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15.09.2015
11:07

To Austria’s Lake District by rail

Mark Dudgeon, Blue Guides’ rail expert, takes advantage of the summer weather to visit the Salzkammergut region of Austria.

Budapest’s Keleti railway station on a Thursday morning in late August: the migrant crisis overwhelming Europe is on stark display here. On the subterranean level, masses of hapless refugees calmly mill around or lie down in their family groupings waiting for something to happen, somewhere to go.

A rail journey to Austria would normally start here: Railjets run towards Vienna at two-hourly intervals in the daytime. But today, instead, a sharpish flit over to Kelenföld station - in the southern Buda suburbs - is required, to catch the early morning train from Debrecen (in the east of Hungary) towards Vienna. This train does not reach Keleti, the main international station in Budapest, but instead skirts through the city’s southern fringes, stopping at a couple of suburban stations en route.

The train arrives on time and is very busy, for it’s the start of a long holiday weekend in Hungary. Surprisingly, it’s not a Hungarian or Austrian train which rolls up, but a Polish trainset. On board, breakfast in the Polish dining car – an advantage on this train over the newer Railjets, which only have a cramped bistro section – makes the journey pass by very comfortably. At Vienna’s Westbahnhof station, there is more evidence of the migrant crisis. Two platforms are cordoned off and a group of around a hundred refugees is sitting patiently, cross-legged, in the middle, surrounded by police. Then a further contingent of a dozen or so police officers arrives and escorts them away.

From Vienna, the next stage of the journey proceeds westwards on the Austrian main east-west axis towards Salzburg, but only as far as Attnang-Puchheim, reached about 3 hours after leaving Vienna. This journey is operated using an OeBB (Austrian Railways) inter-city train, made up of refurbished early-1990s carriages, which used to be the mainstay of Austrian long-distance rail travel until the introduction of the Railjets a few years ago. OeBB has kept these trains in excellent condition, and many consider them to be more comfortable than the Railjets, having more legroom and feeling less cramped, with a mixture of traditional compartment and open-plan seating.

The scenery so far has been pleasant, rather than spectacular, but thing soon change on the Salzkammergutbahn, part of which runs from Attnang-Puchheim, for a distance of about 60 miles southwards and then eastwards, to Stainach-Irdning on the Graz-Innsbruck line. Now travel is on a regional express train, and about fifteen minutes after leaving Attnang-Puchheim, the train arrives at the first major station on the single-track line, Gmunden, which is at the northern tip of Traunsee, the second largest lake in this area. The lake is unfortunately not yet visible from the railway, since the station lies some way out of the town. The station is linked with the lakeside by the Gmunden Tramway, which, although short (less than a mile-and-a-half long) is the oldest tramway still operating in Austria. From the lakeside square in the centre of Gmunden, the full expanse of the eight-mile long lake unfolds, with the mountains providing a splendid backdrop to the south and east, whilst on the western side of the lake, just south of the town, lies the striking Schloss Ort, a castle with origins in the eleventh century.

Back on the railway, after another ten minutes, the lakeside is reached just before the station at Traunkirchen, and the train continues along the lake’s western shore all the way to its southern end at Ebensee. Traunsee is a popular lake for water sports, particularly sailing and water-skiing - and on any summer’s day the view from the train is of a lake dotted with the sails of yachts. The railway line then bears south-westwards along the banks of the River Traun, for about ten miles, until it reaches the town of Bad Ischl.

Bad Ischl lies at the centre of the Salzkammergut region, Austria’s lake district, and while being a significant tourist base, it does not at all project the feeling of being overwhelmed by tourism – it is a charming and bustling town in its own right. It lies at the confluence of the Traun and Ischl rivers, which loop round effectively transforming the town’s centre into a peninsula. By the mid-nineteenth century, Bad Ischl had become fashionable as a spa resort, and it was the summer retreat for many years of Emperor Franz Josef I, who was engaged to the future Empress Sisi here. Consequently, the spa town became very popular with Austrian and European aristocracy even before the railway arrived in 1875, and the centre contains many elegant imperial buildings.

From Bad Ischl, to the west lies the well-frequented lakeside resort of St Wolfgang and the Wolfgangsee, and beyond that, Salzburg; however, unfortunately, there is no railway line in that direction. The railway continues southwards towards to the sleepy town of Bad Goisern, and then soon a glimmer of the dark waters of the Hallstättersee – Lake Hallstatt – can be seen through the trees. The train now hugs the lakeside, but the opposite shore is only visible occasionally, offering the tantalising glimpse of the small settlement in the distance, hugging the side of a mountain. Then, after passing through a short tunnel, the train draws to a halt at the solitary platform which forms the station at Hallstatt, on the opposite side of the lake to the town it serves.

From the station, a short path snakes downwards to the waiting ferry. For as long as can be remembered, in a very civilised arrangement, the ferry meets each train, and the trains stop at the station only when the ferry operates.

Despite the innumerable images of Hallstatt in guide books and online, nothing quite prepares you for the beauty of the setting in reality. The view from the boat crossing the lake is probably the most spectacular, and this is not lost on the many camera-wielding tourists making the journey. The town seems to be precariously situated between the mountainside and lake shore, while the colours of its buildings are reflected in the dark, shimmering waters of the lake. The boat docks at Hallstatt Markt pier, and everyone disembarks right into the centre of town.

Hallstatt is small – the main street, which is almost traffic-free, runs for about 500 metres, north to south – and despite the throngs of tourists, remains considerably beguiling, not least because of the charm of its well-kept buildings, many of which are hundreds of years old. It is easy to find some tranquillity away from the crowds by walking behind and above the main street, looking down on the town; in a mini-Venice effect, the town becomes much quieter in the early evening after the many day-trippers have left.

Highlights of a visit to Hallstatt include the salt mines and the town’s ossuary. Hallstatt’s connections with salt mining go back many centuries; indeed the early European Iron Age, between about 800 and 500 BC, is referred to as the Hallstatt period. The entrance to the salt mines is reached by a vertiginous cable railway running up Salzberg, the salt mountain itself. Near the railway’s summit, Hallstatt’s own skywalk – 350 metres above the town – provides the inevitably stunning panoramic views. The ossuary, or Bone House, is located in the basement of St Michael’s church, and dates back to the twelfth century. It contains some 1,200 skulls, about half of which are painted; many are arranged in family groups. It came about ostensibly because of limited burial space in the town, and the historical prohibition of cremations. The last skull to be placed there was as recent as 1995, being that of a woman who died in 1983.

Just south of the town, a glacial valley cuts into the mountains, perpendicular to the lake. The town’s dwellings soon dwindle out into the open countryside, and there are plenty of reasonably easy, and little-frequented hiking trails leading to craggy rock faces, rushing streams, waterfalls and high bridges with expansive views of the town and lake below. More experienced hikers can take the trail up the side of the Salzberg to the high station of the mountain railway.

Back in Hallstatt, it is evident that this place is extremely popular with Asian visitors, so much so that a few years ago - initially much to the chagrin of local residents of the original town - China built a full-scale replica of Hallstatt in Guangdong province.

On the good boat Stefanie, sailing back to the railway station on its last journey of the day, the constant clicking of cameras and smartphones evidences tourists making the most of the last chance to take pictures of the unique setting. Then they make their way up to the station, and just a few minutes later everyone is whisked away by the last northbound train of the day.

Practicalities

From Vienna or Salzburg, Hallstatt is reached by changing trains at Attnang-Puchheim. A shorter journey is possible from Salzburg by a combination of bus to Bad Ischl, and thence train to Hallstatt.

On Saturdays and Sundays, a through train to Bad Ischl and Hallstatt leaves Vienna (Westbahnhof) at around 10:00, returning from Hallstatt just after 16:30.

The last boat to leave Hallstatt Markt pier for the railway station leaves promptly at 18:15 daily, which allows a same-day arrival in Vienna just after 22:00. In the reverse direction, a train departing Vienna just before 15:00 connects with the last train from Attnang-Puchheim to Hallstatt, arriving at 18:47. The last boat to the town leaves immediately after the arrival of this train.

The low platform at Hallstatt is on a curve and the train leans away from the platform, meaning somewhat of a climb to get on or off the train, and making boarding and alighting with luggage cumbersome; the path down to the ferry, although short (less than 100 metres), is steep-ish and also can be awkward with bags.

Hallstatt’s station is unmanned, but if you are ticketless, be sure to buy your train ticket before boarding from the ticket machine, which is unsigned and somewhat hidden away in the small waiting-room. It will sell you a ticket for any destination in Austria.

16.05.2015
16:41

Europe by rail - an introduction

See all rail travel articles »

Latest update: September 2015

See the updated trans-Europe services for 2015 »

If you are intending to travel by rail in Europe, Mark Dudgeon, Blue Guides’ resident rail expert, offers advice about where to start and suggests some of the most useful internet resources to help in your planning:

Eurostar at St Pancras, London ...

GENERAL PLANNING

Seat 61 is an ex-railway manager’s personal but comprehensive guide to travelling by train in Europe and the rest of the world. Once considered to be rather too anglo-centric (“How to get from London to….”), it has since expanded to include more detailed information about travelling by train within and between almost any country which has a rail network. Regularly updated, this site is a good starting point for organising a journey by rail in Europe.

Deutsche Bahn‘s website is, they claim, “Europe’s biggest online travel booking tool”. Certainly, it is generally considered to be the best timetable planner for train journeys throughout Europe. When planning journeys, exercise care, however – except for within Germany, this site does not show temporary or last minute timetable changes: national rail websites are better for this. Weekend journeys in Britain, for example, are frequently disrupted by engineering work on the line.

If you enjoy poring over maps when planning journeys, the Railways through Europe site has comprehensive rail maps for each country, although you may find the design of the maps more of interest to the rail fan rather than the independent traveller.

EUROSTAR

For many British citizens, at least, Eurostar has offered them their first experience of international train travel. Despite being 20 years old now, and looking rather jaded in parts – standard class seating is cramped and the bistro cars are particularly dismal – the Eurostar experience still can captivate the imagination in a way that short-haul flights cannot. London’s St Pancras station is a particularly impressive place to start a journey: until you get past check-in, that is - the Eurostar waiting lounge can get overcrowded very quickly. The experience should soon regain its glamour factor: a new service from London to Marseille was introduced in May 2015, and brand-new Siemens-built Eurostar e320 trainsets will start operating on the London-Paris route at the end of 2015. Eurostar also plans to operate trains between London and Amsterdam from December 2016. Unfortunately, Deutsche Bahn, which had announced plans to introduce through trains between London, Cologne, Frankfurt and Amsterdam, has now put those plans on indefinite hold.

EUROPE-WIDE RAIL PASSES

One of the big decisions, when planning to do some serious train travel in Europe, is whether or not to buy a rail pass. The two principal types for extensive travel, which have a variety of geographic options (for one or more countries) and several validity periods, are Eurail and Inter-Rail. The basic rule is that Inter-Rail passes are available for anyone resident (for at least six months) in Europe, and Eurail passes are available for everyone else. The best sites for checking the details, including advice on planning trips, and buying passes, are the official sites operated by the Eurail.com company: Eurail and Inter-Rail.

It is important to note that – with some exceptions - Eurail and national passes can generally only be purchased before you arrive in Europe (or the specific country). Inter-Rail passes can be purchased in your country of residence, but they do not allow free travel in that country.

NATIONAL RAIL PASSES

Several countries also issue their own national passes independent of the Eurail/Inter-Rail scheme, and sometimes these offer a better deal. Most passes are available to anyone not resident in the country of travel.

The ever-popular Swiss Pass and Swiss Flexi-Pass cover most types of public transport in Switzerland without extra payment, or at a discount. There is also the useful Swiss Card, offering a visitor a round-trip transfer from the Swiss border (including airports) to any Swiss destination and back, plus unlimited tickets (including boats and some cable-cars) at 50% discount for one month.

The German Rail Pass is only available for non-European residents. Passes are available for a number of days-of-use (from 3 up to 10) within a period of one month - the days do not have to be consecutive.

Renfe’s Spain Pass operates in a different way: you can select passes offering from 4 to 12 long-distance journeys within one month. Connecting local train services at each end of your journey are included free of charge.

The range of BritRail passes is available in several variations, from the London-Plus Pass to the Britrail Pass itself - covering England, Scotland and Wales - with another version including all Ireland. BritRail also offers various discounts on the standard pass prices: for example for low-season travel (November to February), and – unusually – for a British resident travelling together with a visitor.

LOCAL RAIL PASSES

If you are visiting one country, and want to explore a smaller area by train, there is also a variety of local and regional train pass offers available to all travellers. Some countries are better than others for this: Germany, for example, has the excellent one-day Länder-Tickets valid on regional and local trains in each German state, for up to five people travelling together. These have the added advantage of being available on local transport in towns and cities – for example, the Bayern-Ticket is valid on Munich buses, trams and U-bahn (subway) as well as local trains.

Britain has a wide range of regional passes valid for one or several days, although you will need to dig around a bit on the Rangers and Rovers page to see if one would suit you.

BUYING TICKETS

While European train travel has become generally faster and more comfortable over the past couple of decades, it has also become more fragmented – rather than government-owned megaliths operating all the rail services within each country’s borders, privatisation has begun to make its mark in some countries (notably Britain), and several private operators run cross-border services (Eurostar from London to Paris and Brussels, and Thalys from Paris to Amsterdam and Cologne being prime examples).

Twenty years or so ago, you could roll up at the International Travel Centre on platform 1 at London’s Victoria station, and ask for a one-way ticket from London to Budapest. The clerk would dutifully consult a very large tome – the international ticketing manual - you would agree with him the route you intended to travel, and he would calculate a price – all worked out by the distance travelled in each country you passed through. The ticket would be issued, and you were all set – you could stop off anywhere en route, without formality, within the two-month validity of the ticket.

So nowadays, if you decide a rail pass is not for you, or you simply just want to purchase a one-way point-to-point ticket, where do you start?

If your journey is straightforward and involves only one operator, in most cases you can simply visit the operator’s website and book online, print your ticket off (or have it mailed to you).

However, things can get more complicated very quickly. It can be a challenge finding a travel agent able and willing to issue an international train ticket for a complicated routing. (It involves a lot of manual work). If you want to book online, some websites make a brave attempt at pan-European ticketing. Loco2, for example, is relatively new and gets some good reviews. For our London – Budapest journey, it will quote you a price - or rather two or more prices for separate tickets on specific trains – but the options it will offer you are limited. If you want to stopover in Cologne, say, on the way, you’re going to have to split the journey into two, and even then you will only be offered a small number of options.

Alternatively, in Britain, for example, Deutsche Bahn’s UK booking centre can be very helpful in pricing and ticketing more complicated journeys by phone.

Here are our tips for purchasing rail tickets:

1. Flexibility or specific trains? On most websites, you will be offered tickets for flexible travel (check the operator’s conditions) or cheaper tickets for travel on specific trains, which are often not refundable and not changeable (so if you don’t travel or you miss your train, you’ve lost your money). The choice is yours; you need to assess how important flexibility is to you. If your journey requires more than one non-flexible ticket, do ensure that you leave plenty of connecting time between trains, since it is not guaranteed that one operator will be understanding, and let you travel on a later train if you miss a connection because of another operator’s delay.

2. Journeys within one country: it is usually best to use the national operator’s website to book tickets, for example Deutsche Bahn for Germany or Trenitalia for Italy. You are likely to be offered the best range of tickets, and the booking experience should generally be smooth. However, do check if a smaller private operator runs trains on your planned route. For example, you might consider Westbahn if travelling between Vienna and Salzburg (instead of the Austrian national operator, OeBB); or Italo between Rome and Milan (instead of Trenitalia).

3. International journeys: many countries have bilateral or multilateral agreements with nearby countries for ticketing for specific rail journeys. In this case, check for the ticket you require on the website of the operator in either the departing or arriving country. (So, for example SNCF and DB for a Paris to Frankfurt ticket.) In some cases, you may find that the ticket is cheaper on one site rather than the other.

 

Here is our list of the principal national rail sites, useful both for up-to-date timetable information and booking tickets:

Germany: Deutsche Bahn (DB) for booking rail tickets within Germany, and for international journeys starting or ending in Germany. There is the odd additional quirk: for example, you can book a London to Salzburg ticket, since DB considers Salzburg to be within Germany for ticketing purposes; or the night train from Amsterdam to Prague (which is operated by City Night Line, a Deutsche Bahn subsidiary). Their London-Spezial tickets - for journeys between London and Germany - can be particularly good value.

France: SNCF in its various guises can be a bit clunky. Try Capitaine Train instead – also useful for some international tickets.

Italy:  Trenitalia is quite user-friendly; usefully, train pass holders can also book and change reservations-only on high-speed trains.

Other national operators' websites include Spain: Renfe; Austria: OeBB; Switzerland: SBB; and the Netherlands: NS.

In Great Britain: National Rail represents the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC). To find out the specific train operating company (TOC) for your journey, consult either the online timetable or the maps section. Refer to the individual operator’s website to buy tickets.

 

Other major operators on specific routes include:

City Night Line: the largest operator of night trains in Europe, mainly for journeys originating, ending or passing through Germany.

Eurostar – London to Paris and Brussels; also to French ski-resorts (in season) and Marseille

Thalys - Paris to Brussels, Cologne and Amsterdam

Thello - Night trains between France and Italy, and daytime trains between Marseille, Nice and Milan

TGV Lyria - Trains between Paris and Switzerland

 

And the most beautiful rail journey in Europe? Perhaps this one:

 

See all rail travel articles on blueguides.com»

21.11.2014
18:30

Changes to European rail services for 2015

New European rail timetable

Latest update: August 2015

December each year heralds the introduction of a new rail timetable across Europe, with new services and the inevitable demise of others. With rail travel becoming increasingly popular in Europe, Mark Dudgeon, the Blue Guides rail expert, highlights some of the key changes to international services, effective from 14 December 2014.

Railjet - Blue Guides new 2015 European timetable

Night services

The attitude of European train operating companies to night train services over recent years has been ambivalent, to say the least. By their very nature, night trains require specialised coaches which require higher levels of cleaning and maintenance than “normal” day trains, and then they stand around unused for most of the day. Additionally, track access at night can be fraught with difficulties since freight trains generally have precedence over passenger trains, and night-time engineering work can cause frequent diversions and delays. Combine this with international border crossings and the dividing and joining of train portions at various stations, and it can be seen why night trains are viewed as an inefficient and costly relic of bygone days. Many, however, would say this is short-sighted and the market - although niche - for night trains is there: it just needs to be addressed correctly. If there is one area begging for concerted EU intervention, this is it.

Little surprise, therefore, that CityNightLine (CNL), the biggest operator of night passenger trains in western Europe, has wielded the axe to several services, citing declining passenger numbers, high fixed costs and competition from low-cost airlines. Deutsche Bahn, which owns CNL, says the trains are reaching the end of their useful life, and the services do not make enough money to warrant investment in new rolling-stock. But by cutting services, and reducing facilities – all CNL restaurant cars, a highlight of any overnight journey, were recently withdrawn – the services become less attractive and declining patronage inevitable.

Since early November 2014, Copenhagen has seen the end of all of its night trains (to Amsterdam, Prague and Basel), and from December 2014, the key international routes of Paris – Munich, Paris – Hamburg and Paris – Berlin will all lose their night services. Amsterdam will lose its overnight train to Warsaw and Prague: this train will now start from the nondescript German city of Oberhausen, north of Dusseldorf, instead.

Elsewhere, there is mixed news for night trains:

• A new service will be introduced between Budapest and Sofia: the night train Serdica will operate via Timisoara and south-western Romania, rather than taking the more direct route through Belgrade and Serbia.

• The long-distance Tisza, between Budapest, Ukraine and Moscow is withdrawn. In its place, there will be a new express, Latorca, from Budapest to Lviv and Kiev. The Budapest to Moscow sleeping car, meanwhile, will be reduced from operating daily to only once a week, and will be attached to the new Csárdás Eurocity train (see below), travelling via Bratislava, before heading to Brest, Minsk and Moscow. However, this new routing will lead to a significant time saving of some seven-and-a-half hours for the Budapest to Moscow journey.

• The excellent composite night service between Munich/Vienna and Milan/Rome - which was threatened with withdrawal a few years ago - continues.

• The Budapest – Zurich and Budapest – Munich overnight services will be combined between Budapest and Salzburg – which seems a sensible move. This will have the feel of a “proper” night train on leaving Budapest, with five of its eight coaches being sleeping or couchette cars, but, sadly, there will be no restaurant car attached.

 

Eurostar

Eurostar has been running its monopoly between London and continental Europe for 20 years, but the introduction of new destinations has been sparse. May 2015 will see the introduction of a regular (but not daily – summer 2015 will see the train operating on five days a week) service from London to Lyon, Avignon and Marseille. In order that the Eurostar train can get there and back in a day, this will mean an early departure from, and a late return arrival at, London’s St Pancras station. Furthermore, because of security checks and UK border controls, the return journey will require all passengers to detrain at Lille, with baggage in tow, to complete these formalities – adding about an hour to the journey, and perhaps significantly diminishing the attractiveness of this service. It is the reluctance of the UK authorities to set up controls at more continental stations which is a major obstacle to the addition of new international destinations from London, and is one of the main reasons why Deutsche Bahn has put its proposed through ICE services between London and Germany on hold.

 

New French Riviera to Milan service

Thello, which operates night services between Paris and Italy, will operate its first daytime service with the introduction of a Marseille – Nice – Genoa – Milan train, classified as a Eurocity service.  The London – Marseille Eurostar connects neatly into the Marseille – Milan service: but only on the outward journey. This new train operates only in the late afternoon in both directions, with resulting late arrivals at both Milan and Marseille. Update January 2015: It has been confirmed that two additional trains each way will be introduced between Nice and Milan from 12th April 2015: departures from Nice Ville are at 08:09 and 14:09; departures from Milano Centrale are at 07:05 and 11:10, which means that the timings of the three trains in each direction will be spread fairly evenly through the day. Journey time between Nice and Milan will be approximately four and three-quarter hours.

 

Central Europe

Much of the action – in terms of new and revised services – happens in central Europe.

Czech and Austrian railways introduce new Railjet services between Prague, Vienna and Graz with a two-hourly frequency. This will result in the Prague to Vienna journey time being reduced by about half-an-hour. It also means the withdrawal of the Hamburg to Vienna via Berlin daytime train, EC Vindabona – apparently after over 50 years of continuous service by a direct train on this route.

Whilst in much of western Europe the Eurocity (EC) “brand” – introduced in the 1980s - has been superseded by international high-speed services such as Thalys, French TGVs and German ICEs, in central Europe the name certainly lives on:

• EC Avala, which ran between Prague and Belgrade via Budapest, will revert to its previous routing of Vienna to Belgrade via Budapest. The “lost” Prague to Budapest sector will be filled by a new train, EC Csárdás.

• EC Vindabona will be replaced by an additional Budapest - Prague - Berlin - Hamburg train, EC Porta Bohemica. This will mean an uninterrupted two-hourly frequency of EC trains between Prague and Budapest in the daytime.

• EC Varsovia, the Budapest to Warsaw daytime service is withdrawn; instead EC Praha will operate between Prague and Warsaw.

• The daytime Eurocity service introduced a year ago between Vienna and Venice, which passes through some stupendous scenery in the eastern Alps, sees the very welcome addition of a restaurant car, while the EC Transalpin, also running through spectacular Alpine scenery between Graz and Zurich, rightly has its panorama car restored.

An additional daytime service between Budapest and Belgrade will be reinstated, although this will be a “normal” international train - rather than Eurocity standard - named Ivo Andric. Journey times between Budapest and Belgrade continue to be painfully slow – both night and day trains taking around 8 hours to complete a journey of well under 400 kilometres.

The Railjets between Budapest and Vienna have become a victim of their own success, somewhat, and are frequently crowded. On one recent holiday weekend, OeBB (Austrian Railways) staff refused to “accept” a Railjet train at the border because of serious overcrowding – about 200 standing passengers were offloaded from the 408-seat train. MÁV (Hungarian Railways) would prefer that these trains were operated on a reservation-only basis, but apparently OeBB has rejected this idea. The new timetable introduces two additional Eurocity trains each way, the EC Avala, already mentioned, and the new EC Hortobágy, which will run from the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen via Budapest to Vienna, and be operated, strangely, by a Polish Railways’ trainset. This will result in an hourly frequency during the early morning from Budapest to Vienna, and during the late afternoon in the reverse direction. Note that both of these additional trains will call at Kelenföld, and not Keleti, station in Budapest.

 

Vienna’s new Hauptbahnhof

The long, drawn-out opening of Vienna’s new “central” station continues. It had been expected that this would be fully up-and-running by this year’s December timetable change, but now it will be a further year before it is fully operational.

However – at last – most international services will now call at this new station. The two-hourly ICE services between Vienna and Germany will now start from Vienna Airport station, and via a newly-constructed link, will call at the Hauptbahnhof and Vienna Meidling, before heading off along the high-speed line towards Linz and on to Germany.

The Budapest – Vienna – Munich Railjets will also call at the Hauptbahnhof, but OeBB has decided, in its wisdom, that they will continue to serve (and reverse at) Vienna’s Westbahnhof for another year. This means that passengers travelling between Budapest and Munich will have to wait until December 2015 for the half-hour time saving that will be achieved by eliminating the Westbahnhof stop. Update August 2015: Provisional timetables for 2016 indicate that Railjets will leave Budapest Keleti 30 minutes later than currently scheduled, and the time saving between Budapest and Munich will be, on average, 35 minutes.

It is somewhat of a paradox, that a city rich with architectural masterpieces has never built for itself a railway station of equal grandeur. The two principal main stations for many years, the Westbahnhof and the now demolished Südbahnhof, were utilitarian rather than elegant. The new Hauptbahnhof, situated slightly to the south-east of the old Südbahnhof, does not buck the trend, frankly. The two lower floors contain the inevitable rows of shopping facilities – barely distinguishable from the revamped Westbahnhof, or a modern airport. The platform level is dominated by a chunky, angular, heavy roof canopy, which makes what could have been a welcoming, open space, dark and almost claustrophobic. Budding architects of new railway stations could do worse than visit Liège Guillemins station in Belgium, with its flowing lines and stupendous monumental arch, as designed by Santiago Caltrava, to see what can be achieved in modern railway design.

 

… and finally

International services to Greece were withdrawn by the Greek government following the 2008 financial crash. In May 2014, some services were restored with trains between Thessaloniki and Belgrade and Sofia – still some way removed from the core European rail network. However, from summer 2015, a through service will be introduced between Budapest and Thessaloniki – once a week, a couchette coach and a seated coach will be attached to the Ivo Andric train between Budapest and Belgrade, and thence onwards with the Hellas Express to Thessaloniki. For those aficionados of the glory days of real long-distance train travel in Europe, this will allow for journeys such as Zurich, Berlin or Munich to Greece, with only one change of train in Budapest. Update August 2015: Greek Railways has announced that until further notice, this train will be substituted by a bus in Greece (from the border station at Gevgelija in Macedonia).

Questions, comments to Mark, rail@blueguides.com

See more rail articles on blueguides.com »

15.08.2014
14:17

All Aboard the Cheese Train

"On a throne of rocks, in a robe of clouds, with a diadem of snow…." (Byron)

There are many lovely train journeys in the world, but this must be one of the loveliest: the route taken through the Alpine foothills of Switzerland by the Goldenpass. This winter, you can hop aboard the "Cheese Train" to watch traditional alpine Swiss cheese being made. Details are below.

The full route begins in Montreux, from the railway station just above the lake, and continues to Zweisimmen in the Bernese Oberland.

Very soon after Montreux the train begins to climb vertiginously, leaving the tall hotels and sombre boarding houses far below. The lake is spread before you, first on one side and then on the other as the train winds round. Perched on a ledge high above the water, a power station with its tall chimney looms on a ledge like a 21st-century monastery with its bell-tower. The water is a deep navy blue: jagged mountains garlanded with clouds soar above it. It is easy to understand why, in the days before one could simply snap a picture of the scene on one’s smartphone, travellers were moved to capture the scene in verse. “The clouds above me to the white Alps tend,” scribbled a breathless Byron, “And I must pierce them, and survey whate’er may be permitted, as my steps I bend to their most great and growing region, where the earth to her embrace compels the powers of air!” Quite so.

After Chamby (a request stop), Montreux is far below and you begin to hear cowbells, see fields scattered with baled-up hay and neat wood piles outside snug chalets, their balconies ablaze with geraniums. At Les Avants the train halts to wait for the one coming in the opposite direction. The station building announces that we have climbed to 972.76m (slightly over 3000ft).

Soon after this the train enters a long tunnel. When it emerges at the other end, it reveals a completely different landscape. This is the famous Oberland, or Pays d’Enhaut, an amazingly lovely region of luminous green pastures, leaping crags, hurtling waterfalls and forests of pine and red fir. It is here, in the high, scattered chalets, that Etivaz is made, the mountain cheese that rivals Gruyère for authenticity and flavour. In the high pastures, cheese is made in the chalets until October. Farmers rise to milk their cows at five. Cheese-making (in a copper cauldron over a wood fire) begins around seven. The milk is slowly heated and stirred, and the curds collected into a cheesecloth and placed in a circular press to make the smooth golden truckles of Etivaz. In winter, cheesemakers demonstrate their skill at a place called Le Chalet. For details of how to participate, see the Cheese Train section of the Goldenpass website.

After Rougemont, with its fortified church and former priory, French-speaking Switzerland ends and the German part begins. The trains stops at Saanen, with its airfield for the jet-setters of Gstaad, then Gstaad itself, and then Zweisimmen. The total journey time is around two hours.

Practicalities

There are three types of train on this route. The Goldenpass Classic is a reproduction of a 1930s luxury Pullman. The Goldenpass Panoramic has huge picture windows which allow you to see as much as possible of the view. There are also VIP coaches which you can book in advance, which are right at the very front of the train. Timetables posted at the stations tell you what kind of train operates when. If neither Classic nor Panoramic is indicated, the train will be a small, humble little thing, with a guard’s van equipped with lantern, stop sign, broom and snow shovel. In some ways these are the most authentic-feeling of all, though they tend to run only early in the morning or at night.

Information about prices, special offers, discounts and timetables can be found on the website here.

Snaking round the viaduct
Like a modern monastery with its bell-tower

And if you stop in Château d'Oex, be sure to visit the Musée du Pays d'Enhaut to see the extraordinary handiwork of J-J Hauswirth, a man of apparently little or no formal education who produced intricate and unbelievably delicate cut-outs or découpages, attaching his scissors to his hands with wires when he grew older and his fingers grew too thick.

Budapest to Vienna and Salzburg by Railjet

“The journey is its own reward” trumpets the on-train information screen on the Austrian Railways (OeBB) Railjet train, but certainly this journey did not get off to an auspicious start. The train was packed. No space to sit … hardly any space to stand, even. Then it transpired that a group of German schoolchildren – about thirty of them – had mixed up their reservation, and were not supposed to be on this train at all. A very flustered teacher finally decided they had better get off the train, two minutes before it was due to leave. General chaos ensued, and the children scrambled around to retrieve luggage and get off the train.

Following this commotion, the train pulls out of Budapest’s Keleti (Eastern) station and things begin to settle down. At this point the train is heading east, in the “wrong” direction for Austria – but it almost immediately swings round to the south, and then to the west, before crossing the Danube and stopping at the suburban station of Kelenfold.

After leaving Budapest proper, the train journeys through rather unremarkable scenery before stopping at the provincial industrial town of Tatabánya. Soon it follows the Danube for a while - the river here forms the border between Hungary and Slovakia – and passes through the town of Komárom, opposite which, on the other side of the river, lies the Slovakian town of Komárno. About 90 minutes after leaving Budapest, the train stops at the regional capital of Győr (Raab in German) – roughly half-way between Budapest and Vienna - and then speeds through the flat north-west Hungarian countryside before arriving at the border station of Hegyeshalom. Years ago Hegyeshalom meant a stop of up to thirty minutes for a change of locomotive and a passport and customs check, but nowadays the stop barely takes a couple of minutes. The Hungarian driver is replaced by his Austrian colleague, who flicks a switch to allow the locomotive to “convert” to the different Austrian power supply, and soon the train is on its way again.

The scenery remains flat through Austria, although hills appear on the horizon both to the north and west. Massive wind turbines loom up on both sides of the line. In the distance, to the right, high-rise apartment buildings reveal the Slovakian capital, Bratislava. Soon the suburbs of Vienna appear, and only a few minutes later the train passes through the new Wien Hauptbahnhof (Central station), which is currently only partly in use and will open to international trains in December 2014. The Railjet instead stops at the suburban station of Meidling, before travelling a further 10 kilometres and turning through 180 degrees to arrive from the west at Vienna’s (current) principal station, the Westbahnhof.

Railjets were first introduced at the end of 2008 to gradually replace OeBB’s ageing but comfortable Inter-City rolling-stock. The sets are formed of a locomotive plus seven coaches, and they travel in fixed formation, the last coach having a driving cab so the train can be operated in either direction. There are three classes: second class (called “economy”), first class and business class. Business class trumps first class, which may confuse frequent fliers somewhat. A seat in business class costs an extra €15 for any first-class ticket or pass holder, irrespective of the distance travelled. This can be paid on board if there are seats available. Paying extra for the comfortable armchair-style seating in the clubby mini-compartments is well worth it, especially for longer journeys. The supplement includes a welcome drink, although you may have to ask for it if not offered by the attendant.

The Railjets all operate so that the business class and first class sections are nearest the buffers and station entrance at Vienna’s Westbahnhof. This terminus station has only recently been completely renovated with a new shopping centre added, but it will lose its status as Vienna’s principal railway station when the Hauptbahnhof opens fully, since most long-distance trains will stop there instead. This will also allow for an improvement in journey time between Budapest and Salzburg or Munich of about thirty minutes (from December 2015).

On leaving Vienna, the route westwards to Salzburg soon escapes the conurbation; previously it would amble through the attractive hills and woods of the Wienerwald. However, the opening of a new section of high-speed line in 2012 means that, sadly, this is no longer the case – the train now accelerates rapidly and passes through a sequence of tunnels and cuttings; the 15-minute time-saving between Vienna and St Pölten being paltry compensation, some would say, for the loss of the scenic views.

The line from St Pölten onward to Linz has been upgraded in stages in the past few years, but it still mostly follows the route of the old Westbahn, originally opened in 1858 as the “Empress Elisabeth Railway”. There are only a few tunnels to spoil the view as you travel up to a brisk but smooth 230 km/h or so.

Time for a visit to the restaurant car, which is operated by Henry am Zug – an offshoot of Do & Co, the renowned Austrian caterer and restaurateur. The choice of foods is modest, but sandwiches are fresh and other dishes tasty. Pricing is reasonable for a train – a glass of very-drinkable wine with a sandwich costs just over €6, for example - and service, by the mostly Hungarian staff, is prompt and cheerful. Soon the industrial city of Linz is reached, then after passing through Wels the high-speed line ends and on the last stretch of the journey, the 45 minute ride from Attnang-Puchheim to Salzburg, the train meanders pleasantly along river valleys, and briefly passes by the northern shore of the Wallersee as the foothills of the Alps approach.

And so to Austria’s “second” city of Salzburg – in reputation, at least (it is actually fourth in size after Vienna, Graz and Linz). Recently, the station has been extensively rebuilt, but thankfully the grand arched roof has been retained and restored. While the train continues across the border (just outside Salzburg) to Germany, many people alight here, both to visit the city of Mozart and also to connect to trains southbound towards the High Tauern, and westwards towards Innsbruck and beyond.

Travelwise

Railjets ply the Budapest – Vienna – Salzburg - Munich route every two hours during the day. Fares from Budapest to Vienna are reasonably priced if bought from MAV (Hungarian railways): a one-way journey Budapest to Vienna (about 250 km) can be booked in advance for €13 second class, or €29 in first class. These tickets are valid for a specific train, including seat reservation, and are available until the quota for each train runs out.

Otherwise, there is a useful four-day round-trip excursion fare starting from Budapest to Vienna (second class only) for €29. (If you make the outward journey on day one of the ticket’s validity, the return trip has to be made on or before day four). This ticket does not have to be purchased in advance. However, this fare does not include seat reservations – which are not compulsory, and may be purchased separately. For an extra €9, your ticket will include unlimited travel on Vienna’s public transport for the first two days only of the ticket’s validity.

From Budapest to Salzburg there is also a very reasonable four-day round-trip excursion fare (again, second class only) for €39. Since break of journey is allowed with this ticket, it could be used to visit both Vienna and Salzburg within the four days of its validity. Again, seat reservations are not included in the fare.

Buying tickets on the Hungarian railways (MAV) website can be a challenge – there is no proper English version (use an online translator) – and no self-printing facility for international tickets. Tickets have to be collected from internet ticket terminals at main stations in Hungary. Alternatively, Blue Guides recommends buying rail tickets at MAV’s city ticketing office in Budapest on József Attila utca (near the Deák ter metro interchange). Queues are rare and the procedure is generally stress-free; the international ticket office at Keleti station can be crowded.

Note that the same range of tickets is not available in the reverse direction (when starting your journey in Austria) either booked on the OeBB website, or purchased locally in Austria. There are no equivalent excursion tickets, unfortunately, and one-way advance tickets from Vienna to Budapest start from €19 in second class (€29 in first class).

Railjets are often very full – especially on the Hungarian stretch of the journey where they also function as domestic inter-city trains. Booking is always advisable on these services. If you are leaving Budapest without a reservation, get to the station early to bag unreserved places - there is always a certain number of free seats. Otherwise, make your way to the restaurant car, where for roughly the price of a seat reservation, you can enjoy a coffee, beer or glass of wine.

June 2014

01.06.2014
22:09

Budapest to Serbia by EuroCity Avala

Tito descending from his beloved Blue Train that ran from the capital Belgrade to Bar on the coast

The 13:30 departure to Belgrade, the EuroCity train Avala, stands at platform 7 of Budapest’s Keleti station. This is a “real” international train - the way international trains used to be – a proper locomotive and coaches, crossing borders and changing locomotives and train staff en route. It has started its journey in Prague, and, with an Agatha Christie-style frisson of intrigue, the daily sleeping-car from Moscow to Belgrade is shunted on to the front of the train. Net curtains covering the lower half of the compartment windows are drawn, protecting the occupants from prying eyes. This coach has arrived in Budapest a couple of hours previously as part of another international express train – the Tisza - after a 36-hour journey from Moscow via the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

The train leaves on time, trundling around the south-eastern suburbs of Budapest, and stops very briefly at the little-used station of Ferencváros. It then bears almost due south, quickly leaving the conurbation behind, and makes its way gently through low, flat lands along the single-track line. This is the western fringe of the Great Hungarian Plain, and it is characterised by mixed-crop fields interspersed with the occasional small settlement. Indeed, the few stops that the train makes are at large, sleepy villages rather than bustling towns; their names – Kunszentmiklós, Szabadszállás, Kiskunhalas – hardly tripping off the tongue. On this glorious day in May, the languid pace of the train and the gently swaying crops under the cornflower-blue, cloudless sky seemingly anticipate long, hot summer days to come.

This route was followed by the original Orient Express, and indeed for a long time was a major gateway to the south-east of Europe. Twenty years ago, there were still five international express trains in each direction, including one to Athens and two to Istanbul. Nowadays, there are only two trains a day from Budapest to Belgrade: this daytime train, which starts from and returns to Prague, and the night train Beograd. In the summer months, EuroCity Avala takes on a grander role with the addition, on certain days of the week, of through overnight coaches to the coastal town of Bar (in Montenegro) and the Macedonian capital, Skopje. [Update: The through coaches to and from Bar will not run in the 2014 summer season because of serious flood damage in Serbia.]

Since the train leaves Budapest at lunch-time, the best place to start the journey is in the restaurant car. And as befits an international express, this is a proper restaurant car with a chef, kitchen – rather than a microwave oven - and appropriately-dressed tables. The menu looks interesting, but the prices seem a bit too good to be true. Each column on the menu only shows “Happy Hour” prices, but it seems that on this train, happy hour lasts for the whole journey. A main course of fried chicken steak and potatoes, with a glass of wine, followed by a dessert of honey-cake and a coffee costs just over €10. On this Saturday journey, the restaurant car was hardly being used; easy to linger there until being politely but firmly chivvied out by the Czech attendant just before the border with Serbia.

The train reaches Kelebia, the Hungarian frontier town, and a small army of border police and customs officials board the train. The train is scheduled to stop here for about 30 minutes, as a thorough passport and customs checked is carried out. This is, after all, a border of the European Union, and the process is taken very seriously. (On the return journey, the Hungarian customs men board with a step-ladder and an electric drill. There have been occasions in the past when contraband has been concealed in light-fittings and air-conditioning vents).

The train is locked and then proceeds the 12 kilometres or so to the Serbian border town of Subotica. The border itself is crossed some 4 kilometres after leaving Kelebia, but it is not readily noticeable. At Subotica, the train comes to a halt and the performance is repeated, with Serbian officials now carrying out the checks. Western passports seem to elicit more attention than local travel documents, but few questions are asked. Again the train stops for about half-an-hour, the locomotive is changed, then the officials leave and the train moves forward into the station proper, where it stops for a few more minutes to pick up local passengers. The whole procedure – from arriving at the Hungarian border station to leaving the Serbian border station – has taken about 70 minutes.

If the pace of the train in Hungary was relaxed, its movement through Serbia becomes decidedly pedestrian. The first stop after is Kelebia is Bačka Topola, 36 kilometres down the line. Although the route is as flat as a pancake and nearly dead straight, the journey, at an average speed of under 40 km/hour, is scheduled to take 55 minutes. In less than this time, a German ICE train will convey you a cool 170 kilometres from Cologne to Frankfurt Airport. Even Stephenson’s Rocket – the world’s first serious steam locomotive - could reach up to 45 km/hour.

The EuroCity brand was introduced in the late 1980s to promote flagship international trains of some repute, which had to meet certain standards. One of these was the requirement to maintain a minimum average speed of 90 km/hour, except in mountainous terrain. With the advent of high-speed trains in the 1990s and later, such as France’s TGV and Germany’s ICE, the EuroCity brand has diminished in significance and, evidently, standards have slipped.

Not every rail line can be high-speed, but clearly Serbia’s rail network is desperately in need of investment and upgrading. From Subotica to Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city, it takes 133 minutes to cover 110 kilometres. The train then continues onwards for another hour or so to Belgrade, but the journey for Blue Guides ends here, in this delightful town with a compact but buzzing historic centre.

Travelwise

Fares between Budapest and Serbia are very reasonable. The Beograd-Spezial ticket (second class only) costs €15 one way and €26 round-trip (return within one month) from Budapest to Belgrade, not including optional reservations. The journey must be made, without break, on either of the two through trains indicated above. Supplements on the night train for couchettes and sleepers are extra but very cheap – from €6 per person for a couchette in a 6-berth compartment to €18 per person in a 2-berth sleeper compartment.

For other Serbian destinations, discounted one-way and round-trip (again, return within one month) tickets are available both in second and first class, and these tickets allow break-of-journey en route if desired. For example, Budapest to Novi Sad is €25 round-trip in second class or €37 in first, and Budapest to Belgrade is €48.80 in first class. The Czech restaurant car on EuroCity Avala is highly recommended, although, as noted, it will close for up to an hour during the Hungary/Serbia border controls.

Tickets can be booked on-line on the MAV website, but they can only be collected from internet ticketing terminals at major stations in Hungary.

For accommodation in Novi Sad, the Hotel Centar****, adjacent to the historic centre, is modern but pleasantly designed and reasonably priced; rooms are spacious and comfortable, and service friendly.

May 2014

Travelling around Britain in style

Recent debate regarding rail travel in Britain has revolved around the provision of first class facilities – with some saying they should be completely scrapped to reduce the problem of overcrowding. So with some uncertainty hanging over the future of first class train travel, Blue Guides’ resident rail expert Mark Dudgeon recently went roving on the rails to see what the fuss is all about – and is the extra cost of first class worth it?

Not all Train Operating Companies (TOCs) in Britain offer first class facilities. Generally, on shorter more commuter-oriented services, the trains are one-class-only. On many longer routes, however – principally the West Coast Main Line (London to the West Midlands, North-West England and Glasgow), the East Coast Main Line (London to Yorkshire, North-East England and Edinburgh) trains offer a separate first-class section with a reduced number of seats, more space and extra treats such as free catering.

Costs

First-class travel can be very expensive - especially buying “walk-up” tickets, and if travelling during peak periods, which are generally early-to-mid morning and late afternoon/early evening on Mondays to Fridays. A walk-up round-trip ticket for the 180-kilometre, 80-minute hop from Birmingham to London, for example, costs a painful £264 in first class.

These prices may be acceptable to the captive business market, but clearly many tourists would baulk at such extravagance. There are ways, however, of reducing the cost. Purchasing advance tickets (right up to the day before departure) for travel outside peak periods can reduce the costs significantly. Rail passes, such as a BritRail pass which is available to non-residents only, also can help, especially if you are travelling a lot by rail. If you are using a rail pass in Britain, there is the added advantage that reservations can be made free-of-charge at any staffed station - just remember to take your pass with you to make the reservations.

So what can you expect for the extra cost of travelling in first class? Generally, you’ll get a bigger and more comfortable seat - first class seating is usually three-across rather than four-across in standard class - and on several long-distance routes, free wi-fi is available. And then on many long-distance services, dependent on the time of day, there will be some form of complimentary catering offered.

Blue Guides put three of the major Train Operating Companies to the test ….

Virgin Trains

First class on a Virgin Pendolino
Scrambled eggs & smoked salmon breakfast

Virgin Trains operate the West Coast Main Line (WCML) franchise, with fast, frequent trains between London’s Euston station and: Birmingham and the West Midlands; Liverpool, Manchester and the north-west of England; and Carlisle and Glasgow. On the whole they are a well-regarded outfit, and there was an outcry when they were about to be stripped of the franchise a couple of years ago – a decision which was later reversed.

On Virgin’s flagship trains, the Pendolinos, first class can comprise up to four coaches, so be prepared for airline-style service. However, the quality of breakfasts, in particular, is consistently good and much better than you would receive on an average short-haul flight. Staff are efficient, occasionally tending to the brusque – probably because of the number of passengers they have to serve, often in quite a short space of time.

Full English breakfasts are generally served from a platter and consist of fried egg, tomato, sausage, bacon and a potato. Alternatives include vegetarian breakfast, scrambled eggs with salmon, and sausage muffin. Blue Guides found the English breakfast offering to be hot, freshly cooked and tasty, adequate in size, if not especially abundant. Toast and croissants are also served, with fruit juice and tea and coffee. Service could be touched up – grab the tea or coffee when you can – there may not be a second chance – and occasionally, as happened to the Blue Guides' reporter once, you may find occasional slip-ups such as the fruit juices being served after the meal!

During the rest of the day, hot and cold snacks are served, and on some evening services from London a hot-course evening meal (often a curry or similar) is offered followed by dessert or cheese and biscuits. All accompanied by your choice of drinks (alcoholic or not) from the complimentary bar trolley. Full details of Virgin’s first class catering services are shown here on their website.

Seating is reasonably comfortable - seats are in twos or fours, generally facing each other with tables - but the inward sloping sides (necessary because of the tilting action of the train through curves) – do make the carriages feel, you might say, somewhat snug. There is the added bonus of free (and, in our experience, reliable) wi-fi in first class.

The service on Virgin’s other trains – the diesel-powered Voyagers, which mainly operate between London and North Wales, and Birmingham and Scotland - is reduced somewhat because of the lower demand (there is only one first class coach in each Voyager train set), although service tends to be more personalised.

At weekends and during holiday periods, complimentary catering is generally restricted to hot drinks and biscuits.

Blue Guides’ verdict: reasonably comfortable seating, if a little cramped; good breakfasts; free wi-fi generally works well. Worth it if you can get a good, off-peak advance fare, or are using a rail pass.

East Coast

Mid-morning snack

The East Coast Main Line, connecting the capital cities of England and Scotland is the Blue Riband route of the British rail network. Sights on the way include Durham cathedral, the striking Angel of the North sculpture before Newcastle, and later along the north-east coast of England the mystical Holy Island of Lindisfarne can be spotted in the distance, often shrouded in mist, followed by the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. On the way, look out for the large stencilled arrow signs appearing every so often by the side of the line: for example “Halfway between London and Edinburgh” and “Edinburgh 100 miles”. In order to get the best views, make sure you are sitting on the right side of the train (facing forward) going north, or, conversely, on the left side travelling south.

East Coast operates train services on this route, and - unusually - this is a nationalised body which took over the franchise when the previous operator forfeited it in 2009.

The seats in first class are comfortable - almost armchair-like - and there is more of a sense of space than on Virgin’s trains, even though East Coast’s trains are older. There is free Wi-Fi, but on the times Blue Guides has travelled on East Coast trains, the service has been very patchy and not reliable enough to do anything much more than occasionally checking or sending e-mails.

Complimentary catering in first class varies according to the time of day. There is a guide to what is available on the East Coast website, including a convenient, colour-coded timetable.

Blue Guides tested both the breakfast and daytime snack offerings. Breakfasts were ample and varied, although not consistently as good as on Virgin. The available options rotate on a weekly basis.

All-day snack offerings include a choice from a platter of fresh sandwiches, with pre-packaged biscuits, nibbles, and cakes. In the evening, a more substantial meal is offered on some services. As with Virgin Trains, the catering offering at weekends and during holiday periods is significantly reduced.

Service, we found, was inconsistent – some personnel were excellent and pro-active, while others were mediocre, sadly reminiscent of old, pre-privatisation British Rail days. The bar trolley offered soft and alcoholic drinks, but whether or not you were offered a refill seemed very much to be subject to the whim of the staff.

Blue Guides’ verdict: best part of the experience is the seating; the catering is reasonable and may or may not satisfy you depending on when and where you travel; forget the wi-fi.

Arriva Trains Wales

Premier service coach on Arriva Trains Wales
Premier service dinner main course

We’ve saved the best till last. You need to search hard to find the ne plus ultra of catering on British trains – and, it seems, not many people do. Indeed, on the day of the Blue Guides test, only three other passengers had the pleasure of this experience.

Arriva Trains Wales, which operates most of the trains within Wales (and between Wales and Birmingham and Manchester), doesn’t do first class on its high-density (some might say, spartan) trains – with one, glorious, exception. They don’t even call it first class – it’s called Premier Service, it’s an evening dining experience, and it’s only available on one train a day, five days a week. That train is the 17:16 departure from Cardiff to Holyhead, passing through Hereford, Shrewsbury and Chester before travelling along the North Wales coast to the Anglesey port. (On the early morning train in the reverse direction, breakfast is served).

Here you can experience the way trains used to be: a rake of coaches pulled by a locomotive, sitting in a proper, comfortable restaurant car with a menu and service to match. The menu generally consists of a choice of three appetisers, three main courses and three dessert and cheese options. On the day Blue Guides travelled on this train, the menu included: Baked local crab and cockle pots with fennel and Welsh cheddar; followed by: Pan-fried Gressingham duck breast served with braised red cabbage with apple, thyme and port, spring onion mash and peppercorn sauce; with Bara Brith, Cointreau butter pudding with cream to finish.

The three-course meal, soft and hot drinks are complimentary for passengers travelling with first class tickets and passes. The only thing that lets the experience down slightly is the wine list – reasonably priced, for sure, but on the day of our review, the only available wines were substitutes of poorer quality.

The service is personalised and friendly, and the atmosphere relaxed. This is a journey best experienced in the longer-day months of May or June, when the lovely, understated, scenery of the Welsh Marches can be savoured in all its finery, whilst sipping a glass of wine and enjoying the food in the way that civilised train travel should be. If you are travelling all the way on the longest days of year, you might well enjoy a fine sunset along the North Wales coast to boot. (We recommend you reserve seats in advance on this train: it is not compulsory, but there are only seventeen places).

So how and why does this train exist? Well, it’s operated by arrangement with the Welsh Assembly: it is financed, basically, by the Welsh taxpayer - to the tune of several thousand pounds per journey - in the interests of encouraging business connections between North and South Wales. So, be warned, it may not be around for long; and if you wish to experience it, make sure you reserve the right train because there are other, “normal” trains which ply this route.

Blue Guides’ verdict: great all-round experience, if you can get it! No extra charge for holders of a first class rail pass, but there is no wi-fi on this service.

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