From the far North to the Southern tip
After an enjoyable rail journey from Italy to the UK last Spring, RailTourGuide’s Director Willie Stewart decided to head back out to the continent in Autumn 2018 to undertake a longer and more adventurous journey, which saw him starting in the very north of Norway and heading down to the southern tip of mainland Italy.
Upon his return to the UK, we asked Willie for his first-hand opinion on a number of different aspects of his trip.
Willie’s European Rail Adventure
Questions & Answers
In your opinion, which country has the best rail services (regarding the whole package – comfort, on-board service, punctuality)?
This question is difficult to answer. Swiss trains are the cleanest and punctual, Trenitalia have the Frecciarossa long distance and they are excellent, but the Regional trains always ran late. Germany, I travelled only on one service at it was excellent. I suppose if I had to give you a definitive, I would say Swiss.
On most trains in Europe, is there a noticeable difference between First and Second Class and in your opinion, is it worth paying for the First-Class upgrade?
In my opinion, there is certainly a difference between First and Second Class rail travel and travelling in First Class definitely enhances the journey for many reasons.
First Class is always much less crowded, meaning that there is generally a much more relaxed atmosphere in the carriage (and it is usually more peaceful)! This also means that the luggage racks are also less crowded, so it is rare to have problems in finding somewhere closeby and safe to store your luggage
Electric sockets are always guaranteed in First Class. Whilst this isn’t a necessity for everyone, if you’re travelling for business or if you’re on a long journey where you’re using electronic devices, this is a great plus point.
There will always be some kind of at seat catering service onboard and on some services like the Italian high speed Frecciarossa train there are even waiter services, which is very nice.
In general, First Class is a much more pleasant way to travel, with comfortable seats and wider aisles as standard. If you’re looking for a comfortable and hassle-free journey, then I would certainly say it is worth paying to upgrade. For guidance I would be willing to pay up to 30% extra for First Class.
In continental Europe, the requirement for many of the longer distance trains is that you must have a seat reservation before boarding a train. Did you find needing to have seat reservations for some trains (in addition to your Interrail pass) was an inconvenience?
Yes, most definitely and I covered this on my FB post. The U.K system of allowing a percentage of non-reserved seats is much superior to the European where if you haven’t got a reservation you cannot go on the train. This must result in empty seats as there are certain to be no-shows.
If a passholder is traveling on Regional trains and some long-distance intercity trains a seat reservation is not always required. Please feel free to check with RailTourGuide as to what trains need to be reserved.
At present these seat reservations cannot be made online for the day of travel.
Not all seat reservations need to be made in advance – If there is availability on the trains for InterRail Passholders then these seat reservations can be made on the day of travel from the departing ticket/ booking office.
Did the trains you travelled on have adequate luggage space?
Yes, there was only one train which didn’t that was the service from Carcassone to Montpellier and trains had been cancelled due to local flooding causing my train to be overcrowded.
At the train stations you visited – did you feel that it was easy to navigate from platform to platform to catch onward connections?
European rail stations are superior to the U.K as they have a wider choice of services e.g. shops, restaurants, some have hotels attached to the station. Also connecting onward transport is easy to transfer to e.g. Metro, Underground and Buses.
In general, I had no problem at all in any of the stations that I passed through. My top five stations in order are, Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Oslo Central, Rome Termini, Milan Centrale & Montpellier Saint Roch.
Berlin Hauptbahnhof was my favourite station because it was the most modern, having been constructed post-unification of Germany. My arrival and departure at the station was seamless. The station operates on five levels with trains arriving and departing on every level. This in itself, as far as I know, is unparalleled anywhere else in the World and most interesting to see.
As far as signage is concerned, I don’t recall having difficulty finding any of my trains, apart from Paris Nord which had no English signage. I missed my connection there by a minute and if there had been signage in English I would have made it. The miss of the train meant I had to book a seat on the next train which meant a wait of thirty minutes at the Booking Office.
What was the most amusing thing to happen on your trip?
On the journey from Malmo to Stockholm I had two PET rats as travelling companions!
How was the food onboard the trains? Alternatively, do you recommend stocking up before boarding a train for a long journey?
The food on board the trains was disappointing. Apart from Trenitalia’s Executive service & Eurostar there was no food included in the fare and neither of these were very good. Virgin West Coast served food but again, it was not very exciting, but better that than Trenitalia and Eurostar (Eurostar’s meal was inedible).
When I was travelling on trains that did not have food included (which was most of them), mainly for the sake of convenience I bought food on the train. If I had a change of train with sufficient time I would eat in the station. Prices in stations and on-board the trains are definitely more expensive but for the convenience I judged it was worth paying more.
Which was the fastest train that you travelled on?
As far as I know the fastest train that I travelled on was Trenitalia’s Frecciarossa 1000, this train has the capability to reach speeds up to 360km/h or in UK terms 223 mph. The Deutsche Bahn ICE (Inter City Express) was also very fast and comfortable.
What route was the most scenic and why? Were there any journeys that surprised you and exceeded your expectations (regarding scenery)?
Without a doubt the Glacier & Bernina Express in Switzerland.
The Bernina Express for me has it all – mountains, glaciers, small and large towns and the most engaging conductor of the entire tour!! He was the conductor when I travelled on the Bernina Express in March and just had a quip every time he spoke to the passengers. It is also worth noting that the scenery on the Bernina Express changes depending on the time of year that you travel. I also travelled on the Bernina Express in March and the winter scenery is very dramatic.
What was your favourite journey of the whole trip, and why?
I will give you two, the first is a fast-long-distance train and it’s from Berlin to Berne. The second, as mentioned in the previous question, is the Bernina Express from Chur to Tirano.
The Berlin to Berne journey was my only one on DB and also the longest (eight hours sixteen mins) on a big & fast train. It was also the only one with a dining car with white table covers!! It was a fling back to the old days of BR. The service was excellent and the over eight hours passed very quickly.
Are there any aspects of the trip that you’d do differently or could be improved if you were to do it again?
Currently the InterRail and Eurail passes are paper/physical tickets. M Passes would be so much easier.
Always stay in hotels within 5 minutes of the station. I recognise they will be more expensive however the extra cost is offset by not requiring taxis and the convenience.
Regarding comparison how do the European trains compare to the U.K.
In the U.K. I travelled in First Class on Virgin West Coast, the seats on the big European trains were marginally better. The food & drinks service was much better on the U.K. than the European equivalent. Also the U.K. reserved seating gives the traveller with flexible ticket flexibility whereas the European approach of compulsory seat reservations is too rigid and must result in empty seats on their trains. The Executive service of Trenitalia takes rail travel to a whole new level. Overall the European trains are superior.
Note: I paid a supplement of 65EUR for the Executive service from Venice to Trieste which is a similar length of the journey from Rome to Milan which I had travelled in Executive last March. The Venice to Trieste was regarding food & drinks service very poor. A small glass of prosecco in a plastic cup and a nut bar. I would examine what service was being offered before paying extra.
Final thought… if you were given a free hand what would you change in what the rail companies do?
All of the rail companies should contribute to research on what they all offer and take the best of each one and the rail companies could implement the plus points and have the perfect train service.