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Train Ride from Hell

For a long time, I’ve loved to travel by train. While we lived in the U.S., I commuted by train for years and once took a very long train ride, coast to coast and back. On that trip, there was a 42 hour leg from Chicago to Seattle that required two overnights. On one of those nights, we gathered in a lounge car and sang songs until the wee hours. It’s been twenty years and I still remember that night and that train ride with a lot of fondness. I’ve long been an advocate of train travel but had I not been an experienced train traveler, I may have changed my mind after what just happened to us.

Here in Europe, trains are used much more frequently for long distance travel than in the U.S. and this past weekend we took a train to Berlin. In a subsequent post, I will talk about Berlin, but for the moment, I will confine myself to only the train trip, the Train Ride from Hell. It almost turned into the Train Rides from Hell plural.

Early Friday morning, we happily left home for Berlin, our longest trip from home so far. Berlin is about 400 miles from here. Paris is about 300 with a bullet train so it was only a three hour ride but from Amsterdam to Berlin it’s scheduled for more than six hours and we’re almost an hour from Amsterdam. We easily made our connection in Amsterdam so we were off.

Because the Netherlands is a small country, they have to adapt. All announcements on international trains are made in Dutch, English, and in this case, German. After about two hours we crossed the German border. The Germans are the big boys in town with a population of almost 85 million, the largest in Europe. They have the largest economy. They don’t adjust to you, you adjust to them. Therefore, the first stop in Germany was announced in German. No Dutch. No English. There was something familiar about this setup but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

We were moving along quite nicely for about three and a half hours when the train came to a rather abrupt stop. We sat there for about 20 minutes when an announcement was made. In German. There was a collective groan. Lynn and I looked at each other. We were aware of no other English speaking people in our vicinity, so we waited for a conductor. After a while she came by and we asked what was going on. She said she didn’t speak English so well but would try. "Acksidension." "There was an accident?" I asked. "Ja, accident mit menshen." "With a man?" I asked. She nodded. I pointed to my heart and asked, "Heart attack?" She shook her head no. Then she made a gesture with her left hand and put two fingers in the shape of railroad tracks. She took her other hand and made a walking motion across the tracks. Finally, she took one finger, placed it at her throat, and drew her finger across the front of her throat. Lynn and I replicated the groan that we previously heard from the other passengers. This had to be intentional. The train was riding on a berm that was about 20 feet high on both sides of the tracks. It was heavily wooded on both sides but the woods were pretty narrow, about 30 feet. He couldn’t have wandered on the tracks by accident.

After about two hours we went on our way. When we got to the next station, everyone got off the train. Someone told us that there was a train malfunction and we would need another train. We waited at this station in the middle of nowhere for about a half hour when the new train pulled in. We all climbed on and away we went but this time making lots of local stops. I don’t know how long we were riding when we got to Hanover. Everyone got off the train again so we followed. We never found out why. After about 40 minutes we got on another train. This was also packed. There were no seats for us in the passenger compartments. Trains here make accommodations for bicycles. These areas have relatively uncomfortable seats and racks to tie bikes up to. There were five bikes there and one open seat with some young folks sitting on the floor. Lynn took the seat. I carry a little portable seat with me so I opened it up and parked myself up against the bikes because there was no other room that wasn’t in the path of the foot traffic between cars. Some kid with a bike came in and asked me to move. I asked where he wanted me to go as there was no other space. He told me it wasn’t his problem. I assured him it was his problem as I was already there and I wasn’t moving because there was no place to move to. He leaned his bike against something and I spent much of the trip making sure his bike didn’t fall and wondering why he was glaring at me each time I looked up from my book.

We were due in Berlin at 5:30 p.m. We finally arrived at close to 9 p.m. We were given a form to fill out to apply for a refund using their on-time guarantee program which says they will arrive within 60 minutes. I stood in line for about 20 minutes to find out that the refund was worth a whole €5.

On the way home we knew we golden. What else could happen? At the last stop in Germany, several German police entered the car wanting to see everyone’s passport. When I asked why, I was told it was "identity control" and that it was "normal procedure." Naturally I felt much safer that my identity had been controlled but wondered why it hadn’t happened in the other direction and why others told us they hadn’t seen it before. Then it was announced, in English after we were back in the Netherlands, that there was a derailment just south of Amsterdam and that there would be bus service from Amsterdam to another station where we could continue our journey by train. We were due in Amsterdam at about 11 p.m so this news was not thrilling. A conductor came through and asked where our final destination was and we told him. He suggested getting off at Amersfoort, changing to Rotterdam and then home. It turned out that we got home about 20 minutes earlier this way. The second calamity actually worked in our favor and we had a great night’s sleep.

More about Berlin soon. And in case you’re wondering, I’m still a train advocate.


2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008