Sunday, 15 February 2009

The Amazing Race 14, Episode 1 (Trains in Europe)

Los Alamitos, CA (USA) - Locarno (Switzerland) - Verzasca Dam (Switzerland) - Interlaken (Switzerland) - Stechelberg (Switzerland)

This season of The Amazing Race began with a pair of challenges in European rail route planning, involving connecting trains and combinations of flights and trains. I’ve faced very similar problems on recent trips to Europe, and in planning my next one in March and April. As rail travel displaces air travel for short and medium distances within Europe, you are increasingly likely to face these same issues in your own European (and other) travels. What tools and resources are available to plan your European rail journey?

Planes can follow any flight path, while trains have to follow fixed tracks. So “Is there a train from point A to point B?”, or “Is this the train to point B?” might seem like simpler questions than which connecting flights will get you to the other side of the world the soonest.

But you can’t switch from one plane to another in mid-air. In any sizeable region with a decent rail network, the number of rail junctions is far larger than the number of airports with scheduled service, much less the number of airline hubs. It’s rare for a real-world traveller to have to change planes in a place you’ve never heard of before, but common to find yourself changing trains in somewhere such as, say, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, as I did not long ago. (When I’m not using voice recognition software, my typing is terrible. But that’s really how the name of the place is spelled and punctuated: ‘s-Hertogenbosch.) And part of the pleasure of travel on a Eurailpass (and part of what can make it worthwhile even when it costs more than point-to-point tickets would have cost, if you had known in advance exactly where you would want to go) is the chance to make unplanned stops in places that strike your fancy along the way.

First, the racers had to get to Locarno, Switzerland, which has no scheduled airline service. They could fly to Milan or Zürich, and take a train from there. But what would the transfers from planes to trains be like in each of those places, and which set of flights and trains would get them the earliest arrival at their destination?

It’s much harder to get answers to rail routing questions than questions about the fastest flight connections. Finding the cheapest route and tickets is a different issue, but if price is no object the four major computerized reservation systems used by airlines and travel agencies all have pretty good aggregated information, in a common format, on the schedules of participating airlines, and tables of likely connection points that are adequate for everyday purposes (although a skilled user can sometimes find better connections by prompting for a connecting airport not in the CRS’s routing table, or by building connections manually, flight by flight). Although nothing like a full CRS command set is available through any public gateway, you can get adequate schedule-only information for participating airlines through CRS-operated Web sites like the timetable service. The only real difficulty in finding the fastest flights is in figuring out which airlines that don’t participate in these CRS’s (typically so-called “low-cost” airlines like Southwest, JetBlue, and their counterparts in other countries) might nonetheless offer useful flights, either alone or in combination with CRS participants.

Most passenger railroads use their own separate reservation systems, rather than contracting out the hosting of their reservations to a CRS that uses a standardized format and already has connectivity to other systems. As a result, only those trains that have airline codeshare designations as “flights” are typically shown in CRS’s, especially as part of connections. It’s up to you (or a knowledgeable travel agent) to know which airports have mainline rail service, or how easy it is to transfer from the airport to a train station, and to piece together separately-obtained information about air and rail schedules.

For example, I’ve taken several trips from San Francisco to Brussels in recent years. There’s no direct flight to Brussels from anywhere in America west of Chicago, so the most direct routes are via Paris or Amsterdam. The main train station in downtown Brussels is near the mid-point of the high-speed rail line between Charles de Gaulle Airport (Paris) and Schiphol Airport (Amsterdam), and the trains are faster and more reliable from either Paris or Amsterdam than connecting flights would be.

Air France has entirely discontinued air service to Brussels, and has not just codeshare “flight” numbers but dedicated Air France cars (first-class TGV seating even for coach airline ticket holders, with complementary beverages and snacks at your seat and a separate attended storage area for checked luggage) on the trains between CDG station and Brussels, and a dedicated Air France check-in counter at the Gare du Midi in Brussels.

KLM and Brussels Airlines both still fly between Brussels and Amsterdam, though, and the trains on this leg don’t have any airline designator or show up in any airline reservation system. As a result, despite the fact that this is the second-best door-to-door schedule of any combination of planes and/or trains (and better than any all-air routing), no current CRS, Web site, or automated route planning tool recommends it or is able to show the through air/rail schedule via AMS, much less allows it to be priced, reserved, or ticketed from a common interface. You have to figure out for yourself that it’s a possibility, and then get information, make reservations, and purchase tickets for the air and rail portions of the journey from separate sources. I might not have figured it out myself on my first trip to Brussels if one of my colleagues at hadn’t suggested it.

That’s the situation the racers found themselves in with respect to the journey from the starting line near Los Angeles to Locarno. None of the trains to Locarno are designated as flights by any airline. So to figure out which route would get them there first, the racers would have needed first to check airline schedules, then figure out whether there were direct trains from the airport (as there are in Zürich but not in Milan) or how to get from the airport to the train station and how long that would take, and then check train schedules on each route. Not something they probably had time to do before making their choice of departing flights.

Later in the episode, after bungee-jumping off the crest of Verzasca Dam, they were told to “make your way by train” to Interlaken. But Locarno and the Valle Verzasca are in the extreme south of Switzerland, near the Italian border. Getting to Interlaken requires a change of trains, and a detour, to get through the Alps: either east via the Gotthard Tunnel and then Lucerne, or west via Domodossola (Italy) and then the Simplon Tunnel. Once again, what are the connections like, and which route would be faster?

Aside from (once again) time pressure to make their decision, the problem in this case is the lack of integration or standardization between different railways. Although the racers were going from one place in Switzerland to another, one of the two routes (and possibly the fastest, depending on their departure time), involved a change of trains in Italy. Even within Europe, where there is a particularly large volume and percentage of international rail travel, 85-90% of rail traffic is domestic, according to Charles de Gaspe Beaubien of Wandrian, the first company to be trying to build a global “switch” to access information from multiple railways through a common API or user interface. As a result, there has been little motivation for the development of good planning, booking, or ticketing tools for international rail journeys, especially where there isn’t direct service (through trains or through cars).

The concept of a global rail CRS is sufficiently novel and potentially valuable that Wandrian was recognized as one of the most innovative travel companies at the PhoCusWright conference in November, where I interviewed Mr. Beaubien. I like the idea, but it remains to be seen what Wandrian will deliver: They don’t expect to have the features they demonstrated at PhoCusWright available to users until late 2009 at the earliest. Their focus is on those railways that are attracting high-paying business travellers, in competition with short-distance flights, in Europe and North America. Important railroads for world travellers in India, China, and Russia will come later, if all goes well, but not for at least another year or two.

So what’s a practical rail nomad to do? Here are some tactics you can use today:

  • European Railway Route Maps: For now, most timetables and schedules are oriented toward point-to-point trains. Connection information, especially if you’re crossing borders or need to change trains more than once, is spotty at best. The best way to figure out for yourself which are likely to be the best routes and connections is to study one of the specialized maps that not only shows the rail lines but clearly distinguishes high-speed lines, normal-speed (which in European usage can mean up to about 200 km/h or 125 mph) main lines, and slower branch lines. The network of high-speed service is expanding rapidly throughout Europe, so make sure you get an up-to-date map. Maplink and Omnimap stock several such maps, including Maplink’s own map (which tries to show, on the map, approximate journey times and frequencies of service between city pairs) and those from ITMB and Thomas Cook. The laminated Streetwise map and the map given out with Eurailpasses are too small to be much use, in my opinion, and Rick Steves’ Europe map is too selective, highlighting the places Rick recommends and ignoring many others. If you can find it, my favorite for its combination of legibility and detail has been the Kümmerly + Frey rail map of Europe.

  • Continental European Rail Timetables: It’s getting harder and harder to find printed timetables at all, and when you do find them, they generally only cover routes within the country you are in, or at most a few international trains to and from that country. The best summary of express services between major cities in Europe, including through international trains, is distributed free to each Eurailpass purchaser (but, annoyingly, isn’t available for purchase at any price). You’re short-changing yourself, though, if you only visit the biggest cities. If you want to get further afield, invest in a copy of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. (Ditto with the Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable for the rest of the world.) It’s bigger, heavier, and more expensive than you are ever likely to need, but unfortunately there is no “light” alternative. National railroads’ Web sites have the same problems as their printed timetables. The Austrian railway’s route planner is the best of a bad lot for pan-European international schedules. Better for international connections, although far from perfect, are the point-to-point timetable services from (powered by Wandrian) and . I tried both for an upcoming journey from Geneva to London: came up with the best route (with same-station connections in Lyon and Lille), although only after I went through a long list of slower and/or less convenient routes, but their Web site was entirely unable to price the journey. Rail Europe was able to calculate prices, but could only suggest slower (in total journey time) and more awkward routes with a tedious transfer by RER (commuter train) between the Gare de Lyon and the Gare du Nord in Paris.

  • Pricing and Tickets: Point-to-point train tickets for simple domestic trips within any single country are usually cheapest from the railroad’s own Web site. For trips with stopovers, especially multi-stop one-way international journeys at through fares, you may need to go to a ticket office in Europe in person. Point-to-point tickets purchased through agents in the USA or elsewhere outside Europe, whether online or in person, are usually more expensive. Price point-to-point tickets for your intended journey (or the one you think is most likely) before buying a pass, so you’ll know how much of a premium you are paying for the extra flexibility of a pass. Remember to include the cost of required reservations, sleeping berth surcharges, and supplements for high-speed trains in your calculations of the total cost of both point-to-point and pass ticketing.

  • Continental European Rail Reservations: If you already have a ticket (most likely because you have a Eurailpass), and just need reservations, it’s generally easier and the same price (or cheaper) to make reservations in person at a train station, rather than online. I’ve almost always found railway clerks at smaller stations, in the suburbs or in the provinces, more willing to take the time to help me, and to put up with my inability (or limited ability) to speak their language, than those at main stations in big cities. Even with a pass and even in low season, try to make your reservations at least a couple of days in advance: Even if trains aren’t full, the number of seats on the fastest trains allocated for pass holders is limited. In peak season or around holidays, especially for high-speed trains or berths in sleeping cars, you may need to book further in advance (although a couple of weeks is usually sufficient for almost any trains except the Eurostar).

  • British Rail Timetables and Tickets: The privatization and breakup of British Rail have recreated the situation that existed decades ago before nationalization, with multiple railways competing between the same cities. The National Rail Enquiries Web site will tell you which railway companies operate between any two towns or cities in Britain, and link you to the railways’ own Web sites to make reservations and purchase tickets. Tickets are either electronic or can be picked up at the station on departure. (Be sure to leave extra time in case you have to stand in line at the ticket collection window: Many ticket-collection kiosks only read credit cards with “chip and PIN” authentication. Cards issued in the USA, which don’t contain a memory chip, are accepted for payment but have to be processed manually by a ticket agent.) Last-minute walk-up fares can be ten times the lowest advance-purchase fares. Nowhere else in Europe is as important as it is in Britain to fix your rail itinerary and purchase your tickets at least a couple of weeks in advance, even in low season. For typical itineraries, Britrail passes are reasonably priced compared to full fare, but outrageously expensive compared to the cheapest advance-purchase prices.

  • Channel Tunnel Trains (Eurostar): No rail pass includes the Eurostar trains through the Channel Tunnel between England and France or Belgium. But if you are also buying a Eurail or Britrail pass, you can buy a Eurostar ticket from the same place you bought your pass, at a passholder price that’s less than the full Eurostar fare. Most other Eurostar discounts (including some sale fares that are cheaper than the passholder prices) are available only on the Web site, just like “Web fares” for flights that are available only from the airlines’ own Web sites. You can pick up your tickets from a check-in kiosk (or, if your card was issued in the USA and doesn’t have a chip, at the ticket window) when you get to the station, so there’s no need to pay for ticket delivery. The difference between the cheapest tickets and the full fare is substantial, and the cheapest tickets sometimes sell out weeks in advance, but the cheapest tickets are also nonchangeable. How certain are you that your plans won’t change?

At the end of the day, there are still some routes you’ll never find unless you enquire locally.

Just over a year ago, we spent six weeks making our way from Lisbon to Rome. We had Eurailpasses, and made reservations a day, or a few days, before each leg of the trip. But we also stopped off in some places on impulse — or got on the next local train and moved on earlier than we had planned.

Our railway route map showed — somewhat cryptically — a rail line through the middle of the Pyrénées, between Zaragoza (Spain) and a town in France we’d never heard of called Pau. It looked like part of a logical main route between Madrid and Paris. But we couldn’t find it in either the French or Spanish or Eurail timetables, which all showed only slow trains between Spain and France around the Pyrénées, along the coast through Barcelona or Bilbao. Even at the station in Bilbao, the ticket agents assured us there was no train between Zaragoza and Pau. Which were we to believe: the staff, Web site, and printed timetables of the national railway, or our map?

In Zaragoza itself, we asked again, and discovered that there was indeed such a rail line, although part of it had been “temporarily” out of service since a viaduct was damaged by a freight train whose brakes failed in 1970, and we would have to change to a bus — included in the rail fare or, for us, our Eurailpasses — over the pass between Canfranc and Oloron, instead of going through the Somport Rail Tunnel (currently being used as a scientific laboratory , and not to be confused with the newer, separate, Somport Highway Tunnel). The extra transfers from train to bus to train were apparently why the through transpyrénéen service didn’t show up in any timetable or online route planner. (The French and Spanish parts of the route are shown separately in tables 324 and 656 of the Thomas Cook European Timetable, although we didn’t have it with us and probably wouldn’t have figured out that they connect.) On the Spanish side, between Zaragoza and the tunnel, the line passes through Huesca and its environs, an area perhaps best known abroad as the scene of the Spanish Civil War fighting participated in and recounted by George Orwell in “Homage to Catalonia”.

We liked Pau and we liked the trip through the Pyrénées. Along the way, the former border station at the Spanish end of the tunnel is a tourist attraction in its own right, even in its dereliction, and slated to be restored as a luxury hotel. The story is too long to tell here, but this was once, and may someday be again if grassroots activists on both sides of the border are successful, the main line between Spain and France.

Just as our map suggested. But you can never count on that.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 15 February 2009, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Lots of good info there, but I was very surprised to see no mention of - that's the first site I go to to check rail schedules. I use a somewhat dated Thomas Cook Rail Map for checking routes.

Couple of other sites worth knowing about:, for checking point-to-point prices against passes, and, which has immense amounts of information on trains just about everywhere, including photos and links.

You might also have mentioned that it's worth checking prices on multiple Eurostar sites - I recently got a much better rate on than I would have done on And when it comes to prices it helps to know that SNCF tickets go on sale three months ahead of the travel date, and get progressively more expensive as cheap rate seats sell out, and that Trenitalia offers an Amica discount fare. I think there are good savings to be had on the German train system too, but I haven't used it.

Posted by: Kathy, 17 February 2009, 21:36 ( 9:36 PM)

Ooops, that should have been not - shouldn't type late at night!

Posted by: Kathy, 18 February 2009, 05:41 ( 5:41 AM)

We're starting to plan an epic European rail journey (30 TCC 'countries' in 40 days). Thanks for writing the best article I've found yet on European rail route planning!

Posted by: Jacqui, 18 February 2009, 06:03 ( 6:03 AM)

Dear Edward,

I do enjoy your commentary on The Amazing Race (one of the very few "reality TV" shows which kind of work).

There is indeed no "formal" European rail CRS with *booking* capabilities. However, there is a company which has been making *timetable* software for years already, and almost every public transport operator in Europe is using it (with some exceptions). That is Hacon, with their Hafas product. (In fact Hafas is used by several operators in the US as well, such as SEPTA.) This means that many public transportation systems already have the same data structures for their timetable software.

Now for timetables in Western Europe: an "official unofficial" site to find connections is the one of the Deutsche Bahn: . They have the data from almost every European country. For Germany (of course), Switzerland and Austria, they also have the bus schedules. (When you enter, for example, Bonstetten, a place a few miles southwest of Zürich, you get the choice of about a dozen stops.) For France, they have the SNCF network, and for Spain, the RENFE ... I did try Zaragoza - Pau, and it did not come up with the line through the Pyrenees... which shows the need to provide such data... So, I agree with you that it is a bit difficult to get your hands on such schedules (particularly if you are an English monoglot).

The issue is essentially that the various operators (or timetable authorities) have more or less interest in making their data available. France is known for being not too interested, and Spain used to be even worse; timetables seemed (and still seem, to some degree) to be National Secrets.

The UK does have a portal for all rail services (as you mentioned):

Travelling by rail in Europe depends a lot on the country. In some countries, such as Switzerland, Germany, Austria (to some extent), the Netherlands, and Belgium, the only planning you need is knowing the route and the approximate schedule. Reservations are not necessary, and you get a good deal with a railpass. Of course, in some cases, reservations are required or recommendeded, but that is something the timetable system will tell you. In some cases, it is actually impossible to buy tickets in advance (such as for your transfer from Zurich airport to the city of Zurich; no "international" system has these tickets... but you can get them easily at the ticket vending machines or the SBB counter in the airport station).

Other countries' rail operators, like airlines, focus on point-to-point connections, and think of each and every train as its own profit center, instead of thinking of a network where each train feeds another one. This defeats the greatest advantage of train travel: its flexibility.

Perhaps I am biased from being in Switzerland, where essentially the whole country is connected with a fixed interval timetable ... a connection every hour always at the same minute. (In low-density areas, it may be every other hour, and in high-density areas it may be every 30 or 15 minutes.)

So, what would our rail-travelling nomad need?

Maps, maps, and maps.... Some of them you mentioned, and there are also national rail maps, available from specialized stores. You also will need system maps (which are available nowadays as PDF downloads from the operators' websites).

There are still printed timetables available in some countries. But be aware that when you travel around with the complete Swiss timetable, you will schlep around about 3 kg of paper... However, all those printed schedules are also downloadable as PDFs from . (If you are a dedicated timetable nut, or a hardcore railfan, you can download from Archive --> Graphical timetables, but that's probably too esoteric for the typical wanderer.)

Anyway, there are ways to get around by rail, but it does require a different kind of planning. You have to familiarize yourself with the network, and then it gets easier.

Posted by: Max Wyss, 18 February 2009, 08:18 ( 8:18 AM)

As a travel agent, my office sells European rail tickets via That site is good for main rail connections between major cities or tourist destinations, but is completely lacking when trying to build itineraries to smaller cities or that involve multiple connections internationally. I hope that Wandrian becomes successful!

Posted by: Big Lee, 22 February 2009, 14:18 ( 2:18 PM)

The trouble with actually booking tickets through is that it is almost always more expensive, often MUCH more expensive, than booking through the national sites. Unless you need a sleeper on a popular international route, and absolutely can't get the relevant national sites to work, you should usually avoid

You need to be especially careful with SNCF, which will put you through to (SNCF is a part-owner) if you ask for English on the home page. Instead, enter a couple of cities in the top left, and then change LANG=FR to LANG=EN in the URL on the second page. Plan to pick up your tickets at a train station when you get to France.

Posted by: Kathy, 24 February 2009, 10:58 (10:58 AM)

Yes, I agree trains are the most convenient way to travel in Europe. Most of train stations are right in the middle of city and in major cities, it links directly with metro/subway. This is very crucial especially when you're in racing game. Speed is the main factor. When you compare 1 hour flight time vs 3-4 hours train time to reach your destination, I think train is still better choice for the racers, not to consider 1-2 hours check-in time, distance between cities to airport, time to pick up your baggage, etc by flight.

I think you can start to consider flight if the train travel is more than 8 hours (example: Paris to Rome or Paris to Barcelona). This is where you need to start comparing train schedule vs flight schedule. Otherwise, train is still better. Normally they have multiple trains within one day, as soon as racers arrive in train station, just hop in to the next available train.

Posted by: Rudy, 25 July 2010, 07:44 ( 7:44 AM)

An additional Web site that is trying to provide suggestions and comparisons of air and surface travel routes and connections is:

It isn't complete or always accurate, but it sometimes finds connections between different railroads, air-rail combinations, and other through inter-modal connections that air-only searches won't reveal.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 13 November 2012, 14:54 ( 2:54 PM)
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