Calling the bicycle hotline: the truth about Ersatzverkehr

A few weeks ago I decided to treat LSB to a weekend away on Rügen (Germany’s largest island) for his birthday. I did a quick Google of accommodation and stumbled upon a nice holiday apartment at an attractive price.

I booked it immediately and told LSB not to worry about a thing; I had this whole trip under control.

Shortly before we were due to leave by train on Friday morning, it occurred to me to bring our bikes.

LSB looked out the rain-splattered window at the black clouds and reminded me that SNOW had been forecast for the weekend.

I told him not to believe everything he saw on TV. (I’m an insider, so he had to listen.)

Next,  he expressed concern about the regulations governing bicycles on trains.

(As you can see, LSB has integrated very well into German society).

Defiant (because I wanted to bring the bikes) and grumpy (because it was morning) I grabbed the phone and called Deutsche Bahn’s Fahrrad (bicycle) hotline.

What – you haven’t heard of it? Rest assured; it exists. An entire service dedicated to urgent enquires about bringing bicycles on German trains.

After waiting on hold for several minutes (evidently they are very busy) I got through to Bicycle Hotline Lady (BHL).

“Where would you like to travel with your bikes?” she asked.20150323_102144[1]


“I’m sorry. Where?”


“Could you spell that?”

“Sure… R-A-M-B-I-N.”

“Um, okay. I haven’t heard of it. Give me a moment please.”                                                                                                                                                                                                At this point, it may be worth pointing out that I do not have a reputation for consulting maps very carefully.

I chose to stay in this town (“town” is, in fact, a  remarkably generous description) because, unlike Bergen (Rügen’s so-called capital) Rambin is by the sea. Also, the charming holiday apartment there may have been one of the first on the list of Google search results.

Anyway, the BHL told me that although she had not heard of my destination, she was sure the same rules applied as to all other places on the island. Taking the bikes on the train would be no problem though we would have to purchase tickets for them.

Feeling considerably more gruntled, I told LSB the bikes were coming with us.

Several hours later, the four of us were safely installed in a  train compartment. Like a model Deutsche Bahn couple, we cast our glances away from our bicycles only to admire the passing northern German scenery.

We were nearing Stralsund, a few stops away from our destination, when an announcement on the intercom told us that we must get out and avail of Ersatzverkehr (replacement transport) for our onward journey.

We disembarked awkwardly and followed the signs pointing to the Ersatzverkehr.

They led us to a bus outside, where a line of passengers from our train had already formed. Seeing us approach with our bikes, a woman in front of us said: “Boah! Are you going to be let on with those?”
“I’d better be!” I reply. “I have a Fahrrad ticket!”

“My best advice is to flirt with the driver,” she said ruefully, living up to the German reputation for practicality.

I approached him tentatively.

“No bikes,” he said.


“Yes. The plans for Ersatzverkehr have been well publicised in the last few weeks.”

“But what about my Fahrrad ticket?” I asked.

“It does not cover Ersatzverkehr. If you would like to complain to Deutsche Bahn for providing insufficient information, you can contact them via these channels,” he said, slipping me a card.

This flirting thing was not going well.

“There is nothing we can do. This is company policy,” he continued, climbing into the driver’s seat and shutting the door.

It was only when the bus drove off and the wind began to howl that it really hit us.

We were stranded.

And headed for a place no one seemed to have heard of.

To be continued 

The Republican

We met on the platform of Berlin’s main train station early Sunday morning. He looked confused. I glanced in his direction and appeared pleasant and approachable. It worked. He came to me, pointed at the complicated travel itinerary he had printed out and asked if he was in the right place for Magdeburg.

He was. And I was going his way.

We sat in separate parts of the train. I looked out the window. Little patches of snow glistened on orange and golden bushes. Once I saw an animal I couldn’t identify squatting in a field. I guessed it might be a weasel, and then wondered if I knew what a weasel looked like.

We were scheduled to arrive in Magdeburg at 10.53. At 10.51 the display screen changed to “MAGDEBURG” and the train ground to a halt.

I disembarked. I looked around me and my heart sank. This looked nothing like the main train station to which I was headed. Then I saw the young man from before. He looked confused again. The station was otherwise deserted. “We’re wrong,” I said and suddenly sprung to action, trying to re-open the door that had closed behind me. It was too late. The train slid away.

I looked frantically at my own itinerary, which I had scribbled down on a scrap of paper.

“We need to get a taxi really quick,” I told him, as we made our way through the tiny, empty station. Our connecting train left in 7 minutes. We had landed in a station slightly outside of town. We had a choice of three taxis.

“Got off too early?” the driver asked. “Happens a lot.”
“We’ve got 7 minutes to get the next train.”
“I’ll do my best,” he said.

And so I sat in the back seat with the stranger. “Sorry I look so dishevelled,” he said. “I was out very late last night.” Four and a half minutes later we pulled up at the main train station. The driver opened the car boot and 30 seconds later I was running wildly with my suitcase and bag flying behind me and my new friend in tow.

We made it. My head was spinning with lack of sleep and the sudden exertion. That particular sensation was to become a feature of my day.

My new friend was in his early twenties. He had short brown hair and a nice face. He was polite, measured and American. He was spending some time studying in Germany while he completed his dual studies of international politics and officer training in the US army.

Over the next ten hours, we got to know each other intimately.
In Leipzig, over a steak sandwich (his) and a vegetarian kebab (mine) we talked about the responsibilities we had to our parents. He told me about his rural upbringing and how excited he was to get his first army salute. I talked about my German background and he told me about his Lithuanian one. I told him about Ireland and he told me about New Jersey.

Near Lutherstadt he said “I think I saw a fox earlier.”
“A fox?” I asked. “Where?”
“On the way to Magdeburg.”
“Was he alone?”
“Yeah, just sitting in a massive field.”
“I saw him too!” I said. “But I thought it was a weasel.”
He smiled. “I’m pretty sure it was a very small fox.”

Later still he said, “I’m not really into partying. But my friends were in town last night, and they made me stay out. That’s why I’m such a mess.” Then he paused and said “Did you say Let’s dash, earlier?”
“Yes, do yanks not say “dash?””
“No we don’t” he replied. “It’s cute though. Dash is a neat word.”

When we got to Hof he said “I hate talking about politics, especially in Europe.”

I bit my lip. This sounded interesting.

“I was talking to some French Canadians last night,” he continued, in spite of himself. “They just started attacking me. It’s so annoying. People here don’t know how American politics works.”

Ha, I thought. So I have finally met a Republican.

I was disappointed by how nice he was.

“I’m not a Republican,” he said. “I’m a libertarian. But Obama’s economics just doesn’t add up. I’ve studied it. And nationwide health insurance doesn’t make sense. This stuff has to come from individual states.”

I said the system seemed to work in Germany. “The US is a lot bigger,” he said.

We stopped there but politics hung in the air. He was right though. Along with most Europeans, I don’t really know how American politics works. I write snappy headlines about it, and I cut pictures and match them with entertaining soundbites. But do I know the numbers? Do I understand local government and the make-up of each state’s senate? No Sir, I do not.

I thought about this pleasant mild-mannered young man, with a life in the military in front of him. I thought about his girlfriend, also in the army. I thought about what he said about college boys having to be at least as fit if not fitter than the squad they lead. I thought about his mother, who has been sick. And I thought that there’s something very human that politics misses.

I hugged him when I got off the train in Regensburg and warned him that he might end up on my blog. As I was walking away, he turned in his seat and waved goodbye to me.

“Have you ever had a wet arse, Herr Schafner?”

The intercom on the slow train from Hof to Leipzig crackled. I slid my suitcase onto the seat next to me and took out my tattered book. A man’s voice spoke with perfect diction:

“For the attention of passengers recently boarded: Due to an act of vandalism, the lavatory at the back of the train is out of order for the foreseeable future.The damage has been caused by a blockage of material which is considered unsuitable for a toilet. Those passengers with the desire to make use of facilities must venture forth to the front of the train where an alternative lavatory is available. However, said lavatory may only be used while the train is stationary. Those with questions about this issue are advised to approach train personnel. I on behalf of Deutsche Bahn apologise for this minor inconvenience…”

The old lady across from me began to chuckle. The voice continued.

“To summarise, of the two available toilets on board, the one primarily intended for ordinary passengers is currently defective. An alternative loo may be used provided the train is not moving. Such a situation occurs at times when the train stops at stations along the route. I, on behalf of Deutsche Bahn apologise for this occurrence, which is the result of vandalism.”

Suddenly an enormous Saint Bernard, approximately the size of a small pony, bounded down the corridor. It paused briefly to greet my knee with its expansive snout.

“LOTTA,” a voice yelled behind the dog. A woman with a limp peroxide pony tail hanging from an otherwise shaven head stumbled past me. She was wearing dungarees and smelt strongly of beer.

“COME BACK, LOTTA,” she yelled. She clicked effectually and the gigantic hound returned. The woman grabbed it by the collar. Then she let out an almighty roar. “MY BEER!!!”

On the seat directly behind me, a bottle of beer had unturned. Liquid brew was seeping into the cover and a trickle of beer was making its way towards my feet.


The slow train continued gently through the rolling Franconian countryside.

Her drunken companion entered the carriage. If he had been cleaner and less intoxicated he could have passed as a hipster. He was barefoot, in blue jeans and black horned glasses. And he had a beard.

“Woah,” he said, holding on to their second dog,a kind of grey hound.

The woman with the rat’s tail stumbled to the toilet to get some tissues. A terrible scream followed.


This refrain (“Ich muss pissen” in the vernacular) became a recurring motif.

At this point, the old lady who had been chuckling made a tactical move which I was to envy for the next two hours.

She turned to them and said sweetly, “Would you like to sit here? My seat is nice and dry.”

They responded indecipherably in the affirmative. The old lady grabbed her bags and disappeared.

The woman with the rat’s tail sat on the wet seat and jumped up, disgusted. “MY TROUSERS ARE WET,” she yelled.

Her companion, who was bent over the more demure hound, who had managed to fall asleep, began to laugh.

“WHAT’S THERE TO LAUGH ABOUT?” she yelled, pressing her nose against his face. “DO YOU HAVE A NASSER ARSCH?” (wet arse)?”

He was silent.

“Well DO YOU?” she repeated.

He said nothing. She moved away, and summarised her plight.

“I HAVE A WET ARSE AND NO BEER AND I NEED TO PISS.” She took a breath. “Just wait until that conductor comes,” she said, seething.

For the next forty-five minutes, I pretended to read East of Eden while the intoxicated couple discussed sending a letter of complaint to Deutsche Bahn for not providing drinks holders. The woman said she would demand a reimbursement for her beer.The man said that the “welfare state” was retarded. And that the bastards were getting richer, while their welfare was going down.

“GENAU,” (“exactly”) cried the woman.

The woman said she had once been issued a handicapped pass. But that it was the System, rather than herself that was handicapped.

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The man blamed the System for not providing windows in the carriage that he could open. He took it personally and said “don’t they fucking trust me to open a window? That’s how far we’ve come. Germany is a joke”.

A little while later, a Schaffner with a neat haircut, a Deustche Bahn uniform and an emphatic walk made his way to our compartment. “Tickets please?” he said to the passengers down the way.

The Saint Bernard, who had been lapping up beer close to my feet bounded free again. The woman slunk away and the man said “HEY, LOTTA. Oh MANNO, Lotta not now.”

The Saint Bernard returned and the conductor pretended he had not noticed.

He approached the man with a hearty “Good Afternoon!” in the effusive manner which I too employ in an effort to mask my preconceptions.

The woman burst into the carriage and brought her red face very close to the conductor’s.

“What. the. FUCK is wrong with the toilet?” she screamed. Do you never need to TAKE A PISS?”

His lips flickered, indignantly.

“Madam. I made a clear announcement to the effect that one of our toilets was defective,” he said. “I explained that due to an act of vandalism, a blockage had occurred.”

I turned to the window to hide my laughter.

He continued.”To be more precise, some aluminium foil has been dropped down the toilet by unknown perpetrators. This led to the blockage of the system. It costs three thousand euro to get a Deustche Bahn toilet re-fitted.”

“I don’t give a shit,” said the woman. “Do you have a wet arse?”

“I believe you have a wet “arse,” as you refer to it because you have consumed an excessive amount of beer,” said the conductor, in the style of a revelation and with an accompanying satisfied smile.

The almost-hipster intervened.

“We really need to discuss the issue of drinks holders,” he said with tactful measure. “We’ve lost a lot of beer. And we spent four euro on it.”

“That seems like too much,” agreed the Schaffner.

The conversation meandered from the aggressive to the sublime. The Schaffner responded to queries about Deutsche Bahn’s “blatant discrimination” against those with invalid tickets and explained again about the aluminium foil.

The woman with the rat’s tail let out an occasional roar but was calming down, like both her hounds, who were now in a hazy stupor at her feet.

Her companion produced some kind of ticket, which the Schaffner accepted before moving on and wishing them a nice day.

Three minutes later, the intercom crackled. The Schaffner’s voice spilled once again into the carriage.

“For the attention of passengers recently boarded: Due to an act of vandalism, the lavatory at the back of the train is out of order for the foreseeable future.The damage has been caused by a blockage of material which is considered unsuitable for a toilet. Those passengers with the desire to make use of facilities must venture forth to the front of the train where an alternative lavatory is available. However, said lavatory may only be used while the train is stationary. Those with questions about this issue are advised to approach train personnel. I on behalf of Deutsche Bahn apologise for this minor inconvenience…”

“Fucking fat cats,” said the woman sleepily.