Getting from place to place can always prove to be tough, especially when in a foreign country. It is always best to be prepared to face whatever logistic woes might come up when touring, so that’s why I’m going to offer my stories and advice for using the various rail systems that Europe has to offer.
The United Kingdom has one of the best rail set-ups in Europe, especially its underground system. The tube is a fast and easy way to get all across the ever-sprawling city of London. All you need to navigate the underground is a basic understanding of how trains work: where to get on, where to get off, and which side of the track you need to be on. If you spend enough time in the London Underground you can also figure out which stations to avoid (Russell Square has about seven flights of stairs and not enough elevators) and which stations to skip — Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus are very close together.
The underground also offers a variety of passes that make taking the tube convenient. Buy a day pass, or even an Oyster Card — which works like a bus and rail debit card, load it with money and keep riding until you run out. I only got to take the train once in England, and while the station itself was hard to find, the train wasn’t. That, and the train was loaded with amenities: outlets, comfy seats, and even internet! Another thing that distinguishes England as ‘easy mode’ for train travel is just how polite and helpful the English seem to be. Out of all the countries I visited on my latest tour, I got the best help in England.
Germany is also pretty easy. Almost every town is connected by a local train, and there are high-speed trains that connect Germany’s major towns and neighbors together. While the Germans are going to be nowhere near as helpful as the English, the stations are practical, and everything is easy to figure out. I spent quite a bit of time in Munich, and the subway (known as the U-bahn) was just as easy to figure out as the London Underground.
Now, while England and Germany are easy mode, France is normal mode. There are two types of subways running through Paris: the RER and the Metro. The RER is just supposed to be a commuter line, but it is the only way to get out to Versailles. Most of the Metro stations I used never looked as bright or clean as many of London’s or Munich’s, but if you knew what you were doing you could use them just fine. Most interestingly though, is that the Metro requires small tickets. These tickets are spat back at you once used, and are quite worthless. I found that there are garbage cans near the Metro exits, but I guess most people don’t use them. The most common litter on Paris streets is used Metro tickets.
Other than that, high-speed and local trains run rather well in France too. The thing is they have a tendency to be a half-hour late. I shouldn’t say tendency, but I guess I’m still bitter from the time I came into Milan a half-hour behind schedule, and Italy’s trains are hard mode.
It is such a strenuous experience, taking Italian trains, but it produces some great stories. One half-hour was all the time I had to find my next train in Milan. To find the track number I had to back-track all the way into the center of the station. Now the real problem, how to get to that track, when a rail runs all the way across your path. Needless to say, I found my train, just in time to start banging on the door as it drove away. And I can’t say Italians are anywhere near as helpful as the English — it took at least another half-hour to get on another train to Rome, to which I had to take a subway to an entirely different station.
But I did get to Rome just fine; which brings up great story number two: Rome’s subway. Rome has only two lines, one going north-south, and one going east-west. It makes a nice little cross. That’s the only thing nice about it though. So many people try and cram on those two lines. It is a fight to get on the next train, a fight to get air while in the train, and a fight to get back out. This can be really dangerous at times, as the packed station pushes the front row all the way to the edge of the platform. People still try and stay behind the safety line, but I did witness one teenager get clunked in the head by a train mirror.
So that’s my guide from my experience with European trains. Hopefully that will help any of you who are aspiring to be European travelers too.
Photos by: Kevin Winge