as it was dark and I slept. But at times I awoke and peered out the window into nameless ravines clanking underneath bridges we were crossing, before drifting off again to the clatter of the wheels.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

Some sort of stock night image looking eerie and Carpathian

The attendant had switched off the air conditioning for the night, so I opened the window and in rushed lush Carpathian air.

Much of Romania's tracks are still screwed rather than welded together, so you spend much of the journey immersed in this hypnotic haze of metallic rumbling that is great for sleeping.

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Conclusion

Astra Trans Carpatic have done something brave in starting up a night train service in this age of budget airlines and coaches. The European Union is still very much in love with planes, global warming be damned.

Astra Transcarpatic Review

The Astra Transcarpatic ready to leave Bucharest Gara de Nord

That is why it is so fantastic that there are people setting out to make money with trains, and indeed overnight trains.

Astra Trans Carpatic have a service that is very nice, reasonably priced and well thought out. I love their higher-welfare couchettes and sleepers with only four and two berths respectively.

People on their way to Romania from abroad are more likely to use the established Euronights simply because they are more convenient, but those who make the effort to get to Arad are rewarded with a great train service.

There is talk of extending the service to Budapest or even Vienna and I hope Astra Trans Carpatic take that plunge.

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Westbahn Salzburg
Dec 16

The Other Vienna to Salzburg Train: Westbahn

By Edward | Day Trains

Vienna to Salzburg by Train. Ooops.

You are on your way from Salzburg to Vienna by train. As luck would have it, just after buying your ticket, there was a nice new white and blue train setting off for Vienna.

“Not vellid on dis train”, the girl in the blue peaked cap says, without emotion.

You sweat panic sweat.

“How can it not be valid? I just bought this ticket!”

“You heff ÖBB ticket. You take ÖBB train”.

The smell of your panic sweat reaches your nose.

“Now what?”

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“You pay. Or you get off et Vöcklabruck”.

You get off at Vöcklabruck.

Didn’t see that coming? Welcome to the world of deregulated European railways. In some EU countries, there is now more than one operator running trains on the same line. They all sell their own tickets, and only their own tickets do they accept

You had a standard ÖBB ticket from Salzburg to Vienna and got on the first train towards Vienna. Unfortunately the first train towards Vienna was a Westbahn train.

The Other Train from Vienna to Salzburg

The Westbahn is a private train company that runs fast trains between Vienna and Salzburg.

In 2011 it took up an hourly service between Vienna Westbahnhof and Salzburg, using smart double-deck trains. Its tickets were about half the price of what the national rail operator ÖBB charged, and the trains had free WiFi – something unheard of in those days. At least on trains.

Where does the Westbahn stop?

Here is a map with the current Westbahn stops. The Westbahn train calls at larger stations on the mainline between Vienna and Salzburg.

You can download the Westbahn’s timetable here.

Vienna Salzburg Train Westbahn

The Westbahn line, embedded in the wider network

What the Vienna to Salzburg Westbahn trains are like

Westbahn trains are electric multiple units formed of six (or four) double deck coaches. They run at up to 200 km/h (125 mph) between Vienna and Salzburg. Similar trains run in Swiss regional services, but also in Luxembourg, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

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Westbahn train Salzburg

Westbahn KISS train waiting at Salzburg

Good trains. I like them. Here is an interactive tour.

Coach numbers are 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 and 600. Theoretically, on this train coach 100 is always facing Salzburg and coach 600 always facing Vienna.

The Westbahn class system

Westbahn has two classes, but it doesn’t call it that. Westbahn say that all their seats are first class.

Westbahn standard class

Westbahn Standard Class

Westbahn standard class

However, here is what you can expect on the other Vienna-Salzburg train:

Westbahn standard class has

  • nice leather chairs,
  • power outlets for every seat
  • carpeted floors
  • The seats line up with the windows
  • The “WESTsteward”
  • separate loos for ladies and gentlemen
  • Free WiFi that actually works

Westbahn Standard class

Seats in Westbahn standard class

This is much nicer than Economy on the ÖBB Railjet, with its frozen-spinach green seats and drab linoleum flooring.

Westbahn Plush

However, there is also Westbahn Plus, in coach 600. You pay a surcharge to sit here, depending on how far you are going.

What do you get for it? Everything already mentioned, plus:

  • the seat next to you is also yours, so there is more room. On the second batch of Westbahn trains the Plus seats are wider
  • a free drink
  • a free newspaper
  • and the “WESTsteward” at your beck and call. If you want something from the bar, they have to drop everything and fetch it for you.

Currently, the Westbahn Plus upgrade costs between €9.90 for the shortest hop and €22.90 for the full distance from Vienna to Salzburg, in addition to your Westbahn standard class ticket.

You can buy the Westbahn Plus upgrade in advance, or you can wait until you are on the train, sniff the air and upgrade only if you feel the need. Just sit down in coach 600 and pay the surcharge when the steward rolls up. On a full Vienna to Salzburg train it is definitely worth the extra expense.

The advantage of buying in advance is that you know you’ve got your seat.

My Salzburg-Vienna train trips on the Westbahn

I’ve been on the Westbahn several times. When travelling between Salzburg and Vienna by train I have always made an effort to use them.

My first trip was in 2012. As I still worked for a state railway operator, I first resisted the idea of going on a privately run train. But for scientific research purposes (as the Japanese whalers say) I went on the Westbahn anyway.

Westbahn Plus class

Westbahn Plus class

And I loved it. Getting the ticket was so easy, and in 2012 everything was so new and the staff were all so eager. After that I went out of my way to go on the Westbahn. Between Vienna and Salzburg it is my preferred operator.

Setting off from Salzburg

It all starts with a sigh, as the breaks release. Then the train silently glides out of the gorgeously refurbished Salzburg station.

I digress again: after the 2008 financial crash, Germany subsidised every new car with €2500 and called it an environmental bonus. Talk about doublethink. Meanwhile, Austria started a huge programme in which almost every railway station was completely refurbished. Salzburg Hbf was transformed from a labyrinthine open sewer into a jewel of a station.

If you are on the top deck, it is quite jerky as the train picks its way over the points on its way out. Then a futuristic electric whirring sets in as the KISS gathers speed. For the first half hour or so you can see the mountains. Then they recede. After Vöcklabruck you are in the plain of the Danube, though you rarely see the river on the upgraded line.

Westbahn leaving Salzburg

Westbahn on its way out of Salzburg

Even at the top deck there are no more jerks as you whizz towards Vienna at 200 km/h.

If you are on the top deck, you can see over the sound-barriers installed along vast swathes of the Salzburg-Vienna line.

The “WESTstewards”

As a trained railway worker I was doubtful about the Westbahn.

The driver does all the safety stuff, like reading the signals and closing the doors, while the Westbahn stewards only do tickets and service. Like on a plane.

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I thought the role of the WESTsteward had the hallmarks of a McJob. I thought you need properly trained guards looking after passengers, not clueless students who can’t read signals. Their jeans and casual uniform didn’t inspire confidence.

But honestly? I think it is great that the threshold for working on trains has been lowered and more people can do these great jobs. I’ve asked around, and the Westbahn stewards make decent wages. What’s more, they have full Austrian railway emergency training, so you are in capable hands.

On every single trip I’ve had the stewards have been wonderful. Cheerful, polite and helpful. They do a great job.

The West Café

Every Westbahn train has a section with a coffee machine, a cold drinks machine and a snack machine. There are also some bar tables. It is a nice, cosy section where you can meet other travellers or reflect on things in silence.

Westnbahn café

The café area on the Westbahn. There are no dedicated staff. You use the machines.

I’m going to come out with it. On a 2017 trip that took me from Munich all the way to Eastern Poland, the worst coffee I had was the Westbahn cappuccino. It was sour, watery and scalding hot.

However the espresso was fine. Less can go wrong with it.

Both at Salzburg and at Vienna the snack machine is refilled with freshly made sandwiches.

Westbahn café

Coffee machines on the Westbahn. Notice that they use creamer or milk powder. Avoid anything with milk in it.

For the 2 1/2 hour journey between Vienna and Salzburg, this is adequate. It’s not much, and I love real dining cars, but it is much better than nothing at all.

10% off your coffee

Your Westbahn bank (see below for what that is) gets you money off your coffee. If you want to use your Westbahn bank to buy coffee or food, you have to get hold of one of the West stewards. They dock the money from your Westbahn bank by scanning it, then they override the money slot on the machine to retrieve your desired drink or light refreshment.

What are “light refreshments anyway”? Why do you only get them on trains and planes? I see myself eating a lemon-flavoured wet wipe.

No rubbish bins?!?

What surprised me was that there are no rubbish bins. At all.

At the mid-level sections between the upper and lower decks there are dispensers with small plastic rubbish bags. These you take with you for your waste.

When you want it taken away, either give it to a steward, or go to where the dispensers are and hang your bag of waste on a hook that is there specially.

Westbahn Plus class

Westbahn Plus class. Note elastic bands on the aisle seats indicating that they are reserved.

Westbahn tickets

To begin with, the Westbahn ticket system was wonderfully easy. Refreshingly simple it was. God, I loved it. No train you HAD to be on. None of this new-fangled airline-pricing yield-management shit. Just honest-to-God from here to there costs this and this much.

As the realities of running trains at a profit have bitten, Westbahn have refined their ticketing system and it has become more complex. The good news is, there are much more special deals. You just have to know about them.

Here we go.

WESTstandard – Normal Tickets

The simplest tickets are Westbahn’s normal tickets. They go at the walk-up ticket price. You can simply buy them on the train (for €1 extra), or online, or from tobacconists.

A WESTstandard ticket is good for any Westbahn train for one year from the day of purchase.

Even if your ticket says “WIEN-SALZBURG” or “WIEN-LINZ” you can use it in either direction.

Vienna-Salzburg at this rate is €33.50.

Westbahn ticket prices

The price matrix for WESTstandard tickets

Concessions

There are all sorts of boring and irrelevant Austrian membership and loyalty schemes that get you some money off the standard Westbahn ticket. I can’t go into them here. I don’t know what most of them are. I don’t even want to know. Some sound scary.

What is interesting is that Westbahn give you a significant reduction if you have any European railway discount card. Thus Vienna-Salzburg is €25.50 as opposed to €33.50.

Westbahn Vienna Salzburg

Stairwell on a Westbahn train. All Westbahn trains are double deckers.

Children on the Westbahn

  • Babies and children from 0-5 go free on the Westbahn. From age six they need a ticket.
  • Children from 6-14 years old pay €1 if travelling with a family member (usually a parent or grandparent) who has a proper Westbahn ticket. When buying your ticket, be sure to include your children in the details.
  • Unaccompanied children pay a reduced rate. Vienna-Salzburg is €16.80.
  • From age 15 children are considered adults as far is tickets are concerned, but they are entitled to schoolchild and student concessions.

WESTaktiv tickets – don’t read this if you are under 60

Westbahn have a special off-peak offer for people over 60. You don’t have to be a pensioner. Just over 60. A WESTaktiv ticket is valid for one year from the date you bought it.

You can use it on any Westbahn train from Monday to Thursday.

Vienna – Salzburg with a WESTaktiv ticket costs €19.99.

WESTspartage – off-peak semi-flexible Vienna to Salzburg train tickets

An interesting hybrid between open and obligatory train tickets. WESTspartage are tickets that are valid on certain off-peak days or parts of a day. When you buy, you have to say which day,

Westbahn Bank

On old WESTspartage ticket of mine. The price has since risen.

Look at the calendars below. Blue days you can use a WESTspartage ticket between 9 am and 3 pm. Green days at any time before 12 pm and grey days any time after 12 pm. Simple. So you do have some wriggle-room on the day you travel.

Vienna-Salzburg at the current WESTspartage rate is €25.99.

Sadly, you can’t combine the promotional rate with a railcard.

Westbahn WestSparTage

Calendar showing the days on which WESTspartage tickets are valid when

If you use a WESTspartage ticket on a different day than specified, you have to pay the difference between the promo ticket and the standard fare.

WESTsuperpreise – the cheapest Vienna to Salzburg train tickets

Eventually Westbahn succumbed to the new-fangled airline-pricing yield-management shit. If you travel at 5 AM of a Tuesday morning, your ticket is cheaper than if you go on Friday afternoon.

About yield management: It makes sense to spread people across as many trains as possible, so let’s not grudge them. Some people have more time, some people have more money. Yield-management provides transport for both. It prevents empty trains and discourages full ones. This is good.

WESTsuperpreis tickets are valid for a particular train on a particular day. They come on sale 30 days in advance and are available up to one minute before departure.

However, the nice thing about them is this: if you change your plans, you can return your ticket. You get all your money back in the form of a Westbahn bank (see below) and can use it to buy other Westbahn tickets. These are MUCH better terms than offered for any other promo tickets by any other company.

Furthermore, the tickets are not personalised, so anyone can use them.

If you use a different train on the same day, you simply have to pay the difference between your cheap deal and the standard price.

Westbahn doesn’t punish you for using a different train or day. They simply charge you the difference. I think that is fair.

Westbahn Bank – save yet more money

The Westbahn bank is a great thing. I love it. When I last had one I would get it out from time to time and look at it and think of my next trip to Vienna.

Westbahn Bank

My last Westbahn Bank – in 2016 the small Westbahn Bank was €90 for €100 credit.

Westbahn banks are pay-as-you go credit. You pay Westbahn €135 and get €150 of credit that you can blow on tickets, upgrades or food and drink. Pay €400 and you get €450 of credit.

Effectively that is 10-12% off anything you buy from Westbahn.

Your Westbahn Bank is issued as an A4 PDF with a barcode. You can print it out or just keep it on your phone or tablet. You can use it online or on the train to pay for anything you buy.

Westbahn banks are valid for 30 years. I love that optimism.

If you are a passing visitor, I don’t see what you would do with the big Westbahn Bank, but the little one is worth getting as soon as there are two of you going from Vienna to Salzburg, or even Munich.

Munich? You heard me. Read on…

Westbahn tickets beyond the Westbahn network

Westbahn quickly learned that the only way for it to survive long term is to cooperate with anything that moves. Anything that moves people, at least. Thus they have all sorts of deals going.

I’m sticking to the partnerships involving trains now. That means Meridian in Bavaria and RegioJet in Czechia.

Westbahn Vienna Salzburg train

Stairwell on Westbahn train

Towards Munich with Meridian

Westbahn and Meridian have been cooperating for quite some time. Their trains usually arrive at Salzburg on the same platform so you can change easily. Their timetables are also adapted to each other so that you don’t have to wait too long.

Westbahn and Meridian have two tickets on offer that get you from Vienna to Munich or vice versa.

The Guten Tag Ticket WEST

This combines Meridian’s Guten Tag Ticket with a Westbahn ticket. The Guten Tag Ticket gets you onto all of Meridian’s trains, plus the Bayerische Oberland-Bahn and Bayerische Regio-Bahn in the whole of Bavaria.

  • For one person it is €55, which is underwhelming.
  • two people – €78
  • three people – €101
  • four people – €124
  • five people – €147
Good things about the Guten Tag Ticket WEST
  • You can buy it immediately before travelling
  • The more people travelling, the cheaper it gets
  • You could do an entire round-trip on one of these
  • It doesn’t sell out
  • It’s a nice, easy ticket with little worries.
Drawbacks of the Guten Tag Ticket WEST
  • Mon-Fri it is valid only from 9 AM – this is severely hampering
  • It locks you OUT of Westbahn’s edgier promo tickets
  • It locks you IN to Meridian’s underwhelming Guten Tag Ticket.
  • It locks you out of any other concessions to which you may be entitled
  • Exchange terms are bad. Even if you give it back before your travel date, you lose 25% of your money.

Vienna to Salzburg Westbahn train at Vienna

Westbahn at Vienna Westbahnhof awaiting passengers

WESTstandard ticket to Munich

This just in. Westbahn now offer a standard ticket for the whole distance between Munich and Vienna. It hasn’t got one of their wizzy WESTnames yet, but I’m sure they’ll come up with something.

In the fullness of time, it may be integrated into their promo deals as well. As it stands,

Vienna-Munich costs €67.40. Or €54.30 with any European railcard. Anytime.

For a fully flexible ticket that cannot sell out, this is a great price.

Benefits of this ticket:
  • It can’t sell out
  • it is valid at any time of day
  • it is exchangeable
  • A Westbahn Plus upgrade gets you into the 1st class on the Meridian train to Munich

Towards Czechia with RegioJet

Czech operator RegioJet have started running trains from Prague via Brno to Vienna. It is now possible to buy combined tickets for Westbahn and RegioJet from RegioJet. This is seriously cool cooperation. I love it. It is the only way forward.

You can get yourself a ticket from Salzburg to Prague or Brno via Vienna. RegioJet is a beast of its own which I am going to have to review soon.

RegioJet Westbahn Bratislava

RegioJet train at Bratislava hl. st. Courtesy of Martin Pavlík

What I can say here is that RegioJet have nice refurbished Austrian and Swiss coaches, plus some new ones built by Astra Vagoane in Romania – much like the seated coaches in my review of Astra Trans Carpatic. Though nominally first and second class coaches, RegioJet operate a four-class system, from basic to business. But even in basic you get free water.

Click here to investigate these combined tickets.

Where to buy

I usually buy my Westbahn tickets directly online.

The website is brilliant and intuitive. I remember the first time I used it how relieving it was after navigating the big websites of DB and ÖBB. To be fair, it is simple because Westbahn is a small train company that sells tickets only for itself.

However, you can also get any Westbahn ticket from a tobacconist (look out for the ubiquitous sign saying “Tabak Trafik”). In addition, Westbahn have their own WESTshops at major stations they serve. Here you can pay in cash and remain nameless, if anonymity matters to you.

Get Vienna to Salzburg Train tickets here

Tabak Trafik sign in Austria. A user-friendly offline way to get Westbahn tickets and pay for them in cash.

Westbahn in the scheme of things

Westbahn started in 2011 and have been at it for 8 years now. After much growing pains, they have broken even, and I hope they shall be with us for a long time yet.

It was Westbahn who first ran trains in Austria with WiFi. Until then, the Austrian Railway state operator ÖBB had been banging on about how difficult it was to install WiFi and they couldn’t do it, etc. etc.

As soon as Westbahn rolled up with WiFi, ÖBB suddenly discovered that they could have WiFi after all. ÖBB also offered more special deals and even more frequent trains between Salzburg and Vienna.

Thus even people who never used Westbahn benefitted from Westbahn’s entry on the Salzburg-Vienna line.

Westbahn vs ÖBB Railjet

Westbahn’s greatest advantage is that they give you flexible travel at a reasonable price. For spontaneous train trips between Salzburg and Vienna, you’re most likely to get a better deal on Westbahn.

If you have a pram or a wheelchair with you, the wide doors and low entrances are also more convenient than the high floor on, say, ÖBB’s Railjet. The Railjet is the most hostile train I can think of for people with prams due to its high floors and restricted pram space. Want to go first class on the Railjet with your pram? You’re out of luck. Pram space is at the other end of the train, deep inside the second class.

The second class on the Westbahn is much nicer than the second class on the Railjet. On the Westbahn you get leather seats and carpeted floors, on the Railjet you have drab linoleum and depressing frozen-spinach green seats.

So the Westbahn is best for:

  1. Prams and wheelchairs
  2. short-notice trips
  3. comfortable and stylish second class ambience
  4. easy tickets

However, the Railjet is better for:

  1. Longer journeys (say, Munich-Budapest)
  2. Long distance promo deals (I got first class Budapest-Munich for €45 from the Hungarian Railways)
  3. People who value a dining car
  4. the Business Class. The business class on the Railjet is fabulous.

Surviving deregulated rail

The Westbahn in Austria is an example of competition making rail services better – better meaning more trains, better service, lower prices.

The downside is that we, the customers, have to do more thinking, researching and deciding. We also have to get onto the right train. No more sleepwalking.

I spent six months in Belarus, where there was only one state operator for everything except mobiles, where there were two. I loved how my life was devoid of irrelevant, meaningless decisions I had to make. I could turn my beautiful mind towards things that mattered.

However, we don’t live in the red star’s white dwarf. And if we don’t know about the special deals out there from competing companies, we end up paying too much for bad service. And perhaps paying too much and ending up on the wrong train.

With this post, I hope I have helped you understand your options between Salzburg and Vienna by train, as well as beyond the two cities.

I heartily recommend giving Westbahn a try. I loved every single journey. Between Vienna and Salzburg it is my preferred train.

All the pictures were taken by my brother Hector, who is studying Art at the Hochschule für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna. You are most welcome. Check out his Instagram profile: @ettoreschofield

Nightjet; Night Train; EuroNight
Dec 14

Nightjet: 17 Lines of Night Train Awesomeness

By Edward | Night Trains

Have you heard of the Nightjet? 

The Nightjet is an overnight train service.

Night trains differ all over the world. This post is about a particular brand of night trains in Europe, the Nightjet. What they are like, where they go and how to get tickets.

I hesitated for a long time about putting you through my take on the Nightjet.

Why? Because I’m too involved in night trains. I worked on them for six years. Night trains are my thang. I know so much that it is insanely hard to keep it short.

And the temptation is huge to descend into endless tales of my adventures.

Endless tales of my adventures

  • The time in Venice I drank two litres of Tocai on the hotel roof and the alarm clock fairy set my alarm for me.
  • My Milan-Munich couchette with 50 Albanians from the same village.
  • The time the Austrian police arrested a refugee family off my couchette. They wouldn’t let the little boy keep his balloon.
  • The time at Stuttgart at 2 AM the police brought me a man and his 5 year old daughter. The man was so drunk he couldn’t get onto the train. The girl had her little orange bucket and pink spade from that day’s Bodensee outing.
  • Meeting my wife on platform 3 at Roma Termini.
  • Taking her to Milan with me in the guard’s van, just because I could.

But I digress.

Nightjet Euronight Night Train

Nightjet Sleeping Car

Nightjet Basics

First, some absolute basics.

Night trains are not just trains that run at night. Any train can run at night. Night trains are trains that cover vast distances over night, with beds and bunks in which you can sleep.  

There is also an attendant who ensures your safety.

Most continental European night trains have three types of carriage

  • seated cars, like on day trains. These are the cheapest, least comfortable option for a long journey over night. Fine if you have a compartment to yourself. Not fine if it is you and five other smelly people.
  • couchettes (say: cooSHET). From the French “to lie down”. Carriages with four or six bunks per compartment in which you can take your trip lying down. Think hostel on wheels. Cheap, but you do get to sleep.
  • sleeping cars. Your hotel on wheels. One, two or three proper beds stacked over each other in one compartment. The compartment has a wash basin or even an en-suite bathroom.

Nightjet; Night Train; EuroNight

Nightjet Couchette Car

Enter the Nightjets

The Nightjets are trains like this. Here is a link to their website with 360° views of all types of carriage. The Nightjet is a network of overnight train services run by the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB – Österreichische Bundesbahnen) in Central Europe.

It has its hub in Austria. The Nightjets go to the most glamourous cities in Europe: Vienna, Berlin, and Hamburg as well as Rome, Venice and Milan. They also serve Zürich, Düsseldorf and Cologne.

In 2019 Brussels was added, and in 2020 the Nightjet is expected to reach Amsterdam.

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What is the difference between Nightjets and EuroNights?

Very little. EuroNights are international night express trains that have a high service level. Great comfort, few stops, high(-ish) speed. EuroNight isn’t a brand, it is a service standard. “Make your train like this, then you can call it a EuroNight”. They used to run all over continental Europe, but there are fewer of them these days.

The Nightjet is a better EuroNight. 

In some countries it crosses, the departure boards display it as a EuroNight. The difference is that the Austrian Railways have branded “their” EuroNights. They have special livery, extensive marketing and a higher service level.  All coaches are air-conditioned and the attendants have Sound-of-Music uniforms.

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Nightjet Destinations

Here is a map of all the Nightjet services. As you can see, its hub is in Austria.

The Nightjet network as of 15th December 2019.

Nightjet: How to get the best tickets

These are the easiest ways to get Nightjet tickets:

  • You can buy Nightjet tickets online. I favour nightjet.com and oebb.at. They are the same booking engine, run by ÖBB directly. I’ve always got the best deal from them.
  • Or download the ÖBB app. You can buy your ticket within the app. Then you can show your attendant a QR code.
  • The 1890s way to get tickets. Buy them at a ticket office or a licensed agent. However, not all of them can get you special promo deals. Thus you may end up paying more than necessary. Of course, nothing beats a real paper ticket to treasure as a memento.
  • Here is the full breakdown of everywhere you can get tickets.

You can get your ticket up to six months in advance. The earlier you buy them, the cheaper they’ll be.

Nightjet Ticket Prices

The Nightjet has a dynamic pricing system. Below you will find the cheapest rates for all categories. I can’t book six months in advance because I don’t plan my journeys that far ahead. But if you do, you can get your berth for one of these prices.

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The cheapest prices on the Nightjet

The cheapest Nightjet prices

I booked my last sleeper about two weeks in advance and paid €204 for a single deluxe sleeper. 

As you can see, going by Nightjet is more expensive than going on a day train. But it is more work to run a night train. I gladly paid €204 so as not to use up a precious day of leave trapped in an overfilled, late ICE train with a toddler.

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Nightjet with a Eurail or Interrail pass

The Eurail and Interrail pass is accepted on the Nightjet.

However:

You need to reserve a berth on the Nightjet. It is now possible to do this online: check out my extra post aboutNightjets and Rail Passes.

Or do it at a ticket office, or over the phone under +43 5 1717-3.

Nightjet Eurail Interrail

What you pay on the Nightjet if you have a Eurail or Interrail pass

Newrest Wagons-Lits: Inventors of the Orient Express

Now about the staff in the Sound-of-Music uniforms:

The people working on the service are not Austrian Railways’ staff. They work for the subcontractor the Austrians have retained to run these trains.

I haven’t got a single decent picture of the Sound-of-Music uniform. You’ll have to see for yourself.

So far, so sleazy, right?

No!

bottle of water

The free water you get on the Nightjet couchette and sleeper

In fact Newrest Wagons-Lits is the original night train company. In 1872 their founder, the Belgian Georges Nagelmackers, introduced the first sleeping car in Europe. He founded the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL) and went on to invent the Orient Express.

Wash room Night Train

A wash room at the end of the corridor on a Nightjet couchette

In its heyday CIWL owned sleeping- and dining cars that travelled from Lisbon to Saint Petersburg and from London to Constantinople.

This is how famous they are.

After World War II the company declined and was bought and sold several times, losing its own carriages along the way.

Power outlet

Socket in Nightjet couchette

Although Newrest Wagons-Lits may only be a white dwarf after the star that was CIWL, they still trace their lineage back to the very zenith of the Grand European Expresses. They are the real thing.

I think it is fantastic that the Nightjets hark back to such a glorious past.

Sitting up or lying down?

The Nightjet has three main types of carriage. There is only one type of seating car I know of, two types of couchette, and two models of sleeper carriage. Here come descriptions of the coaches used on most lines.

A happy and cheap way to travel

In Europe, compartments in seated carriages are disappearing. It’s saloon everywhere. However, not so on the Nightjet. On the Nightjet the compartment rules.

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When I was little an air trip was something so rare you got dressed up for it. The norm was to go by train and boat.

Seated Car on European Night Train

Nightjet Seated Car Interior

So when I was four my mother and I went to England by train to Oostende and jet-foil to Ramsgate.

I remember the orange seats on the train and that we pulled them out a long way. This gave us a huge surface to lie on. That was how we spent the night.

A huge communal mattress

And this is a great thing. The Nightjet seated carriages still have these seats you can pull out. And this gets you a mattress that takes up the entire compartment.

Seated Car on European Night train

The communal mattress in action

This is most comfortable if there are two or three of you. And less so if you are six, as you have to lie like sardines with your feet in each other’s faces. Perhaps your Interrail-feet.

ÖBB allow you to book an entire seated compartment for yourself, even if it is just two or three of you. This is a fantastic idea. Your compartment is marked with a big notice “private compartment” in German, English and Italian.

buy diamond painting cross stitch kits and get the best deals at the lowest prices. Seat Car on European Night Train

More communal mattress. Notice the sockets above the rubbish bin

In Italy, the Nightjets to Rome and Milan are part of Trenitalia’s Intercity network – that means that commuters and other internal passengers get into the seated cars. 

If you haven’t booked a private compartment, expect to find your seat occupied. Be ready to insist on the occupant moving. This is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Just say: Scusi, è il mio posto. (SCOOzy, eh il MEEo POsto).

European Night Train Seated Car

The seated car from the outside

There is no breakfast included in the seated car, so bring something with you or buy something from the staff.

Good couchettes and bad couchettes

Couchettes are a good thing. A couchette is the minimum level of comfort you should go for. They are cheap, and you get to sleep.

NIghtjet EuroNight Night Train Europe

Lower bunk in Nightjet couchette

But.

It is possible that the younger you are, the better you will sleep in them. 

NIghtjet EuroNight Night Train Europe

Upper berth on a Nightjet couchette

On my recent couchette trips on the Nightjet, I found the bunk very hard. I also hated the way it sloped towards the wall.

Fortunately, they are going to be phased out, starting 2021. ÖBB are working on new couchettes. They  allow more privacy and comfort. Here is what these are going to look like.

Nightjet couchette

Nightjet six-couchette setup

The Nightjet also has some old German couchettes with blue bunks. ÖBB snaffled these after DB took down its night network. These are softer and flatter. They usually run on the Vienna-Zurich and Zurich-Berlin lines. I’ve always slept well on those.

What I can say is this: on every one of my trips, the couchettes were pristine. Everything clean and fragrant and working.​​​​

Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

Freshly wiped floors in a Nightjet couchette

And believe me, it is hard work keeping trains clean and working.

Again, ÖBB allow you to book yourself a whole compartment for a flat fee. Even in Italy this will definitely be yours all the way. I have done this before and it is a great idea.

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The feeling is wonderful to look forward to your trip and know that you won’t have a stinker or a snorer in your compartment.

On Nightjet couchettes breakfast is included. Coffee or tea, two rolls, butter (NOT margarine!) and jam. Most definitely the best couchette breakfast there is.

Sleeper

I know the Nightjet sleepers because I worked on this equipment for six years.

Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

Freshly made bed in Nightjet sleeper

Before they ran for the Nightjet, the carriages belonged to Deutsche Bahn. As a Deutsche Bahn night train manager, I got to know them well. In 2016, Deutsche Bahn closed down its night trains and sold the cars to ÖBB.

Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

Freshly made bed on Nightjet sleeper

Every time I worked as an attendant in a sleeping car, I drew a little line in a secret place – so that I would know how often I had had this car. Now these carriages roam Europe without me, but my marks are still there.

Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

Yet another freshly made Nightjet sleeper bed

The Nightjet sleeping cars are only about 15 years old – new by rail standards.

Each carriage has twelve compartments with three beds. Nine compartments are standard, with a wash basin. Three compartments are “deluxe” with an en-suite loo and shower.

As I wrote in myviral tweet:

It only costs a tiny bit more for the deluxe option: between €10 and €20 per berth, but it is SO worth it. Because: 

  • You have more space. 
  • If you wake up at 3:37 AM and sort of feel you might need a pee, you just go to your en-suite loo. 
  • No obsessing about whether to get dressed and go to the loo at the end of the corridor or trying to sleep against your bladder.
  • Showers are also a good thing

Bed on Nightjet sleeping car

Another Nightjet sleeper bed

The carriages have pneumatic suspension (the car body lies on air cushions, rather than springs), and this makes for a smooth and silent ride. 

They are awesome.

An extensive breakfast is included, which I shall elaborate below.

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Want to use the Nightjet in your wheelchair?

Nearly all Nightjets have a compartment for people in wheelchairs, with walking frames or who have other special needs, such as sleep apnoea.

Wheelchair Nightjet PRM

The Nightjet wheelchair compartment

This is a lovely, spacious compartment with two beds in it – one for you and one for whoever is accompanying you. The wheelchair-accessible loo is next door. 

Wheelchair accessible compartment

The two beds in the wheelchair-accessible compartment

There is only one of these per trainset, so it is best to book it as far in advance as possible, but at least 48 hrs beforehand. By the following means:

Nightjet: A trip worth every cent of €204

I go to great lengths for you, my reader. One of these lengths is to book myself a single deluxe sleeper and travel in it. For added difficulty, I took my baby daughter with me. With a buggy.

Toddler sitting on bed

Oh this again 

 

All so I could report back to you what it is like to go on the Nightjet, and what the service is like. After all, I have worked on trains like this, so I should know, right? Well, maybe.

Getting on

We managed to get on. Somehow. In spite of all my experience, I managed to fluff getting onto the train with a buggy. Buggies and prams cause absolute mayhem on trains. I hate them. This isn’t ÖBB’s fault.

Sidetrack: since going to Bulgaria and back by train with a pram, I’ve come to love low-entry, wide-door trains. From Bucharest to Ruse I had one of those and it was such a relief not having to dismantle the pram. 

Prams shouldn’t be anywhere near trains. As a train manager, one of my worst nightmares is the Eurocopter/SUV-style pram stuck in the corridor, with a throng of people trapped behind it.

Going to bed

The attendant had everything ready, including a small bottle of Prosecco.

I found a goodie bag which I liked so much I took it home untouched (apart from the prosecco. I guzzled that immediately). I took it home untouched and decided to do an unboxing video for you. Here it is. Don’t laugh, and please don’t cry, either.

Nightjet Goodie Bag Unboxing Video

 

There are all sorts of lovely little things in the goodie bag that make you feel pampered.

  • Slippers
  • a nice Nightjet towel
  • ear plugs
  • a refreshing wipe
  • little pretzels to go with your drink
  • a squeezy fruit thing

The breakfast interrogation

When I worked on sleepers, asking 30 people what they wanted for breakfast was tedious and took ages. 

After getting on to the sleeper, I found the following questionnaire, which I duly filled out. A very clever idea.

Nightjet Breakfast Menu

This leaflet is in German, English and Italian. Tick whatever you want. Brilliant.

I ticked all the stuff I liked and that I thought a toddler can eat and handed the form to the attendant. Then we were left to ourselves.

By now we were whooshing through the Rhine valley. By day, the Rhine valley railway is a wonderful trip. At night it is even more beautiful. The moon and the lights from the opposite embankment reflecting on the waves, the dark hills drifting under the stars.

Toddler on Nightjet bed

She loved the night light. On. Off. On. Off. On. Off. On. Off. On. Off. On.

I needed all of the space of the deluxe compartment. It isn’t huge. Furthermore, baby stuff spreads out so quickly. I jammed the collapsed buggy and luggage into the nook behind the en-suite bathroom.

In the sleepers, luggage can go underneath the bottom bed, or in the baggage racks. These are high up. Try and have as little luggage with you as possible. In the smaller of the standard compartments (11-15, 12-16, 21-25, 22-26, 61-65 and 62-66) a big suitcase won’t fit anywhere. It ends up blocking the floor.

Toddler asleep on Nightjet

She slept all night in this bed

Getting up and out

As always when I am on a night train, we were bang on time. I was woken up with a knock 45 minutes before we arrived.

The Nightjets have lots of extra time in their timetables. Firstly, so that you don’t arrive at 4 AM, and secondly so that if the train is delayed it can catch up again. For this reason, the Nightjet stands about in sidings in the middle of the night quite a bit. If you notice you’re not moving, don’t worry. Everything is probably fine.

My breakfast pictures didn’t turn out. However, my good friend from Twitter, @_DiningCar, helped me out and sent me this lovely picture:

Breakfast on the Nightjet

Breakfast on the Nightjet, photographed by my friend @_DiningCar. Check out his wonderful channel on Twitter

What I think of breakfast in sleepers

I’ve already written this in my post on Astra Trans Carpatic: I think breakfast is a waste of time, money and food. I’ve seen so much thrown away. I favour the Slovak model of weapons-grade instant coffee and Tatranký waffle bar.

However: The Nightjet breakfast is nice. The selection is staggering, and all the food is above-average quality. Even fussy people can find something on the breakfast menu. I think Newrest Wagons-Lits (the people working on the Nightjets, in case you skipped the Newrest chapter) have made a huge effort. It has paid off and they deserve credit for it.

The breakfast I served on the CityNightLine (Deutsche Bahn’s moribund night train network) was not nearly as nice. Lucky passengers.

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What I think of the Nightjets

For two decades since the 1990s, the night trains in Europe have taken one beating after another. Railway company after railway company abandoned them. The Swiss, everybody’s darling when it comes to rail travel, were among the first. Then in 2016 Deutsche Bahn finally axed its own CityNightLine network, after sabotaging it for years.

The Austrian Railways picked up the pieces of the CityNightLine and put it together with their own EuroNight network.

But not just that: they did much more. They devised a vibrant new brand, a fuck-off marketing strategy and lots of new ideas to accommodate 21st century tastes (e.g. the private compartments). In its very first year, the Nightjet network made money for ÖBB. 

Nightjet Advert on Tram

Fuck-off marketing strategy: Nightjet advert on entire tram car in Bratislava – well within Vienna Hbf’s catchment area. Courtesy of my friend Martin Pavlík

The Austrians have proven that it is possible to run exciting, modern night trains as a sustainable, profitable business. 

Excitement and Indulgence

The Nightjet gives you that feeling of excitement and indulgence so lacking on most modern trains. From the moment you buy your ticket to the end of your journey you feel the tingle of European overnight adventure, even if it is from one boring German city to another.

This is why it is worth going on the Nightjet at every possible opportunity.

Have another look at Nightjet.com and see when it next fits your plans.

Flixtrain
Nov 30

Flixtrain: No Frills, Max Thrills

By Edward | Day Trains

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Introducing the Flixtrain

You may have heard about the Flixtrain. The Flixtrain is a train service that is marketed by Flixbus, in competition with Deutsche Bahn.

Maybe you've been wondering how to use them. It isn't straightforward, as the Flixtrains operate totally outside the normal rail ticketing systems.

This post is to clear all this up. When you have finished you will know everything you need to know about how to use Flixtrain.

Flixtrain engine

Flixtrain "Vectron" engine at Cologne depot

Who are Flixbus, anyway?

In 2013 the German government, clutching at straws to support Germany's bloated and obsolete motor industry, deregulated long-distance coach travel by scrapping a law from 1935 (a Nazi law) that had made it very difficult to run long-distance coach services. This law was in place to protect the national rail operator.

It worked: coach companies mushroomed and there was a surge in orders for coaches.

How to Use Flixtrain

The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain at Hamburg-Altona railway station

Fast forward and the fastest and most furious start-up in the barrel has eaten up the competition and escaped: Flixbus. Now it is on a rampage across Europe and North America.

Flixbus see themselves as the Google of mass transit and only actually own one bus. They need it to call themselves a bus company. Flixbus work with subcontractors. Imagine Uber with buses. And now trains.

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Where do the Flixtrains go?

Flixtrain is working diligently to expand its network. The carriages it uses (RIC standard gauge) can go almost everywhere in continental Europe. As I write, there are Flixtrain services in Germany and Sweden. Flixtrain came close to launching in France, but were frustrated by the insane track access charges.

Flixtrain in Germany

The Flixtrain lines in Germany now form a veritable network. There are five lines: 

  • FLX 10: Berlin-Frankfurt-Stuttgart-Basel
  • FLX 15: Hamburg-Frankfurt-Stuttgart
  • FLX 20: Hamburg-Cologne
  • FLX30: Leipzig/Dresden-Berlin-Hanover-Cologne-Aachen
  • FLX35: Hamburg-Berlin-Leipzig

Bear in mind, these trains all link up with Flixbus services, so you can get a lot further using only Flix.

FlixTrain's network in Germany

Flixtrain in Sweden

Flixtrain also has what it calls a network in Sweden. This is currently one line from Göteborg to Stockholm.

Flixtrain's Swedish line

Onbord services offered by Flixtrain

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Wireless Internet

Wireless internet is a Flixbus non-negotiable. When their buses started to run they were famous for it, and it is arguably Flixbus that forced Deutsche Bahn to get off its complacent arse and make free WiFi available on all ICE trains, even in second class - long after it was standard in such advanced places as Slovakia.

On a side note, something similar happened in Austria when the Westbahn went into service in 2011 - WiFi was their thang. Just a few months later, ÖBB discovered they could make WiFi work on their Railjets after all

Not only do they have WiFi, they also now have a reasonable entertainment portal with films and series.

Power for your devices

Another Flix-Must is sockets for charging your phone and laptop. All places are equipped with power outlets.

Flixtrain Power outlet for charging your devices

Power outlet on Flixtrain with both 220V and USB-A sockets

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Seat reservations on Flixtrain

Flixtrain's seat numbering system reflects their coach mentality. It organises the seats into rows with numbers and seats A-D, like on a plane.

I didn't like it at first, but now I'm, like, whatever works.

Flixtrain reservation

Flixtrains seat numbering system

Note that beyond the seat numbers there is no indication that any particular seat is reserved. There is no electronic display or paper slip showing if a seat is actually reserved

What are the Flixtrains like?

Flixtrain now runs with a fleet of over 100 refurbished intercity carriages. They are capable of seating 100 people per carriage and can go as fast as 200 km/h (125mph).

Proven and robust technology

The main frames and chassis of the carriages are built in the 1960s and 1970s. They received new interior design in the late 1980s from Deutsche Bundesbahn (the ceiling from that refurb is still there, albeit painted). Then Flixtrain had the old seating removed and replaced with tightly packed new rows of new seats. They also updated the panelling to today's colour preferences.

What are flixtrains like?

Flixtrain carriage interior

Thin and upright

The seats I find quite comfortable. Personally, I prefer them to the ones on the ICE4. They are thin and without any reclining function. Upholstery is grey cloth, not slippery. The headrest is green synthetic leather.

What are Flixtrains like?

Flixtrain seats with grey fabric and green synthetic leather headrests

There is an arm rest, and each seat has a power outlet for your devices (see above).

Flixtrain carriages inside pictures

Leg room is OK if you are not too tall

The leg room is not overwhelming, but it is better than on most budget airlines. I'm 180cm tall, and here are my long legs.

Biological air conditioning with zero carbon footprint

One of the more unusual features of the Flixtrain is that it still has windows you can open - if only about 8 cm. Enough to let in fresh air, not enough for you to stick your head out.

In most Flixtrain carriages, this is the only ventilation there is. There is no air-conditioning. The good thing about this is that the a/c can't break down if it doesn't exist. Windows are a 100% dependable source of fresh air.

The problems begin in hot and humid weather. If you are trapped in a siding outside Darmstadt in the scorching sun, it gets uncomfortable. Even worse is if everyone gets on out of a summer rain and the windows are closed because it is coming down in buckets. Then it is like a greenhouse. 

Flixtrain window

Flixtrain's innovative Zero-Carbon ozone friendly air conditioner

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Great! So how can I get Flixtrain tickets?

Flixtrain tickets are not sold by the usual railway ticket offices. In fact, as mentioned earlier, the Flixtrains operate completely outside the pan-European ticketing system. No DB tickets are valid on Flixtrains, no Eurail or Interrail passes.

The Flixtrain appears in DB Navigator and bahn.de searches. DB will even sell you tickets for itineraries that include the Flixtrain. BUT: No DB ticket is ever valid for the Flixtrain. Ever.

Buying Flixtrain tickets online

Flixtrain tickets are easiest bought online. 

Flixbus's ticketing system is wonderfully easy to use. You can buy tickets online on their website, or download the Flixtrain app from the Apple or Google Play store. You don't have to set up an account (though that does make future bookings easier) and Flix accepts all kinds of electronic payment.

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You are issued with a QR code, either within the app, or as a ticket you can either print out or simply show on your mobile device. Having been on the inspecting end of this system, I have to hand it to Flixbus: it is a wonderful system, so easy to use. It is brilliant.

What I particularly like is that Flixbus has gone to the trouble of having its system in 35 European languages, including Macedonian and Catalan. You can even pay in Ukrainian Hryvnyas if you so choose.

Right. Any way of buying Flixtrain tickets offline?

I'm glad you ask. You can get Flixtrain tickets at most major coach-stations (bear with me). 

However, there is an increasing number of kiosks, newsagents and tobacconists that sell Flixbus and Flixtrain tickets. Look out for the Flixbus sign.

Another offline sales point is at Penny Markt. Penny is a German supermarket chain with a dense network of shops. It is more convenient to go to Penny than to the coach station.

Penny Markt Flixtrain

At any Penny Markt, go to the service terminal. 1. Enter your travel data. 2. Retrieve voucher. 3. Take voucher to cash desk, pay for your ticket. It is issued on thermal paper AND by email.

So how much do Flixtrain tickets cost?

Flixtrain claim on their own website that prices begin from €4,99. I'm sure there are one or two tickets to be had at that price, too.

A more reasonable price span is €20-€50, depending on how early you book and how busy the train is.

Is Flixtrain really competition?

This is what I think of Flixtrains:

Carriages

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Flixtrain Greenpeace

Flixtrains run on 100% renewable power

Why it is viable

Flixbus's concept offers something that no other privately-run train operator has been able to muster: a train service that is part of a greater network. 

Deutsche Bahn's ICEs and ICs are fed by regional trains and S-Bahns, and Deutsche Bahn can sell you a reasonably priced ticket for the whole journey. They can even rent a car out to you at your destination.

Flixtrains are fed by, and feed, Flixbuses. Together they form a network. Flixbus can sell you a ticket that begins on a bus, goes on to a train, then back onto another bus. Though Flixtrains run isolated from the other trains, they are closely knit into the Flixbus network. And this generates the critical mass of passengers needed to sustain a train service.

The return of third class travel 

Deutsche Bahn's newest trains have soft LED-lighting that adjusts to the time of day even in the second class, fair trade coffee and organic salads. In doing so, they have left a huge market behind. 

Flixtrain is bringing back basic train travel, at a time when it is desperately needed. There is nothing wrong with that. In France, SNCF are doing the same with their OUIGO trains.

Lots of people welcome this - students, pensioners, even business travellers.

Flixtrain Sunrise

Flixtrain going forth towards the rising sun

Flixtrain gets its people from one place to another reasonably comfortably, at a reasonable speed and at a reasonable price.

For this reason, it is hard to see Flixtrain as competition for Deutsche Bahn because a sizeable amount of the Flixtrain customers never used Deutsche Bahn's trains in the first place. 

Flixtrain is opening train travel to people who never went by train, and that is fantastic

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Give it a try

Now we've reached the end of this post. I hope you have enjoyed it.

Flixtrain is one of the most exciting developments so far on the European fast-train market. In some countries like Austria, Italy and Czechia there is competition on the railways. I reviewed new Romanian operator Astra Trans Carpatic in another.

In Germany, so far, competition has failed. Germany, with its huge motor lobby, is a hostile environment for anyone wanting to run trains. Now Flixbus, of all people, have entered the train market with a singular focus on low prices, and combined with their extensive bus network it looks as if the Flixtrains have come to stay. At least for the next few years.

Flixtrain Nightjet

Flixtrain waiting at Cologne depot

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Bogie change at Ukrainian border
Oct 31

The Future of Night Trains: at the Back on Track EU Conference in Hamburg

By Edward | Night Trains

This lovely image with the Polish night train at Kraków station is courtesy and © of my friend Martin Pavlík.

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Sup, Night Trains?

The Future of Night Trains was the main topic at the recent Back-On-Track EU conference in Hamburg. Back-On-Track.EU hosted it together with a group called Prellbock Altona, who are running a successful campaign to prevent Hamburg-Altona station from being demolished and relocated into the sticks at Hamburg-Diebsteich.

I've known Joachim Holstein, the organiser, since our nights at CityNightLine, Deutsche Bahn's night train service..

Neither of us have come to terms with our CityNightLine trains being closed down. I started this blog, Joachim started his NGO, Back-On-Track.EU for propagating night trains. Joachim fought like a lion to stop DB closing down CityNightLine. 

  • He dragged the managers in front of parliament multiple times
  • He uncovered the fudged statistics DB was using to make the CityNightLine look like a basket case
  • all to no avail.
Altona old station

This building was Altona's first main station in the 19th century. What better place to have a conference about trains?

Me as spontaneous interpreter

Joachim asked me if I'd like to tag along and perhaps do the odd translation. I ended up interpreting the three hour panel discussion in English and German from start to finish.

This year's Back-On-Track.EU conference featured a cool panel with

  • Patrik Nylander from the Swedish Ministry of Transport, 
  • Karima Delli, French Green MEP and president of the Commission on Transport and Tourism at the European Parliament (whose train from Paris was a staggering four. hours. late.)
  • Nick Brooks, Secretary General of ALLRAIL, the alliance of Rail New Entrants
  • Bernhard Knierim, representing the German grassroots organisation Bahn für Alle (Rail for all)
  • Carl Süß from #FridaysForFuture
  • Sven Pöllauer, ÖBB official, representing the biggest night train operator in Europe
The panellists were there to discuss from their various viewpoints what is to be done about night trains and how to get them back on track. 

All in all it is 14 videos. I include here Joachim's introduction in English. The panel discussion is in the first six videos.


And here, for shameless self-promotion purposes, is the part where I come in.


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Sorry, Ed, I can't watch three hours of videos!?!

Of course you can't.

Here's the gist of the panel discussion:

  • Patrik Nylander, the Swedish civil servant, spoke about the Swedish government's efforts to promote the future of night trains from Sweden to the continent. There are studies and commissions working on the most feasible model

    • should the Swedish government simply buy trains and pay someone to run them?
    • should they tender?
    • There are many regulatory and technical hurdles that complicate the running of international night trains. Example: Swedish trains are bigger and wider than continental European or indeed British trains.
    • How should modern night trains even be configured to accommodate today's tastes?
  • Sven Pöllauer, the Austrian Railways representative, thanked Back-On-Track for its support and spoke about ÖBB's ongoing commitment to the future of night trains and impending plans

    • ÖBB is spending €200m on new Nightjet stock with all mod cons
    • From January 2020, there will be a twice-weekly Nightjet service from Vienna to Brussels and back
    • From January 2021, there will be a Nightjet from Vienna to Amsterdam
    • You don't get rich running night trains, but if you do it well, you can run it as a sustainable business. Nightjets are regularly booked out.
  • Nick Brooks, the Secretary General of ALLRAIL, the new rail entrants' lobbyist spoke about how open access and competition can help revitalise night trains

    • If governments (like the Swedish) want night trains, they should definitely put them out to tender as the service will be cheaper and better.
    • There has to be competition among rail companies so that trains per se will become more competitive against planes and cars
    • Access to rolling stock would make it easier for new operators to start up night train services.
  • Bernhard Knierim, the Bahn für Alle man, spoke at length about the continued disadvantages trains face vs. planes and cars.

    • There is still no tax on flight fuel, but trains are taxed for their electricity and diesel
    • cars and coaches pay no toll on German motorways, yet trains have to pay track access charges
    • Booking train travel across Europe is not for the faint-of-heart. You need to know what you are doing
    • It must be possible to book all trains on one neutral platform. 
  • Carl Süß, the 16 year-old #FridaysForFuture youth, spoke for quite a while and made some valid points about night trains, astounding in their simplicity:

    • Its got to be easier to book trains. It should be as easy to book a train as it is to book a plane
    • trains have got to be cheaper
    • they have got to get better: the loos have to work and they have to run on time.
  • Karima Delli, the MEP, couldn't say anything about the Future of Night Trains as she was still trapped inside an ICE somewhere between Hanover and Hamburg. A tree had come down on her line. The blame for this can be put squarely at DB's feet for neglecting vegetation. 

Every time there is a major storm in Germany the German rail network grinds to a halt because trees along the lines have been ignored for too long and come down on the lines.

So, how does the future of night trains look?

Here is my understanding of what we can agree on:

The political climate is changing

Thanks to Greta Thunberg and #flygskam, a new urgency has been injected into trains vs. planes.

  • Sweden is already taking real steps to foster night trains. 
  • Everyone knows we are going to have to go more by train and less by plane.
  • For very long distances, the night train would be perfect.

So the next few years are going to be exciting.

National hurdles must come down

In the European Union, and in Europe beyond the EU, it is insane that every national carrier is working away on its own. Indeed, some of them have spent the last two decades sabotaging each other.

  • Track access has to come down and be harmonised across the EU
  • Approval, regulations and standards have to be unified. At the moment any given train has to conform to the regulations of every country it passes through.
My thoughts on this: We already had (and indeed still have) unified standards. Any RIC carriage can roam across the RIC railways. Nightjets use RIC carriages and FlixTrain is also concentrating all efforts on RIC carriages. It is just that in the market dominated by SNCF and DB, very-high-speed trains have been the flavour of the month. Locomotive-hauled RIC carriages have been unfashionable, in spite of their top speed of 200km/h.

Booking must become easier

  • There has to be a unified booking engine that can sell you one ticket from one end of Europe to the other, irrespective of which operator's train you are on
My thoughts: This also used to exist. In a world with only national carriers it worked. Now there are lots more operators offering super-cheap promo deals. There will never be "the one" booking engine for all operators. The sooner we accept that and move on, the better. There are already quite powerful booking engines (Trainline, Omio, Loco2) that have astounding reach. But they can't access all operators and their edgier promo deals.

By the way, this blog is all about travelling Europe by train and getting the best tickets. Consider subscribing. It is absolutely free and will make you a smarter rail traveller.

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The Nightjet is expanding

Austrian Railways are the most exciting thing in night trains right now:

  • They've got new night trains in the pipeline
  • from January 2020 they will be running twice-weekly between Vienna and Brussels
  • From January 2021 Amsterdam will be attached to the Nightjet network

More of my Thoughts: Private vs. Public

Flixtrain Nightjet

Flixtrain waiting at Cologne depot next to Nightjet

I used to be firmly in the national railways camp. Private was the devil.

Now I'm much more "whatever works". I want people to have attractive trains, and lots of them.

National carriers Deutsche Bahn and SNCF between them have destroyed a once vast night train network. While it is true that deregulated air travel has damaged international rail travel, DB and SNCF went out of their way to take down international night trains.

On the other hand Austrian national carrier ÖBB is running night trains at a European level, and doing it well. Russian Railways currently run the only night trains between Paris and Berlin and Berlin and Warsaw.

Russian Railways @RuRailways run the only direct train between Paris and Berlin and Warsaw. Makes yer think.

Click to Tweet
Astra Trans Carpatic Review

The yellow-green livery of Astra Trans Carpatic

Meanwhile, private companies RegioJet in Czechia and Slovakia, and Astra Trans Carpatic in Romania have launched competitive and exciting night train services in their countries. TransKlassServis has interesting propositions in Russia.

I would also watch FlixTrain: They have ambitious plans to roll out FlixTrains across Europe, using tried-and-tested RIC carriages. I believe that FlixTrain is going to make the likes of DB and SNCF look very silly very soon.

Now what?

For further reading, have a look at my Nightjet and Astra Trans Carpatic posts. Or subscribe to my blog for the password to my e-guide library and my sporadic emails about train travel in Europe.

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Nightjet + Eurail
Oct 16

Nightjet + Eurail Pass: How to Book Online

By Edward | Night Trains

First off: For “Eurail”, read “Eurail or Interrail”. I can’t be bothered to keep naming the two individually. For the purposes of this post, Eurail and Interrail are the same. Both are rail passes. Interrail is issued to people who live in Europe, Eurail is issued to people who don’t live in Europe.

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If you have a Eurail pass, your life just got much easier.

Recently Austrian Railways made it possible for Eurail pass holders to book Nightjet supplements (seat reservations, or couchette or sleeper berths) online through their online booking engine. Several Euronight connections are also available.

Before then pass holders could only book by phone or on the ground at the ticket office. A terrible hassle it was, especially if you lived in Paraguay.

So it is thrilling news that you can at last book Nightjet berths in advance from the veranda of your Estancia as you sip Mate and watch your cows graze.

Nightjet + Eurail / Interrail Pass: 3 steps to your berth

1.

First of all, open up your browser and navigate to ÖBB’s ticket website. Start the search with your date and directions. 

ÖBB Tickets Online

Start by entering your travel date and time. At this stage you have nowhere to declare your rail pass. Don’t let this stop you.

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You will see a selection of prices. Normal prices that is.

Nightjet + Eurail Interrail

This is what you see. Now comes the time to add your discount.

2.

Now if you look at “Adult” there will be a little link saying “Change”. Click it.

 

After the first search, notice on the right the new field “Who is Going”, which shows “1 x adult” by default. Click “Change”

 

Now you can choose from a range of concessions. “Interrail / Eurail” comes last, when you have already given up hope. Select that concession.

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Nightjet + Eurail

To make things easy for you, ÖBB has hidden “Interrail / Eurail – Globalpass” at the bottom of a pile of irrelevant niche discounts

3.

Now search again. You will be shown much lower prices.

Nightjet + Eurail Interrail

And here you see your options after setting the discount to Interrail / Eurail Globalpass

After that you go on to select the berth you prefer.

Nightjet + Eurail Interrail

Add the €14 basic supplement to your basket, then go on to choose your berth

Other European Night Trains + Eurail / Interrail Pass

You can follow the same procedure for several other Euronight night trains with a shred of Austrian involvement: 

 

  • Berlin-Przemyśl 
  • Vienna-Bucharest
  • Munich-Zagreb
  • Zürich-Budapest
  • Vienna-Kiev (see below)

Eurail Travel days and Night Trains: How to get it right

While we are at it, let me just mention how to manifest night trains on your Eurail pass.

 

An overnight train starts its journey on the evening of one day and finishes it on the next day. Does that mean that a night train needs two Eurail pass travel days?

 

No, it doesn’t.

When using a night train with a Eurail pass, you only fill out one travel day: the day of departure. You get the morning after thrown in. Bam. Forget anything anyone ever told you about any 7 pm rule. The 7 pm rule is obsolete.

Ukraine by Eurail / Interrail pass

 

Many night trains leave Vienna every night. One goes to Ukraine – one of Europe’s most interesting countries. There is a daily sleeper train from Vienna via Budapest to L’viv and Kiev. 

 

The bad news is that Ukraine is not a Eurail country.

 

Thanks to the tireless work of dedicated ÖBB managers (see @vorortanleiter on Twitter), it is now possible to book the Vienna-Kiev sleeper online and get your Eurail pass counted up to the Ukrainian border.

Combining your Eurail pass with a standard ticket into Ukraine used to be an ordeal. Ticket-wise it was a yoga-position into which only the best ticket sellers could wrench themselves. You needed time and patience to coax your ticket out of them.

Lviv Opera house

I took this picture of L’viv Opera House on my Un-Interrail trip to Ukraine when I was 20. Oh man. That was 140 years ago. Things were all in sepia then.

 

Not anymore. Now you can book the whole thing online with ÖBB. And can make an elegant incursion into Ukraine to see L’viv or even Kiev.

 

L’viv is a gorgeous central European city with cobbles and trams and coffee houses, while Kiev is the ancient capital of Kievan Rus’, the Mother of Russian cities and now the sizzling centre of independent Ukraine. No Eurotrip should miss this exciting European country.

Ukraine with your Eurail Pass: 3 steps to your berth

1.

Navigate to ÖBBs ticket website. Enter the details for your query.

Vienna Lviv Eurail

So go and enter Wien – Lviv. Up comes this price.

Prices for the Ukrainian train are always the same. They include the berth in a sleeping car. You can choose between T3, Double or Single. See my Nightjet post for what this means.

2.

Now if you look at “Adult” there will be a little link saying “Change”. Click it.

VIenna Lviv Eurail

In the bit about “Who is going” click “change”.

Up pops the mask in which you can choose your relevant discount. Interrail/Eurail Globalpass is at the very bottom of a very long list. Type “Inter” in the search field, then it comes up straight away.

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Nightjet + Eurail

To make things easy for you, ÖBB has hidden “Interrail / Eurail – Globalpass” at the bottom of a pile of irrelevant niche discounts

3.

The system recalculates the prices. Because you have a Eurail pass, you already have a ticket for the Austro-Hungarian section of your journey. What you still have to pay for is your sleeper berth and the Ukrainian section. 

Vienna Lviv Eurail

After adding the Interrail / Eurail Globalpass you get a much more humane price. This is for a T3 sleeper

Add to your basket, decide if you want T3, Double or Single and proceed to checkout. ÖBB has the brains to show you the following friendly reminder:

Vienna Lviv Eurail

ÖBB make it clear you have to print out your ticket at a ticket machine or counter IN AUSTRIA

This is crucial. It means that if you book, say, L’viv-Vienna, you have to print out your ticket at an ÖBB ticket machine or counter.

Why do I need a sleeper?

The Vienna-Kiev train is in fact one or two Ukrainian sleeping cars that are attached to a series of trains heading east. This is why you have to book a sleeping car berth. There is no couchette or seated car option. On the up side, it is not expensive and you get a proper bed. 

You may have realised I love Ukraine. While my school pals went on an Interrail tour, I spent three weeks on Ukrainian trains between L’viv, the Crimea and Odessa. Check out my fellow blogger Megan Starr for in-depth work on Ukraine, Eastern Europe and the Nordic countries.

 

Further reading

 

If you want to read more about night trains in general, check out my Nightjet post or my Astra Trans Carpatic post. Or join over 1000 other smart rail travellers and subscribe to my blog to download my free e-guides.

Train to Prague
Sep 30

Můj vlak: Use this Sublime App for Cheapest Tickets

By Edward | Cheaper Tickets

Můj vlak: Czech Rail’s Amazing Train App


Czechia may be a small country. But it has a great railway. Perhaps even greater than the Swiss railway. Apart from superb and cheap day trains, České Drahy have night trains and proper dining cars. Little ČD rail buses ply the forests and hills and reach even the tiniest hamlets of this romantic Central European country. If you are headed for Prague by train, have a look at Můj vlak.


Můj vlak is the mobile app made by České Drahy. It runs on iPhones and Android phones. 


Můj vlak can be used in Czechia for buying České Drahy tickets and seat reservations. It can also sell you tickets beyond the Czech border - deep into Slovakia, Hungary and Germany.

Czech train in the Snow

Czechia is one of the few countries where you get to travel like this. © Martin Pavlík


How to set it up

  • Download Můj vlak from Google Play or the Apple App store. Out of the box, you can use it for timetable, train and station enquiries.
  • If you want to use it to buy tickets and seat reservations, you are going to need an account (click here to set one up now). This is possible both in the app or in an internet browser.
  • That's it. Můj vlak comes in Czech, English and German. You may have to adjust the language.


Main features

The main menu has four categories. Each category has a search mask of its own. ​​

Home screen in Můj vlak

Connections (Timetables)

The Connections section looks up connections across Europe. With an internet connection it is powerful. Můj vlak finds connections even in Russia (I hit it with Blagoveshchensk-Birobidzhan). It only gives up when you ask it something insane - “Tashkent Pass-Brest (*F)”

Muj Vlak Connections Mask

Connections search mask in Můj vlak


There is an extra menu in which you can specify your particular whims and fancies, such as “No ICE trains” or “via Orsha” or “Special and historic trains”. This is very detailed and immensely helpful if you want to zero in on a particular route.

Train

This is a beautiful function I haven’t seen anywhere else. You can enter the number or name of a particular train ("442", say, or "Poľana" - my favourite eastern escape train), upon which it shows that service, including its timetable, amenities and operator.

The closer to Czechia, the more detail, but it gets good results even in the near abroad.

Edit your caption text here

Station

This function is Czechia only. Enter a Czech station name and it shows you a map, a list of what there is at the station and how long it is open. Also which public transport lines stop at the station.

Czech Railcar Domazlice

Czech diesel railcar at Domazlice station. © Martin Pavlík


If travelling Czechia by rail this is a must have.

Tickets

For domestic Czech services this is home turf for Můj vlak. However, Můj vlak can furnish you with lots of tickets into or out of the country. You can get all the way from Prague to Brussels or vice versa with Můj vlak. 

In fact, Můj vlak makes it possible to reach some German destinations at a super promotional price. I have written a report about using Můj vlak and Czech Rail for genius ticket-splitting. Subscribe to my blog and check it out in the Insider Rail Guide library. 

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Můj vlak also gets you seat reservations - even for some trains outside Czechia. For instance, you can get seat reservations for any German train in Můj vlak… for €3 (79 CZK) instead of €4.50

What I was up to last January



Other nice functions


  • The Share function. A brilliant feature I have seen only in Můj vlak. You take a train’s timetable - or an itinerary consisting of several trains - and share it. Be it by text message, DM, email... whatever. I use it often for giving air support to friends in need. Here is what that looks like: 
  • EC 213 Mimara
    27.09.2019
    Villach Hbf [*A] > Zagreb Glavni Kolod. [*HR]
    Villach Hbf [*A]: 16:53
    Faak am See [*A]: 17:06, 17:07
    Jesenice(SL) [*SLO]: 17:33, 17:39
    Lesce Bled [*SLO]: 17:50, 17:51
    Kranj [*SLO]: 18:11, 18:12
    Ljubljana [*SLO]: 18:33, 18:36
    Zidani Most [*SLO]: 19:27, 19:29
    Sevnica [*SLO]: 19:44, 19:45
    Dobova [*SLO]: 20:07, 20:21
    Zagreb Glavni Kolod. [*HR]: 20:51
    Generated by the Můj vlak mobile application, http://www.cd.cz

  • The offline timetables. Offline Timetables! Můj vlak allows you to download timetables for particular European countries and regions. This means Můj vlak can do connection searches even when you have no internet connection. It insists you download the package for Czechia, but after that, it is up to you what you save for offline use. This is a brilliant function. The only other app with this is the InterRail/Eurail Rail Planner. Only Můj vlak updates its timetables every few days, not every six months.
  • Real time information. Works best in Czechia, but is quite good even beyond CZ. If you have a ticket in Můj vlak and need to change somewhere, a few minutes before your station it notifies you with...
  • The puffing of a steam engine! The notification noise is the puffing of a steam engine! Isn’t that amazing?

..

Czech local train

Typical Czech fast train. © Martin Pavlík

Its use for the Eurail/Interrail Tourist

In Czechia:

If you are in Czechia this app is a godsend for accurate, up-to-date timetable information and making seat reservations. The station function is also extremely useful.

Beyond Czechia

The use of Můj vlak for the European Rail tourist is threefold:

  1. In Central Europe it provides great access to cheap tickets and reservations in an easy to use app
  2. It has a powerful search function and can find you connections almost all over Europe. 
  3. It allows you to download timetables and have them offline. If you were on an Interrail tour, I’d sooner recommend you downloaded Můj vlak than InterRail’s own Rail Planner. InterRail’s Rail planner is a stock HAFAS app branded with InterRail. Old versions of DB Navigator and PKP’s Bilkom app are suspiciously similar.
Romantic Czech Rail Bus

One of those rail buses plying forests and hills. © Martin Pavlík

Můj vlak in a Nutshell 

Here are the main things Můj vlak has going for it. See below also for Můj vlak's peccadilloes.

Pros

  • Clean, uncluttered interface in which you find everything quickly
  • Decent connection search
  • Immensely useful train search function by name or number
  • Library of timetables you can choose to have offline.
  • Access to certain insanely cheap deals beyond Czechia.

Cons

  • Connections function not quite as strong as DB Navigator 
  • Some small bits are in Czech even when the app is set to English
  • On lines where there are other operators (Bohumín-Praha hl.n., for instance), Můj vlak neglects to mention the services run by RegioJet and LeoExpress. Understandable, but still disappointing.

Conclusion

Můj vlak is a supremely powerful and useful app. In Czechia it will be your special friend, in Germany it will be your dirty secret. Both are great to have.


If you are on an extended European tour by train, Můj vlak is the app I particularly recommend, due to its up-to-date offline timetables and powerful connection search function.


Subscribe to my blog for my report about Můj Vlak's added uses in Germany. Speaking of Germany, check out my post with two hacks that can slash your German rail fare.

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