Comparing Amtrak to German and Dutch Rail

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Comparing Amtrak to German and Dutch Rail

Postby Tadman » Thu Feb 16, 2017 6:31 am

So I'm in Netherlands and Germany all week, traveling intensively by rail. I have a few observations that may put things in perspective. We often see Amtrak and US commuter carriers as backwards, primitive, and/or bad service when compared to what we perceive as either "the good old days" or the "amazing high speed speed modern euro railways".

It's not quite so simple. In some facets, Amtrak is superior. In some, the Europeans are superior.

First observation: High speed trains. We lose, hands down, to the ICE. It's a far better train. There is no need for stainless, even though we insist there is.

Second observation: First class compartments are rather spartan. Our superliner seats are far better for sitting in for over two hours. ICE and regional trains use the garbage eurotrash seats found in the second generation Talgo trains out in Oregon. Suck-o x1000. TGV compartments are a bit warmer, but ICE compartments feel like a dentist's office. Although there is far less rattle than a superliner sleeper cabin.

Third observation: Their track is amazing. One can't tell the train is going 150mph because it's so smooth.

Fourth observation: European stations, especially in smaller markets, are much better. More food, more newsstands, 4 tracks each, it's a nice deal.

Fifth observation: Their on-board food is no good. It's about the same as Amfleet cafe, which is about the quality of 7-11. There are few dining cars. This one is a draw.

Sixth observation: DB online ticketing sucks the big one. Seriously, the "English" translated page is very poor English. Something like "For to make the train tickets coming to you the train fast is me like train the fast thank you dankeschoen the trains not possible" and then your credit card stops working in Germany. I'm going to send the CEO of DB a note telling him that our trains may be primitive, but his website is barbaric. Turns out Amtrak.com and Julie are very good. This is especially bad when you consider that he website ticketing is the first impression, and it's a very poor one. I now use the NS (Dutch railways) website to ticket across Europe as it seems to work much better.

Seventh observations: There is no such thing as a late train in Germany. I've been making six-minute connections between intercity trains all week. Whoa!!! I don't make six minute connections on the Chicago subway let alone Amtrak. I don't plan to make 60 minute connections on Amtrak.
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Re: Comparing Amtrak to German and Dutch Rail

Postby Gilbert B Norman » Thu Feb 16, 2017 7:45 am

Tadman wrote:So I'm in Netherlands and Germany all week, traveling intensively by rail. I have a few observations that may put things in perspective..... .


Mr. Dunville, may I expand this discussion to include the OBB, or Austria's State owned system, where I have visited in each of the three past summers? While my journeys have been more about Mozart than "marathons", I have made day trips from Salzburg as well as to/from Munich as there are no overseas flights into the former. Allow me to use the same format as yours:

First: Austria is only Higher Speed; they have not built from the ground up, dedicated ROW's such as in Spain, France, and Germany, but they have continually made incremental improvements to their system that hosts both freight (if you call those jokes of a train such) and passenger. In my rides, I have observed 125mph speeds. An example of an incremental improvement is a cut and cover tunnel approaching Vienna (Vienna is on a plain and "not exactly" resembling "The Sound of Music" on-location scenes) which eliminated a backup move into the main Vienna station from Vienna West. Schedules have been reduced by some 30 minutes. Over there, they build, over here, we "higgle and piggle".

Second: The OBB premium Rail Jet is largely open seating in both classes. The few First Class compartments that they label "Business Class" are quite "luxo". The "Euro City" sets that are also used internationally throughout Germany as well (Rail Jet is only used for connections such as Munich), are passably "luxo" (only ridden EC in Second Class).

Third: absolutely agree; the "jokes for" freights are limited to maybe twenty 50' cars handling one 2TEU container each. Auto carriers are bi, not tri. Dry goods hoppers are about what an 18 wheeler over here handles.

Fourth: The OBB station at St. Anton/Arlberg (population 8000) has a restaurant, newsstand, and a staffed ticket cage.

Fifth: I'll take Mr. Dunville's word on that point; have only ordered Grape Juice (sorry Mr. Welch, but I do prefer Grunter Veltliner) on board. One warning: credit cards taken only for the purchase; not the tip - and with the friendly ("Contracted out" to a large catering concern) staff, you'll want to tip.

Sixth: Surprised; I've ordered DB on-line tickets (Second Class: any train Munich Ost-Salzburg) without incident. One year, I forgot to print my tickets - and here comes the Conductor (English proficiency is not a requisite to be such). I didn't know what to say and with only €85 on me and a week trip ahead, I didn't feel like paying a cash fare. But an Irish lass to my rescue and she said "is it on your phone?". It was and a "grunt and a nod" from the Conductor. Girl, you made my day!!

Seventh: not quite as true in Austria; but considering the terrain away from Vienna, they do pretty well. The arrival board hardly looks like that of Amtrak - and may I say, an airline's.

Finally Mr. Dunville, sorry no Miller's Pub tonight; you can't be over there and @ Adams and Wabash the same time (save that TV show "Timeless"). I'll be coming in tonight about an hour before the Symphony for the pre-concert lecture.
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Re: Comparing Amtrak to German and Dutch Rail

Postby TomNelligan » Thu Feb 16, 2017 9:16 am

As one who has traveled by rail in both Germany and the Netherlands, I'll just add that I think the fact that there are so many frequent, fast trains going everywhere makes any comparison to Amtrak outside the Northeast Corridor almost irrelevant. Passenger rail in Europe exists on a whole 'nother scale. As for comfort, Amcoach seats are larger and more comfortable than typical European second class accommodation, and Amcafes generally offer a better level of fast food than food carts. But I've typically been having too much fun on my trips over there to want to complain!
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Re: Comparing Amtrak to German and Dutch Rail

Postby CarterB » Thu Feb 16, 2017 9:37 am

Having a 'summer home' in Hamburg, DE, I have travelled extensively on DB, OBB and other systems in Europe for
over 25 years. I find the trains and service "a step above" anything Amtrak has to offer.
Coach seating, 2nd class either in open coach or compartments, I find to be just fine. Certainly not uncomfortable.
I especially like the night trains for their comfort, accommodations, and most importantly cost....only $30-$60EU accommodation add-on compared to $$ for Amtrak. The 1st class bedrooms are superior to anything Amtrak has.

I totally agree about the 'on time' comments. I never have missed a connection, even with only 15 - 20 mins transfer time.

The rail network and cities served is superb. Tracks as smooth as silk.
Even can get a FULL cup of coffee without fear of spilling, compared to even 3/4 cup on Amtrak slopping all over the place.

As far as food is concerned, quite expensive on board and not that good. Most travelers in Europe 'carry on' food and snacks anyway.
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Re: Comparing Amtrak to German and Dutch Rail

Postby John_Perkowski » Thu Feb 16, 2017 2:24 pm

There was a time, in the 80s, when I would eat from a DSG diner, Quik-Pick (cafe), or food cart in an instant. From Tad's report, I guess those days are over.

The 1st Class parlor seating on the 1980s era 2 x 1 54 seat cars was pretty comfortable. The 1st class compartment seating on the 9 x 6 54 seat cars was really comfortable. More than once, I made down two seats to be an overnight bed.

I don't know the mix of ICE/IC/D/E/Nahrwerker (commuter) trains anymore. I was never thrilled taking a DB commuter or E (semi-fast) train. Give me a D-Zug any day.

Enough history. Thanks for the update, Tad.
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Re: Comparing Amtrak to German and Dutch Rail

Postby Hawaiitiki » Thu Feb 16, 2017 2:29 pm

Tadman wrote:Sixth observation: DB online ticketing sucks the big one. Seriously, the "English" translated page is very poor English. Something like "For to make the train tickets coming to you the train fast is me like train the fast thank you dankeschoen the trains not possible" and then your credit card stops working in Germany. I'm going to send the CEO of DB a note telling him that our trains may be primitive, but his website is barbaric. Turns out Amtrak.com and Julie are very good. This is especially bad when you consider that he website ticketing is the first impression, and it's a very poor one. I now use the NS (Dutch railways) website to ticket across Europe as it seems to work much better.


Du musst Deutsch lernen. I highly doubt Amtrak.com's German language page is of the highest grammatical and usability qualities. On my ICE travels, DB's system of seat reservations, seat assignments, and their integrations with the trains' software floored me with its sophistication. I can, however, speak Deutsch.

That said, there are enough brilliant people in the US of A, that all of this should be possible in the US. Butt, Deutsche Bahn does actually make a multi-billion dollar profit...

Great conversation to get going though. Bravo.
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Re: Comparing Amtrak to German and Dutch Rail

Postby Nasadowsk » Thu Feb 16, 2017 6:59 pm

DB's less than perfect website is more than offset by ticket machines that blow away anything in the US. You can pretty much buy any ticket, from any operator, for any service, anywhere in the country. This was useful when I was there to buy a pair of tickets from Hamburg to Berlin, at Itzhoe, at 3am.. Try buying an Acela ticket at Mineola at any time...

By country:

Germany: My first experience with DB was a 15 minute delay. The difference: The standard finger pointing at the wrist as the train pulled in didn't get the standard middle finger reply from the crew that you get in the US (Or, as one NJT engineer shouted at me "I don't give a f***"), instead, it got an announcement (in German and English) to passengers that the train was late, please be ready to get off the train at your stop so it could make up time. And a generous application of power leaving stations. We made a good amount of time up. Otherwise, DB was pretty decent, though integration between the national system and BVG and MVG services was a bit confusing. NOB was decent, DB was good too. Berlin's U and S bahn were really nice, ditto Munich, though the Munich U bahn has some really rough trains at times. Oddly, Berlin's older U bahn equipment was nicer than the newer stuff. I didn't care much for the ICE, but that was partly because the Thalys is that much better. But, the Germans handle the passenger experience better than just about anyone. Your ticket tells you what platform your train will be on, where it'll arrive, where the connections will be, etc. One annoyance: DB needs to discover the seat check - on one trip, my ticket was checked like 5 times... Ironically, the only broken down trains I was on over there were in Munich. Also, I stayed on the U bahn beyond the last stop (that LZB speedometer is too cool to watch). Yeah, in the US, you get in trouble. Over there? Nein. The train was reversing back out, so just sit and relax, it'll be 5 minutes (realizing the language barrier, the guy gave me a smile and thumbs up - it was ok)

France: SNCF's ticketing can be awkward with the stamping thing, but they understand dumb Americans don't get it ;) So when I mis-stamped my ticket to Beauvais, it wasn't an issue. The equipment was fine for a 1 hour or so trip, though speeds rarely exceeded 100km/h. They made up with it with good performance from the double decker MU - though it did break traction a few times on account of slippery rails. You could hear the inverter working. The RER and Metro were awesome, though the equipment was a bit dirty. Older Metro trains allowed one to pop the door open while the train was still stopping. The rubber tired lines were...whatever...It's not an amazing life changing experience.
The TGV? I took the Thalys, which is the same stuff but international. Let's get this out of the way: The Acela's a joke compared to the real thing. Period. Full stop. For a few extra Euros, I got first class (Comfort I), which was what you'd expect - amazing service, French food, 1+2 seating, and an amazing ride. The wifi is still a bit flaky, but who cares when Amsterdam is a 3:30 trip? Last time, the on board staff commented about my speedometer app on my phone - apparently, Americans love seeing that they're going 186mph... Even off the LGVs, speeds were pretty good, and the timekeeping was awesome.

Switzerland: You know how everyone tells you those stories about seeing the clock hit exactly the departure time, and the train leaves? Yeah, it really is that way. Zurich had an interesting mix in 2010 - locomotive hauled S bahns (one motor per 3 cars), motor-trailer ones (retired thankfully - hot, noisy, rough, sluggish), and double decker MUs (which make NJT's multilevels look like a sick joke - near Arrow III performance, and a much nicer interior, plus a station display that shows you the next few stops, when you arrive at them, and of course, the SBB clock in the corner to remind you that you're gonna get there on time...). ZVV's tag line for a while was 'one ticket for everything'. Because, you just buy a ticket between destinations, and take whatever - bus, tram, train, ferry... Also, SBB has some nice old motors going around still. The newer stuff - packaging must be tight, you can hear the main transformer thumping away as the train accelerates. 16 2/3 Hz power sounds weird...

Netherlands: I've heard NS described as "the world's largest streetcar network". It's frequent, connections are tight, and schedules are easy to remember. Amsterdam to Rotterdam on a Sprinter service was a bit low end (Bombardier can't get it right there, either...), the fast train supplement was used to get a direct train back. The color scheme on board doesn't hide dirt well or wear well...I'm guessing NS has an official whistle for the crews? In any case, the only real bummer is the 1.5kv system holds speeds and performance back Vs France (on 25kv) or Germany (on 15kv). It's not bad, but noticeable. Station services were good and helpful. Rotterdam's a neat station, by the way...

UK: The jokes you hear about the Southern are spot on. I rode them last July, when the 'industral action' started, and boy, the labor issues are the tip of the iceberg. The trains sucked - loud, slow, the ride was ok but that was it. The Thameslink ones aren't any better, unless you like listening to gearbox whine. And then, you ride the brand Class 700s. What a world of difference! The train has displays showing you how full each car is...what the connecting services in London are like...what the status of the bathrooms on board is...etc etc etc. The ride's a lot better, it's quieter, it performs better. So, there's hope south of London (though my friend in Brighton says it can't come fast enough..). Virgin rail was good on both the ECML and WCML. On the ECML, we got hung up 40 minutes - they not only comp'd us free wifi, but told us how to get a refund, which I did with my phone. The class 91s and all are showing their age, but worked well enough. Curve speeds were eyebrow raising. Other services were decent, including the railbus to Shildon. Bonus: an unsolicited tour of the tower at Shildon. Downside: The underground sucks. Sorry, it just does. Also, Network Rail seems to be more of a workfare program than anything else.

As far as ride and comfort - mixed bag on the comfort. In order of best to worst comfort: Thalys, TER, ICE, DB Regional, Virgin, Zurich, Munich, Berlin, NS sprinter, Southern. Ride was good everywhere, and blows Amtrak clear out of the water in France, Germany, and Switzerland. Outside of the UK, timekeeping did, too. At least the British had good excuses and refunds - a cow on the tracks was the best I heard. (it was the summer, so no 'wrong kind of snow'). Staff were great everywhere, and nobody gave you that "it's not my job" attitude so common in the US, even if the Southern folks were being obviously slow..

Another difference: The Hasselblad didn't bother anyone. The French Police did say that the SNCF Police sometimes get annoyed, but just put it away if told and it's all good. But, nobody even approached me, anywhere. And I was traveling in France right after the bombings the other year. I did have to flash my passport at Gare Du Nord on arrival, but it litteraly took 2 seconds.
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Re: Comparing Amtrak to German and Dutch Rail

Postby SouthernRailway » Thu Feb 16, 2017 7:24 pm

Northwestern European railroads have the following, which are better than Amtrak:

* Speed
* Frequency
* Low ticket cost
* Design (sorry, Amfleet, you lose)

Amtrak has the following, which are better than northwestern European railroads:

* Comfort (Viewliners, lounge cars and even Acela business class are all much more spacious and comfortable than European railroads)
* Food

That's about it. I'd give the win to northwestern European railroads, but let's remember, Dutch railroads are mostly commuter trains.
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Re: Comparing Amtrak to German and Dutch Rail

Postby electricron » Thu Feb 16, 2017 8:09 pm

SouthernRailway wrote:I'd give the win to northwestern European railroads, but let's remember, Dutch railroads are mostly commuter trains.

I think you'll discover that most of the railroads in Western Europe ( west of the iron curtain) are commuter railroads, mainly because the distances between major cities are relatively close as compared to most of the USA.
Some relative areas in square miles just to give emphasis to that point.
Ireland 32,595
Great Britain 94,058
France 248,573
Spain 195,364
Portugal 35,603
Italy 116,347
Switzerland 15,940
Austria 32,386
West Germany 95,976
Netherlands 16,040
Belgium 11,787
Sub Total without Scandinavia 670,669
Denmark 16,574
Norway 148,718
Sweden 172,756
Finland 130,666
Total with Scandinavia 1,139,383

Alaska 663,600
Texas 268,597
Montana 163,695
Sub Total of the three largest states 1,095,892
That's just three out of fifty.
How about just the NEC states?
Maine 35,385
New Hampshire 9,350
Massachusetts 10,554
Rhode Island 1,212
Connecticut 5,543
Vermont 9,623
New York 54,556
New Jersey 8,729
Pennsylvania 46,055
Delaware 2,491
Maryland 12,047
Virginia 42,775
North Carolina 53,819
Sub Total NEC 292,139
How about states east of the Mississsippi River?
South Carolina 32,020
Georgia 59,425
Florida 65,755
Alabama 52,419
Mississippi 48,434
Tennessee 42,181
Kentucky 40,409
West Virginia 24,038
Ohio 44,825
Indiana 36,418
Illinois 57,915
Michigan 96,716
Wisconsin 65,498
Total 958,192
And that's not even half the continential USA, which is 3,119,884 excluding Alaska and Hawaii.

There's a lot of land in the USA. as compared to Western Europe.
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Re: Comparing Amtrak to German and Dutch Rail

Postby Matt Johnson » Fri Feb 17, 2017 12:19 am

A couple of random things I remember from my train trips through Austria, Germany, and Switzerland:

The windows of most trains seemed to have some coating that made getting a GPS signal nearly impossible. (This was not the case on my later trips aboard various British trains, the French TGV, or the Italian ETR500.)

Non high speed trains often had cart service for food sales. I remember finding that I could order either a ham sandwich or a cheese sandwich from one, and thinking how wonderful it would be if they figured out how to put the two together in a single sandwich. :)
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Re: Comparing Amtrak to German and Dutch Rail

Postby mtuandrew » Fri Feb 17, 2017 12:47 am

Disclaimer: I've only ridden British and Finnish railroads. One important area in which Amtrak holds an advantage: baggage. We can carry far more onto the train - an absurd amount, really - and can check even more baggage on LD and mid-distance trains.
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Re: Comparing Amtrak to German and Dutch Rail

Postby Tadman » Fri Feb 17, 2017 5:56 am

Update: I have had some late trains. Perhaps ten minutes, that is it. Would make me miss a 6-9 minute connection, but still the frequency is so good, who cares? Go to Burger King and get a euro-burger...


Also, I visited the DB museum and will hopefully post some pictures when I get a chance.
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Re: Comparing Amtrak to German and Dutch Rail

Postby Tadman » Fri Feb 17, 2017 10:09 am

Another update: I'm currently on ICE Pendolino at a speed well in excess of 150mph. The tilting is much more noticeable here than a Talgo train. After traveling on both, I can say with all seriousness - take every one of the Acela, Talgo, etc and burn them to the ground and replace them with ICE Pendolino. This train is just amazing.
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Re: Comparing Amtrak to German and Dutch Rail

Postby bdawe » Fri Feb 17, 2017 10:50 am

Tadman wrote:Another update: I'm currently on ICE Pendolino at a speed well in excess of 150mph. The tilting is much more noticeable here than a Talgo train. After traveling on both, I can say with all seriousness - take every one of the Acela, Talgo, etc and burn them to the ground and replace them with ICE Pendolino. This train is just amazing.


To be fair, how much should you credit track maintenance?
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Re: Comparing Amtrak to German and Dutch Rail

Postby jonnhrr » Fri Feb 17, 2017 12:03 pm

Some thoughts - my experience in continental Europe is dated (1971 in Belgium and 1977 in France, Germany and Luxemburg) so isn't really relevant to today's conditions. One thing I remember is that speaking a little French and hardly any German I was able to negotiate the trains without any issues. At least in Germany the onboard crews all seemed to speak English. Also everything is so well marked you rarely needed to ask anyway. Also true of the tram systems, including Zurich and Amsterdam.

I have had more recent experience in the UK. True the UK doesn't come up to European standards but is still better than the US in terms of frequency and coverage. Much of the UK is still suffering fro the under investment of the past half-century. Until a few years ago you could still ride 1950's era "slam door" EMU's on the London Suburban network. They were also late to the high speed rail game, only recently opening the HS1 link to the Channel Tunnel.

In defense of the London Underground, they have suffered from a huge increase in patronage coupled with the usual under investment by government. They have finally introduced new stock on the sub surface lines (Metropolitan, District, Circle, and H&C) replacing stock from the 1960's. I would rate it comparable to the NYCTA in reliability, maybe not so in comfort due to the smaller equipment and the overcrowding.

I'm wondering if one reason for the smooth trackage over there is the small amount of freight and the smaller equipment - no 100 car NS freights pounding through the interlockings as on the NEC.

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