Letter from Europe

The London Charabanc

Issue no. 2014/36

Summary

If you are in Antwerp by night on the weekend before Christmas, you might see a wondrous sight. Shortly after midnight on Saturday 19 December, German rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) will launch its new direct service from Antwerp to London. If you are expecting a comfortable overnight train with sleeping cars, think again.

Dear fellow travellers

If you are in Antwerp by night on the weekend before Christmas, you might see a wondrous sight. Shortly after midnight on Saturday 19 December, German rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) will launch its new direct service from Antwerp to London. If you are expecting a comfortable overnight train with sleeping cars, think again. If you are expecting one of DB's sleek red and white ICE trains, think again.

This is a train with a twist. The timetable information promises some creature comforts. Snacks and drinks will be available, there will be toilet facilities on board and insomniacs can enjoy free internet access all night. But this DB service is in fact a bus.

As readers of hidden europe magazine will know - for we had an article on DB's growing international network of bus services in the latest issue of the magazine - Germany's national rail operator has its sights on London. DB already runs a regular express coach from Düsseldorf to Antwerp, with six daily services linking the two cities (three in each direction). Each bus makes an en route stop at Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

On the fourth weekend of Advent, DB launches its London experiment. Over the Christmas and New Year period the existing Düsseldorf-Eindhoven-Antwerp service will be extended to London. Buses to and from London will run overnight. The travel time from Düsseldorf to London will be 10 hrs 30 mins, while the run from Antwerp to London will take 7 hrs 35 mins.

Cast back four years, and we all remember the sunny autumn day when one of those smart German ICE trains showed up at London's St Pancras station. DB boss Rüdiger Grube and German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer were in top form as they addressed the assembled crowd of journalists. Grube spoke of a new era in the offing, with DB launching direct high-speed trains from Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Köln to London. There was talk of the German competition for Eurostar starting in time for the 2012 London Olympics.

Then the schedules slipped a little and DB went quiet on the whole idea of operating a service to London. German media reported possible delays in launching the new venture. The reliable Süddeutsche Zeitung suggested that the project would slip by a couple of years. Meanwhile, the London tabloids invented ever wilder stories about the impending German invasion. Under the headline 'Blitz Speed', the Daily Mail last year advised readers that the journey from Berlin to London would take just 4 hrs 30 mins - the reality is that, even if DB runs trains to London, the journey from the German capital to St Pancras will take about nine hours.

So DB is finally making it to London. And the high-speed train which is two years late is actually a bus which will average less than 50 kilometres per hour on the journey from Antwerp to London. The inaugural journey will not end in high Victorian style at glorious St Pancras. No, the bus will battle with London traffic and end its run at Victoria Coach Station. It is due in at seven in the morning on Saturday 20 December. We suspect that there will be no dignitaries there to meet those who have endured an overnight journey from the continent.

DB still say they fancy the notion of running trains to London and may one day run their ICEs through the Channel Tunnel. Meanwhile, the rail travel guru Mark Smith (aka The Man in Seat 61) remarked yesterday on twitter: "How the mighty have fallen. DB now running charabancs...".

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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