Using Trains in Denmark

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The Danish railroads are a sad story for this country. After some experiences as frequent transit traveler on the way from Denmark to Norway or Sweden it is possible to say this without being to much biased by singular experiences that are not representative. The observations all refer to the long distance and international transit transport by rail. The local and commuter train system of the Copenhagen area on Sjaelland seems to be quite OK.

First of all the Danish railroad is an absolute low speed system. It is said that some stretches are prepared for speeds of 140 km/h or even 180 km/h, but real IC trains hardly exceed an average speed of 50 km/h on longer distances, at least when regarding the bird flight distance or at least the shortest highway distance. For a relatively flat country having no elevation that reaches 200 m above sea level and for a country that is not that densely populated this looks like a bad value. I am talking about the connection from Flensburg in Germany to Fredrikshavn and Hirtshals, where no ferries are given reason for longer travel times.

The tracks are very curvy, making them longer than the highway and because of the speed restrictions in curves also slow. Important connections are still not electrified, to be more precise, only the transit railroad from Flensburg to Malmö via Kolding, Odense and Copenhagen, some short sections to Sonderburg and Fredericia and some lines on the main island Seeland are electric. But even fully electrified railroad lines are often used by Diesel trains. On longer trips it is often necessary to change the trains a lot of times, but this changes with every new schedule. The connections are often not so good, forcing waiting times of half an hour. Or if they are good, then they are missed quite often, because connecting trains do not even wait for two minutes on delayed trains with connecting passengers.

It gets especially interesting when trying to take bicycles on the train. The spots need to be reserved. Here some experiences:

  • Reservation cannot be done via Internet or in the railroad station in Germany or Switzerland. The DSB hotline needs to be called.
  • Calling the hotline means listing to music via the phone for at least half an hour. Not expensive these days, but annoying anyway.
  • The hotline girl had created the tickets and wanted them to be picked up at some DSB railroad station of my choice, at least one day prior to my trip. So I would have needed to go to Denmark just to pick up the tickets. Very user friendly approach.
  • Finally I could get the permission to pick up the tickets on the day I intended to travel. The night train from Germany left enough time for that when changing. It was not even eaten up by delay. But nobody knew about my tickets, of course.
  • From counter 1 they sent me to counter 3, from there to counter 2 and from there back to counter 1. There were only three counters, so that was it…
  • In a group of six persons it is necessary to split into different trains, because trains may have enough space for six bicycles, but that is of course forbidden.
  • Taken tandems on the train is forbidden in Denmark. Sometimes it can be done anyway, but it is a matter of luck and friendliness if it is OK or if it leads to a disaster.
  • The hotline person asked for a number to call me back, but expected me to have a Danish phone number.
  • For going from Hamburg to Copenhagen by day train it is necessary to go a 160 km detour via Flensburg, because no train on the direct route transports bicycles.
  • The connection is going only every two hours, so a delay of 25 minutes lead to two hours delay already. The train two hours later did have spare space, but the conductor withdrew her initial offer to use the train without reservation because of the delay. It ended up being only four hours delay, because the German railroad station employee could speak Danish and do the negotiations. In Copenhagen the train was three minutes late and the connecting train would have gone five minutes after the scheduled arrival. Of course they did not wait. There was another train one hour later, but it would only go to Alvesta, not all the way to Kalmar. This train did also more stops, so it was much slower. Going to Alvesta was anyway the plan, so it was OK, but in the end it took 5 1/2 hours more than originally planned. That is 12 hours from Hamburg to Malmö, what would be 300 km bird flight distance. And the German sections are already quite fast from Hamburg to Flensburg or Puttgarden.
  • In the same time it would be possible to do that by bicycle, but transit travel by bicycle is strictly forbidden in Denmark, simply by imposing some short unavoidable bicycle prohibitions on the route.
  • The rides when the air conditioning fails are nice. Especially if there is no water in the washing rooms, so water from the drinking bottle needs to be used for washing the hands. They did provide a tiny bottle of water on the expense of DSB to every traveler on the train.
  • Because of track work there are often buses instead of trains, of course resulting in the loss of all connections. When traveling with a bicycle this even leads to loss of the reservation, see above…
  • The Danish trains are often in a poor state, not compatible with the safety requirements in Germany. So it is resolved by forcing another transfer on the passengers and using the only intact train set as a shuttle for the stretch over the border.

It is also interesting to see the contrast, because Denmark is providing a luxury motorway network providing each village an motorway exit within only a few dozen kilometers distance and this is being expanded at an incredible rate. On the other hand railroad tracks are curvy low speed lines from the budget saving program from the 19th century and the national highways that have no bicycle prohibition are in a poor state and cross every hill and every valley without the slightest attempt to level out the road elevation by dams or cuts. Tunnels or bridges are hardly needed. Is it the intention of Danish transport policy to entirely move all transit traffic from environment friendly means of transportation to cars and air planes? Or are they just lacking the know-how how to build and operate a modern long distance railroad system, but are too proud to get this know-how from countries that have it?

As summary it can be said:
Denmark has no real railroad network, just a few overland tram lines, with speeds typical to the steam power days, but trams usually operate more frequently. This is also what other travelers are telling me. Maybe this is a bit of America in the middle of Europe.

Unfortunately it is not easy to bypass Denmark on the way to Sweden and Norway, but I am constantly looking for such possibilities.

At least in the long term some movement in a better direction might come. They have now announced to improve speed, build some high speed lines and electrify the major long distance lines. We will see if that is just vapor or if it ever becomes reality.

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