Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Spring and summer 2011: Europe by train, plane, ferry, lake vessel, river cruise ship, tram and bus

In our first report on this blog about the European trip we took during the spring and summer of 2011, we focused on the places we went, the sights we saw, and the people we spent time with. This post will look at how we got around, what trains and other conveyances we rode and saw, and only incidentally about the scenery along the way. In other words, this post will be of interest mainly to transport enthusiasts, although others may want to skim through it for the occasional scenic photo.

One other thing distinguishes this report from our usual blog posts: this one makes liberal use of the first person singular, because many of these activities involved only Tom (somehow, Marcia found other ways to use her time while Tom was pursuing trains).

We left North America on an Icelandair 757 from Seattle to Keflavik...
Click on any photo to enlarge
... the former U.S. military base that serves as Iceland's international airport. It's about an hour from the capital, Reykjavik, which has its own airport for domestic flights. Our flight arrived at Keflavik at dawn; en route, we flew over Hudson Bay and southern Greenland.
After three nights in Iceland we continued on Icelandair to London Heathrow, arriving on April 23. We had booked our flights to and from Europe on November 22, because we wanted to lock in a very affordable airfare before it disappeared. We didn't know at that time when the royal couple, William and Catherine, would be married, but on November 23, they announced that their wedding would take place in London on April 29 – six days after our arrival. Any hope of booking a hotel in the city during that week was immediately gone; even if we had already booked lodging, we knew we wouldn't want to be in London in the days leading up to the wedding!

Since we had already planned to visit Ireland at some point on this trip, we decided that upon arriving at Heathrow we would immediately make the short trip to Dublin, spend a week exploring Ireland, and return to the U.K. after the festivities were over. So, our second airline of the trip was Aer Lingus; we rode one of its A320s on the flight from Heathrow to Dublin.
While in Ireland, we spent three nights in Dublin and then took a three-night tour from Dublin to Cork, Kerry and Galway with Railtours Ireland, which uses the country's limited rail network wherever possible (and buses to go where the rail system doesn't).
We then took Irish Ferries' high-speed craft Jonathan Swift from Dublin to Holyhead, Wales.
In Wales, we spent two nights at Caernarfon, and rode the Welsh Highland and Ffestiniog railways ...
... before traveling on to England (for a report on these Welsh steam railways, see my blog post, Steam in the Northwest corner of Wales).

We used a Britrail pass to travel throughout the U.K., visiting Shrewsbury, Bath, Salisbury, London, and York, England...
... and Edinburgh, Inverness, and Glasgow, Scotland (see my blog reports, Those colourful Brits, Part 1 and Part 2).
Although we traveled within the U.K. by rail as much as we could, there was one day when we had to use other modes to connect two rail segments. We wanted to travel from Inverness, Scotland, to Glasgow via the Kyle of Lochalsh and West Highland lines. There's a gap between the two with no direct highway connection, except via the Isle of Skye and ferry, so we booked a taxi to take us from Kyle (where we arrived at 1130, on a train from Inverness) to Armadale. The taxi ride gave us only a brief view of the Isle of Skye's scenic treats...
... before boarding Caledonian MacBrayne's MV Coruisk at Armadale... 
... but the ferry did get us to Mallaig in time for a very nice fish-and-chips lunch, and we still had plenty of time left before our train's 1605 departure for Glasgow. 
From Glasgow, we went to Edinburgh, and then flew on to Copenhagen aboard a BMI Embraer ERJ-145 regional jet.
For the next two weeks, we would participate in a Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) tour titled "Four Scandinavian Capitals," with stops in Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, and Helsinki. Culturally and linguistically, Finland isn't part of Scandinavia, but it's often lumped in with the true Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and who are we to quibble? (Well, actually, Marcia's heritage is 100 per cent Finnish, so she does have grounds.)

When we arrived at Copenhagen airport, we took a local Öresundståg train into the city.
The Öresundståg trains are international, operating between Helsingør, Denmark, and Malmö, Sweden. They're an example of the open borders policy that prevails in western Europe; passengers travel freely between the two countries without any border checks or other formalities. These trains operate via the tunnel and bridge across the Oresund strait, which I was able to photograph later in our trip as we flew out of Copenhagen. The first photo shows the west (tunnel) end of the crossing (and Copenhagen airport); the second shows the bridge section that reaches east into Sweden.
While we were in Copenhagen, I was able to spend part of one afternoon at the city's central station, where I found good vantage points for photographing trains arriving and departing the city. Most passenger rail service in and out of Copenhagen is operated by DSB (Danske Statsbaner [Danish State Railways]). The DSB Class ME commuter locomotive shown below had a familiar sound – it's powered by a General Motors 16-635 engine.
I also took a short trip to Malmö, Sweden, over the Oresund line, on a Stockholm-destined X2000 train operated by SJ (Statens Järnvägar [Swedish State Railways]).
From Copenhagen, we took an overnight cruise aboard DFDS Seaways' MS Pearl Seaways to Oslo, Norway, where this photo was taken.
Our tour of Oslo filled every daylight hour of every day, so I didn't have a chance to do any rail photography until we were ready to leave for Stockholm on a train consisting entirely of SJ equipment.
Stockholm provided a couple of good sites to watch trains, both at Älvsjö station, near our hotel, where I saw this train of postal service cars....
... and at a point just south of the city's Central Station, where trains cross the Norra järnvägsbron (Northern railway bridge).
We also rode one of Stockholm's tram lines to get around this beautiful city.
From Stockholm, we took another overnight ferry cruise, this one to Turku, Finland, on Silja Line's MS Galaxy.
As we left Sweden, the crew of the Galaxy navigated the large vessel carefully through the narrow passages between the islands of the Stockholm Archipelago.
During our three-day visit to Helsinki, I was able to spend several hours at the city's Central Station, where I watched long-distance and local trains come and go. Finland's intercity services are provided by government-owned operator VR (the former Suomen Valtion Rautatiet [Finnish State Railways]). Unlike the other countries we visited, where standard gauge (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in, or 1435 mm) is common on intercity routes, Finland's rail network uses a five-foot (1524-mm) gauge, compatible with Russia's 1520-mm system. A green livery similar to the one on the first car of this train will eventually replace the prior red scheme.
The most interesting train I saw was the 1752 departure of the Tolstoi overnight train for Moscow, consisting of a VR locomotive hauling Russian sleeping cars (in several configurations) and restaurant car.
We also had a chance to ride the city's excellent tram system as we moved around Helsinki. The building in this photo is Helsinki Central Station.
When our Road Scholar tour concluded in Helsinki, we had three days before our next major tour would begin (another Road Scholar program, this one in Switzerland). We decided to use that time to take the popular "Norway in a Nutshell" tour between Oslo and Bergen.  We returned to Norway on a Norwegian Air Shuttle 737.
We arrived mid-day in Oslo, and traveled from the airport into the city on a high-speed (and, like almost everything in Norway, rather expensive) Flytoget train.
This visit gave me a chance to explore the city's Central Station, but photography was more of a challenge than it had been in Copenhagen, Stockholm, or Helsinki, in part because there was construction going on all around the station.  Still, I did manage to photograph a few NSB (Norges Statsbaner [Norwegian State Railways]) trains, like this Class 70 trainset departing for Lillehammer.
The next day, we boarded a train consisting of two Class 73 EMU trainsets (totalling eight cars) destined to Bergen. After stopping at Finse, the high point of the Oslo-Bergen line (at an elevation of 4,010 feet)...
... we left the Bergen-bound train at Myrdal to ride the scenic Flåmsbana line to the village of Flåm.  The grade on this line is as steep as 5.5 per cent descending the 2,831 feet of elevation from Myrdal to Flåm, located at sea level on the Aurlandsfjord.
As we approached Flåm, we passed several villages in the Flåmselvi River valley.
From Flåm we continued on the next leg of the Norway in a Nutshell tour, a ferry to Gudvangen. The vessel we rode, MS Skagastøl, is operated by transport conglomerate Fjord1. At the seasonal hamlet of Drydal on the Naeroyfjord, we passed the other ferry on this route, MS Gudvangen, below. The two vessels serve the tourist market as well as residents of and visitors to the villages along the fjords.
From Gudvangen, we boarded a bus that took us on a circuitous and rainy, but very scenic, ride to Voss...
... where we boarded a local train to Bergen.
After spending the following day walking around the beautiful city of Bergen, we boarded the 1558 train for Oslo. Our express train (on the left) was scheduled to arrive at Oslo at 2232. On the right is the 1610 train for Oslo, making more intermediate stops, with arrival in Oslo scheduled for 2346.
But our return trip to Oslo was terminated by an electrical failure on the railway somewhere between Nesbyen and Oslo. We ended up disembarking from our train at Nesbyen...
... and taking a two-hour bus ride back to Oslo, arriving there about midnight.

(For more on the railways of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, see my blog post, Getting acquainted with the railways of Scandinavia.)

The next day, we boarded an Air Berlin A320 to travel to Zurich. 
We had to change planes at the airline's hub, Berlin's Tegel airport, and by a stroke of good luck I was sitting on the left side of the aircraft as we flew over Rangierbahnhof (marshalling yard) Wustermark, adjacent to the Deutsche Bahn line between Berlin and Hannover, on our approach into Tegel.
This was my first view of the DB system, but I would see many more DB trains a couple of weeks later when we cruised from Basel to Amsterdam.

Our next Road Scholar program was titled "Splendors of Switzerland by Rail."  This two-week program wasn't designed for rail enthusiasts, but for the curious traveler who wanted to learn about the scenic and cultural highlights of the country. But it did include almost daily rail travel, and there was enough free time to allow for a few side trips, which I took full advantage of.

The following list includes the program's scheduled travel and, in italics, the side trips that I took on my own:

• Rail from Zurich to Lucerne (Swiss Federal Railways [German: SBB, Schweizerische Bundesbahnen; French: CFF, Chemins de fer fédéraux suisses; Italian: FFS, Ferrovie federali svizzere]; commonly referred to as SBB)
• Rail from Lucerne to Alpnachstad and return (Zentralbahn)
• Excursion on Mt. Pilatus via cog railway from Alpnachstad (Pilatus Bahn) (this line has grades of up to 48 per cent)
• Rail from Lucerne to Arth-Goldau (SBB)

• Excursion on Mt. Rigi via cog railway from Arth-Goldau to Rigi-First and from Kaltbad-First to Vitznau (Rigi Bahnen)
• Lake vessel (MS Rigi) on Lake Lucerne from Vitznau to Beckenried and dinner aboard paddle steamer DS Schiller (built in 1906) from Beckenreid to Lucerne (Lake Lucerne Cruise Line)
• Rail from Lucerne to Brienz via Brunig Pass (Zentralbahn)

• Lake vessel (the MS Brienz) from Brienz to Interlaken Ost (BLS Schifffahrt) (the water of Lake Brienz had a color similar to what we had seen in glacier-fed lakes in Alaska)
• Rail from Interlaken Ost to Grindelwald, Grindelwald to Kleine Scheidegg, and Kleine Scheidegg to Interlaken Ost (Berner Oberland Bahn and Wengernalpbahn)
• Excursion on Schynige Platte via cog railway from Wilderswil (Schynige Platte Bahn) (that's Lake Thun in the background)
• Rail from Interlaken West to Bern and return (SBB)

• Rail from Spiez to Brig and return via Lötschberg Tunnel (Bern-Lötschberg-Simplon [BLS]) (this trip was through the nine-mile original tunnel, which opened in 1913, and is now secondary to the 21.5-mile Lötschberg Base Tunnel, which opened in 2007 and is used by freight and intercity passenger trains; however, BLS operates an automotive shuttle for motorists, as well as local passenger trains between Spiez and Brig, through the original tunnel)
• Rail (Golden Pass line) from Interlaken West to Zweisimmen (BLS)
• Rail (Golden Pass line) from Zweisimmen to Montreux (Montreux-Oberland Bernois railway [French: Chemin de fer Montreux–Oberland Bernois, German: Montreux–Berner Oberland-Bahn]; commonly referred to as MOB)
• Rail from Montreux to Brig (SBB)

• Rail from Brig to Zermatt and return (Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, or MGB)
• Excursion to Gornergrat via cog railway from Zermatt (Gornergrat Bahn) (the Matterhorn was partially shrouded in clouds when we visited... 
... but the views were still among the most dramatic we saw in Switzerland)
• Rail from Brig to Domodosolla, Italy, via the 12-mile Simplon Tunnel (SBB) (a fire in one of the tunnel's two bores a few days earlier had caused service disruptions, but we did make it through on a shuttle train between Brig and Domodosolla)

• Rail from Domodosolla to Locarno (Centovalli)
PostBus from Locarno to Sonogno and return (the PostBus system began as a way of getting mail to and from remote towns, but is now an integral part of the superb Swiss public transport system)
• Rail from Locarno to Bellinzona and return, with side trip via bus and rail to AlpTransit Vistor Centre at Pollegio for a presentation on the construction of the 35-mile Gotthard Base Tunnel, due to open in 2017 (SBB, PostBus)

• Rail from Locarno to Göschenen via Bellinzona and the nine-mile Gotthard Tunnel, opened in 1881 (SBB)

• Rail from Göschenen to Disentis via Andermatt (MGB)

• Rail from Disentis to Reichenau (Rhaetian Railway [German: Rhätische Bahn, Italian: Ferrovia Retica, Romansh: Viafier Retica]; commonly referrred to as RhB)
• Rail from Reichenau to St. Moritz, with lunch in a Gourmino restaurant car (RhB)
• Rail from St. Moritz to Pontresina (RhB)

• PostBus from Pontresina to Poschiavo via Bernina Pass (this photo of a Tirano, Italy, to St. Moritz train was taken through the window of the bus)
• Rail from Poschiavo to Tirano, Italy, and return, via the spiral viaduct at Brusio (RhB) (the viaduct was undergoing restoration work, and was draped in red protective fabric)
• Rail (Bernina Express) from Poschiavo to St. Moritz (RhB)
• Rail from St. Moritz to Chur (RhB) (in this photo, our train is passing over the Landwasser Viaduct)
• Rail from Chur to Zurich (SBB) (we arrived in Zurich on a EuroCity train destined to Hamburg, Germany)
One memorable stop during our travels through Switzerland was at the town of Poschiavo, on the RhB Bernina line between St. Moritz and Tirano, Italy. It was home to two veteran electric switch engines, a 1909 boxcab and a 1911 steeplecab (both still in service), as well as a very modern snow blower, which was coupled to a dual-power (diesel and electric) locomotive, one of only two such units on the RhB roster.
Another rail hub I enjoyed very much was Bellinzona, on the SBB line toward Milan, Italy, a few miles south of the Gotthard Tunnel. Lying in a deep valley, Bellinzona is surrounded by mountains that make a splendid photo backdrop. It's also home to one of several SBB fire and rescue trains.
For those traveling to Switzerland (or thinking about it) an excellent source of information is the Bradt travel guide by rail and travel writer Anthony Lambert. I used the 3rd edition (Switzerland: Rail • Road • Lake), published in 2005, and it helped me plan many of the side trips I took.

After spending a night in suburban Zurich, we boarded a train at Zurich HB for the one-hour trip to Basel, where the SBB rail station is a prominent feature of the city center.
We found a very helpful English-speaking woman in the station's Tourist Information office who guided us toward a tram line serving the city's port area...
... where we located our cruise ship, the 198-passenger Viking Helvetia.
It would, over the next seven days, transport us along the Rhine River (and some connecting waterways in the Netherlands) to Amsterdam.

Since we were traveling downriver, our ship had to descend through several locks over the course of our trip. One of the first was at Ottmarsheim, Germany, a few hours after departing Basel.
On our first day after departing Basel, we stopped at Breisach, Germany, where we boarded a bus to tour the Black Forest region. The last stop on this tour was near the town of Hinterzarten, and as I set out on a walk with our tour director I heard the sound of a train. As it turned out, we were passing under the Ravenna Bridge, on DB's Höllentalbahn (Hell Valley line). I waited a short time and was rewarded with the passing of another train.
Later that afternoon, we visited the station at Breisach, and watched as a suburban DMU arrived from  and, a few minutes later, departed for, the nearby railway hub of Freiburg.
On our second day out of Basel, we were docked at Kehl, Germany, where buses took us across the river to Strasbourg, France. After a walking tour of the city, we had an hour or so of free time; that, of course, meant a visit to the city's railway station, where I saw a variety of local, intercity and high-speed TGV trains.
On our third day we were docked at Mannheim. On our bus tour to Heidelberg we passed a large DB freight yard, but unfortunately there was no time for photos, except for a few trains crossing the river on the Konrad Adenauer bridge.
The real fun began on our fourth day. After spending the night docked at Rüdesheim am Rhein, we sailed the Middle Rhine, with its numerous castles, set amid hillsides covered with grapevines. There was a rail line on each side of the river, and a train every few minutes.
Our ship made a stop at Braubach, so that passengers could visit Marksburg castle. We stayed in town, and I spent a few minutes watching the action on DB's East Rhine line, with the castle as a backdrop.
Many of the freight trains we saw were intermodal, carrying containers from a variety of owners, but the competition was also in evidence as we sailed downriver.
Our ship docked at Koblenz that afternoon, and once the sun emerged from behind the clouds, I spent a pleasant 30 minutes on deck photographing trains on the opposite bank as they passed the Ehrenbreitstein station and, above it, a large fortress constructed between 1817 and 1832. In my brief time watching trains here, I saw six freight trains and two regional passenger trains.
On the fifth day of our trip, I spent a couple of hours at Cologne's main station, where the volume of traffic was also very impressive.
We arrived in Amsterdam on the 64th day since our arrival at Heathrow. Our ship docked within walking distance of the city's Central Station, and we were soon aboard a train destined for Schiphol airport.
We would have six more days and nights in Europe before we departed for North America. Two of those nights would be spent in Belgrade, Serbia, and four in Finland.

The purpose of our visit to Belgrade was to visit two young (early twenties) friends we had met the previous summer while working in Alaska (for more information about this part of our trip, see our blog report, June 2011: Belgrade, Serbia).

We flew from Amsterdam to Belgrade on a JAT Airways 737. JAT is the national airline of Serbia; the name is an acronym for Jugoslovenski aerotransport – Yugoslav Air Transport.
Our friends, knowing that I was a rail enthusiast, made sure that we had an opportunity to visit Belgrade's central railway station, opened in 1884.
While I was walking around the station, a two-car train arrived from Budapest, Hungary.
The next morning, we visited the small museum located in the headquarters building of the country's national railway, which had this narrow-gauge (600mm) 0-8-0T, built in Germany in 1917, sitting outside.
We arrived in Belgrade on Sunday afternoon, spent the entire day on Monday touring the city and surrounding area, and early on Tuesday boarded another JAT flight, this time destined to Copenhagen. There, we changed to another 737, this one operated by Norwegian Air Shuttle. Like most of the airline's 737s, it carries the image of a well-known Norwegian on its tail; in this case, it was 19th-century mathematician Niels Henrik Abel.
We were destined to Helsinki, where we would spend the next four nights before leaving Europe. We were returning to Finland to visit a cousin of Marcia's, and her extended family, near Seinäjoki, about 350 km (215 miles) north of Helsinki.

To my surprise, we flew directly over the Helsinki airport before making a 180-degree turn and starting our approach.
On our final approach, we got a good view of Finland's number one natural resource: its forests.
We arrived at Helsinki's Vantaa airport late on Tuesday afternoon and took a local bus to our hotel, next to VR's Tikkurila rail station. On Wednesday morning we boarded a train for Parkano...
... where Marcia's cousin and her husband were waiting for us; they took us to their nearby summer house, on the shore of a large lake, where we spent the next two nights. In the course of our visit, we visited with family members and did some local sightseeing (for more information, see our blog report, June 2011: Finland).

While we were in Seinäjoki, we visited a church with a tall tower, which provided a good vantage point to view the nearby VR freight and passenger terminal.
When we returned to Helsinki for our flight back to North America, I happened to catch the Helsinki-bound Tolstoi train during its station stop at Tikkurila. It was led by a Soviet-built Sr1 "Siberian Wolf" locomotive, freshly repainted in VR's new green livery.
On the afternoon of Saturday, July 2, we boarded an Icelandair flight from Helsinki to Keflavik; we would change there for our destination of Halifax, Nova Scotia. As we gained altitude, the mapping system on our aircraft displayed several of the cities we had visited over the past ten weeks: Glasgow; Copenhagen; Helsinki; Bergen; Basel; Amsterdam; and Belgrade – plus some others that we hope to see on future visits.
My last sight of the European continent came as we passed over the coast of Norway, just north of Trondheim.
Appropriately (in my view), the mapping system displayed the endpoints of NSB's Nordlandsbanen line from Trondheim to Bodo, above the Arctic circle...
...a route I hope to ride on a future visit. As much as we had done over the past ten weeks, there was a lot of Europe still left to explore! 

* * *
Finally, for those of you who would like to see even more railway photos from this trip, follow this link to the “Overseas railways” page of my web site, 

There's another, more recent report about European railways on this blog, too: Spring 2017: Railways of Austria and Croatia (and a bit of Estonia).

One final note, concerning the cameras I used on this trip. I had three cameras with me:
• Canon S95: pocket-size, very portable, but its 6.0–22.5 mm lens (35mm equivalent: 28–105 mm) is somewhat limited on the telephoto end.
• Canon G9: compact, but not as portable as the S95; this camera's big advantage is its 7.4-44.4 mm lens (35mm equivalent: 35-210 mm).
• Pentax K200D: an entry-level DSLR that was marketed only for a short time in 2008. I used  the camera's kit lens, an 18-55 mm (35mm equivalent: 27.5mm-84mm), f3.5-5.6 zoom. Not very sophisticated by the standards of today's DSLR cameras, but I've been happy with it.

On this trip, while traveling by train I generally used the S95 except when I wanted the benefit of the G9's longer zoom. I used the K200D when I was at a rail station or somewhere else where working with a bulky camera was not a handicap. All three of these cameras allow the capture of RAW images as well as JPGs. 

Text and images ©2011 Tom and Marcia Murray 


  1. Great photos, nicely written. thank you

  2. I never get tired reading your blog post. I enjoyed watching your photos as well; its as if I was with you during your trip. You really proved that there's no far distance to a person who has the will power and determination to explore the world.

  3. Cheers!
    Great post! Very informative.
    Thanks for possibility to write on your website,
    it's great!
    I’m still hoping there will be more posts on this site.
    Thanks a lot!

    train travel to us

  4. Very sobering.lovely pics.thanks for sharing your experience...

  5. Hey! You are really good with photography, I love the pic with the plane's shadow on the trees, its fabulous! I love travelling a lot too and i'm leaving to France in September on the cross channel ferries. Thanks for sharing!