Thursday, April 22, 2010

An Oddessy That Didn't Have to Be

Throughout this whole ash cloud "crisis," I kept having the same thought. For all those European travellers stranded throughout Europe, "why didn't they just take the train home?" As strange as it may seem to Americans who only know Amtrak, taking the trains in Europe is actually enjoyable. Fun even. The train cars are comfortable and offer a modicum of privacy with their thick faux leather seats and glassed-in six-seat compartments. On a trip in Germany, I saw one couple get so comfortable on a train, that they pulled down the seats to make a bed, spooned, and read poetry to each other for the duration of the trip. Now, I bet you haven't seen that on a plane.

Even for the un-romantically inclined, there are considerable perks: the food is better, the scenery more attractive--and best of all--there is no cost for carry on luggage.

Well, it seems as though I am not the only one puzzled by the lack of train activity. This morning in my inbox, I got a post from Hidden Europe, a magazine devoted to under-the-radar Europe, that addressed that very question. Here is what they said:

Dear fellow travelers

Well, that was certainly an interesting week for travelers around Europe. Lots of angst for stranded souls. Rich fodder for the British tabloids as brave holidaymakers returned to English ports recounting tales of journeys from hell. Heavens, we never knew that France was really that bad.

Academics interested in travel behaviour, crisis management and collective decision-taking will no doubt be writing serious treatises about how a cloud of ash afflicted European travel. The truth of course is that Europe was not paralysed in quite the way that the media portrayed, and while many travelers suffered real distress and were mightily out of pocket, there was also a good deal of theatre about the whole affair.

That CNN journalist who paid 800 dollars to travel by taxi from Warsaw to Berlin when his booked flight was cancelled probably had no idea that few sane Europeans traveling to Berlin from Poland think of flying. There are on average only 78 available seats each day on the Warsaw to Berlin air route. Compare that with the more than 50 passenger trains which every day cross the Polish border into Germany - each train certainly capable of carrying dozens or even hundreds of passengers. Trundling by slow train through Polish villages would have made a fine news story. Western Poland is at its springtime best at the moment with heaps of blossom and soft April sunshine dancing on birch forests and water meadows. But no, CNN wouldn't have it that way. Instead it was a desperate tale of an irate journo haggling with a bemused Polish taxi driver who really did not want to drive 600 kilometres to Berlin. Not at any price. And he certainly did not want to be paid in dollars.

There were rumours of a flotilla of small vessels being despatched from Britain to rescue stranded patriots from foreign lands. A revival of Dunkirk spirit. Yet all the while those stranded travellers could have hopped on a train and been home within a day or two. When the prospects for air travel were at their bleakest, it was still possible to book a train ticket from Germany to Britain for 59 EUR. Eurostar never entirely sold out and we noted seats still available for 96 EUR on trains from both Brussels and Paris to London even just a few hours prior to departure.

Yesterday evening, we watched a small fleet of express coaches leave Berlin, taking passengers back to London. True, few of those travellers would have paid the bargain fare of 44 EUR, for that had long since sold out. The regular fare is 93 EUR for the overnight journey from Berlin to London.

We do wonder whether, amid all the magnificent theatre of doughty travelers struggling against all odds to get home, the seeds of something rather significant may have been sown. For international journeys between countries on the continent, air travel already has only a tiny market share. As we have reported repeatedly in hidden europe, Europe has a splendid network of railways, often complemented by good bus and ferry connections. For those short hops between European cities, the plane is more a luxury than a necessity. Now might be the moment for travelers to rediscover the joys of slow travel. You can read our manifesto for slow travel online at "".

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe)

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