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Travel Tales Episode 7: Copenhagen to Cologne

Episode 7: Copenhagen to Cologne

Learning a lot on what is usually a straightforward journey across northern Europe.


Heading to Germany on a thrilling route that is no more:

I was on the platform at Kobenhavn so that I was waiting to board the train when it pulled into the station, which paid off as I was able to pretty much claim the only spare seat in 1st class.
Second class was crammed, dozens of children were sitting on the floor.
Two factors had come into play on this particular journey, firstly seat reservations are optional on Danish trains, so the majority of travellers clearly hadn’t bothered.
Secondly Danish national rail operator, DSB normally provides double-deck trains on the route as far as Nykobing because the demand evidently justifies it, but the ICE train being used at the time, in common with all its cousins, wasn’t double-decked.

Though along with the ICE-D trains, the route I was about to take, including the thrilling loading of the train on to the ferry boat (yes really!), is also now only in the history books.
On the Danish train ferry

Ultimately the trains between Denmark and Germany will speed between the two countries in an under sea tunnel, but the impact of the already commenced works on the connecting railways, would have caused too many delays, so the trains now take an alternative, less thrilling, route between Kobenhavn and Hamburg.

On the final leg of this journey on to Hamburg I decided to take advantage of the access to a plug socket in the 1st class seats of an ICE train; and discovered that I’d left my phone charger and its adaptor plug back in the hotel in Malmo.
This was on my ‘Top 5 things not to forget’ list and on my second morning I’d already failed that test.

Therefore another top travel tip to treasure is my suggestion to pack more plug socket adaptors than you’ll think you’ll need.
Particularly as when you’re on a train, it can be all too easy to pull out the plug attached to the device, but then leave the adaptor behind in the socket, but on this occasion I didn’t even have that excuse.
Very fortunately a very charming Australian family came to my aid and gave me one of their adaptor plugs, the dad had been taking part in a canoeing championship in Sweden and they were using that as an excuse to see something of Europe by train.
A reminder that one of the joys of European train travel isn’t the destinations or the scenery, it’s the opportunity to talk to people from walks of life that you would never normally encounter.

Learning a lesson in Hamburg:

At Hamburg hbf

I still needed a USB cable and a big tick in the box for using Hamburg hbf is that it’s a station that’s located at the heart of the city centre, Hamburg’s main shopping streets are right by the station.
My unexpected detour meant that I’d missed the 25 min planned connection into the train on to Koln, but this is a route on which the trains depart hourly, so I could afford to take my time; something I should have kept in mind!

On my return to Hamburg hbf, the train I’d originally planned to take was obviously leaving late, it was still in the station, so I made a snap decision and decided to dash for it, a scenario that’s always best avoided!
I didn’t need to guess where the 1st class coaches would be, one big plus of travelling by train in Germany is the extent of the info that you can find on a platform, designed to make it as easy as can be to board a train.
Boarding a train in Germany
But in my haste I was forgetting all about this, I had a good idea that the 1st class would be at the front or back, and I was nearer the rear of the train, so I raced towards it!
I’d guessed wrong and now to reach the very front of the train I was faced with an obstacle course.
The train was packed, the delay had obviously encouraged others expecting to take the next train to board this train instead, particularly as seat reservations are not compulsory on German express trains.

By the time the train made its first station call at Hamburg-Harburg I’d managed to persuade at least two dozen people that I was an idiot, by squeezing myself and my suitcase by them on my quest to reach 1st class.
If there had been any seats available I’d have more than content to remain in 2nd, but my efforts were about to be justified - on reaching the solitary 1st class coach, its final spare seat was mine.

Why was the train so crowded?

Well the late start from Hamburg had probably been a contributory factor, but as seat reservations in 2nd class are an optional €4.50 extra for both ticket holders and rail pass users, most of my fellow passengers clearly hadn’t bothered.
But another factor that come into play was that this Hamburg to Koln route has long been an anomaly on the German rail network.
You might suspect that the railway route which links seven of the largest 15 cities in Germany would be the country’s premier railway route, but in fact it’s something of Cinderella service.
Deutsche Bahn has constructed six high speed railways, but the Hamburg to Koln route isn’t one of them.

The ICE trains were introduced to operate the high speed services, but as their numbers have increased, some of them are now available for use on this route, but at the time of my trip, the less stylish IC trains comprised most of the services.
DB IC trains

DB also evidently adopts a policy of an hourly service being the maximum possible frequency on its express train routes - hence seats being hard to find, even on a Saturday afternoon, but my aura of complacency at having tracked a spare seat down was about to be shattered.

The uber-efficient train conductor

A lady of senior years was the only passenger who entered the 1st class coach at the first station call in the Hamburg suburbs and with a mounting sense of inevitability, she slowly made her way towards me.
A system of red electronic text beside the seat numbers is used on German IC and ICE trains to indicate between which station calls a seat has been reserved for, so no text showing destinations means the seat is available.
seat reservation on German trains
My seat number had no destination but the lady was adamant that I was in her seat, but even if I possessed the language skills to ask to see her ticket, I wasn’t about to deprive her of some comfort, so I vacated my place and moved to stand in the vestibule by the doors.

With admirable diligence the conductor commenced his ticket inspection at this very far end of the train, he seemed surprised to find me there and it took a fair amount of mutual patience for him to realise that I wasn’t stood there by choice.
Five minutes later he re-appeared and a tad brusquely asked me to follow him and to my absolute mortification he then instructed the same lady I'd encountered earlier to get up out of the seat, as once again it was to be mine
I attempted to explain that I didn’t mind if the lady remained there despite his removal of her, but I was told to sit down, it was the only available seat in the coach and I had no choice, but to make use of it.

The lady was in the wrong coach after all as she had a 2nd class ticket, so despite her protests she was being sent to the crowded 2nd class coaches.
This drama had attracted the attention of most of the other occupants of an open-plan saloon style coach and for those not within ear-shot, it must have seemed as though I’d asked the conductor to boot a seemingly frail lady out of my place!
So between there and Bremen, where most of the passengers vacated the train, I kept my face pressed to the window and pretended to admire the view.


Simon Harper

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


This is one of more than 100 train travel guides available on ShowMeTheJourney, which will make it easier to take the train journeys you want or need to make. As always, all images were captured on trips taken by ShowMeTheJourney.


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