Those Who Trespass (#Amsterlin Part 7)

The morning of Monday 4th July was bright and sunny as we arrived at Berlin Haputbahnhof for our train home. I was in a bright and sunny mood. After three nights in Amsterdam and a further three nights in Berlin, we were capping our trip with an epic train journey home.

From Berlin we would take the 10:46 train to Cologne. Then the 15:40 from Cologne to Brussels. Then the 18:56 from Brussels to London. Which should arrive in London at 19:57 – plenty of time for a leisurely stroll up the Euston Road to get the 21:07 London Euston to Liverpool, depositing me in my home city just after half past eleven. That is 14 hours, covering 800 miles.

The railway gods were not smiling.

It went moderately well on the first leg of the trip, despite the seat reservations not working in our carriage (the same system Avanti West Coast use, presumably). I was feeling quite smug, having purchased a “DE Connect” ticket, following advice on Jon Worth’s blog. These new tickets are offered by Deutsche Bahn for journeys between Germany and London, connecting with Eurostar at Brussels. They are usually cheaper than purchasing Eurostar and DB tickets in separate transactions.

I purchased a coffee from a friendly DB attendant, and settled down to enjoy the view, despite it not being particularly spectacular – Northern Germany is fairly flat and unexciting for the most part, scenery wise.

We did get to see the Volkswagen HQ as we sped through Wolfsburg.

As we neared the end of the first leg of our journey, there was a glimpse of the Wuppertal Schwebebahn. No time to stop and visit it today, sadly, although I will refer you back to the visit in October 2019, as part of my epic #TågFärjetur trip.

Cologne Hauptbahnhof’s concourse was more colourful than I remembered. Cologne Pride had taken place at the weekend, and the full spectrum of sexuality and gender identity was on show on the concourse, as rainbow-clad attendees made their way home.

Shrubs and flowers in the Cologne station concourse, arranged in the colours of the gay and trans pride flags

We had just under 30 minutes to wait for our connection to Brussels. Just long enough to poke my head out of the station entrance and catch a glimpse of the glorious cathedral just next door. Even partially covered by scaffolding, it’s an impressive structure.

View of part of Cologne Cathedral showing spire. At ground level the building is partly obscured by hoardings

Lunch consisted of a pastry, purchased from a kiosk on the concourse, before we headed back up to the platforms for our second train of the day, the international ICE to Brussels.

This is where things went slightly wrong. Our seat reservations were in coach 23. However as the train rolled in, the seat displays on the outside started at 31 and counted upwards. There was no sign of a coach 23. An announcement on the station tannoy said that the coach numbers were Falsch but my limited German failed to make out the rest of it.

I deduced that the coach numbers were out by ten from what they should be, and headed to coach 33, which helpfully had a scrap of paper with “23” scrawled on it, sellotaped to the vestibule. We found the seats that should have been reserved for us and, thankfully, they were empty, albeit at a table covered with litter. Other passengers were not so fortunate and we witnessed multiple arguments breaking out over seat reservations as we sped towards the Belgian border.

We were lucky to have a train at all, really. The ICE-3M trains used on this route are suffering from chronic reliability issues at the moment. As a result, it is not unusual to find trains curtailed or cancelled entirely, with passengers decanted onto a tiny Belgian local train to complete their journey. This would definitely have spoiled the day, and I was glad to have a train all the way to Brussels.

Heading into Belgium, there was time to appreciate the rather nice station at Liège, and soon afterwards we were arriving in Brussels Midi.

View of impressive overall roof at Liège station, with Belgian train on adjacent platform

At Midi, there was a tempting smell of Belgian waffles emanating from a nearby food outlet, but we decided to head straight for the Eurostar terminal to be sure of getting our train. This was a wise choice, as the queue for the Eurostar terminal snaked for some distance along the concourse. For some time, the queue didn’t move at all, but it transpired that this was simply because they weren’t letting anyone in.

Finally, the check-in opened and the queue started moving slowly. There seemed to be fewer security and passport officers on duty than usual, and getting through both sets of passport control, followed by luggage scans, was a slow process.

Long queue for the Eurostar terminal at Brussels Midi

I wasn’t too worried at this stage. My itinerary gave me 70 minutes to transfer from St Pancras to Euston. That should normally give plenty of leeway – my Eurostar could arrive up to 45 minutes late and I would probably still make my connection.

Many Eurostar trains from Brussels actually originate from Amsterdam these days, so it wasn’t too surprising to arrive at the platform and find that our train wasn’t actually there. What was a bit more disconcerting was when it did arrive, and we all clambered aboard, only for the train to sit in the platform and not go anywhere.

After a few minutes, the conductor made an announcement. Due to a “person on the track” just outside the station, all trains were being held. But not to worry, he said, we would probably be on our way soon.

I ventured to the buffet car – sorry, “Café Metropole” – which was doing a roaring trade, with a long queue of hungry passengers wanting some food and drink. So roaring, in fact, that their stocks were rapidly dwindling. I bought a Coke Zero and one of the last baguettes on the shelf, and headed back to my seat to wait.

The on-board crew were very good, the conductor making regular announcements. Unfortunately none of them said much other than “we are still waiting for clearance to proceed”. Also, because he did the announcements in three languages, with English last, it meant each announcement triggered two minutes of anxious waiting for news.

A small cheer erupted from my fellow passengers as the train started moving. Even then, there was further delay – we were stuck in a queue of trains, and proceeded at what felt like walking pace for the first few miles of the journey. I looked at my watch as the minutes ticked away. It soon became abundantly clear that we were not going to reach London in time for me to catch the 21:07 train.

I started researching alternatives to get me home, but the only option I could find was an overnight National Express coach departing London at 11.30pm and reaching Liverpool at 6.30am the following day. This had the “advantage” that I wouldn’t miss a day of work, but had the disadvantage that I would probably not get much sleep and have lost the will to live by the time I got there.

Fortunately I did not need to resort to such desperate measures. The Eurostar conductor came through the train offering advice and assistance. It was clear, from eavesdropping on his conversations, that multiple other passengers were in the same boat. Some, like Mark and Peter, were fortunate to live much closer to London and thus still have a late night connection available, but there was no possibility for me.

The conductor was sympathetic to my plight. He gave me a “proof of delay” form, signed by him and stamped with an official stamp. He also took my phone number and email address, and said “I’ll see what I can do”.

Railteam Confirmation of Delay or Cancellation form - allows you to benefit from Railteam's Hop on the Next Available Train service (HOTNAT). Form is stamped and dated by the conductor

My fate entirely placed in his hands, I turned back to the view from the window. The evening sunshine over the French countryside was very pretty, and I tried to relax and enjoy the journey despite the disruption.

Fields filled with a yellow crop, bathed in evening sunlight beneath a mostly clear sky with just a few wispy clouds

I was distracted from my thoughts by my phone chiming with an email notification. It was a message from a corporate hotel booking service, confirming that a room at the Kings Cross Travelodge was waiting for me.

Secure in the knowledge that I had a safe place to stay for the night, I was able to relax. In a way, this major delay was better for me. If it had been a delay of, say, 45 minutes, I could have still just about made my connection, but I would have spent the whole journey fretting about it. As it was, I knew I wasn’t going to make it, and so I became resigned to my fate.

We eventually rolled into St Pancras nearly two hours late – although not actually two hours late, which would have triggered the next level of delay compensation (grr). The M&S Food shop on the concourse was still open, and Mark and Peter went to buy a late night snack. I bought some cans of pre-mixed cocktails. It had been that sort of day.

I bade farewell to my travelling companions, who headed back to Brighton to be reunited with their cats, and set out to find my hotel.

Travelodge room card, printed with the text "ENJOY YOUR STAY" in large letters

The hotel was just a few minutes walk away from St Pancras, and my room key was ready for me to collect when I arrived. I had some necessary business to take care of – a call to my dad to reassure him that I was fine, but wouldn’t be home that night. Some apologetic text messages to my boss and colleagues at work, advising them that my week’s holiday had been inadvertently extended. And then I flopped gratefully into bed, where the soothing sounds of the Hammersmith & City line lulled me to sleep.

The next morning, I was faced with a quandary. Due to my extra night away from home, I had no clean underwear. What to do? I threw it open to my Twitter followers…

Reader, I respected the referendum result.

After having breakfast in the hotel (again courtesy of Mr Eurostar) I walked back to Euston station. My expectations were quite low. I had booked an ambitious (perhaps over-ambitious) journey across Europe, using multiple tickets across multiple operators, and had come a cropper due to a problem that was nothing to do with Avanti West Coast. I was fully anticipating being told, “tough, buy a new ticket.”. My Advance fare had only been £18.70, but it’s the principle, dammit!

However, I needn’t have worried. I showed my Eurostar ticket and delay confirmation to the booking office clerk, and he pressed a few buttons and produced an “Authority to Travel”, plus a seat reservation for the next train to Liverpool. It was only later that I realised I had been booked into seat 61 — coincidence, or a coy reference to the legendary travel advisor?

"Authority to Travel" printed on a railway ticket, with a seat reservation for the 10:07 to Liverpool, in seat B61.

Full marks to the Avanti West Coast staff at Euston ticket office, who demonstrated, despite what Grant Shapps says, why ticket offices with knowledgable staff are still essential on the railway. Could a mobile phone app have provided the same customer service?

My journey back to Liverpool was uneventful and I arrived back home, a full 13 hours later than planned, just before 1pm on Tuesday.

So, what have I learned from this process? Well, booking a 14-hour train journey with only minimal connection time was perhaps a mistake, even for a committed rail enthusiast like me. Last time I did this journey, in the opposite direction, I broke up the journey with an overnight stay in Cologne, and maybe I should have done something similar this time. Next time, maybe I will use an overnight train – there are already several new sleeper train services linking various European cities to Brussels, and rumours persist of one starting soon to Berlin. If that had been an option, I would have definitely taken it.

The good news: the railway’s customer service response was exemplary. Eurostar put me up in a hotel without quibble, and Avanti allowed me to travel the next day without paying for a new ticket. Well done both companies, but I’m aware, from anecdotal evidence elsewhere, that such good treatment is not always the norm. That’s a shame, as the reassurance that help is at hand when things go wrong would take a lot of the worry out of booking these sorts of journeys.

And so ends my European train adventures — for now, at least. For you see, 24 hours after my disrupted journey, I was able to apply for delay compensation, and Eurostar vouchers landed in my inbox. They need to be used within 12 months, and it would be a shame to waste them…