When traveling with the Deutsche Bahn (German Railways), there are two extreme forms of communication to keep in mind, which annoy the customer the most: There is no information and there is the decision that is made and there is no compromise. This is especially the case when you find a train arriving for you to board, with the info-board saying the train is leaving in a half hour to your destination, and you enter the train that is unlocked, ONLY to find that you are locked in and your train leaves the platform 20 minutes earlier, enroute to the railyard for repairs!!! You are surprised when the conductor enters the train and finds a trespasser frantically waiting to get out and return to the train station to catch your real connecting train, if it hadn’t left while he found a way to shuttle you back in the meantime.
People being trapped in miscommunication with the Bahn is nothing new to passengers, for announcements and information on the trains are sometimes very patchy, causing confusion and sometimes anger among the passengers dependent on train service as the alternative to driving the car. Whether there is neither information on the info-board nor announcements on the train and it arrives without notice, the lack of communication between the Bahn and the customers is an ongoing problem, and one that cannot be ignored, along with the increasing costs of traveling by train.
Some more examples of such headaches include a person boarding an ICE train upon arrival at Frankfurt without any information on whether or not to board, only to be locked up for 20 minutes while the cleaning crew takes out the garbage and cleans the seats before allowing people to board enroute to Dresden. Then there is a train that is supposed to leave the platform on time, only to be cancelled without notice because the loc driver went on strike. Or one that is my all time favorite: while riding the CityNightLine enroute to Geneva, 15 minutes before approaching Fulda so that the train can be separated between the one going to Basel and one going to Munich and Vienna, I was trapped in the latter train without notice, as train crews locked the door of the section going to Basel- and this while in the restroom next to a restaurant!
From my own personal experience traveling with the Bahn ever since coming to Germany, one can find the miscommunication very often with long-distance trains, in particular, the ICE, for despite its biggest strength of being the fastest and most efficient, customer service is the poorest. This includes a lack of communication between train crew and customers in terms of providing available information on connections, being impatient with customers arriving from trains that are late, providing alternative train connections that are not realistic, and lastly, being too arrogant to provide information via announcements- both in German as well as in English. When an announcer on an ICE-train upon arriving says “Alle vorgesehene Zügen werden erreicht” (All connections will be reached) and sometimes in a broken dialect in English, the first natural reaction you will find in any situation falls along the lines of : “Häh????”
After having my experience of being locked in a train two times within one month, I decided to provide you with a few tips so that you can get the information you want and not be entangled in a web of misunderstanding.
- When a train is waiting to leave for your destination, don’t board right away but wait until 10 minutes before departure. Chances are if a train is on the platform and you have 30 minutes to wait, it will either head to the railyard or is locked with the cleaning crew on board. Better to drink a coffee or Glühwein at the train station and enjoy some company with strangers than to have an experience of a lifetime.
- While on the ICE, make sure you have access to a broschure to see when you will reach your destination and what connecting trains are available. They are both in German and English. Chances are likely that you have more than one possibility to catch your connecting train in case you missed the first one.
- Know your train and where you should be, especially when travelling overnight. While the CityNightLine is now defunct, other trains have taken its place, such as the EuroNight, EuroCity and NachtZug (Night Train) that have arrangements similar to what was mentioned. That means if a train separates at a railyard station, like Fulda, Hamburg, Nuremberg, etc., please be sure to be in your own carriage 20 minutes before the procedure starts so that you are not locked in the wrong one and end up going in the wrong direction.
- While we’re talking about back-up plans, don’t bind yourself with one connection- one train. The German Railways do have Flexi-Tickets and other options, especially if you have a BahnCard. I personally have BahnCard 25 but they have 50 and 100. Pending on how often you travel by train, it is best to look at the best options which will help you financially and in terms of your sanity.
- Communicate with the train crew. If in doubt, ask. If you don’t like their service, make it known. The train crew is paid to do one important thing, which is to make the customer happy. They cannot afford to be arrogant, even though there are some explanations for their lack of logic. However they are sometimes very helpful, especially in situations where the customer needs some guidance in difficult situations.
- Lastly, be patient. All of us are human, and many of us make mistakes. Therefore, if you are in any of the situations like the ones mentioned here, relax. There is always a way out of any bad situation. I’m reminded of the song by the Wiseguys which describes the adventures of the German Railways quite well, and one doesn’t need to learn German or English just to see the descriptions and the facial reactions of the passengers (see this Genre of the Week Article here).
And if you want my word of advice: If you are ever in doubt whether or not you should board your train and you have more than enough time to spare, please, bitte NICHT einsteigen. Even if the sign says the train is leaving at your time, it is better to wait until right before the train’s planned departure than to board too early only to be locked in at the worst possible time. Especially if the crew wants to clean the train before it leaves, it is better to have a coffee and sandwich at a restaurant and give them a token of thanks for their service than to have some frowned looks in the end. 🙂
Author’s personal note: In reference to the CityNightLine train heading to Geneva, the one I now tout as the Jodie-Foster-Express thanks to the film Flightplan, I did manage to get back into the carriage going to Basel but not before waiting 20 minutes until one of the railway workers came and led me off the Munich coach back onto the Basel coach. With my wife accompanying me to Geneva, my first response to her question of what happened was: “Don’t ask!” 😉