Riding the rails in Europe...all trains, all the time!



Waterloo Station London

By Don Heimburger

Spreading a colorful 22 x 30" Deutsche Bahn (DB) railroad map out on the dining room table one evening, I savored the prospects of a European rail adventure.

I had seen many photos of the exciting and sleek European trains, and could actually name some of them, such as the Eurostar, the fast TGV’s and the ICE (InterCity Express) trains. I just had to ride some of the 160,000 miles of Europe’s railway lines to experience them for myself.

The DB rail map showed so many lines—there were electrified lines, lines for both long-distance and short-distance trains, private railways and high-speed lines under construction. There were even bus lines and rack railways.

As the first 15 minutes of map scanning lapsed into almost an hour because of all the rail possibilities, and places I wanted to go, I recognized that I’d have to scale back my plans for a 10-day trip, otherwise I’d never return home again. Besides, once I called up the DB rail schedules on the internet (www.bahn.de), I realized it would take as much as a full day of train riding to journey to some of the towns I wanted to see.

I knew I’d be able to secure good March airfares before the official traveling season began through American Airlines Vacations. I had found AA to offer quality air-hotel packages, so I booked one night in London (to recoup from the seven-hour trans-Atlantic flight), and an evening in Frankfort, Germany, the last city we’d visit.

My wife, Marilyn, would be an excellent travel companion as she could speak and understand enough German to allow us to eat (this is very important). We had planned a number of tight train connections during the trip, so her knowledge of German was a vital component in keeping to our schedule. She had a number of years of German in high school and college, as well as helped chaperone a tour group to Germany before. And the last time we went on a tour of Germany together, people from our bus followed us down the street so they could eat at the same establishments that we did, thinking they could ask Marilyn for help in translating the menu!


I had been to Europe several times before, as had Marilyn, but this would be a trip completely on our own without the help of a guide or any tourist service or agency. Thus it was with determination, and a bit of humility, that I set out to see just exactly how we could piece a 10-day European trip together using many original sources and no middlemen or travel agencies.

My idea was to travel on as many trains as possible, and on as many different trains as possible, see numerous points of popular interest and historic sites along the way, and also do some very specific sightseeing that we had in mind.
While American Airlines was the air carrier, Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com or call 888-382-7245) issued first class Eurail Flexipasses (cost $778 per person) which allowed us to travel 15 days during a two-month period in 17 countries, including Belgium, Denmark, Germany, France, Luxemburg, Spain, Switzerland, Portugal and Italy, among others. This was an absolute bargain because of the number of trains we could ride and the locations to which we could travel.
Other types of Rail Europe passes and terms are also available at different prices.

With the Eurailpass, you are afforded unlimited travel, as well as discounts for tourist railways, hotels and car rentals. You must purchase your ticket while in the U.S. prior to traveling to these places, however. Another requirement is that you have your ticket validated prior to boarding your first train (more on this later). Naturally, you’ll also need a passport, which you can obtain from designated post offices.
Our itinerary would take us to London, then Paris for two nights, then to Wernigerode in the Harz Mountains in former East Germany to ride the steam trains there, and then through Leipzig to Seiffen (the “toy village”) near the Czech Republic border, then to Frankfort. Between all these points were numerous towns we would travel through or at which we would change trains, and we were looking forward to making these connections part of our rail experience.


What I had planned was a railfan’s dream trip throughout a portion of Europe that would not involve any transportation other than trains (both above ground or the underground species)—or the occasional DB bus. In Europe, you don’t need a taxi or a car in most cities if you’re willing to do some walking. The “ring” area of many European cities is best seen by walking anyway.

We left Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on a cold, damp Thursday afternoon on a direct flight to London. After dinner, we had learned from previous flights to begin to relax and try to get some sleep. First-timers will find it hard to get much sleep because of all the excitement, but if you sleep even a few hours, it can pay off once you land.

On a seven-hour flight that begins at 5:20 p.m., you eat supper by 7 or 8 p.m., watch an in-flight movie, get some rest, and before you know it the flight attendants are serving breakfast prior to landing at Heathrow Airport.

We negotiated the famous London Tube from the airport okay, having purchased just a one-way tube ticket to a stop near the four-star Melia White House Hotel near Regent’s Park. After checking in at about 10 a.m. and finding that our room wasn’t ready, we were ushered to a comfortable sunken dining area of the hotel where hot coffee, fresh-squeezed orange juice and pastries were being served. This was very welcoming after a long flight and the cold, damp London winds that literally blew us into the hotel’s front door.
When our room was ready about an hour and a half later, we found that the hotel clerk had upgraded us to a better room because we had to wait. I kinda like those British.

After sleeping off the effects of jet lag, we decided we still had time to walk to the British Museum, where a friend had said the Magna Carta was on display. While the Magna Carta is no longer in the museum, we did enjoy the museum’s food court. It’s a large, open space under a high sun roof that rivals most American shopping mall food courts. Later we were told the Magna Carta was moved to the British Library, but we did see plenty of ancient sculptures, rare books and paintings, nonetheless.

After a candlelight dinner of English fish and chips and Pilsner beer at the Green Man pub across the street from the hotel, we headed back to our room. By 7:30 p.m. we were asleep; that is, except for the unmistakable sound of Far Eastern religious chanting emanating from the next room, which mercifully stopped about 2 a.m.

We were up by 6:15 a.m. and carbed up on the hotel’s “Full English Breakfast” promised us. We noted we had only 10 British pounds left to spend, so we were glad the Eurostar beckoned.


We had made reservations on the 10:39 a.m. Eurostar from London’s Waterloo Station, located not far from the Eye of London and the Royal Festival Hall. Just a couple of weeks before, I had spotted the Waterloo Station facade on a television travel program, and wanted to make sure I arrived in plenty of time to get a photo of it. It seems few people around the station actually know where the front of the station is because there are so many entrances to the structure, but finally a rail information clerk was able to tell me where it was.

Don with train driver
Don shakes hands with German-born Eurostar driver Detlef Hofmann.

After taking pictures (it has a marvelous front—nothing like that of most rail stations in the United States), and grabbing a quick mocha coffee, we headed for the Eurostar gate. I noticed seating in the station was at a premium, but a “Station News” bulletin in a rack mentioned that 40 additional station seats were to be added in early 2004.

The Eurostar departure gate is situated a long walk from the regular train platforms, and in this part of the station there’s another entire retail outlet section where I could have purchased coffee as well, plus numerous other items. But this section is really in need of more seating.

Seems like everyone north of the Thames was riding with us on the Eurostar to Paris that morning. We passed through security, but the attendant said I didn’t have to take off my shoes (which I usually do at airport security screenings because of the steel bars that support my Rockports). “Our X-ray machines aren’t that strong,” said a clerk.

After security came Passport Control, but our agent quickly waved us through and didn’t ask any questions such as, “Are you one of those insane railfans?”

My excitement mounted as the station clock ticked closer to departure time, and finally the doors were opened to the train platform. There were neatly-dressed, accommodating rail agents at nearly every passenger car door to help passengers. We found our seats in first class (there are 58 standard seats per car, for a total capacity of 560 passengers in standard class). In first class cars, there are up to 39 seats, for a total of 206 first class seats. Car #9 is reserved for 24 premium passengers.

I was able to get off the train for a few minutes before departure to photograph the front of the sleek train. After settling in my comfortable seat, I learned we’d be served champagne en route, followed by a complimentary three-course meal at our seats with a choice of wine. Premium passengers are served a four-course meal. I was already beginning to like this trip.

At 10:39 a.m. I noticed that we were moving, but had to tell Marilyn that we had begun our rail adventure—the departure from the station was so smooth she hadn’t even noticed. A Eurostar test train in 2003 hit a speed of 208 miles an hour.
I must say, speeding from central London to Paris in 2-1/2 hours on this express train left me wondering why anyone would want to fly. Since 1994, the Eurostar has transformed cross-channel (they call it the Chunnel) travel, taking people to Avignon in Southern France for skiing, to Calais, to Disneyland Resort-Paris or to Lille. Of course, Paris itself never fails to charm and delight.

Last year, the Eurostar carried 1.7 million passengers in the fourth quarter alone, an increase of 15% from the year before. Eurostar says it savors a 66% share of the London to Paris rail/air route, and a new Channel Tunnel rail link in the United Kingdom cuts the journey by 40 minutes.


As the train left the outskirts of London, there was a noticeable difference in speed, but fewer bumps or squeaks than you’d encounter here in the U.S. on such a fast ride.
The cars feature excellent lighting, they’re carpeted, seats are nearly 20" across and windows are four feet long and 24" high for good viewing. Each seat features footrests, and trays that unfold for food service. The cars have wide aisles and gray and red cloth interiors.

Our car purser (“chef de cabin”) was named Virginia Caron, a most pleasant and courteous young woman, who along with two other crew members, served us in their dark grey and charcoal Jacqueline de Baer-designed “non-uniform uniforms” which have a more relaxed, casual look to them.

Our train engineer (the English call them drivers), was Detlef Hofmann, the only German-born driver the Eurostar employs. David Hake, the train manager, reported that the train travels 186 miles or 300 kilometers an hour. He explained the line was built originally for TGV trains, and later used by the Eurostar.
Watching out the window as we passed automobiles on the highway, I couldn’t help but wonder how fast the cars were going and how fast we were going. All I know is that we were passing cars faster than I’ve ever passed anything on land in my life, and I wasn’t all that used to it.

The scenery passed by so quickly that no sooner did I see it when another panorama appeared, and they all ran together.
Crossing the English Channel, on the bottom side no less, might make some anxious, but it amounts to only 15 to 20 minutes of no scenery; anyway, by then first class passengers are well into their champagne, lunch and wine, and soon the enchanting rural French countryside appears. We never were able to see the tunnel entrance from the train, which is probably a good thing.

The Eurostar experience drew to a close as we headed into the Gard du Nord (North Station) in Paris. As the train drew near the station, I brushed up on a few more French phases just to make sure I had the language correct. One that I worked particularly hard on was, “Je ne parle pas francais.” The words mean, “I don’t speak any French.” If all else failed, at least I would have that excuse.