Traveling Through Europe: Die Bahn

As far as I remember, getting around Europe and especially Germany had never been as tedious and complicated as relying on public transport in the States. A trip to Paris in 2009 had only taken me 3 hours by train from Mannheim. Flying out to Austria that same year was accomplished by taking a cheap and fast shuttle to the airport Hahn. Easy.

This time I didn’t want to rely on my parents’ car during my stay, so I remembered the easy-going, well-working public infrastructure and confidently checked my options for getting from their place to Heidelberg, which is a two and a half hour drive by car – depending on speed and traffic, that is. The only way to comfortably travel would be through a railway company called “Die Deutsche Bahn” (DB), probably comparable to the National Rail in UK and not comparable to anything Americans have (Amtrak included). DB offers discounted tickets and packages to get from one European city to another, such as when taking a train from Cologne to Amsterdam or Paris, which can be as low as 60 Euro per ride but only takes two to three hours at the most. A trip from the Eifel, namely Bitburg to Heidelberg and back, was in about the same price range, which is really not that much considering the high amount of connecting trains you have to catch as the Eifel is very isolated. So when I booked my ticket I was glad that I had gotten a better deal than driving a car down there as dealing with the horrendous gas prices, which were around €1.50/l (roughly converts to $8.00/gal, compare the NYC average at $3.75/gal!), would have cost me way more than relying on the train system.

The entire ride to Heidelberg was supposed to take 4 hours, and perhaps half an hour more on the way back, a Sunday evening.

It already started pretty bad good: The train entering Bitburg was 2 minutes late. This might not seem like a big deal to Americans, as their trains are constantly late. But in Germany every connecting train has a tight schedule to follow. With a 2 minutes delay I only had 4 minutes to catch the train to Saarbrücken in Trier. I even almost made it to the right platform and was about to laugh out loud at how lucky I was when the ICE zoomed right past me towards the Southern tip of the rail. As I had been ignorant of North and South, I had stepped off the Northern end and there was no way I would make it to the South within one minute. Sure enough, just as I sprinted across the platform and arrived at the rear end of the last wagon, the train shut its doors (so much to waiting for paying customers!) and rode off – leaving me looking about as stupid as it gets at a train station in the middle of nowhere. This time I was rather lucky, though, as the person handling customer requests was having a good day and switched my ticket to a fast train going over Koblenz but directly into Heidelberg, meaning I would not have to switch at all anymore during the entire trip. So after about 5 hours I made it to my destination and thought it couldn’t get worse on my way back.

Boy was I wrong!

Sunday evening approached and 20 minutes before the train was scheduled to depart a thunderstorm set in, sending buckets of rain to the ground. Almost as bad as hurricane Irene. So before I had even started my trip my train back home was already delayed. This time I was supposed to switch two times during the trip but I had to stand in line at customer service again, because I would have surely missed the connecting train in Mannheim (since I had seven minutes of time). The train was 20 minutes late, the customer service agent was about as unfriendly as she could get and only grumpily stamped my ticket after I had pointed out to her that I would surely be kicked out of the train immediately without this form of approval. The best part was when she almost spat at me in her Eastern German accent and my friend standing next to me, a former Eastern European herself, looked as if she wanted to kill her for misrepresenting her part of the country so badly. I still laugh at this image in my head today.

The 20 mins delay in Heidelberg

Looong story told a teeny bit shorter: I took my delayed first train, which went straight through to Koblenz (up North, before going down South to Trier again – don’t ask me where the logic is). As it turns out, this particular train was experiencing a few difficulties along the way and had to be rerouted across a different bridge when passing through Mainz. Especially this last reroute caused a delay of one hour when arriving in Koblenz. Of course my connecting train to Trier was long gone by then. As I made it once again down to the customer service booth, I saw a pretty lost- and confused-looking American standing behind me, who was going the same direction (to Bitburg) and didn’t have a clue of how to communicate with these people (their English was rather moderate). Since we were going the same way, they told us to take the last ICE that evening, which would arrive in 20 minutes (this one was another 20 minutes too late, I really wonder what was going on that day). From Trier, though, there would be no connecting train to Bitburg considering the “late” hour of 11 PM, so they wrote us a coupon for a taxi. A TAXI! When all I wanted to take was the train. A cab ride from Trier to Bitburg is another 25 minutes, I assume. After seeing that our very last train was late, too, I gave up and called my mother. She said she could pick us up in Wittlich, which is only 40 minutes from their house. The American was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get a cab to his destination with his moderate skills in German and we gave him a ride to Bitburg. Both of us were simply glad when we made it back home and were able to escape the horrors of this adventurous, tedious, ridiculous trip!

So, in conclusion: A four and a half hour train ride ended up taking me six (!) hours on the road. I wouldn’t have made it to my destination by train but would have had to rely on means of taxi and the help of others. Only because I was able to understand what customer service told me I understood the concept of adjusting to new connecting trains (imagine foreigners trying to understand the chaos going on that day! Awful!).

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such an epic fail in public transportation in Germany. And I don’t think I ever want to do so, either. So the next time I’m planning on getting around to places which are less than 3 hours away, I will TAKE A CAR AND GLADLY PAY THOSE 8 Dollars per gallon! It’s better than having my time wasted and my nerves strained than having to go through something like this ever again!

Zänk juh for träwelling wis Deutsche Bahn.

Pictures I took on the way to and fro (since I had plenty of time):

Didn't even know they still had these!
Village on the river Moselle on my way to Koblenz
A train station I never wanted to see

2 thoughts on “Traveling Through Europe: Die Bahn

  1. Yikes how frustrating. Glad I came across this. I’m about to move to Heidelberg, and I have a friend who lives in Bitburg, so if we go down there I imagine I’ll just skip the hassle and take our car.

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