Dear fellow travellers
For details of hidden europe's Christmas gift specials, please click here. Note that in addition to subscriptions, we have, for the first time, bundled some issues together for would-be purchasers looking for three issues that together evoke some common theme - frontier curiosities, Jewish life and culture, unusual railways and selected geographical regions.
Enthusiasts for European train travel, we have noticed, sometimes get a little edgy this time of year. It is that season when train timetables, which have served us well - or sometimes less than perfectly - for almost twelve months are suddenly discarded. It can be a disconcerting moment, that Saturday in December when trains run to the old schedules for the very last time. And then on a Sunday morning, this year on 10 December, new schedules come into play. Europe's various railway administrations are getting better at advising the public of upcoming changes. There was a time, before the advent of the internet, when getting hold of a printed copy of the new timetables was well nigh impossible until the eve of their implementation - and sometimes not even then.
We have been taking a look at the timetables that come into force next month. After many years of attrition in Europe's night train services (the subject of a long article in hidden europe in July 2005), it is good to see some innovative new services appearing in the schedules from next month. The eastern German city of Dresden is a real winner here, with a whole raft of new daily overnight connections: Bratislava, Kosice, Poprad/Tatry, Budapest, Vienna and Wiesbaden. Also in central Europe, CityNightLine's sleek dark blue double-deck sleepers will venture to Prague for the first time, with the existing Munich to Dresden service being extended south down the Elbe valley to the Czech capital.
The accession of Romania to the European Union is marked by decidedly better connections from Bucharest to western Europe. The Kálmán Irme express will have through carriages from the Romanian capital to Munich, and the Bega express will now provide a new link from Bucharest to Venice. Thomas Cook are reporting Russian Railways' distinctive blue and white sleeping cars will be seen in Venice again in 2007, with the reintroduction of a once-weekly Moscow to Venice sleeper. But Venice loses all its direct overnight connections with Switzerland.
The privatisation by stealth of Europe's rail network takes a further step forward on 10 December. Private companies like Veolia (formerly Connex), Arriva, Syntus and RailTrans extend their growing influence over Europe's railways in the 2007 schedules - in some instances taking over minor branch lines that national railway administrations no longer feel inclined to serve, but sometimes providing head-to-head competition with established operators on mainline routes. So Czech Railways will surely notice the competition on the main Prague to Ostrava route, when, from mid-December, RailTrans starts running express services on the same route. Running every two hours, the new RailTrans service will take a half hour longer for the 350 kilometre journey than the Czech Railways' tilting Pendolino trains, but doubtless there will be many travellers who will want to support this new piece of free enterprise.
End of the line
Amid these developments, our perusal of the early drafts of the new timetables raises one sad observation. It looks as though one of Europe's most long standing night trains, the EN 263 from Paris to Vienna (the Orient Express, no less) looks set to run for the very last time on Friday 8 June 2007. Not all new timetables, it seems, bring good news. Devotees of the Orient Express can read the full text of our hidden europe feature on the Orient Express, first published in May 2005, by clicking here.
Printed national rail timetables still provide an invaluable resource for the traveller, notwithstanding the availability of good online information (eg. at www.bahn.de). But for those people unwilling to buy individual timetables for two dozen or more countries, the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable is still the bible for rail travel planning. It includes only mainline services, but its continent-wide coverage is hard to beat. Times are one thing, but fares another. However, the current issue of hidden europe does reveal our favourite website for calculating international rail tariffs for most European connections. Click here for more information on the contents of our November 2006 issue.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries