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More from that little Nordic rail trip… Liberalisation doesn’t work

The theory of liberalisation of European railways is all very well. At one level the cross border service between København and Malmo, the Øresundstog, is a good example of it – a rail service running every 10 minutes across the bridge between Denmark and Sweden, and run by neither Swedish incumbent operator SJ nor DSB.

But the first headache is to book tickets – see this post for more on that little conundrum for journeys beyond destinations served by the Øresundstog trains. As well as the general inconvenience of finding good prices, there was no one website that would sell me a through ticket, something that cropped up and an important point again today when taking this train.

Anyway, to the trip itself. I was due to leave København H at 1332 today, arriving Göteborg C at 1715, leaving there at 1800 and arriving Oslo S at 2149.

Having seen heavy snow falling outside the window I headed to København H an hour earlier than scheduled, just in case. All trains to Malmö, let alone on to Göteborg, were arriving at the platform, and then promptly being cancelled, or sent back towards Helsingør. So what to do? DSB employees sent me to Nørreport, telling me to take the Metro to the airport, and from there take a train to Sweden, and the problem was between Kbh H and the airport they said.

But Nørreport Metro station was packed, with not a single employee anywhere, and trains only as far as Øresund station (half way to the airport), but with a Malmö through regular train listed I – erroneously – took that. So back to Kbh H… only for it to be cancelled. Then I headed back to Nørreport station as no-one at Kbh H knew what was going on, and then onto a Metro to Øresund, got thrown out at Lergravsparken, finally changing at Øresund and then took a train that ran at reduced speed through to the airport, arriving 30 mins after my original train should have been passing through there…

The lesson here is that no-one seemed to have any clue what was going on, and the solution – to send people from Kbh H to the Metro – was not viable due to the Metro problems. It’s as if there is a knee-jerk reaction at Kbh H – when things break down there, just send people for the Metro instead. Anyway, the whole mess is typical of DSB – the railway firm with the worst customer service I’ve seen in Western Europe.

Anyway then, I finally got an Øresund train from the airport across the bridge to Malmö, and then a whole new set of problems cropped up. I – understandably enough – took a ticket and stood in line for SJ’s international desk in the station, only to be told that because my train was operated by Øresundstog they could not help me, and I had to go to Skånetrafiken instead. But at Skånetrafiken they could not help, as they had no information about what was happening in Göteborg C (a station run by SJ), and no idea what to do about my connection. “But why didn’t you book a through ticket?” the Skånetrafiken guy asked me. “You can’t” I answered (see the blog entry)*. “You better call NSB then” (operators of the Göteborg-Oslo service) were the parting words from the Skånetrafiken guy.

So here we have two offices in the same station, each basically telling me that I ought to be dealing with the other guys…

In the end, with the clock ticking down to the departure of the next Göteborg train, a full hour after the one I should have taken and hence due to arrive Göteborg C 15 mins after departure of the Oslo train.

The friends I’m due to stay with in Oslo duly called NSB for me, according to the Skånetrafiken guy’s instructions, of course to be told that the train would leave punctually at 1800 and there was no way to make it wait. When I arrived in Göteborg a couple of minutes after 1815 I can indeed confirm it had departed.

So to the fallback options – buses between Göteborg and Oslo. I in the end took the 1905 bus, paying the ticket at my own expense (229 SEK), and am writing while in the bus. It’s due to arrive Oslo at 2240.

But what now? I’ve met the cost of the travel at my own expense due to incompetence of DSB primarily, but also due to the lack of sensible cooperation between the relevant operators. At the very least I want to claim the SEK 229 for the bus back, or the NOK 299 I paid for the train ticket that I couldn’t use between Göteborg and Oslo. But who do I claim from?

A starting point would be to determine what time – if at all – my scheduled 1332 Øresundstog actually arrived at Göteborg C, if it ever did. Because I cannot tell from either Rejseplanen on the Danish side, nor SJ’s app on the Swedish side, if it ever did. Without this information any compensation effort is going to be a game of pass the buck. I don’t personally have the information, as I was not at the station then, but instead battling the Metro as the DSB people at Kbh H had told me that was the best bet… I asked the guard in the later train I instead took, and she had no idea.

So, then, welcome to the liberalised railways of Europe. Nice, market-efficient idea when it works. But if you’re a passenger and it doesn’t, then tough shit. It all becomes a case of pass the buck. What the solution is I have no idea – some sort of rail ombudsman perhaps? – but at the moment all of this just does not work in customers’ favour.

* – now checking it, it seems that through tickets for København – Oslo ARE available from SJ, which was not the case when I tried to book back on 5th November. This, I presume, is because Øresundstog had not made its post-timetable-change data available to SJ at this time. Which is another problem in itself – a timetable change AND snow on the same day, and something is sure to go wrong.


11 Comments

  • Tom |

    I agree that the trains are far from ideal. However, it is possible to book through tickets if you use the sj.se website. I just checked, and I can book Köbenhavn H – Oslo S, with same journey you planned. Neither train is SJ, the first Öresundståg, then NSB; but they can be booked from SJs website.

  • Axel F |

    Dear Jon,

    I’m sorry about your terrible experience with getting to Oslo by train, and I can tell you that as a Norwegian who has relied solely on trains to get around in Europe for the last five years, I’ve had my fair share of disappointments myself.

    But I would like to point out that this stretch has seen some pretty big improvements since the opening of the Oresund bridge in 2000. For example, two years ago, the City tunnel under Malmo was completed, and that shaved 20 minutes off the Copenhagen-Göteborg leg (pun intended), as the train now travels through the city instead of around it. And just this month, a major upgrade of the tracks on the Swedish side of Oslo-Göteborg resulted in a 45 minute gain. So while the entire trip including the connection still takes 8:17 hours according to db.de, it used to be at least an hour longer.

    Of course, you’re probably aware of all this. But I just wanted to point out that things are indeed improving, in the hope that this might persuade more people to start taking the train on this stretch. With enough demand, NSB might even decide to reinstate the Oslo-Copenhagen sleeper which they once offered…

    Now, concerning the Oresund trains, I have a question, because I don’t quite know the specifics of the situation. Is the current system really a result of “liberalization”, as you describe it, or could it be that a new company was simply the best way of operating such a shared cross-border rail network? After all, Oresundtog is still owned by DSB and SJ, if I understand it correctly?

  • Matt |

    The other options are allow for bidding to run trains along the entire line or since rail is essentially a monopoly industry anyway to simply nationalise it. Although you could just not buy a ticket and when either company asks for proof say you bought with the other company.

  • Simon Field |

    I can recommend the Copenhagen – Oslo overnight ferry as a good alternative to what is basically an outer-suburban train to Gothenburg, followed by another to Oslo.

  • Henry Law |

    I make this journey regularly. As I cannot purchase in advance I just get a ticket from Copenhagen to Gothenburg from the ticket office at Copenhagen. If the line to Malmö was not running they should have sent you to Helsingör and told you to take the ferry to Helsingborg and pick up the Gothenburg train there.

    The real problem with SJ (who now run Öresundtåg as DSB-First Group went bust or something) is that it tries to book every passenger onto a particular train in a particular seat, which is yield management gone mad.

    But every shop and public service in Scandinavia is understaffed despite over 20% unemployment in the 16 to 25 age group.

  • Charles_m |

    Sounds a bit like the old British Railways days. I’m old enough to remember how shoddy the BR rolling stock, infrastructure and surly staff were, and expensive to boot. Lots of people now hark back to those state run days as some sort of golden age….

  • Helene |

    Hi Jon

    I’ve just checked Regulation 1371/2007 on rail passengers rights and unless you had a through fare you won’t be covered – but I guess you knew that.

    Indeed it’s quite surprising that the Scandinavian countries haven’t been able to link their timetables and enable you to buy cross-border tickets online. You can buy international tickets at the ticket office at Kbh H, which is a bit of a pain.

    I hope you had a nice time in Oslo tho.

  • Jon |

    And the reason I cannot book a through ticket – the EU – that has harmonised the day of timetable changes, but not a date by which operators have to make timetable and ticket data available to each other! So how am I supposed to do it if I *cannot* book a through ticket?

    Also is this not covered by the international conditions of carriage / CIV?

  • Jon |

    @Tom – see the * at the end of the blog entry. Now through tickets can be booked. The problem was with the 9th Dec timetable change when, just 1 month ahead of time, Øresundstog had not made its data available to SJ. Similar problems also happened between DB and PKP. There needs to be an obligation to make all such data available at least 3 months ahead of time!

    @Henry – yes, I did think of that, although the Kustbanen was running a reduced service due to snow as well, with all trains stopping in every station. So I think I would have missed the connection anyway…

    @Axel – you’re right, technically, that Øresundstog is not thanks to liberalisation. It is more to do with the separation of infrastructure from operations, an important precursor to liberalisation, that such a service could be offered. The Veolia IC train that runs between Malmö and Stockholm is a more proper example of a service that only exists thanks to liberalisation.

    As for the improvements – yes, I am aware of those, esp. in Malmö. Few cross border regions are as well served by rail as Malmö-Copenhagen!

  • Henry Law |

    Öresundtåg was a joint DSB/SJ operation with a pool of stock, class X31, running Helsingör-Göteborg. At that time there was a through service to Malmö via Hässelholm. Öresundtåg was transferred to DSB-First, together with Västtraffiken train services around GBG. SJ then ran a competing faster service GBG to Malmö, later Köpenhamn via Båstad/Ängelholm but then took it off. DSB-First went bust last March and SJ has taken back all the DSB-First train services.

    A recent development has been the introduction of services using 1960s stock, eg Blå Tåget and others. With the introduction of X55 units the Stockholm-GBG route is mostly 2 x X2000 sets. But DFDS would make more sense to Oslo.

So, what do you think ?