‘Choosing to travel by train rather than flying is important to me mainly for environmental reasons,’ says music student, Caitlin Core, 19.
‘I think we should always question the impact we are having on the world. But as well as this, train travel is an adventure in itself. The journey to Norway becomes much more significant when it takes three days instead of just a couple of hours, giving you the time to enjoy the slow changes across Europe seen and heard in language and landscape,’ reports Jeanette Bowden, professional writer and PR consultant for Bombardier Transportation UK.
‘When my niece, Caitlin, decided to travel to Oslo from the UK by rail, I leapt at the opportunity to accompany her. Caitlin is studying music at the Barratt Due Institute of Music for 6 months so taking a large amount of luggage was to be expected.
‘Yet an even greater challenge was the transportation of her musical instrument – a cello. Our journey would take us two full days/nights and 24 hours of solid time on the rails, so I gained a swift education on the practicalities of transporting an instrument that is around 4 feet in length and weighing 30-40 pounds.’
At London St Pancras crowds of people are making their way to the Eurostar departure gates, heading home between Christmas and New Year. With both the Paris and Brussels trains departing within 3 minutes of each other and two full trainloads of passengers arriving together for the 30 minutes recommended check-in time, the volume of people creates a bottleneck.
Consequently, with 15 minutes to go before our Brussels train is due to leave and already preparing to board, many passengers (ourselves included) are stranded behind the check-in barriers. Passengers bound for the earlier Paris train are given priority, which causes a knock-on problem for us. I’m quietly panicking as, if we miss this train, our whole itinerary is scuppered.
Finally we make it through the check-in and the cello – Caitlin has named her Mathea in deference to her German heritage – experiences a rough ride on the baggage scanner. Nudged along by an impatient passenger, it bounces awkwardly as if descending the rapids of a fast flowing river.
A mad last minute dash – in as much as a dash is possible with a cello, a suitcase, two rucksacks and a 120 litre cargo bag (just usual baggage for 2 ladies travelling!) – and we reach the Eurostar with seconds to spare before departure.
Standing room only
We bundle ourselves into our designated carriage, which happens to be adjacent to the buffet. I begin to experience first hand the challenges of transporting a cello by rail (Caitlin is a seasoned cello-carrying rail passenger and used to its foibles).
It has to be lodged upright, but somewhere that it won’t topple over – not easy to find luggage space that meets those criteria on a severely crowded Eurostar! The buffet car gives us the space we need for the cello, but unfortunately for us this means standing room only. Exhausted already, we slump onto Caitlin’s 120 litre bag.
A delayed arrival time in Brussels means a further dash for our connecting Thalys train to Cologne. Once aboard, we again find ourselves struggling for space for Mathea the cello, so we content ourselves with sitting in the vestibule on fold-out seats. Some grateful passengers without seat reservations benefit from our relocation and the atmosphere is jovial. However, after nearly four hours of squeezing ourselves into the communal areas of trains, I’m starting to feel that air travel has certain merits.
For the 12 hour City Night Line journey from Cologne to Copenhagen, we have the luxury of a sleeper cabin just for the two of us, or three of us counting Mathea – a fact we are mightily relieved about at this stage in our journey.
However, even with our own dedicated room, finding a space for Mathea and our bulky baggage proves a challenge. There are two bunks and an en-suite bathroom in our couchette, with only a small corner of the room for luggage. The large knapsack and my case fit in at a squeeze, but leave no spare room for the cello. Eventually we settle for sliding it partially beneath the lower bunk (mine), but it still protrudes awkwardly into the room.
The en-suite bathroom is a masterpiece of ergonomic planning. The washbasin can be rotated either over the shower, or over the toilet, to ensure the available space is optimised.
In turn we decide to try out the shower. Whilst the space usage is exemplary, the same cannot be said of the water drainage system and the result is a flood, all over the floor of the couchette.
Luckily Mathea is rescued in the nick of time, but the floor of our sleeping area (fully carpeted) is saturated. We alert the guard to our plight. He reacts with a panicked expletive and rushes off in search of towels.
Despite his best efforts to dry out our cabin, we are left with a small marshland for a floor. Cellos and water do not make good bedfellows so we are back to the drawing board on where to put Mathea. The only viable option is on one of the bunks, so Caitlin spends an uncomfortable night, nose to string with her cello.
Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen
Following a day’s sight-seeing, a comfortable night in a hotel in Copenhagen does a great deal to revive the jaded spirits of the travelling trio and we celebrate New Year’s Eve in the Danish capital, prior to our next leg of the journey to Gothenburg in Sweden.
We board an X2000 train bound for Gothenburg. For cello carriers, this train is sublime. Not only is there ample space for passengers, but there is also abundant luggage space, even for Mathea, so for the first time in our journey we can sit and relax in comfort.
Seal of approval
The X2000 train gets Caitlin’s definite seal of approval as the best train we have travelled on yet (the sleeper train lost the vote quickly after the flood!). She likes the wood trim and comments on the smooth ride -all of which is impressive for a train that is more than 20 years old.
The X2000 has been in service since the 1990s, originally launched as a luxury intercity service and having retained many of those defining characteristics.
When I planned this journey a prospective highlight for me was the crossing of the Oresund bridge, Europe’s longest cable stayed bridge, carrying both cars and trains. I had heard a great deal about this renowned tribute to civil engineering which converts from a bridge to a tunnel in the middle of the sea, by means of a purpose built island.
However, the Oresund bridge proves disappointing, purely because being on the bridge itself does not allow us to fully admire its engineering structure. The experience is also over quickly as the train speeds across rapidly – we cover its full 10-mile length in a matter of minutes.
From Gothenburg to Oslo, we board an equally comfortable 73 series intercity train (operated by Norwegian operator NSB and built by Strommens/Bombardier). I commend the Scandinavians for their ability to transport people comfortably with ample space for luggage and – presumably – ski equipment, although none is in evidence on this trip. A slightly wider gauge makes a big difference.
By now, it is dark outside, so we don’t get to experience a view of the beautiful Norwegian scenery, with its vast fjords and stunning frozen landscape, but these are saved for my return journey.
Just 48 minutes from Oslo we reach Rygge, the closest station to Moss airport (used by Ryanair for its flights to Oslo). With a flight time of around 2 hours, it puts into perspective the cost/time comparison for the air/rail journey. Saving the environment is not without its sacrifices.
However, if, like my younger generation niece, you believe that a journey is part of the whole rich experience of reaching an overseas destination – and better for the planet – then this particular rail journey, with its diversity of landscape and the opportunity to experience different cities en route would not fail to delight. But perhaps leave your cello at home!