Category Archives for "Reviews"

Nightjet; Night Train; EuroNight
Mar 16

Nightjet: 17 Lines of Night Train Awesomeness

By Edward | Reviews , Western Europe

Have you heard of the Nightjet? 

The Nightjet is an overnight train service.

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

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

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

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

Endless tales of my adventures

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

But I digress.

Nightjet Euronight Night Train

Nightjet Sleeping Car

Night Train Basics

First, some absolute basics.

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

There is also an attendant who ensures your safety.

Most continental European night trains have three types of carriage

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

Nightjet Couchette Car

Enter the Nightjets

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

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

What is the difference between Nightjets and EuroNights?

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

The Nightjet is a better EuroNight. 

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

Nightjet Destinations

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

Nightjet review Euronight

The Nightjet network as of 2019. The thin grey lines are other companies' night services.

Nightjet: How to get the best tickets

These are the easiest ways to get Nightjet tickets:

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

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

...and how much Nightjet tickets cost

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

The cheapest prices on the Nightjet

The cheapest Nightjet prices

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

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

Nightjet with a Eurail or Interrail pass

The Eurail and Interrail pass is accepted on the Nightjet.

However:

You need to reserve a berth on the Nightjet. Either do it at a ticket office, or over the phone under +43 5 1717-3. You can’t get Pass holder reservations online. Here is what you have to pay for these supplements:

Nightjet Eurail Interrail

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

Newrest Wagons-Lits: Inventors of the Orient Express

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

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

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

So far, so sleazy, right?

No!

Free water on the Nightjet

The free water you get on the Nightjet couchette and sleeper

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

Wash room on Nightjet

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

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

This is how famous they are.

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

Power outlet on Nightjet couchette

Socket in Nightjet couchette

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

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

Sitting up or lying down?

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

A happy and cheap way to travel

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

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

Seated Car on European Night Train

Nightjet Seated Car Interior

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

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

A huge communal mattress

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

Seated Car on European Night train

The communal mattress in action

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

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

Until the 11th of April 2019 you can book a private compartment for up to three people for €99. After that, the price starts at €174
Seat Car on European Night Train

More communal mattress. Notice the sockets above the rubbish bin

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

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

The seated car from the outside

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

Good couchettes and bad couchettes

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

NIghtjet EuroNight Night Train Europe

Lower bunk in Nightjet couchette

But.

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

NIghtjet EuroNight Night Train Europe

Upper berth on a Nightjet couchette

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

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

Nightjet couchette

Nightjet six-couchette setup

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

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

Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

Freshly wiped floors in a Nightjet couchette

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

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

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

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

Sleeper

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

Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

Freshly made bed in Nightjet sleeper

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

Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

Freshly made bed on Nightjet sleeper

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

Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

Yet another freshly made Nightjet sleeper bed

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

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

As I wrote in my viral tweet:

When booking the Nightjet sleeper, always book Deluxe (berths 32-36, 42-46, 52-56) if possible. If not, ask for 31-35, 41-45 or 51-55. These compartments have more space. Avoid 11-15 (next to loo) and 62-66 (next to kitchen - keys jangling, attendants cursing).

Click to Tweet

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

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

Another Nightjet sleeper bed

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

They are awesome.

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

Want to use the Nightjet in your wheelchair?

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

Wheelchair Nightjet PRM

The Nightjet wheelchair compartment

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

Wheelchair accessible compartment

The two beds in the wheelchair-accessible compartment

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

A trip worth every cent of €204

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

Nightjet Euronight Night Train

Oh this again 


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

Getting on

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

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

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

Going to bed

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

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

Nightjet Goodie Bag Unboxing Video


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

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

The breakfast interrogation

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

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

Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

She slept all night in this bed

Getting up and out

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

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

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

Breakfast on the Nightjet

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

What I think of breakfast in sleepers

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

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

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

What I think of the Nightjets

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

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

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

Nightjet Advert on Tram

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

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

Excitement and Indulgence

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

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

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

Swiss Dining Car SBB Elvetino Restaurant Car
Jan 10

Review: The Restaurant Car on Swiss Trains

By Edward | Reviews

Before I begin: I digress

Before I get going on the Swiss railways' restaurant car, have I told you about the Edward Scale?

No, I haven't. The Edward Scale is my way of ranking restaurants.

How to rank restaurants on the Edward Scale

It is simple: a restaurant’s food should be better than its furnishings.

Good food is always good. Bad pizza does not become good pizza if you screw a Vespa to the wall and drape Italian flags everywhere.

A restaurant with a contrived interior doth protest too much. It is fur coat and no knickers.

Swiss restaurant car review

This restaurant doth protest too much

You give points from 1-10 for food, 10 being the best, and points from 1-10 for the interior - furnishing, decorating etc, 1 being the most basic, 10 being the most elaborate. Then you subtract the interior points from the food points to get your result on the Edward Scale. 

The best possible score is +10, the worst score is -10. Any restaurant that scores more than zero on the Edward Scale is worth visiting. Even zero on the Edward Scale is OK. Anything below zero, avoid.

The best-ranking restaurant on the Edward Scale

For a long time the place with the best result on the Edward Scale was a small Russian dumpling stand, Pelmeni Welt, in the square outside Berlin Ostbahnhof. 

Pelmeni Welt got a whopping 9 points on the Edward Scale: 9 points for its food (I grudgingly had to deduct one point because of the microwave) - minus 0 points for the interior.

Swiss Dining Car review

Pelmeni Welt at Berlin Ostbahnhof

It simply has no interior. Pelmeni Welt is a sort of shack, odd bits of wood nailed together and covered with a tarpaulin. There is a gas burner heating it and toddlers’ scribblings on the wall, possibly by the great-grandchildren of the 85 year old Latvian proprietor, Vladimir Egozov.

Every time I make it to Berlin Ostbahnhof I pray that Vladimir is still alive and that the muddy early-90s post-communist reserve outside Berlin Ostbahnhof in which Pelmeni Welt stands hasn’t been bulldozed.

As my train pulls into Berlin Ostbahnhof I tremble as I open the train door. Then I dash down the stairs and out the north exit and into the square overlooked by what was once a Centrum Warenhaus, East Germany’s department store chain.

Five minutes later I sit hunched over a steaming, mismatched, chipped bowl of Pelmeni doused in broth and piled with fresh herbs, adjika (a hot, Georgian tomato-pepper sauce) and sour cream, as Vladimir tries to talk me into opening a franchise in Munich.

Swiss dining car restaurant car review

Pelmeni at Pelmeni Welt

The food is absolutely mind-blowing. The shack creaks in the wind and an old CRT television blares Russian music videos.

OK, OK, I’m digressing, but I want you to know about the Edward scale so that you can follow my future food reviews.

Meet the Swiss Restaurant Car

So this post is about the Swiss restaurant car usually found in international Swiss rail services and about Elvetino, the people who run it. Elvetino is the catering company owned by SBB for servicing their trains with food.

Swiss Restaurant car review SBB Elvetino

The Swiss restaurant car

In my case, I was on EuroCity 8, which runs from Zürich HB to Hamburg-Altona. Though most of its journey is in Germany, this service is run with nice SBB coaches.

To go on a Swiss train is to enter a world in which rail travel gets the devotion it deserves. Everything works. Especially the loos. There are power outlets. Everything is clean.

Me, I’m a compartment gal. I resent that all the SBB have to offer is saloon seating. Especially after dark, when the lighting comes on and you can’t see out the windows due to the bright strip lighting.

Swiss Restaurant car review SBB Elvetino

Fine during the day, but depressing at night: saloon seating in SBB Eurocity coaches. Is like a morgue. Best go to the restaurant car...

Ambience

What is gorgeous, though, is the SBB restaurant car, even at night. Especially at night.

Swiss Restaurant car review SBB Elvetino

Heavy black leather chairs, white table cloths, red walls. Same theme as the SBB livery

The overall atmosphere is restrained, elegant and discreet. It has heavy black, leather, movable chairs and plain white table cloths. Crockery and cutlery are china and metal respectively, and they feel opulent.

Warm, emmolient spotlights instead of the cold, morgue striplighting everywhere else on the train. All the tables are aligned with the windows. 

Everyone talks in murmurs. The waitress glides about like a vestal virgin, nodding her head at whispered orders. Germans come and are in awe. In such awe in fact that they pay €5.00 for a tin of insipid Feldschlösschen beer without complaining.

Menu

The menu is equally restrained and elegant, and surprisingly unpretentious. There is choice, but not too much.

Swiss Restaurant car review SBB Elvetino

The main courses on the menu in the Swiss restaurant car

All classic, salt-of-the-earth Swiss food, with meat, without, and even vegan. Not the ostentatious seitan vegan, where the worse it tastes the holier it makes you. Just food that happens to be vegan.

Some appetizers and salads, some main courses, some puddings. Some hot and cold drinks, and that is it.

My actual meal

I spent almost six hours in the SBB dining car. I got on at Koblenz, where I live at the moment, and stayed all the way to Hamburg.

Drink! Drink! Drink!

I kicked things off with some fancy beer from Ticino. Craft, artigianale and all that. Read: expensive. Apart from the permanent selection of beers Elvetino have a constantly changing offer of regional Swiss special beers. This is what I went for.

Swiss Restaurant car review SBB Elvetino

The Rhine as seem from my vantage point in the Swiss restaurant car

I had had this beer a couple of weeks before, had wanted to hate it but loved it. Afterwards I had opened the Ukrainian Obolon’ Zhihulivs’ke beer that I had brought with me - which I had wanted to love but hated. My days of drinking warm beer from 1 liter plastic bottles are over.

The standard beer in the SBB restaurant is Feldschlösschen from a 0.5l tin. Feldschlösschen tastes like Swedish supermarket beer - weak and bland. Better to pay a tiny bit more for much better beer.

I drank it slowly and soaked up the atmosphere as the train twisted along the Rhine. The sun was already setting, and it bathed the tables in shimmering orange light. Just before Cologne I decided to stay and have something to eat. I promised myself I would write a review for it on the blog, to justify the indulgence.

Swiss restaurant car review

The Swiss restaurant car

As a main course I ordered the Polenta with Ratatouille and another Ticino beer. The Vestal Virgin had made me pay straight away for my first bottle (which I resented), but now she saw I meant business and brought everything else I ordered and merely added it to my bill.

Hot through 

The Polenta took reassuringly long to come. I didn’t dare look to see if there was a microwave. Obviously, this stuff is cooked off the premises. It is not food, it is catering. But it is good. Most probably it was warmed up in a steamer. It was properly hot through and showed no tell-tale signs of having been microwaved. Fantastic.

Swiss Rail Dining Car Restaurant Car Review Elvetino

My polenta looking great

It tasted great. The polenta was nice and maizey, soft but grainy, and the Ratatouille was sweet and tomatoey. The whole thing was well balanced and very satisfying. The beer went very well with it.

I lose control

I don’t remember what happened then, but what I do know is that I must have read the menu again and ordered the “panna cotta with raspberry coulis”.

Somehow, the Swiss manage to use French without sounding pretentious.

Anyway, I couldn’t resist it. I had an espresso to go with it and it came in a proper china cup and was also just right. Strong and smokey and not at all bitter.

Swiss Restaurant car review SBB Elvetino

Panna cotta and raspberry coulis and espresso

By now it was past 9 PM and the waitress had shut up shop. So I still sat in the empty dining car and watched the darkness whirl past the window.

Cheaper than a psychologist

Well, it was hardly going to be cheap, was it? I hear you already:  Yeah, Eddie, tell us, what was the damage?

Swiss Restaurant Car review SBB Elvetino

What I paid

Well, I blew all 30 of my Swiss franks and then parted with some euros as well. But if you compare it with real restaurants in Switzerland, the price is OK. It isn’t cheap, but it is exquisite, so on balance, you get your money’s worth. I think.

Expect to pay between €30-€50 per person for food, drink, pudding and coffee.

Verdict

First, the Edward Scale. The Swiss restaurant car gets 4 points on the Edward Scale.

The food gets seven points. Remember this is not freshly cooked, it is warmed up. But it is the best warmed up food I've ever had on a train.

SBB Swiss Restaurant Car Review Elvetino

The interior gets three points - it is tables, chairs, table cloths and cutlery. Only the necessities, but Elvetino don't skimp. They have the best necessities. Otherwise the decorations are restricted to red panelling and vague mountain scenery.

So we subtract three interior points from seven food points to get four points on the Edward Scale.

Overall experience

Imagine this: you spend one or two hours (in my case five or six) in a sumptuous atmosphere, sitting very comfortably and watching the scenery flit by. Everyone is nice to everyone else, no one is in a hurry. It is so civilised

A visit to the Swiss restaurant car is like a little holiday - a holiday from austerity. It is like a sojourn to some older Europe in which the small things still matter and haven't been sacrificed to efficiency and the bottom line. 

Swiss Restaurant Car review SBB Elvetino


I left feeling mellow, relaxed and civilised. I had been feeling depressed about the impending five days away from home, battling with broken heatings and loos on the Flixtrain. This made me feel better than any psychologist could have done.

As I wrote in my rapturous tweet, you feel like you are in a more glamorous, exciting version of your own life. 

So, next time on a Swiss train, plan for the restaurant car. Factor it in to your budget.

Have a look at their current menu right here.

It may not be cheap, but it is worth it. 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Second class on the ICE 4

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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

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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".

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 without paying a penny extra.

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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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