PARIS – MILAN: the slow-fast train

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Jan 092017

I go to Italy by train every couple of years, as one of my best friends lives in Liguria. It’s a great train destination, as there are so many options, most of them scenic.

The fastest way by train is with the Paris – Venice Sleeper: this tips you out at Milan about 5am, which means you can get to much of Northern or Central Italy by 9am. Recently, we took daytime trains to Milan and realised how scenic the Paris – Milan route is.

A big factor in my train planning is how far you can get in a day, starting from Bridport: I’ve coined the term DJD’s (Day Journey Destinations) for this. A favourite DJD if travelling to Germany or further east is Aachen.

Heading to Italy, the 7am bus from Bridport to Dorchester meant we reached Paris Gare du Nord at 1547. Nipping briskly onto RER Line D, we caught a TGV from Gare de Lyon at 16.45.

TRAVEL TIP: if you book well in advance, First Class on TGV’s is quite cheap. We paid 35 euros each. You get huge comfy seats and more peace and quiet.

Centre ville, Chambery

Travelling to Italy, I can recommend Chambéry as a DPD. It’s a pretty, small cathedral city on the edge of the French Alps. The old town is car-free, with lots of beautiful old buildings and nice places to eat: we arrived in time for a late dinner.

TRAVEL TIP: The Hotel Ibis Styles is two minutes’ walk from the station, and for an extra few euros you can get a bedroom overlooking the railway!

The next morning, we joined at Chambéry one of the special Paris – Milan TGV’s, which run three times a day. They’re more spacious than most French TGV’s, and in First Class you get at-seat service for food and drink.

TRAVEL TIP: Book well in advance and you can get First Class seats cheaply. We paid £31 for the four-hour trip from Chambéry to Milan. Note that these trains terminate at Milan Porta Garibaldi, so leave time to get over to Milano Centrale where most onward trains depart from.

Climb to Modane, photo courtesy of SCF

As the train heads south-east from Chambéry, it’s climbing into the Alps, heading for the long tunnel near Modane which crosses into Italy. The railway follows river valleys which get narrow, tortuous, full of waterfalls. There are frequent small tunnels, with great views of the mountains between them.

The climb each side of the Modane Tunnel is really steep, and there are banking locomotives at Modane and on the Italian side at Bardonecchia. The descent into Italy is equally dramatic. At first the line is at the bottom of a narrow valley in a huge gorge, then the valley widens and drops dramatically, and the railway winds down the hills to catch up with it.

The train stops in Turin, which I can highly recommend as another stopover point. It’s an outstandingly elegant city, with a fresh semi-Alpine climate, and great ice cream (it’s the home of GROM, for starters).

Face-offs with cows, and flying chickens. Lessons in community from Ethiopian roads

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Jan 012017

We will not be moved…

It happens so often, you suspect the animals must enjoy it: why else do they spread the full width of the tarmac, instead of using the broad gravel verges?  The cows are the worst: they glower balefully as if they might charge, and only turn aside from our approaching vehicle at the very last minute.  At least the goats lose their nerve sooner.

Roads in Ethiopia are a community resource, with a stupendous range of users managing to share them.  It helps that most roads are not just a two-lane tarmac strip, but a gravel belt each side.  This gives lots of scope: for example donkeys on the far right, overtaken by a pony cart or a tuk-tuk, overtaken by a bus – with any traffic going the other way using the gravel strip on the far side.

I had rented a car and a driver for a long trip to the Bale Mountains, a beautiful, remote area in the far south-east of Ethiopia.  We tried to overtake a slow lorry in mist, and car appeared, speeding towards us.  My driver sensibly swerved off the tarmac onto the far-side gravel, alarming a lone riderless donkey whose lane discipline had been impeccable.  We bounced along the gravel for a few hundred metres, and rejoined the traffic as if nothing had happened.

Street scene from a rural town…

The sense of community remains very strong in Ethiopia, and qualities like tolerance and mutual support seem stronger here.  There was never a sense that some users had a right to the road, and others didn’t: everyone flowed around each other.  By contrast, in Britain it seems that car and lorry drivers believe they have an exclusive right to use the tarmac, and slower, more erratic travellers are an intrusion.

Livestock are a big part of rural life in Ethiopia, and the roads are constantly used to move them to grazing or to market.  A lot of animals meander along with no supervision, especially donkeys, who have a strong impulse to turn suddenly across the road.

Because rural prices are much lower, my enterprising driver bought two chickens to take home to Addis Abbaba.  They had a nice box with airholes, on the roof of the car.  However, after driving through heavy rain, the box fell apart, leaving the chickens flying through the air.

The community response was impressive.  Cars going the other way flashed lights and shouted to tell us of the problem.  A huge lorry behind us stopped, and the driver rescued the shocked chickens from the middle of the road.  I imagine one chicken telling the other, “I always had a bad feeling about today”.

I haven’t yet mentioned the pedestrians, horse-riders, motorbikes, handcarts, nor the fearsome potholes, ruts, gulleys… but what’s impressive is how these myriad users flow peaceably around each other.  British drivers could do with more of that tolerance.

Train Lovers: FACT! Virgin XC more reliable than DB Intercity Express!

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Jan 282016

I travel to Germany by train most years, and this year I finally realised that my major frustrations with Dutsche Bahn are not just bad luck, it really is bad.  Online research quickly confirmed this: the average reliability of DB’s ICE (InterCity Express) trains has been around 75% for several years, whereas the recent figure for Virgin Crosscountry is 92%!

For a Brit, reading the annual report on the Dutsche Bahn website is gratifying – it sounds like British Rail in the 1970s.  Each year, DB lament the ongoing appalling punctuality of ICE, and trot out a variety of reasons all too familiar from over here.

Whilst many of us have got into the habit of knocking Virgin XC, as a regular user, I have to admit that it’s mostly not bad, and it really is a good deal better than German ICE trains, not only on punctuality, but several other respects:

  • Refreshments: astonishingly, many ICE trains which run right across the country with a total journey time over 8 hours, have no refreshments on board whatsoever.
  • Information: in general, the information on ICE about delays (both how long and why) and fall back options if you miss your connections, is considerably poorer.  This is not about language: when announcements are made, they are at least made in German and in fluent English.
  • Humour: I appreciate the elements of humour on Virgin trains, and as you might suspect, ICE is 100% humour free.
  • Comfort: the large number of old-style ICE trains have mediocre seating, and appalling air conditioning.  On a couple of trains this year, several carriages were sealed off because the air-con didn’t work at all, leaving the passengers herded into the few which were usable.
  • Connections: Dutsche Bahn is clearly in severe denial about its punctuality problems.  If you book on their generally efficient website, they assume ridiculously tight connection times of a few minutes.  So my top tip if you are booking online, is to use the facility to specify a connection time of at least 20 minutes.  Even that may not be long enough, since I have had delays of over 2 hours…

Deutsche Bahn

Train Lovers: What trains can teach us about relationships

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Jan 282016

Insights from a zugteilung in Hanover

The special overnight trains which in English we hopefully call sleepers, are in Germany sensibly called Nachtzug, night trains.  No false expectations there.  In fact, I’ve used the Nachtzug many times, and they’re very comfortable.

However, my recent German holiday involved getting onto the night train in Hamburg at 00:31, and off in Cologne at 06:14.  Exotically, this Nachtzug was from Copenhagen to Switzerland, with special coaches for Prague and for Amsterdam via Cologne.  German is a wonderfully literal language, so I didn’t need my dictionary to figure out that Zugteilung meant train-part-ing.  In Hanover, night trains from Copenhagen, Berlin and elsewhere would be split up, shunted about, and rejoined.

The reality of this was that around 2am, when I’d at last got soundly asleep, my coach was repeatedly and vigorously bounced, as if the German engine drivers were playing ping-pong.  It’s thanks to this awakening experience that I can offer you this new model of relationships.  Gehen wir los…










Your relationship is ready to depart…

Imagine that a relationship is like the connection between railway carriages.  Your relationship may run smoothly along the tracks, round the bends, through the tunnels, for a good while.  But there come times when you have to uncouple, and this can be bumpy.

There’s also the question of destinations.  You may hope that your relationship is headed in a certain direction, just as I had bought a Nachtzug ticket for Cologne, but once embarked, other factors are at work…The driver and signalmen can take you to Hanover, or wherever, and bump you around as they choose.  Depending upon your chosen weltanschaung (outlook on the world), their role could be compared to Fate, guardian angels, or the working-out of your own complex subconscious.

However, if you and your adjacent carriage need to go in different directions, the Zugteilung is inevitable: but you may end up coupled to a new coach from an interesting origin.  Who knows what plans the Fat Controller of relationships may have for you?  At least you now have a fine German word for the process.

trains relationships

Train Lovers: Why steam trains matter, and Dampfloks are AOK

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Jan 282016

As I glide into my vintage years, I have come to realise that trains and railways are a great way to understand and interpret the apparent confusions of modern life.  You will find some examples of this approach in my blog.  I’m glad to be old enough to have main line steam as part of my boyhood and adolescence and its great that steam trains are still flourishing in so many ways.  But modern railways can teach us plenty too.

train lovers









Alan and his wife Linda at the Skunk Railroad in California.


Why steam trains matter, and Dampfloks are AOK

Many men are searching for meaning, a sense that the events of their life matter and have a shape to them.  I have hatched a belief that steam trains can help in this.

If you’re aged late fifties or older, you’ll have grown up with steam trains in your childhood.  I can recall many maturing men who get excited when I broach this topic, and who plug into vivid memories of magnificent steam engines.









Ik droom van stoom!  The Zuid Limburgse Stoomtrein Maatschappi in the Netherlands

I can bang on at length about the lousy features of my childhood, if provoked, but many of the happier times I recall as a kid involve steam trains – either travelling on them with my mother to see my grandparents in Bournemouth, or watching them as a trainspotter.

I know there are legions of other maturing men, as well as me ,who are still in love with steam trains.  Just go to any preservation railway and you’ll see them, both working and travelling.  And about 80% of all the people you see on these lines are men, mostly over 50.  These railways, like The Watercress Line in Hampshire where I’m a Life Member, are magic bubbles, coherent worlds of innocence and delight where one feels remote from the miseries of yobs and evil dictators.

You could rubbish this as escapism, but I’d dispute this.  These men are creating meaning in their lives, in a fairly functional and certainly harmless way.  Most men need an activity to bring them together, and here’s a very sweet one, with these extraordinary engines at the heart of it.  You may feel alone and unregarded out there, but here on the railway, you matter, even if you just inspect the tickets or maintain the track.

The other key point is that steam locomotives are the most lifelike, exciting, endearing of all the machinery man has created.  The ways I can now explain why I loved trains as a child help me feel that my life has a shape and meaning: there’s an extra richness in enjoying steam railways now, because the child in me is rekindled in his delight.

I’m very lucky to have a girlfriend who quite enjoys steam trains too, so they get woven into outings and holidays.  I am writing this in the small town of Wernigerode in eastern Germany, with more excitement than a hot first date.  That could be heaven or hell, whereas I know my date with the Dampfloks of the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen will be heaven.

A year ago, I saw a photo in a colour supplement of a superb large steam engine powering along at night, through pine forests.  Through this I learned that the longest steam railway in Europe is in the Harz Mountains: 140 km of routes, with Wernigerode being a main access town.  And here we are!

Steam buffs reading this will already realise that mountain railways are great, because the engines will be stretched to perform.  Now I’m here, I realise it’s even better.  The HSB route from here, at 230 metres above sea level, actually climbs to the top of the highest mountain in northern Germany, 1125 metres, and in a fairly short distance.









A 2-10-2 tank on the HSB

I’ve come to appreciate the expressive qualities of the German language, but the word for a steam engine, Dampflok is a bit of a damp squib.  However, the engines themselves are superb.  They range from cute small tanks built 1890 and 1918, to massive 2-10-2s built in 1953.

The hot date with the trains surpassed my hopes: partly because the carriages have open verandahs at each end, so you can get the sound, smell and smuts as the engine roars up the gradients.  And the line winds among beautiful forest, with occasional big views.  The scenery is not as magical and dramatic as the Settle and Carlisle, or the Faenza in Italy, but it’s good.

For most maturing men, their favourite steam trains are those on the line they grew up near, so I hope you’ll at least understand why I am finishing this blog with a picture of my favourite engines, the original Bulleid Pacifics, at their prime on the Bournemouth Belle.

The Bournemouth Belle




Bulleid’s Merchant Navy class Number 35030, Elder Dempster lines, with the Bournemouth Belle









This is a private railway, quarter mile long, owned by a guy who bought part of the old track bed near Riccarton Junction in the Borders.