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.

ICE 4 Review
Oct 24

Review: You call this a Window Seat?!? Deutsche Bahn’s new ICE 4

By Edward | Reviews

​My first encounter with​ the ICE 4

​Imagine this.


You are at Munich station picking someone up from a train about to arrive. Perhaps your wife and baby. Behind you, a brand new ICE 4, the smell of new train wafting out the doors. A futuristic bleeping sets in, the doors close in a flurry of flashing LED lights .

​So this is the future, and I'm in it. Wow. With a subtle, soothing sigh the breaks release and the train noiselessly sets itself in motion, gliding majestically out into the sunlight.

You scratch your armpit and adjust your shopping bag. They should be here any moment.

ICE 4 review

View from the entrance into an ICE 4 carriage

​Suddenly. a text message


​Suddenly, a text message:

we can't get into our platform. It is blocked by a broken down train.


You look up from your phone, up the line, and there you see it: that vision of things to come, the ICE4, speadeagled across the points of four platforms, grinning like an oblivious python. 45 minutes later it draws back to the platform it left and expels its passengers. It only made it 100 yards towards Hamburg.


You take your wife and baby home an hour late to a lunch of warm beer and cold chicken.

​The Story of the ICE 4

The ICE 4s are the biggest order ever placed by Deutsche Bahn. For more than €5 bn they ordered 130 of these trains, with a contract in place for 300. This train is set to become the backbone of German fast rail transport.

​A present for German Industry


As Deutsche Bahn is owned by the German state, it was important that German manufacturers got a slice of this lovely cake. In this case it was Siemens and Bombardier.

ICE 4 review

The Fliegende Hamburger came from the same factory as today's ICE 4 coaches - Görlitz

The carriages are made by Bombardier in Görlitz, a city that has been making trains for 160 years, while all the electrical stuff is supplied by Siemens from all over its engineering empire.

OK, I get it. Enough background.

​Enough Background. What ​is the ICE 4 like?

After the unfortunate first meeting, things got much better. I've been on the ICE 4 several times and can now tell you what it is like.

On my first trip I got on at 5:55 AM and saw the LED-lighting in action. Apparently it adjusts to the time of day in all sorts of colours. All I saw was orange in the morning and white as the day progressed. I loved the orange light.

Since then all I've seen is white - presumably it is controlled manually and whoever controls it forgets about it. It would be interesting if there was a light setting for crowd control, for calming down mutinous passengers on an overcrowded, delayed ICE.

ICE 4 Review

Soothing orange light early in the morning

The ICE 4: General Description

The ICE 4 is formed of twelve extra-long coaches. It is painted in the usual white with a red line along its side. The train has three first class carriages, a restaurant car that has some first class seating as well as the compartment for parents with toddlers, and nine second class carriages.

The carriage numbers are painted on - Deutsche Bahn has learnt the hard way that nothing beats good old analogue.

ICE 4 review

Outside of an ICE 4 carriage. Notice the painted on carriage number in addition to the LED display

All of the carriages are open plan seating. The only actual ​compartment is the one for parents with toddlers​​​.

Its top speed is 250km/h. Though not as fast as the first generation ICE (280km/h) or the ICE 3 (330 km/h), this is ample. On a network plagued by engineering (or the lack of it), trains rarely attain their top speed. A faster train would have cost more with no benefit whatsoever.

As the carriages are very long, they have to be correspondingly narrow to remain within the German loading gauge. The reduced diameter is noticeable. This is also why the ICE 4 has little gangways that roll out to bridge the yawning gap between the train and the platform.

Second class on the ICE 4

​The second class comes with standard 2+2 seating (that is, two seats each side of the aisle).

​Though some of the ​chairs are arranged in blocs of four grouped around a table, most are arranged two-by-two behind each other, always facing the middle of the carriage. 

Thus whichever direction the train is travelling, half of the seats are facing backwards, half forwards.

ICE 4 review

Second class on the ICE 4

What is wise of DB is to have generous, easily accessible luggage racks.

ICE 4 review

Generous baggage rack on the ICE 4

All in all this is a fairly pleasant second class experience, much nicer and more spaceous than the rather cramped second class on the ÖBB Railjet with its frozen-spinach coloured seats and linoleum floor or, God help us, the smartie-coloured man-trap that is SNCF's TGV Duplex.

The infamous ICE 4 seats: I think they are great.

There have been many complaints, in fact mass hysteria about the new model of seats Deutsche Bahn has installed in the ICE 4. People have been saying they are torture chairs from hell.

ICE 4 review

Second class seats on the ICE 4. The head rests are very comfortable

Perhaps there is something wrong with my back (I did do ballroom dancing for ten years) but I find them superbly comfortable.

They have a nice high head and proper ears that support your head nicely as you snooze. They do not recline, instead the bottom bit slips forward, pulling the back rest after it. The benefit is that a reclining seat doesn't invade your space, thus preventing aircraft-style brawls.

I also like the little displays on the head-rests, showing from where to where the seat is reserved. This is easy to see and to read.

ICE 4 review

See yourself on the map - Georgian Railways already had this ten years ago

The free Wifi works well enough wherever there is a decent LTE signal. This isn't everywhere, but that is hardly Deutsche Bahn's fault. In the second class each device is allowed 200MB of data volume

First class

The first class comes with 2+1 seating and leather chairs. Apart from being made of leather and spaced a bit further apart, they follow the same design pattern as those in the second class. They aren't more comfortable.

ICE 4 review

First class seating on the ICE 4. The seats are the same, just leather and spaced further apart

The carpet is the same and so is the Wifi signal. The only difference here is unlimited data volume per device.

Why go first class? It's breathing space and elbow room more than the seats that make first class more pleasant on the ICE 4.

Travelling with a baby?

Have you got a baby? I have, these days, and I love that Deutsche Bahn has a nice separate compartment in which you can let it run around. Or breastfeed.

ICE 4 review

Seats in the toddler's compartment on the ICE 4

Sometimes people with nowhere to sit will find their way into the toddler's compartment, but they cannot complain. And if you roll up with a baby, you can make them move.

This is something Deutsche Bahn has solved very well: the toddler's compartment is next to the guard's van, so there is always someone to help you, the restaurant car is next door, and there is a nice toilet with a changing mat. It is all very well done, on all ICE and Intercity trains.

The bicycle section

Until the ICE 4 was introduced, it was dogma that no bicycles are allowed on ICEs. The German bicycle club never stopped lobbying for this to be changed.

Now that many Intercities are being replaced with ICEs, DB has grudgingly accepted that the ICE 4 has to transport bicycles. So it has a small section with eight slots for bikes. These have to be reserved at the cost of €9. 

ICE 4 review

Bicycle section in carriage 1 on the ICE 4

Some smart people think that if they have their bicycle in a bag or a cardboard box it can go free as baggage.

Wrong. The other day on my Flixtrain, running at full capacity, I found a man blocking six seats with his bicycle in a nylon holdall. I went mad. I made him put it where it belonged and charged him the full bicycle price - the alternative being he pay for six seats.

The only bikes that can go free are the truly collapsable ones that fold into a small carrier bag.

Anyway, I haven't tried to load a bicycle into the ICE 4, but the set up looks usable. Just remember: carriage 1 is for bicycles and you need a reservation. As many older ICEs don't take bikes, it is wise to book as far in advance as you can.

You call this a Window Seat?!?

Now for my one big complaint. A preposterous amount of seats on this train have no window, or a tiny sliver of one. Since trains have started to be measured in price per seat and kilometre travelled, window seats have gone out the window. This is one of many symptoms of the bottom-line doing the designing on the ICE 4.

ICE 4 review

This isn't even one of the worst examples. And it is in the first class.

Now, when booking a seat on an ICE, if the train you are dealing with is an ICE 4, you are likely to specify a window seat and find yourself next to the wall. At the same time, the spacious and desperately needed baggage racks afford your suitcase a fantastic view right next to the window.

This is just really cack-handed design, an example of DB's bean counters shitting on us passengers. It could have been avoided, but all that mattered was cost. Bizarrely, the first class is just as bad as the second class.

The things I do for you

I go to great lengths for you, my readers. One of these lengths is to walk from end to end on the ICE 4 with a furrowed brow, muttering to myself, writing stuff down. I even had to explain myself to the guard.

I have compiled a list of all the seats that have no window. And believe me, it is long. You can find the list of all the unwindow-seats as a handy download in the e-guide library. If you subscribe to my email list you have free, life-long access to my e-guide-library - even if you unsubscribe.


I digress: Business Administrators

ICE 4 review

When I went to university,  nearly everyone I met was starting a degree in Business Administration (me, I enrolled in Russian Linguistics). Wherever I went, everyone was studying this thing. They still are. "Why?" I asked. "Well," they said, "you can do anything afterwards, and work for anyone".

ICE 4 review

Bean counters downsizing window seats

Business Administration is neither a science nor a humanity. It is an ideology. As a university subject it is as divorced from science as Marxism-Leninism was in East Germany. Business Administration's central premise is scarcity. There is never enough of anything, especially money, so it has to be saved. You have to cut costs and close your factories. 

ICE 4 review

What about some more seats here?

Now this vast army of Business Administrators has been let loose on the world and is saving money everywhere, meaning that everyone has less and works more.

The brightest Business Administrators work for PwC, Accenture and Roland Berger, the Angels of Downsizing. The dull, stupid ones end up working for Deutsche Bahn, laying waste to everything they can cross out with their red pencils. Night trains, for instance.

Business Administrators shift the focus from making quality products to making money. They have destroyed Cadbury's, they have smashed Wedgwood, and they've got their teeth deep into Marks and Spencer's.

At Deutsche Bahn their influence is ever more noticeable, and the ICE 4 is a good example.

ICE 4 review

But I digress.

Restaurant car

The restaurant car is very nice, with both a bar area and a proper seated restaurant section. They have nice Bitburger beer on tap and an astounding variety of quite tasty, reasonably priced food.

ICE 4 review

The restaurant car on the ICE 4

Of course it is all warmed up, but real food has long disappeared from Western trains, and as it goes, this is quite good. It is much better than the hospital food DON serves on the Railjet these days, but it cannot compare with a Polish or Slovak restaurant car, where your food is still cooked to order.

Unfortunately even in the restaurant car the windows and seating are not on speaking terms. Sip your coffee and admire the beam between the windows.

The secret section: the best seats on the ICE 4

At the very front and at the very rear (carriages 1 and 14), if you get on through the door nearest to the driving cab and then turn towards the driving cab, you enter a small section of eight seats in second class or six seats in first class which feels nicely closed off from the rest of the train and where the seats are perfectly aligned with the windows.

ICE 4 review

My favourite seats on the ICE 4

It is a dead end, so you don't get any confused people barrelling backwards and forwards bellowing the place down. Only drivers pass through. Though open to anyone, people seem to avoid it.

Sadly, you can't see into the driving cab, since you ask. DB has done away with that.

How to use this train

I have tried to put myself into the shoes of various travellers and work out where I can recommend who sits. Here is what I have come up with:

Solo travellers / couples

You are fine almost everywhere. Most of the seats are two-by-two. Consider going first-class if there is a good deal. If you want to ensure you have a window, download my guide to the un-window seats on the ICE 4 and reserve yourself something nice. I would probably get myself something not too far from the restaurant car.

ICE 4 review

Two toilets at the end of nearly every carriage

Groups

As a group between four and eight people I would try and snaffle the secret area in carriage No. 1, about which I waxed lyrical earlier. Bring your own food and drink and forget about the distant restaurant car. 

Whenever I've tried to reserve a seat in the secret area outright it has been unreservable, yet when I got on the train, nothing was reserved. It is possible that these seats are always unreserved.

Families

Book yourself the toddler's compartment if you can - you have to be travelling with a child under six to get it. 

I cannot emphasise enough how great the toddlers' compartment is. The so-called "family area" is just the same as everywhere else, only that it is noisy and smells of sausage and hard-boiled eggs.

ICE 4 review

Toddler's compartment on the ICE 4

If you cannot get the toddler's compartment, try and get yourself somewhere else, anywhere else, with a table, or the secret section in carriage No. 1. If travelling with a baby and there is no space in the toddler's compartment, make for the secret section, as it is peaceful.

Interrailers and Eurailers

Germany is one of the rail-pass friendly countries. There are no compulsory reservations on any DB trains. So you can use all ICE trains except the ICE Sprinters, for which a supplement would be payable. ICE 4s are not used on the Sprinter lines as of 2018.

If you are in a group, the same advice applies as for any other group. If your are tired and want to sleep, make for the secret section in carriage No. 1. 

ICE 4 review

These seats have at least half a window

If you want to spread out on the floor and picnic, again, carriage No. 1 is best for you, provided the bicycle area is empty.

Big warning: on one of my trips, the WiFi signal barely reached the secret section. If you value WiFi, best go somewhere else.

What I like about the ICE 4

Having been on the ICE 4 several times I have discovered that I like the infamous seats. They are comfortable and have the best headrests I know of in German rail.

I like the toddler's compartment and I think the restaurant is a very pleasant place to be with its new, discreet colour scheme and its bar area.

What I really like is the two secret, quiet compartments at the front and the back of the train. Another good thing is that they seem to have installed lots of toilets that are easy to find.

Also well done is the ample space for luggage. I resent that it blocks windows, but the benefit is you can have your luggage near where you are sitting.

ICE 4 review

Baggage rack on the ICE 4

What I don't like about the ICE 4

What is really bad is the window/seat situation. This never used to be a problem, why does technical progress mean window seats with no windows?  It is just sloppy can't-be-fuckedness.

When I go to the restaurant car from my lair in carriage 1, I have to go through nine or ten coaches that look exactly the same, and are very long and rather narrow.

After the third carriage this gets rather unsettling. As most people are wearing their DB-faces they all look the same as well. I lose track of where I am as I stumble through winter upon winter of discontent.

Conclusion

The first ICE was devised at the end of the 1980s to reclaim the elites for rail travel. It was a luxury train from the start. No expense was spared.

No redesign has been able to banish the feeling of comfort and luxury from the ICE 1. If an arm-chair could be a train, this would be it.

ICE 4 review

The world from which the ICE 1 hails

The ICE 4 is from a world light-years away - a clinical, hyper-optimised, homogenised dystopia. The elusive "elite", even elite Deutsche Bahn staff, goes everywhere by air, even within Germany - this is not their train.

ICE 4 review

The world for which the ICE 4 is made

From its very inception the ICE 4 was supposed to be cheap and to transport as many homogenised consumers as possible, ensconced unspeaking in their virtual realities, plugs in ears, eyes on screens. Maybe this is why they haven't troubled to align the windows with the seats. Our windows are on our screens.

Don't let this happen. Travel, don't be transported. A train trip is something to be experienced and savoured. Looking out the window, with the landscape drifting by, lost in thoughts you might not have had otherwise. It is possible, even on this train. 

I hope now you know how.

Oct 10

Shift No. 12

By Edward | Shifts

So I’ve decided to write short blog posts from my actual shifts, to give you, dear reader, some insight into what it is like to work as a guard on a train.

Also, I want you all to have something to read between my big posts.

This is my first post with a shift report.

Task

Get up very early in Hamburg and bring a Flixtrain from Hamburg to Cologne as chief guard.

From Cologne take it empty to a small station upstream on the Rhine, fill it up with water, have the loos sucked out.

Flixtrain

Then three days backwards and forwards between Cologne and Hamburg.

Nice thing I did:

At Hamburg-Harburg a woman comes from the carriage with the stag do and asks if we have anywhere normal. Then she bursts into tears.

I park her in the empty wheelchair compartment, get the train going and bring her a cup of my strong Russian tea with lots of sugar.

Nasty thing I did:

At Essen, after I’ve given the driver the order to set off, a youth comes running, earphones akimbo, wanting to get on.

People with Flixtix are never late, so he can’t be one of mine. I shout at him to stand back – if he falls on the tracks it’ll be my fault.

He gives me the finger, and I give him the finger back.

Weird thing:

At Cologne West I found a dead parrot next to my Flixtrain. It was even Flix coloured. What on earth does this mean?

Delays:

Arrived Cologne on Tuesday with 30 minutes delay due to being stuck behind other trains. People all completely relaxed about it.

Beer drunk afterwards:

Kölsch. Three or four small ones. I love Kölsch. My alcoholic sweet spot is an Italian beer bottle, that is, 0.66l.

Three Kölsches set me up nicely, four feel indulgent without making me feel bad.

Experience:

When doing a four day Flixshift, you never know what you are going to get.

The first trip you flail about on an unknown set of carriages until Cologne.

Then, to quote Patches O’Houlahan from Dodgeball, you hump them into submission.

On the second day you have everything under control.

On the third day you know each coach’s lovable idiosyncrasies (No. 6: light may go off when heating goes on; No. 2: doors close 2 seconds later than the others; No. 1: makes weird warbling noise for no reason).

For three days it’s like you live on this train. On the fourth day you put the train to bed and think après moi, le deluge.

Next Saturday I’m starting all over again. Apparently there are more carriages on their way.

I hope you find these posts interesting. If you have questions, just leave one in the comments.

Jul 20

Review – No Frills, Max Thrills: How to Use Germany’s Flixtrains

By Edward | Cheaper Tickets

No Frills, Max Thrills: How to use Flixtrain

You may have heard about the Flixtrain.

​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 Germany's Flixtrains (and buses).

Who are Flix, 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 (yes, 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.

Fast forward five years and the fastest and most furious rat in the barrel has eaten up the competition and escaped: Flixbus. Now it is on a rampage.

Flix 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.

How to Use Flixtrain

The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain at Hamburg-Altona railway station

Introducing Flixtrains

Before the Flixtrains, some people had tried to start ​fast-train services in competition with Deutsche Bahn: the Leipzig-Rostock Interconnex ended up under the buses in 2013, the Hamburg-Köln Express (HKX) withered and the Stuttgart-Berlin Locomore went bankrupt after five months. All failed at bums on seats.

Now if there is one thing Flix do really well, it's bums on seats. Flixbus have become the go-to address for super-cheap travel. It is where the destitute and the thrifty turn first.

So Flix have breathed life into the HKX and Locomore timetable slots and the HKX and the Locomore have returned undead. They make the trains run, Flix make the people come. For the first time in Germany, there is significant competition in long-distance rail travel.

Where do the Flixtrains go?

As of July 2018 there are three lines that Flix serves by train. More are expected to start after the December 2018 timetable change. 

1. ​Stuttgart-Berlin-Stuttgart: Run by Leo Express using Locomore's slots and carriages plus extra cars rented from elsewhere. 

2. Hamburg-Cologne-Hamburg using the HKX slots, run by BahnTouristikExpress using their own carriages.

3. Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight with one couchette, attached to BTE's Motorail service from Hamburg-Altona to Lörrach, on the German outskirts of Basel. 

Flixtrain review

Flixtrain's network as of 2018. Not shown is the Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight service

What are the Flixtrains like?

I go to great lengths for you, my readers. One of these lengths is to join BahnTouristikExpress to be at the forefront of this development. Having now worked on both the Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain and on the Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight, I can give you some intel.

How to use Flixtrain

Yours truly in a Flixshirt in front of his Flixtrain

The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain

The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain is usually formed of ten coaches belonging to BahnTouristikExpress, a company whose main business is charter trains.

Some of these are seated carriages, some are couchettes in day mode. Nearly all of them are with ten or eleven compartments that seat up to six people, though there are some combined compartment/saloon style carriages as well.

Flixtrain review

The corridor in a seated carriage on the Flixtrain

Though the carriages are quite old and only partly refurbished, all of them have WiFi, and most have power outlets. Some don't - here passengers can borrow high-performance power banks from the kiosk in the middle of the train.

There is a fun disconnect about the Flixtrain: on the one hand compartments, windows you can open and carriages that could still be heated with steam from a steam engine. On the other hand: WiFi, power outlets and Flix's paperless QR-code tickets. Here I stand ​with my Flixapp and Bluetooth printer where once a Deutsche Reichsbahn guard meticulously issued hand-written paper tickets

The Berlin-Stuttgart Flixtrain

​As mentioned above, the Berlin-Stuttgart Flixtrain uses the coaches and the staff that ran in the short-lived Locomore service. Locomore went bankrupt and were bought up by Czech operator Leo Express. Leo Express run this train, Flix market it as a Flixtrain and sell the tickets.

The original Locomore coaches are partly compartment and partly saloon type, which Locomore had lovingly refitted and augmented with WiFi and sockets. The Locomore colours are still very much present on the inside. On the outside the Locomore orange has been covered up with green Flixfoil.

How to Use Flixtrain

Seat in a compartment on the Stuttgart-Berlin Flixtrain, as refurbished by Locomore.

To cope with the increased demand, and the extra train now running on the Berlin-Stuttgart line, additional carriages have been martialled from various places. These are mostly combined compartment/saloon carriages with late 1980s interiors. Instead of sockets, power banks are offered, as on the Hamburg-Cologne line.

The Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight

​This is something ​I never saw coming: Flix doing night trains.

It isn't, not really, not yet. The Flixnight is ​one ​couchette car that is ​sometimes attached to BahnTouristikExpress's AutoReiseZug (motorail) service that runs on weekends between Hamburg-Altona and Lörrach, on the outskirts of Basel on the German side of the border. 

How to Use Flixtrains

​Couchette in day mode, as used on the Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight and the Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain

​This is a train consisting of two sleeping cars, one restaurant car and four to five couchettes and several car-carrying carriages​​​. ​The last of the couchettes is dedicated to Flixtrain foot passengers. Each compartment has five berths. No berth numbers are assigned, anyone can go anywhere within the Flixnight carriage.

How to Use Flixtrain

Bunk in the Flixnight 5-berth couchette in night mode

​OK, and when do they run?

​This is where it gets tricky.

Depending on the day of the week there may be one, two or no Flixtrains running your way. The Flixtrains are concentrated around the peak travel days of the weekends and peter out towards mid-week. Their timetable is full of ifs* and buts {1} and rules+ and exceptions {1,2-4}. ​I​t makes my brain hurt. 

I find it easiest just to head over to ​their website and see what is going on when I want to travel.

Hamburg-Cologne-Hamburg FLX 20 departure times:

The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain ​runs on most days and takes ​a good four hours from Hamburg to Cologne or vice-versa. ​Here is a day-by-day break-down​ ​of when the trains go. Note that nation-wide bank holidays can lead to further exceptions. Here is a link directly to their timetable.

​Hamburg-Altona -> Cologne Hbf

The trains leave Hamburg-Altona and call at Hamburg Hbf, Hamburg-Harburg, Osnabrück, Münster, Gelsenkirchen, Essen, Duisburg, Düsseldorf and Cologne, taking around four hours and twenty minutes.

​Monday: ​08:49 and 16:36, whereby the 08:49 starts at Hamburg Hbf
Tuesday: NO FLIXTRAIN
Wednesday: 16:36
Thursday: 08:49 and 16:36, whereby the 08:49 starts at Hamburg Hbf
Friday: 08:49 and 16:36, whereby the 08:49 starts at Hamburg Hbf
Saturday: 08:49, from Hamburg Hbf
Sunday: 12:36 and 16:36

How to Use Flixtrain

​Cologne Hbf -> Hamburg-Altona

​The trains leave Cologne Hbf and call at Düsseldorf, Duisburg, Essen, Gelsenkirchen, Münster, Osnabrück, Hamburg-Harburg, Hamburg Hbf and Hamburg-Altona, taking around four hours and twenty minutes.

​Monday: 7:01 and 15:01
Tuesday: 11:01
Wednesday: NO FLIXTRAIN
​Thursday: 11:01 and 15:01
Friday: 11:01 and 16:38
Saturday: 7:01
Sunday: 11:01 and 19:01​​​

I don't find this very user-friendly. At the same time, if you just use their website, you don't have to remember. If there's a train, there's a train, and if there isn't, then there isn't.

I sincerely hope that Flix come up with a less unwieldy timetable in the future. But perhaps I'm being old-fashioned.

Flixtrain review

Flixtrain seat compartment

​Stuttgart-Berlin-Stuttgart FLX 10 departure times

​In contrast to the Hamburg-Cologne line, passengers between Stuttgart and Berlin have the luxury of a daily Flixtrain at the same time every day. This I like. On some days, there is a second service​. Here is a direct link to their timetable.

​Stuttgart Hbf -> Berlin Lichtenberg

​The train leaves Stuttgart Hbf and calls at Vaihingen, Heidelberg, Weinheim, Darmstadt, Frankfurt Süd, Hanau, Fulda, Kassel Wilhelmshöhe, Göttingen, Hanover Messe/Laatzen, Lehrte, Wolfsburg, Berlin Zoo, Berlin Hbf, Berlin Ostbahnhof, Berlin Ostkreuz and Berlin Lichtenberg. The journey takes about seven hours.

​Monday: 06:21 and 14:12
​Tuesday: 06:21
Wednesday: 06:21
Thursday: 06:21 and 14:12
Friday: 06:21 and 14:12
Saturday: 06:39 and 14:12
Sunday: 06:39 and 14:12
​Berlin Lichtenberg -> Stuttgart Hbf

​The train leaves Berlin Lichtenberg and calls at Berlin Ostkreuz, Berlin Ostbahnhof, Berlin Hbf, Berlin Zoo, Wolfsburg, Lehrte, Hanover Messe/Laatzen, Göttingen, Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe, Fulda, Hanau, Frankfurt Süd, Darmstadt, Weinheim, Heidelberg, Vaihingen and Stuttgart Hbf. As above, the journey takes about seven hours.

​Monday: 06:29 and 14:28
Tuesday: 14:28
Wednesday: 14:28
Thursday: 06:29 and 14:28
Friday: 06:29 and 14:28
Saturday: 06:29 and 14:28
Sunday: 06:29 and 14:28

​This schedule is much easier to remember than the Hamburg-Cologne timetable. I hope that future Flixtrains adhere to this model.

How to Use Flixtrains

Toilet on a Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain

​Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight departure times

​This is the hardest one. I can't find a timetable that spells out on which dates the ​Flixnight runs and on which it doesn't.

On ​almost all weekends throughout the year there is at least one service in both directions. During the summer there are more. I can only recommend ​looking at the Flixtrain website, which automatically points you to when the service is running.

In both directions it calls at Hamburg Hbf, Hanover Hbf, Freiburg and Lörrach Autozug.

​Southbound, the service leaves Hamburg-Altona at 19:50, arriving Freiburg at 06:55 and Lörrach at 08:30.
Northbound, it departs Lörrach Autozug at 19:30 and Freiburg at 22:06, arriving Hamburg-Altona at 07:11.
Flixtrain Review

Flixnight carriage, still in BTE-colours, waiting to depart from Hamburg-Altona

​Onbord services offered by Flix

​Though the trains differ depending on who operates them, Flix does demand and provide a certain standard.

​WiFi

​Wireless internet is a Flix non-negotiable. When their buses started to run they were famous for it, and it is arguably Flix 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 most Eastern European countries.

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.​​​

Well, Flix ​have made WiFi work in Cold War era ​carriages​. They just did it. Truth be told, onbord WiFi is only as good as the surrounding LTE signal. Between Osnabrück and Hamburg it isn't up to much.

Flixtrain Review

Somewhere behind this Cold War era switchboard a 21st century WiFi router is humming away. When it was first used in East Germany, this carriage was pulled and heated by a steam engine

​Electricity for your phone

​Another Flix non-negotiable is sockets. Some of the more recently refurbished carriages have them, but the old ones don't.

To make up for this, Flix has high-performance power banks available for passengers to borrow.  You leave your identity card or passport with the kiosk-staff and they return it to you when you give back the power bank. Simple.

Flixtrain review

Flixtrain couchette compartment in day mode. Notice the sockets underneath the rubbish bin

​Food and drink

​All Flixtrains have some form of catering. On the Hamburg-Cologne line it is a ​minibar in one of the carriages. The same goes for the Stuttgart-Berlin line​, which also has a small kiosk selling drinks and light refreshments.

​However, the Flixnight gives you access to BTE's lovely full-size restaurant car serving ​proper meals and hot and cold drinks into the small hours. Only very few trains still have this. Though be warned that it is easy to spend more in the restaurant car than you did on your Flix ticket.

​Seat reservations

​Though seating is generally a free-for-all on the Flixtrains, in July Flix ​started offering seat reservations on both their trains. On both day-services, two carriages have reserved seating, while in the remaining cars it ​remains open season. 

Bizarrely, they have introduced an a​irline-esque numbering system that clashes with the standard continental European seat numbering system and which I find hard to swallow.

Flixtrain review

Flix's new seat numbering system

​Flix treats the carriage like a bus or plane and imposes row numbers that ignore the compartment layout, and within these row numbers seats are A, B or C. ​At the same time, the seats still have their "natural" standard numbers, which is confusing.

A seat reservation costs €3.49 on top of your ticket, €3.99 if you want a window - the "panorama" option.

Flixtrain review

Seated compartment on the Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain. Notice the two seat-numbering systems. Brrrrr.

​Great! So how can I get tickets?

How to use Flixtrains

1st step: enter your destination and travel date here

​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 Schönes-Wochenende or Quer-Durchs-Land tickets, no Eurail or Interrail passes. 

How to Use Flixtrains

2nd step: select the service you want to travel on

However, Flix'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 it does make future bookings easier) and Flix accepts all kinds of electronic payment.

How to Use Flixtrains

3rd step: get your credit card out...

​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 Flix: it is a wonderful system, so easy to use. It is brilliant.

How to use Flixtrains

Enter all your details. You can take it from here, can't you? Reserve yourself a seat if you like.

​What I particularly like is that Flix 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.

Nice touch with English denoted by a European flag, too.

​So how much do tickets cost?

​It depends. Flix adhere strictly to the dynamic pricing system. 

Tickets on the Hamburg-Cologne and Stuttgart-Berlin trains start at €9.99 but rise quickly to €29.99 or €39.99. If you pay on the train, Hamburg-Cologne will set you back €65.

Tickets for the Flixnight start at €19.99 and rise. A week beforehand in summer you can pay €59.99.

So unless you get a super-cheap ticket in advance and use one of Flix's promo codes, they aren't always cheaper than Deutsche Bahn.

​Tips from your boots on the ground

​As I said further above, Flix is very good at bums on seats. So good in fact that sometimes it's bums in corridor. ​Having been on both the Hamburg-Cologne and the Hamburg-Lörrach services, here are ​my tips to help you have the best possible trip. 

1. Try and get on at the first station. The trains are usually quite full. When leaving from Hamburg or Berlin, it is best to get on at Hamburg-Altona and Berlin-Lichtenberg respectively. Most of the passengers get on at the Hauptbahnhof. If you are on first, you have ten minutes to hole up in a really nice seat before the stampede sets in. 

​Departing Cologne or Stuttgart you don't have this advantage.

How to Use Flixtrains

Flixnight couchette at Hamburg-Altona

2. On the Flixnight, get on at Hamburg-Altona. ​For one thing, again, you are ahead of the bulk of the passengers. But more importantly, ​​​the BTE AutoReiseZug which carries the Flixnight is prone to 1-2 hour delays leaving Hamburg-Altona, as loading the cars onto the motorail carriages tends to take longer than planned.

Passengers getting on at Hamburg Hbf end up standing around waiting. Not fun. But if you are on at Altona you can relax in your compartment. Incidentally, the BTE train has a very generous slot which allows it to catch up even a three-hour delay out of Altona.

3. If using the Flixnight from Lörrach to Hamburg, ​understand that the train doesn't leave from Lörrach Hbf, but from Lörrach Autozug Terminal, which is five minutes walk up the line. Walk out of Lörrach Hbf station, turn right and follow the tracks. Then you can't miss it. ​​​

​4. Bring back your power bank in plenty of time. ​You don't want to be without your ID card or passport, and you don't want to miss your stop. Bring back the power bank at the latest 10 minutes before you get off, ​​​

​Conclusion: Is it really competition?

​This is what I think of Flixtrains:

​Carriages

​I ​love ​the carriages. Nearly all of them have windows you can open and compartments rather than saloons, which I prefer. However, people who ​like open-plan seating do have somewhere to go as well.

For the last twenty years Deutsche Bahn has been running ​a sustained assault on everything that ​people love to remember about trains, namely, windows you can open and wave out of, perhaps with a white handkerchief, ​​​compartments that get you into conversations with strangers and, yes, night trains. Grudgingly they have accepted that they can't ditch restaurant cars, but that doesn't mean they'll be serving food. Deutsche Bahn wants to transport you in ​laboratory conditions in sterile silence and solitude.

I'm not sure Flix is big on romance. They just want to get as many people as possible from A to B at the lowest cost. ​It just so happens that the only trains they can get their agile little mitts ​on are these indestructible retro ​sets​. While it lasts, Flixtrain is offering you a train ride like it was in the good old days, but with WiFi.

How to Use Flixtrains

Flixtrain at the Hamburg depot, awaiting next service

​Service

​Flix's service is greatest before and during the purchase of your ticket. ​Their website and their apps are very easy to use and they make it very easy to pay. It is much less demanding than Deutsche Bahn's online ticketing system and app. 

​On the road, or the rails, you are in the hands of their sub-contractors. ​Some are better than others, but anyone who falls below Flix's standards will lose their contract and thus a steady stream of income. So there is an incentive for them to treat you well.

​Concept

​Flix'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. Flix 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 Flix's bus system. And this generates the critical mass of passengers needed to make a train service viable.

​Flixtrain in the Scheme of Things

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. People are going to hate me for saying this, but Flix is re-introducing third-class travel. Lots of people welcome this - students, pensioners, even business travellers.

But in the Germany of 2018 there is also a vast demographic of people who have been left behind, whose livelihoods have been out-sourced and who couldn't care less about ethically sourced coffee and 2300 Kelvin lighting. It is possible to pay for Flix's ridiculously low ticket prices in installments with the Ratepay service. 

Flix 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 Flix customers have never used Deutsche Bahn's trains. Flix is opening train travel to people who never ​went by train, and that is a good thing.

And I like ​the Flix people. They are polite, they don't ​complain, they are happy to be going somewhere. When you arrive they get off and tell you what a nice trip it has been.

Flixtrain review

Couchette compartment in day mode, with an open window

​Give it a try

​Now we've reached the end of this post. I hope you have enjoyed ​it. Please forgive the moments in which I descended into rants. 

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 Romanian operator Astra Trans Carpatic in my last post.

In Germany, so far, ​competition has failed. Germany, with its huge motor lobby, is a very hostile environment for anyone wanting to run trains. Now Flix, of all people, have entered the train market with a singular focus on low prices, and combined with their extensive bus network it may work out this time.

How to Use Flixtrain

Picture taken out of the open window of the Flixtrain, just after leaving Hamburg-Altona

It looks as if the Flixtrains have come to stay, at least for the next few years. They had a job announcement recently looking for someone to plan their European train network. I applied for this job, ​hoping to get in on the wacky ticket, but they turned me down. It's a shame for them, I don't see how anyone could have been better for the job. But there you go.

​In spite of their ambition and their mighty backers, Flix could pull out of the train business very quickly if they decide it's not working. So while they dabble in the train market, have a go on the Flixtrains. They are great fun.

Astra Transcarpatic Review
Jul 09

Review: Astra Trans Carpatic’s Overnight Service

By Edward | Eastern Europe

​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 Transcarpatic Review

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.

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 summer 2018:

Astra Trans Carpatic Timetable

Astra Trans Carpatic's route and timetable, eastbound

​05:​28 is not a nice time to wake up and ​arrive at Bucharest Gara de Nord, but everything is open and you can have breakfast at McDonald's. What is wonderful is to watch the rest of Bucharest stir and come to life.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

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

But 08:35 is a very civilised time to arrive at ​Constanța.

Here is the westward timetable, as of summer 2018:

Astra Trans Carpatic Timetable

Astra Trans Carpatic route and timetable, westbound

​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.

​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 decently-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.

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.

​I digress

​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.

​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 don't do it at all.

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.

Breakfast on the Astra Trans Carpatic

Breakfast on the Astra Trans Carpatic

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 as follows:

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 - to be precise, at 05:​​28. The ​Dacia ​arrives at 15:05, which ​is 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

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 19:08, arrive Constanța at 08:35 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 14:34

2. You then spend four 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.

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 10:32.​ ​​​It reaches Arad at 14:34, 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 four hours.

When you reach Bucharest the next morning at 05:28, 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 Ceau​șescu's fitful relationship with the USSR.

​Westbound

​Coming from Bucharest on your way west you have two options:

1. Get off at 07:13 at ​​Timișoara and ​catch the IC 78 ​Körös, ​departing ​​Timișoara at 07:30. For me, that is ​too narrow a squeak, but anyone in a hurry could consider ​risking this. The Astra Trans Carpatic is let out of ​​Timișoara ​after ​the ​Körös ​but arrives at ​​Timișoara before it leaves, so there is a window in the timetable at ​​Timișoara that the lucky and well-organised can slip through.​​​​​​ I had a pram to assemble​, so I watched the ​Körös ​leave from my bang-on-time Astra.​​​

2. Get off at 08:25 at Arad and get the IC 74 ​Transsylvania ​from Arad at 14:20​​​. ​There is a posh shopping centre next to Arad station in which ​you can hole up in a ​café, or ​​​you can go into town.

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 do​es 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.

Pricing is in the Romanian currency, the leu (RON), which at the time of writing (July 2018) exchanges at €1 = 4.66 RON, £1 = 5.27 RON and $1 = 3.96 RON.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

Astra Trans Carpatic's pricing system is refreshingly simple

Thus Arad-Bucharest in a seat or couchette is 600km second class (88 lei / €18) plus 3.60 lei (​80 cents) for a seat or 45 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 its 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 136 lei (€29) for the distance plus 60 lei (€12) for a double, 80 lei (€17) for a double deluxe, 120 lei (€24) for a single or 160 lei (€34) for a single deluxe.

I paid 432 lei (€92) for the double deluxe for my wife and me. The 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


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 hypnoti​c ​haze of metallic rumbling that is great for sleeping.

​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.

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.​​​

Astra Transcarpatic Review

The Astra Transcarpatic ready to leave Bucharest Gara de Nord

European Night Trains
Jun 01

10 Exciting European Night trains and How to Use Them like a Pro @Amateur Traveler Podcast

By Edward | Uncategorized

10 Exciting European Night trains and How to Use Them like a Pro – Inside Tips from a Night Train Worker

 

A whole day up in smoke

Is this you?

You’re on a eurotrip. You’ve been up since 4 AM to get this plane, having only just caught it because a taxi happened along. You’ve coughed up three times your air fare to take your suitcase with you. 

Now it turns out that this airport “Munich West” is very far west of Munich indeed – more than 70 miles. 

Thank God there’s a coach service, for which you duly pay twice your air fare. At 2 PM you finally reach your hotel and flop down and go to sleep. 

At 6 PM you’re finally on the Marienplatz, waiting to watch the clock dancers twirling. One day almost wasted.

It doesn’t have to be like this. 

Click here to read the full post on Amateur Traveler Podcast.

The Ultimate Guide to Russian Trains
Apr 06

The Ultimate Guide to Russian Trains @Misstourist.com

By Edward | Eastern Europe

Imagine this.

You have been on this train for ten hours and still have twelve hours to go. You’ve never been on a train this long.

Your coach is swaying and clanking through forests teeming with nameless streams under the expanse of the Russian sky. Just now you passed through a city with golden domes glittering in the sun.

Time is somewhere else. You are beyond the realm of time. You are drinking your thirteenth glass of tea and discussing fate and eternity with strangers – even though you can’t speak Russian.

A train journey is a must-do in Russia, like going on a gondola in Venice – except for the price of half an hour of Venetian gondola you get seven time-zones of Russian train.

The train is the cheapest, safest and most comfortable way to travel Russia. When you’ve finished this guide, you shall know all you need to know to make the most of your Russian train journey…

Click here to read the my guest post on Miss Tourist’s blog.

Apr 06

Two Tweaks that can Slash your German Rail Fare by 50%

By Edward | Cheaper Tickets

Forget the BahnCard.

These two subtle, often overlooked tweaks are an effortless way to find cheaper German rail tickets when searching for connections on Deutsche Bahn's website www.bahn.de. 

The two blunt instruments for getting cheap fares are to book as far as possible in advance and to pick a day when fewer people are travelling. I like Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

But once you've done that, or if your date is non-negotiable, try these two tweaks which can halve your train fare.

How most people search

I've got a search here from Munich to St. Goar on the Rhine - a longish trip involving changes. St. Goar is where Loreley is. 

And this is what it comes up with:

Search result in standard search

So far, so underwhelming, no?

The first tweak for lower fares

The first thing to do is uncheck the box Prefer fast connections. Few people understand that this makes a difference. The search engine will now show you slightly slower, less direct connections which most people haven't found because they haven't noticed the box.

As Deutsche Bahn's long-distance pricing varies depending on how full a given ICE or IC train is, you will automatically be shown emptier and thus cheaper trains. 

While the improvement in this case is not huge, it does give you more choice. But this is only the first step on our way to 

The second tweak for lower fares

The second tweak is to chuck out ICE trains. On many lines in Germany the ICEs go no faster than other trains. The Munich-Paris TGV service, capable of 200 mph in France, hobbles from Ulm to Stuttgart at 70 mph because the tracks allow no faster.

The only connections where this severely lengthens your journey are where you cover great distances on high-speed tracks.

Once you have taken out the ICE trains you get quite different results, as ICEs are the backbone of German long-distance rail travel. This brings up the Intercitys, which many people are not aware of as a cheaper alternative - one that often is hardly slower.

Much cheaper tickets, and only a slightly longer journey

I always try these simple tweaks when searching for tickets. There are many variables, and depending on where you are going these tricks can yield both better and worse results than the ones we have achieved here.

By unticking two little boxes on bahn.de you can cut your rail fare by 50%.

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I hope this helps you on your next trip to Germany. Let me know in the comments how much you saved!

Want more of this regularly? Sign up ​for my newsletter and gain FREE access to my ​resource library, the Eurotripper's War Chest - full of useful e-guides.

11 Soundtracks for your Russian Train Journey
Mar 20

11 Soundtracks for Your Russian Train Journey

By Edward | Eastern Europe , Uncategorized

11 Soundtracks for your Russian Train Journey

So you are now on a Russian train.

Had enough of all the talking and eating and listening? Perhaps time for some you-time, yes?

This is something I hadn't the cojones to put into my guest post on Miss Tourist.

I wanted to have a chapter with lots of different Russian music for you to listen to on your journey, as you travel from city to city, to help immerse you in Russian culture. Well here it is. For each Russia 2018 host city I have chosen something for you to listen to.

You are unlikely to like all of it - I've deliberately delved into old and new music, some of it more arcane, some of it less so. I've also striven to reflect that there are other nations in Russia apart from the Russians.

Moscow

Let's ease ourselves into this with some light Mussorgsky. Dawn on the Moskva River is the introduction to Mussorgsky's opera Khovanshchina. When Mussorgsky died, this opera was an unfinished heap of papers that had to be straightened out and completed by his friend and mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Kazan

Kazan is the ancient capital of the Tatars, originally a nomadic tribe from Central Asia. They were feared throughout Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages, when they made it as far as Poland.

The Tatar language is related to Turkish and the Tatars are mainly Muslim. Famous Russian ballet dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Irek Mukhamedov are Tatars. Here is a Tatar pop song by Guzelem and Salavat Minnekhanov, in Tatar.

Saint Petersburg

Imagine the Russian aristocrats dancing to these waltzes in the salons of Petrograd, unaware of their imminent fate.

Standard waltzes of the Strauss and Lehár kind have several happy themes with one sad one embedded - Russian waltzes are the other way round: unhappy themes with one happy moment. 

My favourite, Autumn Dream, (49'20") is actually by an Englishman, Archibald Joyce. In England no one knows this piece any more, but in Russia every schoolchild can whistle it. 

Volgograd

Time for a war song. This is one of the most famous. It makes my eyes sweat terribly. It is the song of a lonely soldier in a dark night, listening to the whistling of bullets and longing for the tenderness of his wife. Here is a full translation. Volgograd is the erstwhile Stalingrad, the battle of which was the turning point of the Second World War.

Soviet war songs are nearly all about individual suffering. I cannot think of one that celebrates how great war is.

Rostov-on-Don

Rostov-on-Don is in southern Russia, near Ukraine. This is Cossack territory. The Cossacks are a people that drew mainly on eastern Slavic stock in the Russian Empire's southern borderlands. They also absorbed elements from the mountain cultures of the Caucasus. 

It shows in this song by Otava Yo, in which they use a beat that many of the tiny Caucasus nations use in their music. Otava Yo are a bizarre group that make wildly gripping music and wonderfully imaginative videos. Do look at their other videos.

Sochi

Sochi is even further south on the Black Sea. I thought for ages about what to put here and settled on some Circassians or Adiga dancing the dzhegu, more commonly called the lezginka in Russian.

In the 1860s, while in America the Indians were being driven off their land and the British were plundering India, the Russians were busy ethnically cleansing the Circassians from the Sochi area. To this day there are Circassians all over the world, mainly in Turkey, but also in the Balkans, and even in America. 

Now the Circassians have their own autonomous Republic of Adigeya within Russia.

Nizhny Novgorod

One of the host cities on the Volga river. The Volga is an integral part of Russia and Russianness, soul and artery at the same time. There are countless songs and poems celebrating the Volga. Here is one of them, sung by Lyudmila Zykina. This video also shows admirably what music videos were like in the 1960s in the Soviet Union.

Kaliningrad

For Kaliningrad I've chosen music from Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 film Alexander Nevsky, written by Sergei Prokofiev. Both men had recently returned to the Soviet Union after emigrating and now had to produce something that pleased Stalin. Both succeeded. Not only did Stalin love it, but to this day the co-operation of Eisenstein and Prokofiev is considered a milestone both in cinematic and musical history.

Alexander Nevsky tells of the war of Novgorod against the Teutonic order, a state of German crusader knights that dominated the Baltic in the Middle Ages. Königsberg, today's Kaliningrad, was once their capital.

Ekaterinburg

Ekaterinburg is the only Russia 2018 host city in Asia - just across the Urals. To reflect the nearby mountains and its former seclusion as a closed city, plus its history of making ICBMs, for Ekaterinburg I've chosen some electronic music from 1980, Morning in the Mountains by Vladimir Martynov. It sounds like the soundtrack of a nuclear winter. What people got up to with a synthesiser under communism, with only state- but no market censorship, was insane. I don't do electronic music, but this I love.

Saransk

I looked hard for something interesting in Mordovian, the language of the Republic of Mordovia of which Saransk is the capital, but found nothing that fits. Instead I have found something lovely played on the gusli, an ancient instrument more Russian than the balalaika and native to Russians and Finno-Ugric nations like the Mordvins.

Samara

Another Volga city, and the last of the Russia 2018 host cities. I'm going to let you go with the famous Song of the Volga Boatmen, sung by the Red Army Choir. 

I've really enjoyed compiling this post. When you go on a Russian train, I hope some of this music will accompany you and become part of the memory.

If you haven't got plans for going on a Russian train, I hope these soundtracks give you a bit of the feeling.

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