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Posts tagged with: DB

A rail postcard from Liège


Dear Siim,

I’m writing to you today from Liège. In one way this is a surprise, in that I am not supposed to be in Liège, but judging from experience I suppose it was inevitable I was going to have to write to you from here at some point.

I was booked on the 1425 DB ICE17 service from Bruxelles-Midi to Köln Hbf, but first we were told the train would start from Bruxelles-Nord instead of Midi. When fellow passengers and I arrived at Nord it turned out the ICE train would only start in Liège-Guillemins. I realised this was happening, and jumped on the first Belgian IC train heading east, but SNCB had not thought to tell the rest of the ICE passengers this, while DB on Twitter (@DB_bahn) could tell me that the ICE train had a problem, but not where the train itself was, nor the scale of the delay. So I am sat writing to you while waiting for further passengers to arrive here in Liège, when they could all have been here 30 minutes ago if DB and SNCB had talked to each other.

The problem Siim is that this line – the high speed section between Hergenrath and Leuven, via Liège, and the improved sections between Düren and Köln, and Leuven and Brussels, have been built with EU funds. But the service that runs here is awful. DB ICEs essentially compete against Thalys trains, and if something happens to the ICE on the Belgian side, or the Thalys on the German side, as a traveller you have no way of knowing what is going on. The ICEs here are also regularly beset by technical problems due to an incompatibility between the Siemens trains and the Belgian signalling system, while the Infrabel also stops the ICEs running to their 300km/h top speed.

Do you realise, Siim, that it’s incidents like these that make people want to fly? As a passenger I do not give a damn about what the reasons are. I understand that things go wrong, but I should be entitled to reasonable information about what is happening – regardless of who runs the service – and that all the railway firms collaborate to help get me to my destination as fast as possible. Today that lack of collaboration alone is going to cause me a further hour of delay to my journey.

What are you doing about these sorts of things?


NOTE: this is the latest in my series of rail postcards to the European Commissioner for Transport, Siim Kallas. Previous postcards have been sent from Hendaye and Göteborg.

Taking the train rather than the plane for business travel in Europe: does it work?

Screen Shot 2013-07-25 at 11.39.30Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know I take the train for almost all my journeys, and many of these are business trips. Sean Hanley has asked me to sum up my experiences in a blog entry, so here goes. This post should be read in conjunction with the ones about the Eurostar Aachen trick, and Germany cheap tickets, and all my travel observations are here.

1) Set your limits
The train is not going to be your best bet for every rail trip in Europe. Distances are often too great, and on many routes connections are simply too poor. For example London – Amsterdam / Brussels / Köln / Frankfurt / Strasbourg / Lille / Paris / Lyon / Montpellier / Marseille / Geneva / Zürich should all be viable with just one change, and a journey time of 5-6 hours. London – Hannover / Berlin / München / Milan / Toulouse / Barcelona are too far for most people, or need 2+ changes. Within continental Europe even some short hops (like Milan – Marseille, or München – Prague) have such awful connections that flying may still be the best bet. For timetables I always still use DB Reiseauskunft (in English here) for timetables for my entire trips.

2) Booking tickets
This part needs a blog entry all of its own! This remains the major headache to make EU-wide rail workable. Rail company websites, with the exception of Deutsche Bahn’s, remain pretty damned awful, and often will not give you prices for tickets right through to your destination. Services like Loco2 (UK), Capitaine Train (FR) and Waymate (DE) are trying to make EU-wide booking viable. Buying two tickets for a journey can sometimes be cheaper than one through ticket, even within one country. Working out how and where to split is one of the most time consuming processes when trying to get decent ticket prices. This stuff takes a lot of time and learning still. I always try to avoid the websites of Eurostar, SNCF and Thalys if I can, but sometimes that is impossible, especially if you want to amass frequent traveller points (see below).

3) Book ahead
Think as you would when booking flights – book ahead! Most rail companies allow you to book 3 months ahead, and operate a rolling booking system, where days become available one at a time. Put a date 92 days ahead of your departure in your diary! If you then cancel your trip, different countries’ railways have different systems. DB makes a 15 Euro fee to cancel a ticket, but more or less any ticket can be cancelled, while Eurostar and SNCF tend to make their cheapest tickets impossible to cancel or refund.

4) Ticket collection
Most railways (Eurostar, DB / ÖBB / SBB (mostly), SNCF / SNCB (partially)) have online ticketing systems, where you either download a PDF, or have a barcode on your smartphone. This option, or paper tickets sent to your home address, are almost always preferable to collection of tickets at ticket machines in stations. Always avoid having to collect a ticket at a station in a country other than the country with whose company you purchased the ticket in the first place – it’s very often a nightmare.

5) Points mean prizes
If you travel a lot by train a Frequent Traveller card can be very helpful. Here again DB excels, with its combination of BahnCard and BahnBonus cards giving reductions for regular travellers, and access to lounges in railway stations in many European countries, including Eurostar. While DB and Eurostar lounges tend to be better than SNCF’s, all of them give you a quite place to work with free internet access if you have an hour to spare at a station.

6) In the trains
Quality and amount of space varies enormously. German ICEs generally offer more legroom and headroom than Thalys / Eurostar / TGVs. Spanish and Italian high speed trains generally have more than 2 classes of accommodation to choose from – the higher levels are very smart. For business travel I would never have a problem with 2nd class on DB, but always try to go for first class on Thalys or TGV if I can, if the upgrade is not too costly. On DB it is also possible to book in a quiet carriage – always worth doing. Most French trains are compulsory reservation, while German trains are optional reservation, for a €4 charge. I will always pay this if my journey is longer than an hour.

7) Reliability
I’ve had some delays when travelling by train in Europe, but few serious issues. Some lines (notably Brussels – Köln) are less reliable than others, and night trains are more prone to delay than daytime trains and high speed trains. Also if you use a night train, make sure you book a Schlafwagen (Sleeping Car / Voiture Lits), rather than a Liegewagen (Couchette) – you will not be in a good state for a business meeting after a night in a counchette.

8) Internet Access
My second major gripe, after ticket booking. Too few European rail services are wifi-equipped. Thalys is the only high speed service with wifi, but it’s often so slow so as to be unusable. DB has wifi on some routes only, while no Eurostars and very few TGVs are currently wifi equipped. I partially work around this using a Huawei mifi, but even still I do not have proper internet access on moving trains.

So then, does it work? The answer is yes, but with a few niggling problems, and that it will not work for all business travel in Europe. But the next time you’re travelling for work, try booking it with the train. If you have questions or need assistance then do ask below, or tweet me – I’ll do my best to help! I most definitely do not regret taking the train rather than the plane.

The future of channel tunnel long distance passenger railway services

Screen Shot 2013-06-15 at 13.10.18A small step forward step in the prospect of long distance high-speed train services using the channel tunnel was taken this week, with Deutsche Bahn granted a ‘Certificate B’ to operate trains through the tunnel. This has been a long time coming – in 2010 DB was talking of running trains in time for the Olympics! However this week’s decision is only step towards eventual through services from London to destinations such as Amsterdam or Geneva. Here are a series of the other hurdles to overcome.

Channel Tunnel Safety (train length)
The current Eurostar trains are 387m long, composed of a locomotive at each end, and 18 short carriages in between, and can be split in half if necessary. The idea is that in case of an accident or a fire in the tunnel, at least one door of the Eurostar trains would be close to an escape passage into the safety tunnel – and those escapes are at 250m intervals. DB proposes to run two 8-carriage ICEs coupled together through the tunnel, but passengers cannot pass between the two halves of coupled ICEs (see the coupling in a pic here). So would the ICEs get the safety permit to run? However at no time has a Eurostar ever been evacuated into the safety tunnel through one door. In short: not too complicated to solve.

Channel Tunnel Safety (distributed traction)
Current Eurostar trains have a locomotive at each end, and unpowered passenger carriages in between. Were a fire to break out in the traction or electrical components this would easily be isolated from passengers areas. ICEs, and the new Eurostar e320 sets being procured, both use another system – distributed traction – where all traction and electrical components are under the floor below the carriages where the passengers sit. This could theoretically pose a greater fire risk, and the trains not be granted permission to operate in the tunnel. However Eurostar was itself ready to procure such trains, so must have been confident of approval. In short: not too complicated to solve.

Procurement and approval delays
Both Eurostar’s new e320 trains, and the DB’s new Velaro D ICEs are essentially the same trains, just with Eurostar’s being a 16-carriage version, and DB’s an 8 carriage version. The problem is that procurement of these trains has been beset by delays – Eurostar now admits it will see its first trains only in 2015, rather than 2014 as hoped, while DB’s 16 new ICE were due to be running in 2011 but still are not approved fully, even in Germany. That’s before we come to the issue of approving them for at least Belgium and France, and possibly also Netherlands too. Approval of ICEs has been a nightmare before – current DB ICEs are only allowed to travel at 250km/h in Belgium due to concerns with flying ballast, and approval for the older ICEs on French high speed lines took 7 years to complete. Meanwhile signalling problems continue to beset the Belgium – Germany ICE connection. In short: a nightmare all round. Whatever the companies and manufacturers say, expect timetables to slip.

Security control
Bags of all passenges boarding Eurostars in London, Lille, Brussels and Paris are scanned as passengers enter a secure terminal. This is why passengers are required to arrive 30 minutes ahead of departure. While one might quibble as to whether this security paranoia is necessary, it is nevertheless here to stay. The question then arises how DB, or Eurostar for its through services, could scan bags in different stations? While it might be possible to get a secure platform arranged in Frankfurt(Main) Hbf or Genève, I cannot see how this could easily be done in Köln Hbf, Rotterdam Centraal or Amsterdam Centraal. In short: could be complicated, and may necessitate services not stopping in some stations, or disembarkation (see below).

Passport Control, and the UK Border
The UK is not in Schengen, and this issue has already posed significant problems with the Lille Loophole. The basic idea with Eurostar is that passport controls should be conducted in Paris, Lille and Brussels (so-called juxtaposed controls) and not in London, because if an illegal immigrant gets to London (before a check there), then there is no obligation for Eurostar to transport them back to France or Belgium. The result of this is that for Eurostar’s through service from Aix-en-Provence to London, all passengers are required to disembark at Lille Europe for passport checks (and presumably a security control too), making the France-London journey take 55 minutes longer than the outward trip. DB has proposed that UK border checks be conducted on board the train, but I would imagine that Eurostar also proposed this for its Aix service and was refused. In short: this is the biggest headache, and could – on its own – kill the prospect of cross border through services. But a system of passport checks on arrival would require political will to deliver.

So if you’re waiting for your ICE to Frankfurt(Main) or your Eurostar to Geneva, you might well be waiting a while.

Five types of railway market in Europe

I travel a lot by train. On all kinds of services, all over Europe. As Europe’s rail market supposedly opens up to competition with the 4th railway package, what can I conclude about where competition does and does not work?

1) The profitable long distance route
leoexpressThis is the ideal location for competition in rail services. Think Hamburg-Köln, Wien-Salzburg or Praha-Brno Ostrava. Spare capacity is available, the route is between major cities and is profitable. New, private operators (HKX, WestBahn, LeoExpress respectively) can step in and challenge the incumbent operator. If one of the providers goes to the wall then at least there will be other services still. Competition prospects: good.


2) The profitable route with constraints
tgvThese are routes where technical problems mean that competition is difficult. Either the route already operates at capacity (West Coast Main Line in the UK for example, anything through the Midi-Nord axis in Brussels), or technical issues with the route make competition difficult – security incompatibilities, or the high speed of the line (except NTV in Italy (which has plenty of headaches) there is no proper high speed competition anywhere in Europe – it’s too complex and expensive to procure trains as an entrant). Competition prospects: limited.


3) Competitive tendering
odegThe system in place in various countries, most notably in Germany and Sweden for the tendering of regional routes. In the UK the franchise process is wider and more complex. These regionally tendered routes are not always profitable, and contracts are given by local governments and supported accordingly. Services like Metronom can bring genuine service improvements, while experience like ODEG can show what happens when things go wrong. Competition prospects: good in theory, at the tendering stage.


4) Unprofitable long-distance national routes
renfeHere the incumbent, normally state-owned, operator has to cope with high costs, creaking infrastructure, and low passenger numbers. But public service obligations mean that services are still broadly maintained. Think SNCF’s Intercités services, or RENFE’s non-AVE long distance services. Competition prospects: close to none.


5) Unprofitable long-distance or regional international routes
icbusHere no-one cares at all. These are services like Marseille-Genova, Venezia-Villach, Bayern-Praha, Berlin-Krakow. So while the infrastructure exists, the demand does not, and the public service obligations do not either. There is no prospect for competition as the routes are, on their own, not profitable. So the trains do not run, and are replaced with buses instead. Competition prospects: none.


Thoughts, comments and additional examples most welcome!

Images – all CC Licensed from Flickr: LeoExpress by Petr Dadák | TGV Duplex by Stefano Bertolotti | ODEG by Tegeler | Renfe Arco by Jordi | DB Bus by MvM84

Chamonix – Bruxelles by train. No, no, no.

Screen Shot 2013-02-14 at 12.21.17A new case to add to the long, long list of journeys that should be easy enough by rail, but in the end are such a nightmare that most people will just not attempt them, and will fly instead.

I am working in Geneva on Friday 15th March, and will spend a weekend skiing at Chamonix on 16th and 17th March. I then need to be in Brussels by the evening of Tuesday 19th March. So how do I do it?

I start, as ever, with DB’s timetable search, and it gives me a decent connection on Monday 18th – Chamonix – St-Gervais – Paris – Brussels, using TER – TGV – Thalys.

So then I try to book it, trying first with Loco2, and then with Capitaine Train, and then with Voyages SNCF. All just give me a Lunéa night train for St-Gervais – Paris. Strange. I try St-Gervais – Brussels, rather than Chamonix – Brussels, and this time I get trains, but changing in Bellegarde onto a TGV Lyria. But DB tells me the St-Gervais – Paris TGV should run on a Monday.

So I turn to Twitter, where Stefan de Vries tells me these TGVs run only on Saturdays. I point out to DB that their timetable is wrong, and they tell me they rely on other railways to give them the right information. Meanwhile Erik Griswold suggests I route through Martigny in Switzerland, and here too I encounter a problem – a Brig-Lille TGV, stopping in Martigny, that doesn’t run on a Monday but is listed by DB. The problem is compounded in Capitaine Train’s search, which gives me just Martigny-les-Bains, a town in France near Nancy, rather than Martigny in Switzerland, although the train from there ends in France…

And then there is the price. I am trying to book all of this 5 weeks ahead of the journey, but the best price I can find is €146.00 single for the trip, in the main because all connections end up on a peak hours service from Paris to Brussels. Paris-Brussels alone is €99 single, although if I book it through to Liège (yes, further) then I save a bit (thanks to Alex van Herwijnen).

And if I were to fly? €26 bus transfer to Geneva, and then €37.99 for the Easyjet flight (excl. charges).

The irony in all of this? The work in Brussels is to chair a panel discussion with MEPs, the very people who could sort out this mess by obliging rail companies to provide full ticketing and timetable data APIs in standardised formats.

Loco2 now has DB ticket information – a step forward for EU-wide rail booking

Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 18.38.47I’ve followed the development of Loco2 for some time – their aim is a very noble one: to make booking of international rail tickets in Europe as simple and seamless as possible. I’ve met the brother and sister behind the site, Kate and Jamie Andrews, a few times, and they are fun and determined people. The problem for me has been that I have – until now – never really been able to use their site as my rail travel is more often through Germany than it is through France, and until yesterday, they did not partner with Deutsche Bahn.

So how does the new Loco2, with both SNCF and Deutsche Bahn data shape up?

The first impression – as before with Loco2 – is a good one. The site is smoothly designed – the UI and whole visual identity is much better than the offer from any railway firm directly. I then put the site through its paces with 3 test journeys: London – Berlin, Bruxelles – Nürnberg, and Paris – Stuttgart. All tests were for 13th March (i.e. 6 weeks or so from now), and for single journeys, leaving in the morning.

1. London – Berlin

Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 18.27.45The Loco2 site gave me – correctly – the three morning departures from London. The 0650 and 1058 trains involve changes onto ICE trains in Brussels, while the 0858 train connects with a Thalys. The good news here is that Loco2 is good at drawing in all the tickets from multiple operators – making the same search on DB’s website only gives a price for the 0650 and 1058 trains, while no other website can give a combined price for the 0858 departure.

The less good news is the prices that are offered. The 0650 train is just €99 (excluding reservations) on the DB site – Loco2’s £172.50 is some way off. The Loco2 and DB prices for the 1058 train are identical – €159. For the 0858 train, each part is as follows: £39 (Eurostar.com) + €25 (Thalys) + €69 (DB) = £115.55. This could be due to different types of fares being offered, but for 2 of the 3 connections Loco2 did not offer the best price.

[UPDATE 25.1.2013] – seems there was some temporary error when I tried this, as it now gives me €99 for the 0650 train, as it should (and Kate confirms this in the comments below)

2. Bruxelles – Nürnberg

Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 18.27.26For this connection, as for London – Berlin, the range of connections offered by Loco2 is very good, and they all have a price. While DB can offer a through price for connections using an ICE between Bruxelles and Germany, it cannot do so when a Thalys is used. Loco2 has nailed this – all connections have a price.

However here too Loco2’s prices are not always the best – the prices shown with a € and a £ price above are all the same as DB’s prices, but the prices just shown in £ that draw on Thalys prices (presumably from Rail Europe) then use excessively expensive connections through into Germany (see the pop-out for the 0728 train shown). A Thalys + a DB Sparpreis would be the cheapest option, but is not offered by Loco2, even when there is a Sparpreis on the DB website.

3. Paris – StuttgartScreen Shot 2013-01-24 at 18.29.03

Perhaps logically, as the route is between France and Germany, it is for this connection between France and Germany that Loco2 really excels. All the prices offered are the most competitive possible, and – as can be seen for the 0725 departure – sometimes the prices offered by SNCF (shown with £) and DB (shown with € too) actually vary – here the SNCF price is the cheaper. For this route Loco2 offers an unparalleled service.

4. London – Vienna

Without much hope I tried a London – Vienna connection with Loco2, and this one gives an error. Here Loco2 encounters the DB through Germany problem, where splitting tickets is the only option at the moment. Let’s hope they solve that one too in the medium term…

Anyway, in conclusion, Loco2 has done something that no-one else can do just now – to give prices for through tickets to more or less anywhere covered by SNCF or DB or combinations of both of those. If you’re looking for the simplest way to book international rail tickets then give it a go. If you’re however looking for the cheapest tickets, Loco2 doesn’t nail it – yet.

How to organise a rail replacement bus service (Schienenersatzverkehr)

ICE36 train, departing 0944 from København H to Hamburg Hbf will not be able to run any further than Rødby on the Danish side of the Fehmarn Belt, and all passengers will have to board the ferry on foot instead of in the train, and take a replacement bus on the German side.

This was the predicament I faced earlier today. Here is how, I reckon, the whole thing should be organised. Then I will explain what actually did happen.

What should have happened

First of all, information to passengers needs to be provided as early as possible – i.e. as soon as the problem is known. In the case of the København H – Hamburg Hbf service this means communicating with the DSB staff that man the train as far as Rødby to inform them what will happen on the German side. This will also mean that station signs in Denmark should read “Rødby, with bus connections to Hamburg Hbf” and not “Hamburg Hbf”.

At Rødby a member of DSB staff or two must guide passengers to the ferry, especially those with luggage who will additionally have to lug it along the long walkways. (Also the signposts at Rødby when leaving the train are not especially clear).

On board the ferry an announcement can be made for train passengers explaining what to expect when they arrive on the other side, and apologising for the inconvenience.

While all this is going on, DB can prepare its rail replacement buses in Puttgarden. It can look in its ticketing database to see how many people are booked on the train, and then add 10% for people just turning up and getting on. Or it could radio the DSB staff to check how occupied the train is. Buses can then be booked accordingly.

Upon arrival at the bus stop, passengers need to be strictly divided into three groups: the first group is passengers travelling beyond Hamburg and with connections at Hamburg Hbf. These passengers need to be given priority on the first bus, and this bus needs to leave as soon as possible. Further buses need to be laid on according to need – some for Hamburg, and some for Oldenburg-Lübeck-Hamburg. The arrangement of these buses can be communicated to the passengers on board the ferry, and at the buses too, possibly with signs in the bus windows. Likely arrival times of the buses need to be communicated to DB customer services HQ, so decisions whether to hold trains in Hamburg Hbf can be planned accordingly – again this information could be gleaned from radio contact with DSB (see above) or by checking the booking database.

This strikes me as the fairest and simplest way to make sure as many passengers as possible get to their destinations as swiftly as possible. And it is not complicated.

This is what actually happened

The first announcement that the train would not go beyond Rødby was made literally 5 minutes before arriving there, so there was no way to fully explain to passengers what is going on, let alone check their onward connections for bus allocation (see above). Yet DB knew already from 8am in the morning that the train would go no further. Yes – information known for 4 hours was only given to passengers 5 minutes before it was needed. I confronted a DSB staff member about this in the ferry “We did not know before” he said. “I found out the DB information from a passenger!”

Yes, you read that right. DB had not informed DSB of what was going on, and a DSB staff member admitted this to me. It could of course be that DB had informed DSB, and DSB had not informed its train staff, but the end result is the same, and anyway it’s extraordinary for one firm to just point the finger at another one.

Of course there were no DSB staff at Rødby to explain what was happening, and no luggage assistance for the elderly, and no announcement on board the ferry to tell everyone what was going to happen upon arrival.

Then, upon arriving in Puttgarden there were just 3 buses waiting. That of course was not enough for a 4 carriage ICE train so packed it was standing room only. DB could have known it needed more buses if it had spoken to the DSB train crew, but of course it had not. The train was packed all the way from Købernhavn H, leaving there a full three hours earlier – more than enough time to get a couple of extra buses provided. You could even have sourced some from Hamburg with this much time. This failure to provide adequate buses is hence inexcusable, and the fault lies squarely with DB.

2 buses were destined for Hamburg Hbf, and 1 for Oldenburg-Lübeck, but no prioritisation was made for passengers with onward connections in Hamburg, so the only DB member of staff present forced all three buses to wait 20 minutes while he tried to get confirmation that another bus was on the way for the remaining passengers. In the meantime those of us in the front bus with onward connections in Hamburg Hbf were going crazy – why aren’t we leaving? “I have to get confirmation of another bus for the remaining passengers waiting” the DB guy told me, and “I need to take the bus too”. He needs to take the bloody bus? Sorry, but I don’t give a damn if and when the employee gets the bus – at this point he received a mouthful of abuse from me in German for his incompetence organising the whole thing. Somehow the DB guy then let the second bus leave (and I had a seat on the first), so a fellow irate passenger and I grabbed our bags, hopped out of our bus and into the other one, and away it went.

Now the good news from all of this – I had 45 minutes to get my connection in Hamburg, so the bus actually got me to Hamburg Hbf 10 minutes before the scheduled departure of the IC train to Köln, so I was OK. The problem was that if I had not managed to get that IC I would have missed a further connection in Köln, and been stuck there. I don’t know if the passengers from the other bus will have made it – I think I only managed thanks to being bloody minded and very insistent. Other passengers I spoke to, with connections to Berlin, Osnabrück and Kassel definitely missed their connections, and all of this could have been spared just a little bit of forward planning.

So here we are once again. I can tolerate things going wrong on the railway, but not having a sensible, basic plan of what to do, and a plan of how to communicate it to passengers, even when the problem has been known for hours, is absolutely out of order. DB and DSB you should be ashamed of your operations today.

In praise of @DB_bahn (not the railway, but the Twitter account)

This is for you Torsten, Simon, Norman, Marc, Kai, Danny, Janice, Matthias, Maik, Filiz, Jana, Christian, Christian and Nicole: a huge thanks from a regular DB traveller for helping to make my journeys a little more manageable and pleasant.

For those of you reading this that are not regulars on either Twitter or German railways, the Twitter account @DB_Bahn is the place where travellers can ask for advice and assistance about anything and everything relating to Deutsche Bahn. Info on service updates, delays, suggestions, you name it they can provide it, and provide it fast. While they (sadly) cannot actually make sure the trains run on time, they do at least provide more information that it is sometimes possible to glean in the station or on DB’s website, and do it in a cheery way.

Here’s a small example from this week, courtesy of Maik (/mi) when I was stuck in Köln awaiting a delayed CityNightLine train:

In the past I’ve received help a number of times from them concerning replacement trains, what to do when a storm blew trees onto the line, how to book tickets for an Austrian Railways train that started in Germany, and information about whether my train would manage to pass a bridge that had been hit by a truck.

Above all @DB_bahn helps provide the information and reassurance so often lacking when travelling by train. They are there to help and – in my experience – really strive to do so. Vielen herzlichen Dank!