Magdeburg l I write this to you, dear reader, on a night train, in the small hours of the morning. A man is lying opposite me stretched out across the three seats of his side of the booth. He is deeply asleep, his head buried in his coat. Occasionally he snores. I don't want him to wake up.
I almost sneezed just then. That was close.
I’m on my way to Freiburg, which, I have recently learned, is really quite far away. My train left Magdeburg at around 11, and will get in some time after 6 a.m. A night train wasn’t my first choice, but it was about half the price of a normal ticket. And, because I was saving money, I didn't get a private room. I hadn't really thought this through, until I gleefully flung open the door, and saw the sleeping man, and smelt the faint, fusty smell of alcohol.
This whole thing is new to me. I wasn’t even expecting to be able to get a direct train to Freiburg, so initially I was simply thrilled that this one existed at all. It seems I have Deutsche Bahn’s Austrian equivalent, Österreichische Bundesbahnen, to thank for it, even though the train doesn’t go through Austria at all: it goes from Berlin to Zurich.
Germany, Switzerland, Austria: this train is a perfect example of how neighbouring countries can cooperate with each other to make life easier for everyone. Ahem.
The train’s destination is the other reason I’m staying up writing this rather than trying to sleep (the first, obviously, being my snoring fellow traveller): I am worried that I’ll drift off, miss my stop, and end up in Switzerland. That would be problematic. I think my chances of understanding anything in Swiss German are close to zero.
All in all, this is not my very favourite experience. Still, it sure beats getting the train back in the UK.
Ah, British trains. I do not miss them. Famously unreliable, spectacularly expensive, stunningly dirty. If, for some reason, you are searching for the worst-value experience you can possibly find, I strongly recommend you book yourself a nice long train journey in the UK. Book yourself into first class. First class generally means seats that are maybe 5% more comfortable than the normal ones, somewhat less likely to be directly facing a toilet, just as dirty as the seats everywhere else, and unbelievably costly. You might get a biscuit. Also, on certain trains, it can be hard to actually get into the first-class sections, because the corridors outside are jam-packed full of all the people who’ve booked standard-class and haven’t managed to get a seat, so that all they have left to do is stand in doorways, sit on suitcases, and erroneously blame the EU for their misery.
Not every British train is like that, to be fair. It’s hard to generalize, because British trains are privatized: rather than being run by the government, there’s a complicated network of private companies operating competing services. The system is utterly useless. I am not sure that anyone has ever picked a train based on who the service provider is: it is simply not as important a factor as where a train actually goes, when it gets there, and how much it costs. It’s rare to find someone who needs to go to Edinburgh, but decides on a whim to go to Cardiff instead because they can use their favourite train company. That just isn’t how travelling works.
Still, that’s the system we’re stuck with in the UK, and I can’t imagine it’ll change much in the coming years, as anything non-Brexit-related is unlikely to make much headway any time soon in British politics. In the meantime, I'll just count my blessings. Yes, I am travelling the length of Germany in a tiny train carriage with a complete stranger who has been drinking.
But at least the train isn't a British train.