TRANSPARENCY DISCLAIMER: I work for BahnTouristikExpress, the company that runs the Flixtrain between Hamburg ...
TRANSPARENCY DISCLAIMER: I work for BahnTouristikExpress, the company that runs the Flixtrain between Hamburg and Cologne and Cologne and Berlin. More than half of the trains I work are Flixtrains. I love them very much and may be biased. This post is to help you understand the Flixtrain and use it. It also gives you inside knowledge so you can have a nice trip.
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 Germany's Flixtrains (and buses).
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.
Fast forward five years 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.
Enter the Flixtrain
Before the Flixtrains, some people had tried to start fast mainline 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 Flixbus do really well, it's bums on seats. They have become the go-to address for super-cheap travel. It is where the thrifty turn first.
So Flixbus 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?
Currently there are four Flixtrain lines.
- FLX 10, Stuttgart-Berlin: Run by Czech operator Leo Express. Top speed is 200 km/h (125 mph). Mostly refurbished carriages. The train has a kiosk with quite an extensive menu that includes toasted panini and organic fruit juices.
- FLX 20, Hamburg-Cologne: using the HKX slots, run by BahnTouristikExpress (BTE) using their own carriages. Top speed is 160 km/h (100 mph). Old East and West German carriages. Has a minibar with a basic selection of drinks and snacks.
- FLX 30, Aachen-Cologne-Berlin-Leipzig: since May 2019. Run by Rail Development Corporation Germany (shareholder in BTE) with its own carriages. Top speed is 200 km/h (125 mph). Mostly ex-DB couchettes in day mode. Has a minibar with a basic selection of drinks and snacks.
- Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight with one couchette, attached to BTE's Motorail service from Hamburg-Altona to Lörrach, on the German outskirts of Basel. Food and drink available from the BTE staff.
Onbord services offered by Flixtrain
Though the trains differ depending on who operates them, Flix does demand and provide a certain standard.
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.
Well, Flixtrain have made WiFi work in Cold War carriages. They just did it. Truth be told, onbord WiFi is only as good as the surrounding 4G signal. Between Osnabrück and Hamburg it isn't up to much. In fact, these days Germany is infamous for its pisspoor mobile coverage.
Power for your devices
Another Flix-Must is sockets for charging your phone and laptop. Though the carriages are old, more and more are being equipped with 220V and USB power outlets.
Until all coaches have their sockets, Flixtrain 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.
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 Stuttgart-Berlin line, on the other hand, has a proper kiosk and an impressive selection of drinks and cold and hot snacks.
On the Flixnight service you can get a small selection of snacks from the BahnTouristikExpress staff.
The company running the FLX 20 (Hamburg-Cologne) and FLX 30 (Berlin-Cologne) recently bought four half-bistro/first class carriages that used to run in the Berlin-Warszawa express.
There are always at least two plying the routes somewhere. The kiosk has moved in here and everyone is very pleased about this unexpected luxury.
Though seating is generally a free-for-all on the Flixtrains, Flixtrain do offer seat reservations on all their day trains. Two carriages have reserved seating, while in the remaining cars it remains open season.
I think this is brilliant. It is much more user-friendly than Deutsche Bahn's reservation system, in which wherever you are sitting someone can come along and say you are in their seat.
Under the Flixtrain reservation system, as long as you are not in one of the reserved carriages, you can rest assured that your seat is yours.
Seat reservations are €3.49, or €3.99 if you want a window - the "panorama option".
Flixtrain's seat numbering system reflects their coach mentality. It organises the seats into rows with numbers and seats A, B and C, disregarding the seat numbers the carriages already have, and also the compartment layout.
I didn't like it at first, but now I'm, like, whatever works.
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?
I go to great lengths for you, my readers. One of these lengths is to work on the Flixtrain.
Since June 2018 I have been working for BahnTouristikExpress, a small train company specialised in special and charter trains. BTE run the Flixtrains between Cologne and Hamburg and Cologne and Berlin. Therefore I spend a lot of time on Flixtrains.
The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain
The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain is usually formed of ten coaches. Reserved seats are in coaches 1 and 2. In all other carriages it is a free for all.
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. There is a bicycle section and space for wheelchairs.
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 Flixbus driver app and Bluetooth printer where once a Deutsche Reichsbahn guard meticulously issued hand-written paper tickets.
FLX 20 Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain timetable
The trains usually leave Hamburg Hbf once, twice or thrice a day. They call at Hamburg-Harburg, Osnabrück, Münster, Gelsenkirchen, Essen, Duisburg, Düsseldorf and reach Cologne a good four hours later. And vice versa.
Starting December 2019, there are also some express Flixtrains that go non-stop between Essen and Hamburg. These are half an hour faster.
There is now at least one Flixtrain per day between Cologne and Hamburg, around the weekend there can be even three.
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, Flixbus market it as a Flixtrain and sell the tickets.
Usually formed of ten coaches. On this train, carriages 7 and 8 are with reservations, while all the others are free seating.
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 present on the inside. On the outside most of them are now covered with green Flixtrain foil.
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.
More and more of these have sockets now. If you end up in one of the carriages without sockets, just fetch yourself a power bank from the minibar.
FLX 10 Berlin-Frankfurt-Stuttgart timetable
There is at least one Flixtrain from Berlin to Stuttgart every day. On some days there are two. Here is a direct link to their timetable.
As of 15th December 2019, the daily Berlin-Stuttgart Flixtrain departs Berlin Hbf at 14:56 and calls at Berlin Südkreuz, Halle, Erfurt, Gotha, Eisenach, Fulda, Frankfurt South, Darmstadt, Weinheim, Heidelberg and Stuttgart. At the weekends there is an additional service that leaves Berlin Hbf. at 06:53.
In the other direction, the daily train leaves Stuttgart early in the morning at 7:04. At the weekends there is an additional service leaving Stuttgart at 14:12.
New: Berlin-Cologne Flixtrain now extended to Aachen and Leipzig
On 23rd May 2019 another Flixtrain line started up. I was the train manager on the inaugural trip from Cologne to Berlin.
This Flixtrain consists mainly of ex-City-Night-Line couchettes in day mode and reaches a top speed of 200 km/h at some stages of its journey.
I digress: realistic timetables
What is great about this Flixtrain is that it has been realistically timetabled. The timetable assumes a top speed of 155 km/h, and little pockets of extra time abound.
If the train is late, it can go faster. It can also leave out the secret stops in the middle of nowhere.
Thus it is usually on time. In fact, several times I have reached Berlin Central ahead of schedule.
By contrast, Deutsche Bahn times its ICE with no breathing space. Furthermore, it can't give up its ludicrous fantasy that nothing will go wrong. Of course, things constantly go wrong. The pervasive glitches and failures tear into punctuality, and so Deutsche Bahn's ICEs and ICs are so unreliable. But I digress.
On my last trip I left Cologne half an hour late and still got to Berlin 15 minutes early.
Leipzig-Berlin-Cologne-Aachen FLX 30 timetables
As of 15th December 2019 there is at least one Flixtrain between Leipzig, Berlin, Cologne and Aachen on most days. On some there are two.
The FLX 30 leaves Leipzig and calls at Wittenberg, Berlin Südkreuz, Berlin Hbf, Hanover, Dortmund, Essen, Duisburg, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Aachen. And vice versa. Around the weekend almost all services run the full course, while some terminate at Berlin and Cologne respectively.
The Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight
This is something I never saw coming: Flixbus 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 summer and holiday weekends between Hamburg-Altona and Lörrach, on the outskirts of Basel on the German side of the border.
This is a train consisting of two sleeping cars, four to five couchettes and several car-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.
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 all summer weekends there is at least one service in both directions. During the holidays it runs almost every night. The season ends in October, then there is a flurry of services around Christmas.
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, Karlsruhe, 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.
Coming in the spring 2020: FLX 15
In spring 2020 another line is expected to start up. Flixtrain and a partner called SVG (not my company) are poised to launch a new Flixtrain service between Hamburg and Stuttgart.
As soon as the train is running, I shall have it here too.
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 Schönes-Wochenende or Quer-Durchs-Land tickets, 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.
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 getting 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.
So how much do tickets cost?
It depends. Flixtrain adhere strictly to the dynamic pricing system.
Tickets 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. Cologne-Berlin - €90.
I have seen people on the Flixtrain with tickets that cost €2.19 from Cologne to Hamburg - less than a single bus ticket in most cities in Germany.
Tickets for the Flixnight start at €19.99 and rise. A week beforehand in summer you can pay €59.99.
Is it really competition?
This is what I think of Flixtrains:
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.
I'm not sure Flixtrain 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.
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 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
And I love the passengers. They are polite, they don't complain, they are happy to be going somewhere. When we arrive they get off and tell me what a nice trip it has been.
Future Flixtrains in Sweden, Belgium and France
Flixtrain has advanced plans for starting train services in Sweden, France and Belgium.
What do I mean by advanced plans?
- Flixtrain have already applied for track access paths in these countries. There is talk of trains between Gothenburg and Stockholm, between Paris and Brussels and between Paris and Nice - overnight!
- I understand some 140 RIC (internationally usable) carriages are being refitted for Flixtrain services
- I recently had a Flixtrain route planner on one of my trains. We had a lovely chat. He was brimming with optimism and seemed ready to take over Europe with green trains.
It remains to be seen what will come to fruition and how soon.
Watch this space. As soon as a service starts running, I shall write about it here. In the meantime...
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.
In spite of their ambition and their mighty backers, Flixbus 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.
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