Coronavirus train travel in Germany – a critical journey
As of 15th June, we are free to travel to most countries in Europe again. I haven’t been anywhere but work since 25th of January since I returned from Jordan. Three cancelled trips later, I made my peace with the inability to travel for leisure right now. This Coronavirus train travel in Germany article is about two recent trips I had to do for work. Here is what I observed and why I have stopped travelling on long-distance trains for now.
Having reached new lows of infection rates of less than 100 per day, we are now climbing up again to 1000. I think it will just be a matter of time until a serious rise in infections. Despite the chance to learn about the virus in the past five months. Nothing compared to other countries, but worrying nonetheless. I don’t think economy and health service will take to a second wave well. We cancelled all elective treatments in the hospital back in March. But the promised compensation payments from the government for beds kept empty in expectation of a large wave of COVID patients have been rather tied to a lot of conditions and discussions. So, what the heck am I doing travelling in what seems just a brief respite from the pandemic?
Why I travel now
When one of my colleagues at work left, our Managing Directors asked me to take on one of her roles. This being Germany, all sorts of permissions and certifications must be obtained in order to do be able to bill the health services. Therefore I would need to receive some training. Long story cut short, my employer asked me to obtain that certification as soon as possible. This meant two weekends in Nuremberg, which was the only course happening in the country for some time.
Not only did Bavaria have many move cases of COVID-19 than my home state of Brandenburg, their conservative government has implemented much stricter hygiene rules. I was not sure whether the course would happen until about a week before. I was then sent a three-page hygiene concept and told to bring my invitation letter. Otherwise I would not be allowed to enter the hospital. Also, I would need to bring a medical grade mask, keep 1.5m distance from my course mates at all times, followed by rules how I would proceed to get food and visit the bathroom… and so on. Once there, it was actually fine – strict, yes, but all taken with a pinch of humour. Not a problem at all.
Coronavirus train travel in Germany
What bothered me was getting there and back. Nuremberg is just over 450km from us. The motorway A9 is busy and currently studded with construction sites. On my first trip out after lockdown I got stuck in a humongous jam just near Nuremberg.
Flights? Forget it. Pre-Coronavirus, there were direct flights to Nuremberg, you would now have to make changes in Amsterdam or Palma de Mallorca (crazy!), not to mention the environmental impact of the miles flown.
Leaves me with the most obvious mode of transport, the train. Yup, Berlin to Munich is as short as 3 hours on the fastest high speed train. Pre-COVID, these tickets were ridiculously expensive.
Buying tickets and ticket prices
However mow I managed to snag a second-class ticket for both courses, one for 70Euros, getting up some ridiculous time of the day, the second for 90 Euros return. After all, what seems like a fair price, especially since it includes the optional cancellation up to 24h before departure (an extra 10 Euros each way). I use a website called fromatob.com to research national travel and book tickets. The national rail company of Germany, the Deutsche Bahn, has a very good website but usually much higher prices than third-party sellers.
My first trip started early. I got up at 3am and my husband drove me the 40min to Berlin Main Station. Once I reached the station, there were signs anywhere that wearing a mask is obligatory but once inside the station and on the platform, perhaps 30% of people we wearing masks. Of course, there was nobody around to enforce mask-wearing.
Once on the train, things got slightly better. Despite the early hour, the train was half full. I picked a seat in the airline-style compartment, which is standard on German high-speed trains, Very few have proper compartments. Everybody was wearing a mask, but the train got fuller and fuller. Forget about any minimum distancing – it wasn’t happening. Once in Nuremberg, I was surprised by the coherence to mask-wearing – in the station, the public transport, shops… or at least in the areas I visited near the hospital and in my accommodation.
My comfy business hotel with excellent value for money
My first hotel, the Best Western Hotel am Hauptbahnhof, was excellent. It’s not the prettiest, or in a romantic Old Town location, but at 3min walk from the main station and 10min walk from the centre of the Old Town, it isn’t exactly out in the sticks, either. I paid about 55Euro for a single in early July – pretty good given Nuremberg is very popular with international tourists round this time of the year – but with only EU travel allowed, Nuremberg appeared very quiet the first weekend of July. For that, I got a decent sized comfy single room with a super comfortable small double bed, a small free minibar and extreme cleanliness. The rooms were really nice – with wood-laminate flooring, and large photo walls. And given this is a very challenging time, you could wipe everything clean and I am sure they did for everything was spotless.
An excellent breakfast, served in their large dining room, was included in the price. As they aren’t allowed buffets due to hygiene precautions, I was handed a small menu card to choose breakfast. It was served at my table in the morning, with staff going round frequently offering more coffee and food.
Train experience on Weekend One: just uncomfortable
The train journey back was less fun. I was tied to a certain train with my cheap ticket. After an hour, the train became very full. At last 10% of passengers in my carriage were not wearing face masks. When I asked a woman who wanted to sit down next to me to wear her mask, I had abuse shouted at me but fortunately she moved on. What was even worse is that conductors passed through the carriage several times. There were people blatantly not wearing masks and they didn’t bat an eyelid.
The official excuse the Deutsche Bahn are using is that they are required by law to have face coverings but they are not required to enforce it. On my train, they appeared to have no interest to enforce it. I didn’t really have this on the radar, thinking that hygiene rules are enforced! Thankfully, I had an “emergency” FFP2 mask in my handbag. So I put that on for a rather uncomfortable but totally do-able three hours and didn’t take it off until I got home.
I also had a bottle of cologne with me and disinfected my hands when I wasn’t able to wash them.
My second hotel: traditional, central, but not as comfy
My second trip was altogether more leisurely, no early starts, but a terrible loss and a lot of uncertainty made this the more stressful trip. Still having gone through the course halfway, I decided to travel.
I stayed at the Gasthaus Pillhofer right by the Old City Walls this time, a stone’s throw from the train station. At a price slightly lower than the Best Western, but without breakfast, this inn was perfectly fine and clean but my circumstances were worse. This is perhaps why I barely ventured out of the hotel after my course, just taking long walks to and from the hospital morning and evening and picking up a bit of food on the way. It was clean but not quite as comfy (smaller softer bed, slightly scratchy bed linen) than the Best Western and much noisier but obviously would be the better choice if you would like to be a the doorstep of some bars and restaurants.
Train Experience on Weekend Two: Eight hour journey instead of three and a half
When my course unexpectedly finished two hours earlier on the Sunday, I took the liberty to board an earlier train. Little did I fancy hanging round in town. I felt low and had cried a lot. I just wanted to be home as soon as possible. Also, due to engineering works, the train was being re-routed, which was already adding two hours to the journey time.
And just on this we had a conductor who must have worked as a prison guard in a previous life. When she demanded to see the ID of fellow passengers (which basically never happens on a train) I knew I was in trouble. And no attempt at friendly explaining that my course had finished early, that I was taking a train a lere two hours before my specific train which even cost the same, she stone-facedly presented me with the options: either get off at the next station or purchase a completely new ticket for 120 Euros.
I was shocked at the slackeritis the Bahn seemed to have applied to their face mask and distancing policy. So I got off at Erfurt, sat on a cafe terrace, ate ice cream and started throwing some thoughts together for an obituary. Then I boarded my train which was also full. There were absolutely no signs of social distancing on the train – apart from occasional announcements asking people to wear a face covering. If you were unlucky, you could have made a reservation in an already full carriage.
There were no rules to leave seats empty. Needless to say… I arrived home some time after 22:00, jumped in the shower and decided to train trips for me in the near future.
Impressions on Travelling on the Deutsche Bahn in summer 2020
Unfortunately my experience is not a solitary one. A couple of days ago this article from the German news magazine “Der Spiegel” popped up in my news feed, reporting that the Deutsche Bahn managed to lose 3.7 Billion Euro in the first six months of 2020 alone. Hundreds of commenters under that article described how they endured train journeys in stuffed compartments with poor air condition and mask-free people. Also, many reported that they reserved seats (for a fee). Then they found the carriages got changed and they could no longer find their reserved seats. Local and national news report how not wearing masks on public transport is impacting on travel.
The Deutsche Bahn uses the fact that it is law to wear a mask and should therefore be enforced by the police (who is not travelling on every train) and not their conductors. A lot of my local transport companies in Berlin actually put some updated hygiene policies in their conditions of contract and have authorised their staff to enforce mask wearing and fine any one not wearing one. Also, it makes a huge difference if you sit on a local train for half an hour or are locked in a train for five hours in terms of virus concentration, a fact the Deutsche Bahn is blatantly ignoring.
What’s Nuremberg like right now?
A little while, on my first Corona-era business trip, I took a short break from driving in Bayreuth and found the town nearly empty.
Nuremberg was very different. On my first trip in early July, I was extremely impressed by the distance and hygiene measures everywhere but did not venture much beyond the hospital and my hotel.
On the second weekend, I actually walked through the city centre several times. Local colleagues told me the city was a lot quieter than usual, missing large groups of overseas tourists that would normally visit in summer and in the pre-Christmas season. When I walked across the city centre several times, the city seemed really busy. Both on a Friday and Saturday evenings, the streets were full of people. Uncomfortably full for me.
Most restaurants still provide hand sanitizer at the entrance, and theoretically you are required to register so of an infection occurs, you can be notified and tested. However, I am not sure this is actually done given how full some places where, and I did not eat at a restaurant to find out because I found the city too full. Thankfully, the catering at the hospital was excellent, so I found it easy to skip dinner and just walk home, enjoy the sun and get a bit of fresh air. I am glad I hadn’t come on holiday because I found the crowds pretty uncomfortable.
Cancellations on Deutsche Bahn Tickets
After that train journey from purgatory and a sudden death, I felt very little motivation to travel to Amsterdam at all. It’s not that I am dead scared of the virus, because I am not. As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, I am more scared it brings out the worst in people and not helping to protect others tops my list of crap selfish behaviour.
So I cancelled my train ticket. Admittedly, it was cheap, what you call the “Sparpreis Europa”. I purchased it as a return ticket on from AtoB. However the Deutsche Bahn chopped it into two separate tickets. This meant they could charge me the 10 Euro charge fee twice, in addition the premium for a refundable ticket at the time of booking. And they do not give a refund, but for the “Sparpreis Europa” you get a voucher to be used on Deutsche Bahn only. It says somewhere in their Terms and Conditions – not on the booking screen. So, be wary of that if booking any train tickets on Deutsche Bahn.
Now I got two train vouchers, having sworn not to use the train in the forseeable future. I will probably use them on regional trains in the next three years. Or give them to someone who travels by train.
Only tickets purchased before 13 March 2020 can be used flexibly into autumn, due to the COVID-19 Outbreak and announcement of distancing measures in Germany in late March. If you get sick or do not want to travel and had the audacity to book after that date, bad luck to you. At least the voucher arrives quicker than on some budget airlines.
I feel very uncomfortable taking the train in Germany right now. And I would not recommend it to anyone unless your travel is essential. Short public transport rides are okay, as I can wash hands/ wear mask. But any longer trips I only will make if absolutely necessary. My husband calls me “the travel junkie” which must be fed”. I will need to travel internationally in the next weeks because of a death. Due to a combination to these events and feeling really uncomfortable and unsafe on the train, I have cancelled my short trip to Amsterdam.
I will continue to write here. It provides distraction from a demanding job and the loss and anxiety in my life right now. Other than a family trip to my elderly parents in law, I have nothing planned other than the odd museum or outdoor day trip. Travel will not go away.
The Small Print
Disclosure: This trip was paid in part by my employer, although I chose and booked both hotel and will probably ending up paying for the accommodation myself. This post contains affiliate links to Booking.com. This means if you make a purchase through one of these links I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.