Although many of us have a dream of cycle touring where we set off from home to end up in Gibraltar via Tromso or go coast to coast across the USA, most of us have limited time to go on holiday. Even we pensioners cannot leave our modest little home in the West for too long, because the lawn needs mowing or the flower beds need weeding, so the first question we need to ask when we are going to do a spot of bicycle touring is how do we get there? In Western Europe the answer to this question is normally the train, although the railways sometime make it difficult to transport cyclists and their accompanying bicycles, not to mention tricycles! We will look at public transport for cyclists and accompanying bicycles in various European countries over the next few editions of this blog.
A very useful starting guide to European railways is www.seat61.com.
Part I Germany
Let’s look at Germany first:
If you are short on time then the basic message that comes out of all this is that long distance travel with a bicycle by train in Germany is possible but choice is very limited and you need book early in order to travel in summer. Regional services up to about 200km with accompanied bicycles however are superb. The German Railways web site is www.bahn.co.uk.
There are very few long distance bus routes in Germany. The government decided to protect the railways in the 1930s and passed legislation so there is a restrictive licensing procedure to open new bus routes. In view of the fact that the present government wishes to sell off part of the railways, it is unlikely that permission will be granted to any possible competitors to open up new bus routes. There are a few bus routes to Berlin, a long distance bus route down from Hamburg to Mannheim and the Romantic Road bus line from Frankfurt am Main to Füssen near Ludwig II’s fairy tale castle via Munich and Oberammergau. As far as we know only the latter has provision to take bikes, but the other buses may well do so if there is room in the luggage compartment. We are only going to look at railways.
Germany’s railways are state owned, at least at present though Deutsche Bahn is to be privatised, but fortunately not in the same meshuga way that the British Government privatised its railway system. The railway is to be split into a track and an operating division. The track is staying under state control and 40% of the operational system will be sold off. It is hoped to raise vast amounts of capital. Unfortunately the fact that railway systems that have been privatised have invariably gone down the pan is being ignored. New Zealand had to renationalise the tracks after a disastrous experience with a privatised railway company and it looks like there is a good chance that the operating railways there will be restored to public ownership, as well. I was amused to find out that even in that home of private railways, the USA, at least one of the commuter lines that feed New York is publicly owned by the Connecticut Department of Transport. End of rant!
At present Deutsche Bahn AG (DB) operates most of the subsidised suburban and regional services. Other organisations, consortia of public authorities with DB, and the private foreign companies like Connex or SBB Swiss Rail run other subsidised services. The subsidy is paid by the provincial governments. DB operates its long distance services without subsidy at a profit. Different types and classes of trains are used in these services.
Long distance express trains:
These trains have a fixed frequency and mostly depart at the same time after the hour every one or two hours from early morning to the evening at least for the core of the journey.
Intercity Express (ICE)
These are the flagships of the DB and are high speed train units travelling at speeds up to 300kph and do not take any bicycles except folding bicycles in a cover. Some of the services to and from France are on TGVs and Thalys (THA). Some of the TGVs take up to 4 bicycles, though this information could not on be found on the otherwise excellent DB web site: www.bahn.co.uk. (Check the French Rail web site: www.voyages-sncf.com.) THA is another high speed train running between Amsterdam, Brussels, Cologne and Paris operated by Thalys an independent company owned by French Rail (SNCF), Belgian Rail (SNCB), Netherlands Rail (NS) and DB. This too does not accept bicycles. except bagged folding bikes. All of these high speed trains only offer services to major cities like Frankfurt, Mannheim, Stuttgart, Ulm, Augsburg and Munich.
These are conventional trains hauled by a locomotive and offer accommodation for up to 16 bicycles. The bicycle compartment is in the end carriage behind the driver’s compartment. ICs run not only between major centres, but also important regional centres in Germany. An IC/EC travelling between Mannheim and Ulm would stop additionally in three smaller towns or cities. ECs are international trains offering the same services in Germany and abroad. They are slightly slower than the ICEs. Tickets for these trains are cheaper than the tickets for the ICE.
The regional trains
All of the regional trains take bicycles. These trains tie in with the ICE and IC/EC trains to service smaller towns and cities. These trains are subsidised. Although one can use DB tickets regional transport authority tickets can also be used. It is possible to travel long distances across Germany on the these trains, but it does involve changing trains more often than we would want.
Interregio Express (IRE) and Regional Express (RE)
These trains do not stop at the smaller stations but do offer a reasonably fast service between regional centres.
These trains stop at every station and are thus slow.
Suburban and underground trains stopping at every station near the larger cities. Access to these is often restricted during rush hour.
Night Trains (City Night Line (CNL), D-Nacht, Euronight)
The night trains offer the possibility of travelling long distances with one’s bicycle without having to change frequently.
Where do the IC/EC go, when and how often?
IC/EC are the best way for the cyclist to travel with his bicycle. Unfortunately the DB appears to be phasing many of these out to replace them with ICEs for which it can charge more. The ADFC, the German Cycling Club, has produced a downloadable map showing the long distance services on offer (http://www.adfc.de/645_1). The map is in German but with the help of a dictionary it is easily understood.
There are a number of special offers that offer less than half price fares as long as one is prepared to travel outside the high density travel periods of Friday and Sunday afternoon/evenings and travel by a specified train. Check out www.bahn.co.uk for details. If at least two of you are travelling by regional train only, then check out the ‘Schönes Wochende Ticket’ valid at weekends and the ‘Länder’ Tickets valid in each of the provinces during the week and at weekends.
Your bicycle will cost 9€ in the long distance trains within Germany. A trailer costs the same amount. A recumbent or a tandem costs 18€. A bicycle costs 4.50€ in regional trains in some regions, in others it is free. The DB puts out a German language brochure called “Bahn und Bike” with more exact information. If travelling on a long distance train it is necessary to reserve a place for your bicycle. This is what you need to enquire about first. This can be carried out on line. You need to do this part of the booking by telephone. If you wish to to travel in the summer, especially on a Saturday try to make a reservation three months in advance.
International bicycle tickets cost 10€ and include a reservation for a bicycle. These are valid from your starting station to your destination. Again recumbents and tandems cost double.
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