During the ongoing industrial strife on the railways, I have sought to see what specialist news sources like Rail or Modern Railways might have to say on the subject, much like how I used New Scientist for health news during the height of the pandemic. Unfortunately, I find that these either keep such things to their print titles or behind a paywall. The first can mean that there is a clear lag that causes one to resort to general media sources like the BBC while the second adds an extra cost in these times of income constraints. There appeared to be a need for more timely delivery.
Since then, I found Railnews to be useful for strike news, among other things. Thus, I will be keeping it on my radar along with the others. After all, Rail does feature other kinds of news on its website and I never begrudge keeping more insightful content to the print medium. There are times when considered opinion has much to add, and it takes longer to write in-depth pieces anyway. We all need our news to be both fast and slow, even if it means that we need to wait a little longer for the latter, especially in these times when the postal service has seen significant industrial disruption, and that some announcements are not timed well for print deadlines.
A new year often means a new start though the latest copy of Rail magazine is not so optimistic on its front cover. Talks can restart as they have done in the ongoing rail and postal disputes. With a whole year now ahead of us and not a last minute rush before a year-end, there may be more space for resolving these disruptions. Though the rail talks are not producing very much so far, we only can hope. It does not help that the government is also proposing legislation that may or may not hinder, and one writer even mentioned the possibility of lockouts. Actions like these cannot help for continued goodwill, an important, undervalued and priceless commodity.
In all of this, it is important to recall that the start of 2019 produced a resolution of a dispute between the RMT and Northern Railway. That became a form of release during ongoing political bedlam and was much appreciated. The now-facilitated escapes into the countryside were much needed at the time. Memories like those allow us to hope, especially for someone that does not drive and depends on public transport to get around.
This is the last instalment in my series catching up with transport experiences overseas. This again takes me back to 2015 for a midsummer extended weekend stay in Iceland. There were designs on a trip to Switzerland at this stage, but temperatures were too hot for my hiking. Thus, I ventured to cooler Nordic reaches instead.
Perhaps because of its low population and the size of the place, I was left with the impression that Icelanders are not big users of public transport. Strætó is the main operator of scheduled bus services in the country, though I never made use of what they offer. Their website does have a journey planner, so you can see how things will work. Service frequencies may mean that day trips are not always feasible, which may explain how visitors lapse into driving themselves.
When I visited, the Iceland On Your Own network looked reasonably comprehensive. However, that appears to have withered since then. Reykjavík Excursions still operates buses to popular highland locations like Landmannalaugar, Þórsmörk and Skógar. SBA-Norðurleið once operated buses between Reykjavík via the Kjölur route, but these were cancelled in 2021. That is a shame because the latter’s operations often connected with those of the former. As the effects of the pandemic recede, we may see a return, but that is not apparent at the moment.
My journeying often had me around the BSÍ bus terminal in Reykjavík with the city’s airport nearby. That is where internal flights operated by Icelandair, but my travel inexperience and limited time meant that I never went exploring such options. Instead, I largely stuck with what Reykjavík Excursions had to offer. Firstly, their Flybus service transferred me between Keflavík Airport and Reykjavík.
While I had designs on visiting both Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk, the long hours of daylight did not make for an early bedtime the first night and morning confusion about the time of day meant that I rose later than was ideal for any of these. Thus, I chose another day trip got me to Þingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss instead for the sunniest day of my stay in Iceland. That was ample for a first getaway.
For the second whole day in Iceland, I chose Landmannalaugar instead of Þórsmörk, and the place had a decidedly frigid autumnal feel. It was a high ground clearance coach that got me there, with numerous river crossing in a barren landscape. Until Hella, we had been travelling over tarmac, but it was on to gravel tracks soon after that. The Icelandic Highlands have an even more isolated unpopulated feel than their Scottish counterparts where at least some people live.
My hike around Landmannalaugar may have been a short one, yet it took longer than I expected, so I did not make my intended departure for Reykjavík. The next one was at 20:30, and I was edgy about that given that I was flying back to Manchester the next day. The cool eery conditions around Landmannalaugar did not entice me to stay longer either. On discovering that Trex were offering an earlier departure, I opted for that instead. Due to a lack of cash, I needed to pay by card and had to wait until we had enough mobile signal before the card machine would work. Nevertheless, I got back to civilisation as I wanted and on a coach that was quieter than the one on which I had got to Landmannalaugar. This adventure would not be inconveniencing.
None of these were cheap excursions, but Iceland is not a low-cost destination either. My short stay gave me a lot, and there is more to see. The available transport got me to popular destinations, but some added planning is needed when not going to these.
Though I never followed it up with another visit to the place, the time that I spent in Switzerland in September 2015 possibly my best trip away from home up to that point in my life. Much of this was because of the Swiss rail system, something of renown around the world. There also was a feeling of freedom, of being able to pick and choose from the delights on offer.
There are other manifestations of Swiss efficiency, of course, with hiking trail waymarking being among them. For them, it is not enough to say how far away somewhere is, but you also have to offer time estimations for how long it would take to get there. Being proficient with maps remains necessary though, but it is useful to have the added confirmations.
All this infrastructure can come at the cost of feeling as you are in a wild place, but the Alps are a peopled mountain range anyway. Nevertheless, this makes Swiss mountains very accessible without making them feel thronged at the same time. Sometimes, it can feel as though there is a plan to keep people out of places like that in other parts of the world.
On arrival at Geneva Airport, it took me a little time to make my way to its trains station and then to figure out which train to catch for the city centre. That is because many long distance services start and end there, forming the backbone of airport rail connections instead of a dedicated local train service. Once I got onto a train with my luggage, there was no crowding, and I was soon enough where I needed to be. That my hotel was only a short walk away from Geneva’s main train station helped as well. Once I had settled into my hotel, the rest of my day was spent walking around the city, admiring its at least some of many sights.
The next day was overcast, so I decided on a day trip to Bern for more explorations. As I awaited my direct train to there from Geneva, I spotted an SNCF train awaiting its next service. It is a vague memory to me now, but it may have been graffitied as well as looking a little down at heel, a condition in which I never saw a Swiss train. Trains from other countries do serve parts of Switzerland, as I was to see in coming days.
The train that I needed was a double-decked affair, a type on which I had never travelled before. For the sake of enjoying any views, I chose the top deck on one the carriages, passing a children’s play area below. It seems as if the Swiss include a variety of layouts on their trains, something that adds family friendliness among other things.
My needs were simple, and amply fulfilled by a succession of views along the way along with a lack of any overcrowding. There was Lac Léman and the plateau around Freiburg. On arriving in Bern, I set to wandering around the city, while noting the plentiful supply of trams and buses plying its streets. The greyness meant that this was no day for meaningful photography, but I was sated nonetheless. The return journey was as pleasant as the outbound one, so this was a good introduction to travelling by train in Switzerland.
There is one subject that I have not mentioned so far: cost. You do have to pay well for Swiss efficiency, so I went about trying to get a rail pass online only to be thwarted by weekend system maintenance. This even affected the ticket machines that I tried to use when acquiring a return ticket to Zermatt the next morning. Swiss travel passes do save you money, and are best acquired in advance of going there from my experience.
The ticket machine issues did not stop me getting to Zermatt though. The first part of the journey took me to Visp on a single-deck train bound for Brig, assuming that seven years have not eroded my recollection that much. The route was roundabout due to the location of Lac Léman, international borders and mountainous topography. The latter also challenged the routing of the train to Zermatt, operated by the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, and you have to wonder how engineers managed to squeeze both road and railway through some parts. Zermatt itself is a car-free zone, so there are frequent trains between there and nearby Täsch, where multi-story car parks abound.
My focus in Zermatt was on getting out walking and to get a glimpse of the Matterhorn for myself. That precluded any use of the Gornergrat Bahn, even if that would mean access to other hikes. Electric vehicles and horse-drawn transport were to be soon too. On a longer stay, the Glacier Express would be another option. There is a lot to savour in this part of Switzerland.
On my way back to Geneva, the train from Visp was delayed, so even the Swiss are not immune to these things. There also was a spot of bother between a conductor and a passenger on the western side of Lac Léman, not that it caused a major effect on the general peacefulness of the whole journey. The overall impression that I was forming is that train travel in Switzerland is a civilised uncrowded affair.
There was one more day for an excursion in Switzerland, and that took me to Grindelwald. This needed two changes, one at Bern and another at Interlaken Ost. The first allowed me some time to capture a few photos of the Swiss capital in bright sunshine. Then, the second was caused by needing to use the services Berner Oberland Bahn. Their narrow gauge operations often go over cog railways because of the gradients that they ascend and descend.
Once in Grindelwald, I decided to walk uphill to Kleine Scheidegg. On the final approach to the end of my ascent, I suffered shortness of breadth, so I caught another cog railway train for Grindelwald without delay. This is also the place to catch trains to Jungfraujoch, but I had got a lot out of the day even if it clouded over to leave Kleine Scheidegg feeling autumnal and not a little desolate. Once back in Grindelwald, I could have left for Interlaken Ost there and then. However, some rest was in order and there was a clock-face timetable in operation anyway. Swiss railways were easily dependable enough for that sort of concession.
Switzerland is in so many ways an unusual place. First, it has three main languages in French, German and Italian with Romansh adding another to these. My time was spent in French and German-speaking regions, so my rusty school French has its uses. Not having German felt like a disadvantage though English is spoken a lot too. The main train company gets the legend SBB CFF FFS because of the three main languages, and was the one that I used most often. There are numerous others too with Deutsche Bahn and ÖBB making incursions from German and Austria, respectively.
The timing of my return flight was such that it allowed some time for some last strolling around Geneva before I left. As I did so, I had to be careful not to get run over by speeding cyclists, some of whom surely intent on getting to work on time. Another train got me to the airport in good time, so I left Switzerland in good spirits.
Part of Austria may be the main subject of this piece, but there was some travel in Germany on this extended weekend visit at the end of May 2016. The reason for that German incursion was my deciding to fly to Munich for a rail transfer to Innsbruck where I based myself. While the latter does have an airport, there appeared to be more flights there from the U.K. during the skiing season when I went about checking.
It still appears that there are several flights a day operating between Manchester and Munich. With the upheavals of the pandemic, you never can be sure about these things, so I did a quick check on Skyscanner while writing these words. Both Lufthansa and easyJet fly the route now as they did back then, when my outbound flight was with the former and the latter conveyed me back again. Both did what was needed, and I was able to find my way around Munich airport easily enough.
Though Munich hosts a major air travel hub, the first stretch of my rail journey to Innsbruck was on the Munich S-Bahn network. This is a local service, so there was little accommodation for luggage, and the train was busy too. While I was tempted by the prospect of a brief visit to Munich, that never happened, and I instead changed train at the city’s Ostbahnhof for a EuroCity service.
That was operated by Austria’s ÖBB and was destined for Venice if I recall correctly; it could have been Verona as well. This was an electric locomotive-hauled affair that was well patronised. Even so, I found a comfortable space easily and with somewhere to store my luggage as well. The route by which the train entered Austria shadowed the River Inn for much of the way. Because of the Schengen area, there were no passport formalities though police were seen onboard at times.
Stops at Kufstein, Wörgl and Jenbach punctuated the final approaches to Innsbruck on the Austrian side of the border. The German routing largely avoided the mountains, so the real alpine views were in Austria itself. On disembarking from the train, the oppressive sultry air in Innsbruck for it was very thundery; thunder was sounding in the mountains later that day. Then, there was a walk ahead of me to the hotel.
The way that I went from Munich was direct and without any change of train. It is possible to go via Garmisch-Partenkirchen with a change there for a more scenic approach, but this seemed to take longer, and I did not have that much patience. If I was staying longer, then it might have been an option. It so happened that I did play with ideas of going to Garmisch-Partenkirchen for a day trip only for there to be too many ways of occupying my time in the end. Another idea was to go south to Bolzano, but that sundered for the same reasons.
First, I needed to explore Innsbruck and then the Nordkette lured me up onto them. The first part of the way made use of the funicular railway to get from Innsbruck to Hungerburg. After that, it was use of one cable car to get me to Seegrube and another to get me to Bergstation near Hafelcarspitze. To be honest, the cable cars spooked me enough to encourage me to walk down to Hungerburg with a food stop at Seegrube. Then, I realised why fight scenes were staged in them during action films for sake of added drama. All worked efficiently otherwise, and I used the funicular railway to return to Innsbruck from Hungerburg.
The next day was Sunday, and I was surprised how few places were open away from the shops in Innsbruck train station. Though the forecast was not that enticing, I was fixed on going to Zillertal after some deliberations. Frequent Railjet services to Vienna or Salzburg were tempting, but I was there for mountain scenery, so I took my chances.
Only part of my journey was with ÖBB since I needed to change to the Zillertalbahn at Jenbach. Once there, I tried buying a return ticket at the ticket office only for my card to give trouble. In the end, it needed to be swiped and a signature to be made for the transaction to proceed. My limited German and lack of understanding coupled with a lack of English on the other side, produced an instance of curt communication using hand signs before all was sorted. Travel on narrow gauge diesel trains where they tell you which side to leave the train (a good practice that needs to be learned from German-speaking countries) was a much gentler experience.
[Mayrhofen]https://www.mayrhofen.at/en/ had an out of season feel while I was there, and the air was damp too. The Ahornbahn cable car that I had hoped to used was not in operation, and that perhaps was just as well given the gradient it ascends and descends. In its place, I opted for the Penkenbahn instead and braced myself for the ascent. That worked well, and any recollection of trepidation has faded with time. What remains is sauntering in damp conditions before I embarked on the return journey. There was a moment when things speeded up before stopping suddenly. In those short moments stopped in mid-air, thoughts of an unwanted overnight stay materialised before everything started going again. The journey back to Jenbach offered plenty of time for nerves to recover, as did the train from there to Innsbruck.
Reverse the outbound train journey returned me to Munich Airport again. The brevity of my time in Tyrol was impressed on me as I departed since there are many reasons to return. A longer stay might see use of buses as well as more of the local rail network. There is much more to see, as long as I can manage any nervousness about cable cars. Otherwise, having more time allows one to be more courageous in exploring.
Continuing to share experiences of public transportation in other countries within the last decade, I now turn to two trips that I made to Norway during a time of tumult in my life. This is when I discovered that palliative care of an unappetising work situation using overseas did not solve anything. The real resolution was to involve a career break but that lay in future at the time these excursions were undertaken.
An August Escape
The first was an extended weekend visit undertaken around the time of the English Summer Bank Holiday at the end of August 2016. Ongoing business in Ireland intruded at one point, but this otherwise was a case of spending a little time around Oslo and Bergen. Rail and air travel were the mainstays of my travelling though there was one airport bus transfer by bus.
The Flytoget airport express train service was used to get from Oslo Gardermoen airport (there are a few of them) to Oslo city centre. After settling into my hotel, I was lured out about the city on foot on by the appearance of warm sunshine that persisted for the rest of the day. Next morning, I wondered at myself leaving the sunny weather for Bergen with a rainy forecast promised for there.
This was brought about by a bit of pre-planning. The lynchpin of the weekend was travelling along the Bergensbanen by train, often included in lists of the world’s scenic railways. The line is electrified all the way, so the train was hauled by an electric locomotive. Even with this being near the end of the high season, it was busy too and the seat reservation that I made was more than necessary.
What I had in mind was a quiet trip of reading and window-gazing. A family next to me had kids who could not be kept busy doing such things and, next to me, I had someone watching a film on an iPad without headphones. That was enough to send me to the café bar for some nourishment and added peace. While nursing a coffee, I savoured the scenery that lay outside while the sun shone. By the time that I returned, silence had been restored and torpor was becoming evident.
The journey length generally is a long one at around seven hours in duration, and this one was stretched even further by delay. Engineering works had meant a diversion and then a long delay at Hønefoss while passengers from rail replacement coaches were awaited. A further delay resulted from a problem with the locomotive in the most mountainous and highest point of the journey. Thankfully, we got going again but those wanting to make a connection to Flåm had to do so in inclement greyness and with a significant delay.
Eventually, we entered cloud after we continued west from Geilo. That and the snow shelters through which we passed restricted the hoped for mountain views. When we descended to the fjords near Voss, the views were more expansive. These were not the blue sky vistas for which Norway is renowned though, due to lack of good fortune with the weather.
Bergen is infamous for being susceptible to rain, so it was in typical conditions that I arrived there. The station buildings were clad in scaffolding and left luggage facilities were unavailable. Given the late afternoon arrival time, these were not needed since I could check in at my hotel once I found it after taking a more circuitous route than was necessary.
On my traipsing, I made use of the Fløibanen funicular railway to reach the top of Fløyen. The first was on my evening of arrival when the rain stopped, while the second was when I made a descent after spending a day trotting around Bergen’s local hills. In both cases, it did what was needed; there was confusion over where I had placed my wallet, but that was something that I sorted myself.
In hindsight, my last day in Bergen could have been stretched by using a direct flight from there to Manchester. Knowing about the availability of left luggage facilities or being able to store my luggage at the hotel would have allowed that. There might have been a fjord tour if I really was brave.
However, I played it safe and tried out the Norwegian internal air system because it offers short shuttle flights around the country. The Bergen to Oslo frequency was half-hourly using the services of Norwegian, which was just as well when we had to decamp from aircraft to another because of an issue with the plane. That did nothing to make me miss my return flight from Oslo to Manchester with the same operator. A coach service from Flybussen conveyed me to Bergen airport and was the only road transport service used on this visit to Norway.
A June Retreat
An extended weekend does little justice to anywhere, so I made a return to Norway for a longer stay. That also gained me more observations of its public transport system as I spent some time around Oslo and Stavanger. There was one similarity shared with the previous trip: the former enjoyed sun while the latter offered rain. In some ways, that may be an overstatement, but it still largely sums the weather that I found, and I found many differences though.
A different hotel was involved, but my journey there was like the last time. In retrospect, getting off at Oslo Sentralstasjon (Oslo S or Oslo Central) was a mistake because it left me with a long walk. The Nationaltheatret (National Theatre) stop would have been better for me, and I was to use that later. Before that, I walked here and there around Oslo except for a cruise around Oslofjord.
After a two night stay, I went to the Nationaltheatret station to catch a Flytoget service to Oslo Gardermoen airport. What I can recall now is how slow elevators were and how I ended up missing a train because of that. If timing is crucial, it is better to allow more time to reach the platform from street level.
Like Bergen, Stavanger also is connected to Oslo by frequent flights operated by Norwegian. Getting there by train would be a day-long affair unless I were to travel overnight, so I stuck with flying for the sake of convenience. Check-in was very much a self-service affair, and this was the first time that I encountered something so streamlined. The same model has appeared elsewhere with other operators, so it seems to be a coming trend.
On reaching Stavanger, it was the turn of Flybussen to get me to the city centre. Since I was too early to book into the hotel, I left most of my luggage in the available luggage lockers. That left me free to chance my luck with getting on a fjord cruise. Prospects were not looking great after talking to someone in the operator’s shop. Nevertheless, I decided to try again when the boat docked to see if there were cancellations. Others did likewise, and I think that they got all of us onboard. That was just as well since wet weather was forecasted for the following days.
The rain arrived the next afternoon, so I stuck with exploring the city’s lakes on foot. Even though things did not look much better, I went to Tau on the local ferry, and caught a bus to Vatne. That allowed me a chance for two hikes: one to Preikestolen and another around Revsvatnet. Reversing the bus and ferry combination returned me to Stavanger after catching some sun in the evening time.
The way back to the UK involved no direct flight from there to Manchester. Flybussen returned me to Stavanger airport on a day of rain, from where a shuttle flight got me to Oslo in time for a flight to Manchester. Everything ran to time on this trip, except for myself at times.
It has been a while since I was in Norway and I fancy a return for there is plenty of attractive scenery to be savoured. That also means that there have been some changes since then.
For one thing, the ferry service between Stavanger and Tau has been supplemented or replaced by the Ryfylke tunnel. From the Kolumbus website though, it appears that there still are ferry sailings available. Nevertheless, there are direct buses and coaches to Vatne now, where the aforementioned hikes begin; Boreal is one such operator.
While in Stavanger, I toyed with an out and back coach excursion to Bergen using NOR-WAY Bussekspress’ Kystbussen service. In the end, the length of the journey put me off. There currently are two ferry crossings needed, but there is a major tunnelling project to improve road connections from Stavanger all the way to Trondheim. There may be a time when no ferries are needed for bus travel, and the Ryfylke tunnel is part of this effort. The rest of it is expected to be complete by 2033, so this is a long term effort.
What also has changed is the Norwegian rail network. When I was in Norway, NSB operated everything apart from Flytoget, and even that started as one of its subsidiaries. That has changed dramatically with NSB rebranding as Vy and only keeping part of what it used to operate. They still sell tickets for the whole network, though, as do Entur who do more than this.
Go-Ahead Nordic operates the Sørtoget, Jærbanen and Arendalsbanen routes in the south, especially on the way to and around Stavanger, while SJ NORD operates trains going north out of Oslo to places like Trondheim and much more besides on the Dovrebanen, Raumabanen, Trønderbanen, Rørosbanen, Meråkerbanen, Nordlandsbanen and Saltenpendelen. The latter sells its own tickets until 2023-03-01 while the former directs you to other outlets. SJ is Sweden’s national rail operator and operates services between there and places like Oslo, Trondheim and Narvik in Norway.
SJ always operated into Norway from Sweden, but the internal concessions are much newer. They marked a big change in Norway’s rail network structure. It is not all about train livery changes either, since it appears that new trains have been acquired too. If I get back to Norway, there will be numerous changes to negotiate and more to learn.
Aside from delays on the Bergensbanen and a delayed flight at Bergen airport, all worked without fault on my two outings to Norway. Flights clearly needed advance booking as well as the Bergensbanen, it was a case of turning up and going. What I cannot now recall is how I paid. For one thing, I did have some cash with me, yet I cannot exclude the possibility of paying by card as well. Pre-paid travel cards may be available, but I have not used any of these.
This is one long narrow country with plenty of mountains and fjords, so there is ever reason to return. Catching the weather can be a challenge though, especially when you need to plan things in advance. Even so, the potential rewards make it plausible that I might try again.
Recently, I had a journey with EMR go wrong because of a train breakdown. Only shortly beyond Sheffield station, we had to turn back, and the journey was delayed by around an hour. When I came to claim compensation for the delay, the process was straightforward thanks to having PDF copies of the tickets. It also was very prompt with the money going back into my PayPal account. Though the journey had not been the best, the customer service afterwards cannot be faulted.
20:33, December 4, 2023
The RMT dispute with the English train operators has ended while other negotiations continue. The legislation for minimum service levels is coming into effect too. However, the ongoing ASLEF actions continue and more could follow. How things will look around Christmas and New Year remains to be seen. There is more hope than this time year, though.