Sunday, June 07, 2009

Derailed, and a Wonderful Bar-B-Q

It all sounded so simple. Take the DBahn to Nuremberg, switch trains, take a nice regional express to Regensburg, a beautiful and ancient city. Walk around and see the sights until 3:30 pm, and then get picked up to go to a very fine Bayerische barbq at the nearby country home of one of the Department’s Lehrstuhls, or head professors.

Well, those plans gang aft agley, don’t they.

I get to the Erlangen Bahnhof at 8:45 for a 9:08 train to Nuremberg. (I can’t help it, I have this time thing: I hate to be late). Cloudy, cold, about 10 degrees C. It turns out that on the same platform, leaving at 8:58, there is a Nuremburg! So, I take it. I only have a short connection in Nuremberg to catch my train to Regensburg, and my experience with connections less than 20 minutes has not been good. Meaning earlier is better.

Train takes off, and since it is a Regional Express it doesn’t stop every kilometer, but makes good time. But, as we are pulling up to Fürth, the conductor starts this long announcement. Except that this is not a bored voice announcement. I could make out a few words, and they were not happy-making words. “U-bahn” means subway. And “nuen uhr achtundzwanzig” means that I am going to miss my train. Construction, wreck, system management with their thumbs up their bums, SOMETHING means that our train is going to stop, we are going to have to get off, and we are on our own.

We stop in Fürth, and the entire train, many people with suitcases, hustle down to the subway platform (half a kilometer walk, at least, from the platform). Many people running. Old people doing their best not to fall down. And we all get there...and wait 12 minutes (I measured). No subways in the direction of the train station. Two trains come by heading the other direction.

So, the train does show up at 9:31, and I look at the map. The Nuremberg Bahnhof is ....TEN stops away. And we are packed in like sardines. Who knew that the Ubahn was so crowded at 9:30 am on a Saturday? A lot of this was overflow from “Mistah Kurtz’s train, it dead,” I understand, but people were still trying to get on at every station.

One poor guy tries to get off to let some people behind him off, because he had a big suitcase. Steps off the train, people get off the train, and of course the army of autistics waiting to get ON the train just push past him. Poor guy tries to get back on, but there is really not much room. He did what Angus would have done, and use the suitcase as a battering ram. That got him halfway in, but then the doors close on his arms. He tries to pull back, but the doors close again....on the suitcase....and he drops it back into the train! Doors close, he beats on the door, people stare at him. He starts jumping up and down and yelling in German. And....the train leaves. I think that Nuremberg does have a “no driver” subway system, but this was a time that a bit of humanity would have been most useful.

We get to Nuremberg, we all run up the stairs, and ...find that we have all missed our trains, probably by something between 2 and 5 minutes (I missed mine by 3). I rebooked on the 10:31 am ICE (since it was an ICE, it should have been more expensive, but they stamped my ticket as valid because I had missed my connection). And then for 45 minutes I watched as person after person, on different platforms, read the little tiny sign that told them that the “zug” was NOT leaving from this platform after all, and that they needed to take the “ersatz” route, on the FREAKIN’ SUBWAY. There was no hint of this engineering abortion anywhere in the station, no employee, no announcement. So people come to their platform, read the sign, jump straight up in the air and say "Ach!" ike cartoon characters, point and chatter to each other, and then run down the stairs to try to run to catch the subway so that they can just miss their northbound train in Furth. I must have seen 20 people do that. Train stations are always jostle-y, but this was mad.

And I also saw at least three old ladies, confused, and in tears, trying to ask people who just shrugged and looked away. I tried to help one of the old ladies, but I couldn’t convince her that she had to take the Ubahn. (It made no sense, I admit, but it happened to be true). So she sat and cried, and waited for twenty minutes. But no train came. There were no trains northbound. They were all piled up in Furth. Finally, DB employee came up onto the platform, and the old lady asked her for help. The DB woman took the elderly woman down the stairs, and I assume that somebody did something.

But, look:
1. The train from Furth to Nuremberg is an eight minute trip, max. The subway is a 25 minute trip, minimum. You can’t run a train that way, ensuring that every passenger misses his or her train. They have to have busses, or something, meet each train, no waiting.
2. Why not make some effort to warn people, heading north? At least, because I was southbound, I had a conductor make an actual announcement, with some details. True, it was in German, but that is my fault for only speaking English. The average German passenger at least knew what to do, and we could all follow each other. The northbounders starting in Nuremberg had no chance of finding out any details of what they were to do, until they got on the platform. And for elderly people or the easily confused, that is just not good enough.
3. When my ICE train did show up, at 10:36 (five minutes late), there were so many people with suitcases trying to get on that there were pushing and shoving matches. I did see one actual fight, and I have never seen that before. It was medieval. And there were exactly zero employees, except for the zen-master conductors who stood placidly to watch. They never help with baggage, not even for old people. And it is because there is a "norm" of no tipping, out of concern for the dignity of the conductors. Gee, I'd hate to insult one of the conductors by getting some help.

I had a number of people, back in the U.S., tell me that I would enjoy the ease of train travel here in Germany. They were, for the most part, people for whose own personal ideologies the fiction of blissful mass transit is important. Folks, you need to open your eyes, or else maybe come back, because things have changed. This system is on the verge of collapse. Certainly, if I had baggage, or children, or was traveling with an elderly parent, I’d rent a car or find some other way of getting around. I can push my way on; in a medieval system, I'm big enough to win. But I don’t want to have to.

Finally, let me note that the food, and fellowship, at the barbq, was really fantastic. A very enjoyable evening, once I got really far away from the DB and much closer to the beer, bread, and brats, and lots of them. A very sincere thanks to H.D.P. Kaufmann and his terrific family. And thanks to Sebastian and "Oma" for the ride home, on the autobahn. My first time.


Will Welch said...

I'm surprised to hear of all of the troubles with the German system. When I was in France a number of years ago, I took the train less often than you have, but still a fair number of times. Considering that it was my first experience with trains, I was very pleased with the efficiency, with one major exception. If you're traveling north, and have to pass through Paris, you not only have to change trains, you have to change stations - and they're on opposite sides of town. There was also the time that I sprinted at least 2K back and forth a station, with luggage, trying to first locate, then catch a train before it left, but that was my own fault. I would have thought that the German experience would have been even better.

Christoph said...

I'm also surprised. Four years ago, when I last used trains in Germany, I thought everything worked pretty smoothly. Either there must have been a dramatic deterioration or your just having a streak of bad luck.

Marina Martin said...

Where did Europe get this romantic train reputation from? The trains are expensive, late, crowded, yucky, and really inconvenient. (Subways are generally better, at least in Munich, Budapest, Vienna, London, and Athens.) Flights are faster, cheaper, and more reliable ways to travel long distances, and cars/taxis for shorter travels.

You need to get a car. Renting a sweet BMW is not as expensive as you might think, and they have Hertz in Nuremberg. Plus, you get to drive on the Autobahn (which is *fun*)... and then you can get Mexican food in Herzogenaurach.

Seth said...

Are you writing a book, Munger? At first, i just enjoyed the random travel musings, but now I think you have the foundations of a zany Mungowitz style travel book.

Martin said... Mungowitz is just one of those people questioning the whole Deutsche Bahn because of some bad experiences they made.

"This system is on the verge of collapse." Don't get me wrong, but this is plain ridiculous. Medieval? Have you been there?

Are you exaggerating because you want to make a political statement? Or do you just love to whine and complain about the bad bad world? (I mean, you really measured exactly 12 minutes? Did you already hope for something bad to happen?)

As an explanation: The Deutsche Bahn is building between Nuernberg and Erlangen in order to make traveling more comfortable, to reduce delays, by adding two tracks, doubling the amount.

During the construction passengers have to endure hardships. And yes, I do not like how the Deutsche Bahn handles all of the incoming problems. They indeed do make mistakes, lack to inform people etc.

So, how much time did you lose? 50 minutes? Did you lose the time? I mean, you could make some cultural observations, people are even suggesting you should write a book about it (in the end, you even made money here).

How much time would Mungowitz have lost when he would have rented a car? Getting there (yes, Hertz is in Nuernberg, Mungowitz is in Erlangen), filling out the forms, buying and reading a map planning your trip, driving over an hour to Regensburg (no way to read and work, compared to what you could do on trains), searching for a parking spot... You do all this in 50 minutes?

Anonymous said...

I once heard a freight train expert talk about the trains in Europe and in America. He had an interesting observation, that began with the idea that Americans always go for a vacation and then come home and exclaim about how wonderful the trains are. He then went on to say that if Europe's passenger trains were the envy of America, our freight trains were the envy of Europe. Something about carrying vastly more and heavier freight than in the old world. I only ever heard this observation once, and have no idea how true it is.

Anonymous said...

Sorry you had a bad experiendce. My experience with German and Swiss train travel has been very good and relaxed.

Maybe you should chalk this up to a bad one off incident. I think you could attribute your own ideological views to your opinion of the system collapsing - pot calling the kettle black.

T.Lord said...

An admission, to start: I really like traveling on trains, and might be too forgiving / optimistic about them.

That said, my experience with trains in Germany (I lived there for close to a year, but that was now nearly 20 years ago) was usually good: my German went from zero to nicht-so-schlect in that year, and trains got somewhat easier to deal with as the time went on. The problems I had, too, were mostly the same ones I'd have regardless of language: not waking up knowing the conventional wisdom about where and how to pay, how many minutes variation from the posted schedule is still "acceptable," etc.

So far, though, the best train experiences I've had have been in the U.S. (Amtrack from Baltimore to Montreal a long time ago, was fantastic; Portland to Seattle, twice in the last few years, beautiful, though the waiting line to board was ... a trainwreck; CalTrain, fantastic, the handful of times I've ridden it), and the worst train experiences I've had have been in the U.S., too.

Even though I speak English quite well, thanks, interfaces at train stations are often awfully hard to figure out, for those of us with intuition deficit. (Much worse when the signs are in German, though!)

It's good for people to know that the German system isn't always perfect, but then, some people are self-righteous enough to declare that a virtue. I did have some waits, schedule changes which no one quite managed to put in an obvious place, etc, but on the whole, etc, all aspects of public transport in most of the places I've ever visited around the world have been better than bus, subway, *or* driving in Philadelphia ;) Philly is the only place I've actually been offered the chance to buy crack cocaine, and seen a teenager rifling through what seemed to be a woman's wallet as if he didn't actually have long-standing proprietary interest in that wallet, nor familiarity with its contents. And just trying finding a bus schedule posted at a bus stop there!

btw, I keep recommending your Econtalk appearances to friends (esp. the one on recycling) -- isn't it time soon to do a few more?


T. Lord