REVIEW |Nightjet Vienna / Innsbruck to Brussels, or how we got thrown off the train in Aachen

Every year we plan a few big trips together, Timothy and I. When we heard ÖBB’s proposal to launch Nightjet service to Brussels in December 2019 we jumped on the occasion and included a ride back home from Austria to Belgium on the Nightjet after our autumn Berlin, Czechia and Slovakia trip. However as we all know in early 2020 an annoying new coronavirus COVID-19, appearead and shook up travel all over the world. We changed our plans to an itinerary in ‘safe’ Germany including stops in Leipzig, Nuremberg, Regensburg, Munich, Lindau and Garmisch-Partenkirchen from where we would take a short train ride to Innsbruck to board our Nightjet back home. As the Innsbruck – Brussels part of the train would only operate in the 2020 timetable year this would become something we were very excited about, a grand finale to our big European trip of the year. Unfortunately things turned out quite differently and left us with a sour and unfortunate experience.

Things started out great after having a nice evening walk and dinner in Innsbruck, we walked to the station and could visit the ÖBB Lounge next to the ÖBB travel agency on the bottom level of the main hall.

Every sleeper passenger can access this lounge up to two hours before scheduled departure, and it makes for a nice place to sit and wait for your train. As this was level -1 of the building there were no outside views to be had, but they cleverly solved that by adding a video wall depicting different views of Austria.

Due to corona there was only a limited food and beverage offer, only some soft and hot drinks and pre-packaged snacks.  In non-corona times during the evening there are always some nice Austrian wines on offer, but as they are in big bottles they were considered an infection hazard and thus eliminated.

Timothy made the on point remark “but they could have just put some small wine bottles instead”. Nonetheless it was nice to have the lounge open and accessible despite the current pandemic, even though it was in a diluted form.

About half an hour before departure we strolled over to the platform to take some pictures of our train and check out the signs saying ‘Brussels’. However after taking a few pictures we were told off for doing so by the Newrest staff, giving us a not so nice first impression.

The train composed of a typical red ÖBB Taurus electric locomotive hauling a train of eight coaches, four to Brussels at the front and four to Hamburg Altona at the rear. The destination groups would be flipped around in Nurnberg with the Nightjet coming from Vienna to form two distinct trains to Brussels and Hamburg. Each train part consisted of one seated coach, two couchette coaches and one sleeper coach.

The seated coach is the cheapest way to travel and all you get is a seat in a 6-seat compartment.

The next level of comfort is the couchette car, which offers you a bunk bed in either a four or six persons shared cabin. Still not a lot of comfort but at least you can lie flat to sleep. We hoped to be able to snap some picture of the inside of the couchettes and seated coaches, but circumstances would decide differently.

The most comfortable coach is the sleeper coach. Here you can sleep between one and threein each cabin, and there is a communal shower in one of the two toilets.

The sleeper coach also has three deluxe compartments, all occupied that night. Offering up to three beds and a private toilet, washbasin and shower in the cabin. As we are true luxury queens we of course booked a deluxe cabin.

Upon entry the cabin was set up in daymode. With some seats and a table, the coach attendant would turn down the beds later in the night upon request. On the table there where two bottles of water, two glasses, an onboard menu for drinks and snacks and two breakfast cards to fill in on which you can select six items to have for breakfast, which would be delivered one hour before arrival into your destination.

Each of us also got a paper bag with slippers, ear plugs, a hand towel, a pen (to complete the breakfast form), another bottle of water, a refreshing whipel and some Italian style crackers.

I remember the welcome offering being more generous with a bottle of sparkling wine and a welcome snack in the past. At first we wondered if the lack of it was a cost-cutting exercise or a corona measure, but when a few days later a Swiss colleague travelled on the Nightjet from Zurich to Berlin he did receive a bottle of sparkling wine. Which made us wonder where ours went, did they “forget” to load them in Innsbruck, not having in stock would be very strange in their homebase country or did “someone else” enjoy them? It just created more questions. Anyway the welcome in the train was another factor that wasn’t as welcoming as we expected it to be (and is advertised to be). If this was a small oversight of the crew working this train it is clear that Nightjet should be working on keeping the same standards overall and provide for better recurrent training for their crews.

In the bathroom there where two big towels for us, three small tubes with shower gel/shampoo and two bigger dispensers.

The shower head also had to be used to wash your hands and brush your teeth, which proved to be a challenge with the ever changing water pressure. There also was only a very tiny amount of toilet paper present, so hopefully you don’t have a too big nature call! With one of the lights in the bathroom broke it was also rather dark inside. The entire bathroom could clearly do with some tlc in its next workshop visit.

At around 10PM we looked for the car attendant to put our beds down, yet he was nowhere to be found, luckily the train manager helped us and turned the beds down.

The beds themselves where comfortable enough for being on a train and the duvet was also more than warm enough. The upper bunk could be reached by a ladder and is secured by a net to avoid falling down.

All bunks have some netting where you can store some personal belongings. Bigger items can be stored under the seats, on the floor or on the racks above the corridor and bathroom. You can control a reading light from your bunk, while the main light, sound and air-conditioning controls are located above the entry door.

A nice feature of these modern sleeper coaches is the doorcard system. Every room has it’s own card and you can exit your room to walk through the train while leaving your door locked and belongings safe in your cabin, something most sleeper trains do not have.

We had an okay sleep, as far as that is possible in a moving train. Just before we reached Cologne Timothy got up and took a shower, I followed his example between Cologne and Aachen. Showering was an adventure, not due to the swaying of the train as that was pretty ok, but mostly due to the narrowness of the shower and the changing water pressure hard-soft-hard. At least the water temperature was nice and warm and the entire experience refreshing.

During our stop in Aachen we folded up the beds and put up the chairs again in anticipation for breakfast. Our Austrian locomotive was changed for a Belgian one and departure time came, and went …

Nothing happened, the local train supposed to depart after us left the station before us while we saw our train crew walking nervously back and forth along the train.

After about 40 minutes an announcement came that our train would be cancelled due to a technical fault, they couldn’t get the doors locked safely as required to run into Belgium so they would not be allowed into Belgium.

As of course safety is a primary concern I understood why we had to leave the train. Unfortunately the crew was very hastily to get us off, even though the train wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. We also didn’t get our breakfast which was included in the fare and where literally left in the cold on the platform.  In my opinion they could have easily taken five more minutes to make some breakfast to go bags for the twenty or so passengers left in the train for Brussels, get some paper bags thrown in some bread, jam and butter and an orange juice.

This would have left us with a much better impression. Now we were standing without anything on a cold platform in Aachen. Luckily it was already 9AM and we were already showered and dressed, imagine this happening in the middle of the night when you were fast asleep.

The next departure towards Liège and Brussels was the Thalys to Paris Nord, but the train manager refused to take us stranded passengers on his train as we did not have Thalys tickets and Thalys is a private company. Even though both ÖBB and Thalys are Railteam members and thus we should have been allowed on the Thalys as it was the first departure after our cancelled train, but apparently the Railteam alliance is also a bunch of hot air meaning nothing in practice.

Even the friendly DB station chief present on the platform tried to mediate and convince the Thalys train manager to take us along, but he would not budge. I have to give credit for the DB staff to be present there and try to solve the situation, even though in neither trains DB was involved. This meant that the first departure towards Belgium would become the local train service to Spa, operated by an old reliable 1966 motor unit. This would take us as far as Verviers-Central where we changed onto some brand new M7 coaches on the Eupen – Ostend service.

For us the entire situation was very unfortunate as we booked the Nightjet specifically to travel on the new service to Brussels.

This time they also didn’t live up to expectations on a service level, my previous experiences where much better. Nightjet truly can deliver a good product when everything goes well, unfortunately there do not seem to be guidelines about what to do when things go wrong. In my opinion they could have communicated quicker that they were experiencing technical difficulties, this way some passengers could have decided to take the chance and travel on the ICE that passed us by in Aachen, or the local train that departed right before they cancelled our train. They should have also handed out breakfast to go bags to the remaining passengers, they had the food and beverage on board so this would have been an easy and nice gesture to do and make the passengers not feel as pushed out into the cold.

Also before departure in Innsbruck I received a number of e-mails from ÖBB regarding my travel on the Nightjet service, with a delay of ten minutes announced three hours before departure as we were due to wait for a late inbound train from Italy.

Yet when things went wrong in Aachen, no more mails where sent, they clearly have the IT architecture in place to be able to communicate much better, a truly missed opportunity. Of course we contacted ÖBB customer service about what happened and now we are anxiously awaiting their answer and solutions.

We really really really, wanted this to be a splendid experience to share and convince others to try travelling by night train, as it is so comfortable and easy. Yet we had a not so pleasant experience and it now becomes very hard to convince others to try it out. Even I am not as convinced of travelling on Nightjet again in the future, I’ll probably stick to day trains and overnights in hotels again as the whole experience has left me with a bitter taste and disillusioned about night train travel.

And it is so very sad and such a missed opportunity as it really is a good and environmental alternative for travel, but they really need to iron out some kinks. I get it that sometimes technical faults happen, and that the train can’t operate.

But the way it was handled in Aachen could have been much better. Arrange seamless transfers between companies when things go wrong, provide some food and drinks to passengers being stranded.

I remember a few year ago we were stuck on a TGV Lyria behind a faulty switch on the high-speed line for a few hours. Our train would not continue onto Zürich, but turn short at Basel, yet SNCF managed to provide everyone with snack boxes in the next stop at Dijon which did make passengers feel more appreciated even after the delay. It are those small gestures that can make the difference between lousy and good customer service.

So hopefully ÖBB, Nightjet and all other train operators can learn some lessons from this and improve how they handle disruptions. Delays and cancellations in the future. That would be the way to convince more people to use the train again, if they are sure they will be taken care of.   

So would we recommend travelling on Nightjet? It’s a hard to answer question, as we are very disappointed in the product now. But if it suits your travel plans perfectly maybe you will have a better experience, as I know they mostly are. But I would not go out of my way to travel on them at this point.

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