Archive for the ‘Railways’ Category

BeNiLux Railways: An Impression

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

So I had a chance to visit Belgium and Netherlands and what I’ve seen there makes me write this post.


I visited it some years ago and it looked quite decent to me, nothing particularly strange.


Previously I only went to Brussels for FOSDEM but this time I travelled around a bit and saw places outside the capital too.

So, they have nice touches like typeface used for station names, various kinds of trains (though I haven’t seen their outdated train that used to go between Liege and Aachen) and very interesting rail station in Antwerpen.

The only strange thing is that they hang out timetables for workdays and weekdays separately (at least in Bruxelles Nord).

The only stupid thing I saw is ticket machines having a special button for international trains and when you press it it tells you that you can’t buy an international train ticket there. And Belgium is such a small country that it’s hard to travel in any direction for an hour and not cross some border (or get into the sea). One would expect that buying tickets to neighbouring lands would be easier, especially for such close countries like Belgium and Netherlands.


Now this country looks like everything there was designed by idiots.

First, trains. By themselves they are not that bad but they have the best counterintuitive designed door open buttons. First, they are labelled the same: half-opened (or half-closed) doors with small arrows showing opening or closing. So if you have not a very good sight (like me) you’ll be confused. But buttons are colour-coded! Yes, and while on German trains it’s intuitive green—open, red—close (or just a single button for open/close), Dutch trains have yellow button for opening doors and green (or blue for random Japanese) button for closing. Honestly, it should be intuitive to have green button to open doors so you can go. And I’d like to hear a reason behind this beside “well, cannabis is legal in Netherlands”.

Next, timetables. Those are confusing as well. At least in Rotterdam timetables are hanged separately for each fork (well, it should be a line but most of them are drawn as forks which probably means the train parts separate at some point and head in two different directions)—maybe it’s this convoluted system made them invent InterCity Direct too (don’t ask me how that’s different from normal InterCity). And the separate timetable for international trains. Confusing.

And since that was not enough stupidity, they decided to install turnstiles in Rotterdam Centraal so in order to enter or leave the station you need to scan your ticket (yes, it’s like what you have in underground systems but in this case for rail station). And it might be the only station there with such a feature, I saw nothing like that in Amsterdam C when I visited couple of years ago or in The Hague two days ago.

Speaking of The Hague, they have the stupid station name—Den Haag HS where last two letters stay for Hollands Spoor or Dutch Rail. I know only two cases where such naming makes sense:

  • you have a station in the same town belonging to different railway operators e.g. in Basel you have the main station operated by CFF and so it’s called Basel SBB, French railways have their own section there called Elsässerbahnhof or Bâle SNCF and there’s a station used to belong to Baden Railways that is still called Basel Badischer Bahnhof;
  • you had a competing rail operator and the name stuck (a variation of the above really)—e.g. stations on track Bullay (DB)—Traben-Trarbach(DB) are called so because there was another rail line (on the other side of Mosel) with the same stations and when it was closed nobody wanted to rename stations just because;
  • you’re SNCF and you want to mark your stations because they’re yours and no foreign train should set wheel there!

And as far as I know none of this applies to The Hague. I suspect it happened because they have built a new station later (more than a century later) that they designated as central one and could not make a good name for the old station. It’s like in Germany they’d rename station Hamburg-Altona to Hamburg Hbf and Hamburg Hbf to Hamburg DB. In other words, pointless and stupid.

Overall, it was an interesting experience travelling Belgium and Netherlands but I did not expect that much stupidity from the latter. Anyway, the next post should be about Rust.

An Impression on Rhaetian Railways

Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

Since I don’t have enough time to visit proper country I went to bad substitute of Sweden that’s much more accessible—Switzerland (it should be obvious why I cannot call it poor or cheap substitute). Since it happened on Easter (April 1-2), the environment was resembling Sweden: snow, mountains, deer and log sheds. And of course I could ride trains in new locations!

Rhaetian railways is a narrow-gauge railway system in canton Graubünden (which symbol uncannily resembles the one from Gävle), a fractal part of Switzerland occupying its south-east corner (fractal in the sense that canton shape looks almost exactly like the shape of whole Switzerland). Trains run in a picturesque scenery with dreadful names like Fhtagn (or Ftan in Swiss-Cthüelsch) or SaaS (they really have a station with such name!), going up to the mountains (in 1-2 km above sea level range) and I spent couple of days travelling around.

But while the scenery is okay, the railways are some unholy mix of Berlin S-Bahn, Czech and German railways:

  • There are German ICEs running there all the way to Chur (so I could travel home without any transfers);
  • The tracks are curvy and trains are as slow as in Czechia (i.e. no matter where you go it will take you at least an hour or two to get there);
  • Prices are like in Czechia too except they use Swiss Francs instead of Czech Koruna—but numbers are about the same (so it seems I can ride with ICE here cheaper, faster and on much longer distance than with RhB);
  • Another thing like in Czechia: buying a ticket with a card involves 1,5€ surcharge. No such thing in Sweden;
  • Narrow-gauge trains are a weird mix themselves: they can put locomotive in the front of the train, in the end (maybe), in the middle (very common) or just couple a typical EMU with a number of conventional rail carriages (I’m not sure I’ve seen that anywhere else);
  • Weird station names: I can understand when you name a station after two places at once like Reichenau-Tamins (that’s common in Germany too) or even if you name it after the same place twice like Disentis/Mustér (it’s Confoederatio Helvetica, natives can’t agree on a single name for anything) but Tavanasa-Breil/Brigels is definitely too much (it’s a station between those two mentioned earlier BTW);
  • It’s afraid of snow: after even insignificant amount of snow they stop going on some routes: on my stay there the trains on Pontresina-Tirano and Disentis/Mustér­-Andermatt routes were cancelled for indefinite amount of days. In Germany trains are more punctual—if they are late they’re late for dozens of minutes, not days. And if something bad happens and trains can run some route for days then you can see information everywhere including how to get around and such. No such thing in Switzerland;
  • And another thing that’s taken from German S-Bahn is timetables and tickets. This requires a separate rant.

Overall, FFS or RhB is not very friendly to a traveller: you should have a definite idea where are you going to, when (at which time and such) and how (i.e. where to transfer) if you want to buy a ticket. For example, I was at the station Chur-West and wanted to go to Scuol-Tarasp. The ticket vending machine offered me to choose from three options: via Samedan, via Chur-Samedan (i.e. go first to Chur main station and from there to Samedan and then to Scuol) or via Vereina. The last option is actually a tunnel and not a station name!

In Germany when you travel with long distance trains you actually choose one of the provided connection possibilities (e.g. InterCity from A to B, RegioBahn from B to C and ICE from C to D or InterCity from A to E and then from E to D) or you can use the provided functionality for route planning even if you don’t buy a ticket. SBB ticket machines simply allow you to buy ticket from A to B maybe with cryptic route midpoint and that’s all! That’s exactly how German ticket vending machines for regional transport work. And there’s yet another point of annoyance: Swiss rail timetables fail to include arrival time for the final destination so if you care about it (like I sometimes do) you have to find it out via other means. It’s plain stupid.

Oh, and the snow-related problem: when you buy a ticket you can’t be sure the train will go there because the only cryptic warning I got is when ticket machine said my ticket will be valid on April 1st-April 9th period (and much later in the train too). In Germany it actually shows warnings when there’s some problem with a train or it’s cancelled entirely (since you can use it later). I actually had a situation when one segment of my travel was served by a train that broke down and I had to take another train later instead. So it feels like you should rather use smartphone and buy ticket online where you can see the actual route and warnings (and probably use instead of too where possible).

Overall, travelling with Rhaetian railways was both a pleasant and exciting experience in some aspects (i.e. when I was inside the train) and confusing and frustrating experience in others (i.e. when I actually tried to buy a ticket). They also boast how some parts of the system are the third railway in UNESCO World Heritage Railways (the second after India, I guess) and how picturesque some parts are (they are almost as interesting as Sauschwänzlebahn indeed) but as I’ve seen it all there’s no reason to return there (and the reliable source says there are better places in Switzerland to wait over heat waves too).

Some Impressions on Czech Railways

Sunday, November 5th, 2017

I’ve finally travelled enough Czech railways (mostly in the South-western part of the country) to form some impressions about them.

First, they have somewhat funny train terminology there: R means “rychlik” or express train while R-egional trains are marked as Os or “osobni” but in reality they all move with speed around 50 km/h.

Second, the rolling stock.
Typical locomotive
The trains are usually two-four carriages dragged by locomotive, most often like on the picture above. It brings nostalgia to me because it looks like a Škoda train from 1960s that was one of the best locomotives in the USSR, and it was also nicknamed Cheburashka because it both looked a bit like a titular hero of that anime (formerly Soviet cartoon) and featured there as well. You can also see rail buses, double-decker regional trains (the same as InterCity trains in Ukraine) and some other types but they are very rare.

Speaking of locomotives, I had a brief visit to Austria and saw their main locomotive ÖBB 1044. And what do you know, it looks like a replica of Rc-locomotive from Sweden. And then you read that Austrian Railways actually bought ten Rc2 from Sweden and designated them as ÖBB 1043 locomotives. Since Rc2 was the best locomotive in Austria it’s no wonder they’ve designed the next model after it.

Third, tickets. Outside Prague you can buy tickets usually just at ticket office at the station or maybe at conductors (but I’ve never tried that), ticket offices accept Euros and sometimes you can pay with a card too (mind the signs there). Another funny thing is that tickets usually contain the stations you should pass on your route and they’re a lot like German tickets for regional trains—you just buy a ticket for a route, which train you choose is up to you. Even better that in most cases you can buy tickets outside country, like I’ve bought ticket Praha-Tábor in Dresden.

Fourth, infrastructure in general. And that’s where it sucks.
A station somewhere between Jihlava and České Budějovice

Station houses look like they were built either in XIXth century under Austrian rule or in 1970s under Soviet rule (those look like featureless boxes essentially) and many of them are not very well maintained unfortunately. Another thing is platforms. You can see typical Czech platform on the first picture. They are often about just twice as high as rails and not particularly wide too, you can meet high platforms only on big stations and very random places (IIRC I’ve seen one at Velesín Město and there’s just a single track there).

And now for the tracks themselves. Rail connectivity is very good there so you can get from one place to another without going through Prague, the downside is that it usually takes two hours to get from one node to another as I’ve mentioned above all trains travel with the speed around 50 km/h. I’ve travelled on routes Dresden-Praha, Linz-Prag, Praha-Schwandorf, Tábor-Jihlava and Jihlava-Plzeň and looks like only routes from Prague to important places like České Budějovice, Plzeň and such are double-track (and to Dresden for some reason), the rest are single-track and often are curvy as they were drawn with a tail of stubborn mule as we say here. Also track Tábor-Horní Cerekev is quite bumpy and reminds more of a typical Ukrainian road than railway.

In general, Czech railways leave an impression of railways in rural area and thus they have their inimitable charm. Throw in a nostalgic feeling from the locomotives and you can say I liked it despite all downsides.

Some Travel Notes

Monday, May 4th, 2015

So I’ve finally visited the disunited state of Austria-Hungary and can share some feelings for those who like to read my travel notes (all zero people).

First, I’d like to talk about rail magazines that are present in InterCity or express trains in different countries. The ones I know are issued monthly and have national peculiarities (for starters, they are written in the national language). The one from Deutsche Bahn (German railways) covers a lot of different topics — culture, travel, some short story or an excerpt from one, DB plans, kids corner etc. ÖBB (Austrian railways) one is mostly dedicated to advertising Austria for tourists (and maybe a bit or two about neighbouring resorts to visit). TGV magazine (obviously French) is something in-between (not fully advertisements but not much serious stuff either) plus advertisements for night clubs. Yet it’s the only one of three that features a scheme for IC and TGV routes. And the best one is of course Kupe from SJ (Swedish railways). It has articles on various topics and it also includes things close to my heart: a full map or Swedish railways (I need to travel more there!), SJ fleet description (I like to ride all those kinds of trains plus Inlandsbanan’s Y1, SL X60 and X10 and I definitely need to go to Lennakatten again!) and the most important thing — a page where locomotive driver (it was Peter and now Jenny) answering railway-related questions (e.g. what’s the difference between trains like X2 and X40, what’s the longest route they have to travel, why train goes slowly sometimes etc.). Anyway, back to actual travel.

For Hungarian part I’ve visited Budapest. If you ignore the river, buildings in the centre and people it looks and feels like Kharkiv. The same neglected buildings (often in the same architectural style), the same neglected streets. The transport is verily the same — Tatra trams, Ikarus buses, even underground rolling stock is the same and even painted the same! Heck, even most people I talked with there were from Kharkiv. And their suburban rail lines (like H5, H6 or H8/H9) are shaky as Ukrainian roads.

Also as I’m, to speak politically correct, a fat cripple I really appreciated how lines are connected there — you often have to cross a road or use an underground pass without any elevators. Tram routes are so well designed that they simply end somewhere in the middle of the street with no loop to turn around. And the airport reminds of Kharkiv too — it’s connected only by a bus (on an Ukrainian-grade road), they check your documents thoroughly. The only difference that in Kharkiv airport I had never had to take off my shoes on security check. At least after visiting it I don’t have a desire to go back to Ukraine (not that I had it before…).

Austrian part is represented by Innsbruck. It’s a stereotypical town in Austrian Alps. Transport system is rather strange — trams have numbers like 1, 3, 6, STB and buses have numbers like D, H, LK, O or TS. For skiers there are Alps with funiculars all around the town, for idiots who believe that fake should cost more than real there are tours to Swarovski, for me there was a museum of local rail lines (that means both local trams and railways in different part of Tirol including Italy). Museum ticket also gives a right to get a ride on museum tram around the town. While the museum by itself is small (only two rooms with mostly photos and plans) it also has a depot full of museum trams from probably 1920s to 1970s (that feeling when you see DÜWAG GT6 only in a museum while they are still common here). Two tram lines (6 and STB) go into the mountains, at least STB being one-track there with passing loop on some stations (and trams take left track there like on proper railways). One of those stations surprised me by having an emergency broom tied to the pole there.

It’s also worth noting that there are two rivers flowing through Innsbruck — Inn, obviously, and Sill. I don’t care what it means for them, I know what it means for me — salt water herring in Swedish and that’s what I was thinking about.

Overall, Innsbruck looked nice and a bit like Bavaria, I honestly expected it to be worse (mostly because of Austrians I know). And understanding German is much easier than understanding Hungarian unless you’ve been born one. It’s worth visiting again sometime.

On Railways Electrification

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

So what I’ve discovered today.

There’s a Schwarzwaldbahn going through Schwarzwald from Offenburg to Konstanz and there’s a station there — Villingen. That station bears a plaque that it had 10000th kilometre of electrification of DB network done in 1975 (DDR railways on the other hoof lost most of its electrification after the war because it was more important to electrify Soviet railways but that’s another story).

And there’s a branch connecting Villingen (Baden) with Rottweil (Württemberg) — unelectrified. And that branch has its own subbranch to Trossingen Stadt. That subbranch is also served by a diesel railbus. But unlike the branch it connects to it’s electrified! And that electrification is used only by museum vehicles from 1930s-1960s that are electric only (or in one case it’s a carriage with an electric locomotive).

On most such lines in Germany one usually has trains hauled by a steam locomotive or a diesel rail buses and the main traffic is electrified but in this case it’s the other way round. I have only one possible explanation — Württemberg.

P.S. Still it’s hard to find stupider situation with electrification than in Denmark. The only countries it has connections to had chosen 15 kV 16? Hz system. Denmark settled on 25 kV 50 Hz. But looking at their other railway-related decision (i.e. IC4) it seems logical.

P.P.S. For Ukraine the situation is sadder — once I was in Uzhgorod-Kharkiv train and it had to change locomotive twice because there are two electrification systems there (which make three areas). They claim it was done to better account for relief, i.e. different electrification for the flatter and mountainy regions. Hopefully there will be more two-system trains in the future (and there will be the future too).

KBS 743

Friday, August 1st, 2014

I’ve not written anything about one of the crucial topics of this blog since ages, so here’s the long-awaited update.

Today I’d like to talk about probably the most interesting railway in Germany — Wutachtalbahn or Kursbuchstrecke 743 (Waldshut-Immendingen). It was build as a route to the South border of Germany that does not go on Swiss territory (the line along the Rhine it connects to goes through Basel and canton Schaffhausen).

Now, what makes it so interesting?

Despite being rather unimportant line nowadays and being about only 60km long (and there are no branches either!), it is operated by three different rail companies:

  1. northern part (Immendingen — Blumberg-Zollhaus) is operated by SWEG
  2. central part (Blumberg-Zollhaus — Weizen) is operated by WTB
  3. southern part (Weizen — Lauchringen — Waldshut) is operated by DB

Plan of the central part from Wickedpedia
(Image shamelessly stolen from Wickedpedia)

So you have three different companies running trains on approximately 20km tracks. Is it the same rolling stock? Of course not!

SWEG runs class 650 (aka Stadler RS1) diesel unit, Deutsche Bahn employs class 641 diesel unit and WTB runs a steam locomotive (Württembergische T.14 or class 52.80 or something similar) with bunch of outdated carriages from various places (like Switzerland).

And for unknown reason it’s nicknamed “Pig’s Tail Railway” (see the map above, I have no clue why) and the name somehow appeals to me.

I’ve visited it in three parts: one year I saw the middle part, next year I saw the north parth and later I saw the last part too. Curiously, while DB runs the most modern train the route itself seems the most outdated: the rails are uneven so you can get a bit seasick, the signal system is implemented by driver’s assistant with a red flag who stands on the crossing while the train passes it and it does not stand on the Weizen station for long because it has to give room to the WTB train (in result it comes to the station, waits a bit and cowardly retreats back to the track and waits there till the WTB train is gone).

In general I’d recommend visiting it if you happen to be there. If you want to see something better — go to Sweden and try Uppsala-Lenna railway, it’s the best (now I want to visit it again — oh wait, I wanted that before too).

On buying tickets

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

I like to travel around, usually by railway — it’s the most comfortable means of transportation (unless you’re talking about Ukrainian trains or French TGV). And the fastest one for short to long distances (planes are technically faster but consider time getting to the airport, from the airport, security checks…).

So to travel around you need to buy tickets (I’m not made of money to afford some magic “travel anywhere, pay monthly through nose” card) and that’s what I’m complaining about. My requirements are rather easy: you should not need to interact with people and you should be able to see what are the possibilities for the travel.

France. Le facepaume. Ticket vending machines there reflect national spirit frighteningly perfect.

Ticket vending machines.

That picture was taken in one French town near the border. There are two vending machines. To the right is French one. Here’s a short comparison with its neighbour:

  • Languages — half a dozen for one, French for another.
  • Controls — touch screen for one, weird knob with a button in centre (and you cannot change audio tracks with it).
  • Destinations — countrywide and beyond in one case, one region in the other case.

To be fair there are SNCF ticket vending machines that should offer countrywide destinations and I heard you can even get e-ticket from them and they even support other languages than French (which is the hardest to believe). The only problem that you should handle them politely (i.e. point and stick you finger as hard as possible) and I rather value my fingers.

Germany. Three years ago it was a bit quirky but they’ve upgraded vending machines software and now it’s almost perfect. Half a dozen of possible languages, rather intuitive interface, some additional features. And you can buy a ticket to the destinations in neighboring civilised countries (Switzerland and Netherlands) not served by Deutsche Bahn directly. The main WTF is that sometimes you see the trains but you cannot buy a ticket for them there (probably some special trains?).

Netherlands. I’ve used it only once but I remember it being pretty decent.

Sweden. Pretty decent ticket vending machines, I like the additional features like printing bought e-ticket (and you can get it in many other places too). Also I like the fact they have both touch screen and real keyboard and trackball. The only downsides are that it’s a bit slow and that it does not deal with cash and accepts only cards. Sweden is an advanced country after all, you can pay with card almost everywhere but it sucks to be foreigner from a mostly cash-based country (i.e. me few years ago).

Switzerland. Simply WTFiest ticket vending machines. They might be the reason most people buy rail pass instead. You can buy a ticket but it will ask you which route you prefer and it’s not optional. But it’s compensated by the fact it does not offer you any information on trains. You bought your ticket from A to B via C, now go and find what train goes that way in some other place.

Ukraine. In my opinion it should just give up that automated system for ticket sales (made in Soviet times) and cashier should write tickets by hand. Then it will be perfect stone age. I heard there are some advancements in that area: you can now buy e-ticket (but you still need to go to the ticket office where they print it out) and there are talks about removing the requirement to show your ID during ticket purchase. And if you don’t speak Russian you’d better not try buying tickets at all.

German Transport

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Looks like people expect rants about transport from me. OK, here’s what should be the last in that series — regional and urban rail transport.

There are several types of rail transport:

  • Trams (Strassenbahn)
  • Commuter trains (S-Bahn)
  • Underground (U-Bahn)

In theory, trams go in cities on the ground, U-Bahn goes under the ground and S-Bahn goes to suburbs and S-Bahn trains look like this.

But during my travels I’ve seen it’s not completely true.


This city has a proper system with all three components, nothing peculiar at all.


Proper trams and S-Bahn, nothing peculiar. But Neckar valley views are impressive.


Proper S-Bahn but their U-Bahn reminds me of trams for some reason. They have underground trains with maximum of two carriages (or one articulated) with third rail between usual two. I heard they’re better at cars though.


This is rather small city so they have only one proper S-Bahn route — to Heidelberg and Mannheim, the rest of S-Bahn routes are served by trams, the same trams serve internal routes. Yet this network is quite extensive, I’d never believe that I can visit famous Russian resort (Baden-Baden) by tram — and that’s in 30 kilometres from Karlsruhe!


I visited Berlin to attend live IRC chat (aka LinuxTag) yet I’ve tried to look at local transport system.

U-Bahn is curious, they have two kinds of trains: narrow and not so narrow. Both seem to have the same types of trains in two different sizes though. A pleasant surprise is that it actually works even at night, not all of the lines though.

S-Bahn is actually can be described as “U-Bahn that shares some tracks with railroad”. Honestly, it’s the same third rail system as any underground and if not for the line naming (S1, S2, … versus U1, U2, …) you cannot distinguish them; even the trains are similar. And I have an impression that it does not serve much of the suburbs either.

I heard they also have trams but never seen those.

Some Observations on Transport Infrastructure

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Today I’d like to rant about the ways transport is organised in different places I’ve visited so far.