A Real Journey: Floods, Train Crashes and Non-Stop Parties on the Berlin-Amsterdam CNL

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It began with a simple enough plan: I would travel on the City Night Line on two consecutive evenings, from Berlin to Amsterdam and back again. Why? I needed to see someone in Amsterdam. Actually, the real reason is that I was keen for a couple of nights sleeping on a train. The nine and a half hour journey each way would begin in Berlin at half an hour past midnight; I would arrive in Amsterdam at mid-morning for a leisurely get together; I would take the return train, leaving in the early evening. 28 hours, there and back.

If only it were so simple.

With half an hour to spare, I arrived at Berlin Hauptbahnhof to await one of the great pleasures in life – a sleeper. It was to be a couchette, shared with two or three other people. On the platform, I espied a running message on the noticeboard: ‘etwa 2 stunden spater’. What does ‘stunden’ mean? I wondered. A few moments, perhaps.

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A fellow passenger stopped to ask, ‘Does this train also go to Copenhagen?’ – in German.

After voicing the few words in German I know, he switched to English.

‘Yes’, I said. ‘A couple of carriages go through to Copenhagen. I took that part of the train a few months ago … but tell me, what does “stunden” mean?’

‘Hours’, he said. ‘The train is delayed by more than two hours’.

‘Why?’ I said.

‘Flooding in Central Europe’, he said. ‘The train is coming from Prague and had to take the long way around the floods’.

It would be almost three hours before it actually arrived. The real journey had begun, and I was not yet on the train. At that point, I began to notice that German summer evenings are actually rather cool. I had tossed in a thick merino wool jacket at the last minute, not thinking I would ever use it. That was to be one of the few things that went right on the journey.

What does one do on a big, cold German railway platform in the middle of the night? I walked about, read, wrote, tried to snooze (as most of the other passengers), spent one whole euro to use the station toilet, pondered the universe … until the train squealed and creaked into view. The first light of a northern European summer dawn was already spreading as we boarded.

Now I found that my bed was the topmost one in the couchette. Here, with barely room to stretch out horizontally, I made my own bed in the dark, found a remote corner for my bag (after dropping first from a great height), managed accidentally to switch on the main light, and generally made a great din. The Czech muscle man below grunted a few times in complaint.

At long last and in almost full light, I finally went to sleep, waking some six or seven hours later to find the cabin entirely my own – and to find that all my possessions were still there. The others had alighted somewhere during the morning. I had a simple wash, stretched out, and ate a breakfast of cold and soggy pizza (from the night before) and butter milk. A feast fit for a king!

In the clothes in which I had slept, I negotiated a sweaty Amsterdam summer day to find my friend, but only after missing his stop on the tram line and enjoying a grand tour of parts of Amsterdam I had explored some years earlier. At least now the second thing to go right on this trip happened, for he had a late lunch ready for me and we thoroughly enjoyed our interchange.

Not six hours later my return train was due to depart. However, to get there I needed an Amsterdam tram. Easier said than done. Normally the trams run every five-ten minutes, so one merely rolls up to a tram stop and soon enough a tram clunks by. Not on this occasion. Almost half an hour later an overcrowded tram pulled up at the stop. Unlike China, where people always seem to find room for one more, even if one has to hang from the ceiling, the Dutch are rather uncomfortable with one another at close quarters – an anomaly in a country where space is at a premium. A harried and sweaty driver waved away my effort to pay. The tip was a freebie; I soon found out why. The air-conditioning had given up the ghost, and the effect was like a sauna, with sweat dripping from chins, fingertips and elbows. The signalling system on the tram had gone the way of the air-conditioning, the system that ensured the tracks changed over for our route at intersections. At each turn, the driver opened the door, leapt out with a massive iron lever and changed the tracks by hand. It was more exercise than he had done for a long time. Slowly, painfully, we crept towards Centraal station.

The train itself, the overnight sleeper, actually departed on time, at 19:01. This is not such a great feat since Amsterdam Centraal is its starting point. And a glorious train it is, with part going to Copenhagen, another to Warsaw, another to Moscow via Belarus, and another to Prague. The massive reshuffle happens at Hanover, where the city night line trains meet, exchange carriages and then head off to their respective destinations. I was on the Prague section, for it goes through Berlin.

The first hour or so went smoothly enough. I read for a little, chatted with a travel companion (who had emigrated from the Netherlands to Australia), and made my bed for an early night. After all, I was to arrive at Berlin at 4:30 in the morning, so best to get some sleep while I could. As I was starting to drift off, we noticed that we had been in Arnhem for quite some time. Soon the doors opened, people piled out, bewildered and peeping up and down the platform in search of further information. But the break wore on … the noticeboard said we were one and half hours late, then two and half hours, then three hours and twenty minutes. The conductor finally told me there was an accident between here and Emmerich, in Germany. Or rather, an engine had exploded at the station. We were not going to go through Emmerich on the trunk line into Germany.

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Now it was a seriously real journey.

The Dutch immigrant was supposed to be at a conference in Prague, starting at 10:00 the following morning. The train was, under normal circumstances, due to arrive at 9:30. Already, the floods would mean would not be there until lunch time. With our new challenge, he was not sure he would arrive at all, so he began to think of abandoning the trip altogether. I too wondered whether I would make it back to Berlin. Meanwhile, the younger people in our carriage made the most of the opportunity, buying more wine and beer, and then swilling it down while puffing on endless cigarettes. The platform became the scene of a massive party.

To the surprise of everyone, after we thought we would spend the night at Arnhem, the whistles blew and we were herded on board. The train creaked into motion, finally having found a way around Emmerich. I fell on my bunk and was comatose in less than a minute. For once, the delay suited me fine, since now I would not arrive in Berlin until a civilised hour, some time in the morning or perhaps mid-afternoon. I awoke a few minutes before arrival, sweaty, greasy and smelly. I had not changed my clothes or had a wash for the entire journey.

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