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Travel Tales Episode 11: A thrilling journey through three countries
Travelling from Basel to Zurich on a Lyria train

Episode 11: A thrilling journey through three countries

Having breakfast in Köln and dinner in Milano, thanks to a fabulous and easy journey.


This was a day on which the potential possibilities of using a rail pass were showcased in all their splendor, because despite commencing a journey in Koln, by early evening I would be having dinner in Milano.
Not only would I be covering a long-distance, but because I had an Interrail pass, I also had the freedom to choose my route and most crucially how long I’d have to wait between trains at the stations at which I’d be making the connections.

When I’d taken my first ever InterRail adventure back in 1999, I could have travelled direct on a EuroCity train, but the rise of the budget airlines led to the removal of many exceptionally long-distance trains from the timetables; though not all of them.
Though a very welcome relatively recent innovation was the restoration of a direct service between Frankfurt (Main) and Milano, the first rail link between central Germany and northern Italy to be provided in more than 10 years, and hopefully a sign of things to come.

A plus of using a pass over tickets

Look up the Koln to Milano journey on an online booking service and despite the two connections between trains, along with the travel through three countries, rather marvellously you will find tickets for sale.
Not quite so wonderful is that the train ticket booking services invariably assume that the top priority of all travellers is to reach their destinations as quickly as possible.
Another assumption made is that all of the multiple trains required to complete indirect journeys will depart and arrive as per the schedule.
As a result the connections offered between trains when booking such journeys can be as short as 15 minutes or even less.

This can be a problem when making a transfer to an infrequent train service such as that between Basel and Milano, particularly as the reputation for German trains being exceptionally punctual was always a tad mythical.

What the ticket booking services can’t accommodate are the two scenarios which I wanted to apply to making this particular journey;

  1. to travel on the route between Zurich and Milano, instead heading to Italy from Basel;
  2. allowing time for a leisurely lunch in or near Zurich station.
    Not a particularly eccentric set of circumstances, as on this day I wasn’t following one of my more bonkers itineraries.

But if I’d needed to purchase a ticket for my chosen combination of trains, I’d have had to have made separate bookings for each of the three journeys.
But with a rail pass I had the freedom to pick and choose my route.

I’d decided that towards the conclusion of a full day of travel that I didn't want to bother with making an additional connection in Chiasso, which would have enabled me to avoid paying the mandatory reservation fee charged to InterRail and Eurail pass users on the EuroCity trains between Switzerland and Italy.
So on returning to Koln Hbf the previous evening, I’d used the services of a Reisezentrum desk which can be found at all of the hauptbahnhofs in Germany, to book seats on this train to Italy, along with all of the other mandatory reservations I needed on this trip.
Using the Reisezentrum travel desk at Koln Hbf
Though these Reisezentrum travel desks are becoming something of an anomaly, because despite offering a plethora of useful services, they don’t charge booking fees, so they are a wonderful resource which will hopefully continue to still be available.
One of the facilities they offer is selling of both mandatory and optional seat reservations to Eurail and InterRail pass users; and not just for trains travelling through, or from and to Germany.
So on the one visit to the Reisezentrum I booked all of the reservations with less time and hassle than it would have taken me to use an app, plus I'd saved by not paying any booking fees.

A back to front train

The initial hour(ish) of the journey from Koln to Milano would be a deja-vu experience of the previous day, but this time around I had a task to perform, namely to capture more of the thrilling journey on the high-speed line from the front of the train, on video.
I'd treated the prior journey as a practice run, and worked the best locations to hit the record button.
But my mission was thwarted by one of the quirks of German train travel, a back-to-front train!

Something that anyone embarking on a pan-European rail itinerary will soon appreciate is the above and beyond efforts that Deutsche Bahn deploys to make travelling by its trains as simple as possible; particularly if you don’t want to bother with downloading apps or trying to log on to a Wi-Fi signal.
My favourite aspect of travelling in Germany by train are the Wagenreihungsplan posters which can be found on the gleis (platforms/track) in the hauptbahhofs.
Being printed on paper they’re at risk of soon being as archaic as writing letters with a quill, but they fulfil a useful function of illustrating to travellers where the coaches of each train will be located when it arrives in a German station.
So you can use them to work out for example, if your reserved seat will be in coach 7, that for easy boarding into coach 7, it’s best to wait in zone C on the gleis (platform/track).

But what the posters can’t cope with, and neither somewhat surprisingly can the electronic information on the departure monitors, is the rather common occurrence of an ICE train being the wrong way round when it arrives in a station.
A scenario caused I suspect caused by trains having to reverse direction when departing from many major German stations, so if trains have to make unexpected journeys to such stations, they’re then travelling back to front for the rest of the day.
On its trains and at its stations Deutsche Bahn doesn’t make announcements in English when anything untoward, such as this is occurring.
So despite having worked out where to wait on the long and busy platform at Koln Hbf in order to maximise my chances of finding a spare seat in the front of train lounge, I then had had to dash along the platform amidst the maze of my fellow travellers when the train arrived.
With the train back to front, the first class lounge seats were therefore pointlessly located in the middle of the train; so the thrilling view down the tracks couldn’t be filmed on this trip.

The wonderful main station in Basel

People with a fear of flying can spend a day at an airport and have their worries allayed, but if I needed to help someone overcome an anxiety about European train travel, I’d take them to Basel SBB station.
Changing trains in Basel SBB station

Without any fuss trains depart from it to France, Germany and Italy and to virtually all other Swiss towns and cities, so Basel SBB is a location which showcases that it’s never been easier to travel on European trains.
Despite not having the convenient layout of a terminus station, where the trains are largely on the same level as the station facilities, Basel SBB has been provided with a multitude of escalators and elevators, provided to make the access from and to the trains which use it, as convenient as possible; and it isn’t particularly exceptional.

A tad thrillingly the next train departing for Zurich was a double-deck TGV train because it was a Lyria service from Paris.
When these international trains travel through Switzerland they’re slotted into the timetable along with the Swiss trains, so normal Swiss ticketing rules apply, hence this Basel to Zurich journey being the only route on which rail pass users can ride on a TGV without having to pay a mandatory reservation fee.

A customs check in Switzerland

Despite making the next part of the journey on from Zurich to Milano only five years ago, both the trains and the route have been altered since, so the description of this journey will tantalisingly be published at a later date.
Though this part of the journey by Lake Zug is unaltered.
20170429_173943 (1024x576).jpg

However, something worth being aware of did occur on this particular journey.
Switzerland is within the Schengen area of free movement, hence the parts of the stations solely used by international trains in Basel, Geneva and Chiasso now have unused customs posts, but border security can still be carried while international trains from and to Switzerland are in transit.
For the unwary, a team of stern customs officials entering the train carriage can be a tad intimidating.
A friend who accompanied me on a previous InterRail adventure had an awkward experience on a train from Switzerland when I popped to the bathroom at just the wrong moment, leaving him to explain that he couldn’t be exactly sure what was in my luggage.
Travellers are seemingly singled out at random and on this particular journey it was a group of North American tourists who were taking advantage of their table seats by having a card game, but despite that, they’re playing was interrupted.
So in this scenario, do as they did and accept what’s occurring without questioning it.

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Simon Harper

I wanted to share my passion for train travel and explain how anyone can take the fantastic journeys I have taken.


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