Archive for June, 2015


June 12, 2015

In my last post, I noted how Google Maps gives  accurate information on public transportation, both local and long-distance, in Spain, Italy and Germany, but fails to do so with regard to train travel in Belgium and France. In Belgium, the information is found readily (and reliably) on the website of Belgian Railways (NMBS/SNCB), in Dutch, English, French and German. In principle it should be the same with French Railways (SNCF), but it didn’t quite work out that way with regard to a trip from Amiens to Paris.

A previous consultation of the website had shown that a train listed as Intercités 2014 was due to leave at 11:05 and arrive at the Gare du Nord at 12:29. This seemed to be an ideal connection, and when we arrived at Amiens on the preceding day the electronic timetable at the station did in fact show that train.

I had thought about getting our tickets for the train right after our arrival from Ghent (with a train change at Lille), but since the ticket office (nowadays called espace de ventes) was to be open till 21:30, we decided to do it later. When we got to the station at 8 in the evening, however, the office was closed; a printed sign on the door said that “for exceptional reasons” (unspecified) they would be closing at 19:30.

We decided to try the automatic ticket machine. The train in question was listed as having only first-class seats available, at a price more than twice of second class, but in any case the machine would not accept our American debit card. Since the ticket office would open at 05:50, we could easily postpone the purchase to the morrow.

Meanwhile, checking the SNCF site on my smartphone, I found that the train we wanted was not listed at all  on the reservations page, while the timetable page had it departing at 11:35.

When I got to the station (a short walk from our hotel) the next morning at 7:30, there was as yet no sign of life at the espace de ventes. I asked around, and was told variously that the office would open at 7:45 and 8:00. It was actually opened (reluctantly, it seemed) at 8:15, and I got the second-class tickets I wanted with no problem. The train, though officially an Intercités, was in fact composed of TER Picardie cars, second-class only. I wonder what we would have done with our first-class tickets, had we bought them from the machine!

A check of the SNCF website today shows the train listed, with an 11:20 departure (but still a 12:29 arrival), on both the reservations and timetable pages. Perhaps the slower time when we took it was due to track work, and perhaps the inconsistencies in the electronic information were due to a system malfunction. I have generally had good experiences riding French trains (except during strikes), and I hope that what happened last month (which, in any case, did not affect the travel itself) was a fluke.

Traveling by Google

June 5, 2015

I have just learned, from  this story in the San Francisco Chronicle, that I am one of the 53 percent of Internet map users who rely primarily on Google Maps, and one of the 90 percent who do so primarily on a mobile device. Rarely do I find myself so much a member of a majority.

I was an early user of MapQuest. I flirted for some time with the soon-to-be-discontinued Yahoo Maps. But once Google Maps became established I quickly converted, seduced by the fact that it provides not only driving directions but also ones for walking, bicycling and public transit. I have found the last option especially useful here in the Bay Area, obviating the need to consult separately the various agencies (AC Transit, BART, SF Muni and others). And on a recent trip to Europe which began in Barcelona and continued to Rome and then Cologne (via Ryanair), I got all the necessary bus, metro and suburban-rail connections pretty much right. And the information for continuing our travel from Cologne to Aachen by train was also spot on; GM, obviously linked to Deutsche Bahn, gave both the regional RE trains and the international ICE express trains (which go on to Brussels) at their scheduled times.

But when I was planning the continuation of our voyage from Aachen into Belgium, something strange happened. Had our destination been Brussels, we would of course have taken the ICE which would have whisked us there in a little over an hour. But we had decided that our base would be Ghent, and for the connection from Aachen to Ghent Google Maps gave the following:

12:21 PM–3:52 PM

High speed trainICE Bus214 Bus96 3 h 31 min

12:21 PM from Aachen Hbf

4 min

Schedule explorer
12:21 PM
Aachen Hbf
12:21 PM

Aachen Hbf

ICEICE 16towards Bruxelles-Midi
1 h 5 min (2 stops)
 1:26 PM
 Gare de Bruxelles-Nord


About 2 min
 1:35 PM
 Brussel Noord Perron 2

 Bus214 towards Brussel – Aalst

 1 h 18 min (57 stops) · Stop ID: 300855
 2:53 PM
 Aalst Station Perron 5


About 1 min
2:59 PM

Aalst Station Perron 3

Bus96 towards Aalst – Erpe Vijfhuizen – Oordegem – Melle – Gent
52 min (46 stops) · Stop ID: 204972
 3:51 PM
 Gent St.-Pietersstation Perron 12


 About 1 min , 160 m
 3:52 PM
Station Gent-Sint-Pieters
9000 Gent, Belgium

It seemed very strange that there would be no train from Brussels to Ghent and the trip would have to be done on two buses and take two and a half hours. I then checked on the website of Belgian Railways (SNCB/NMBS) and found out that there are about five such trains every hour, express trains taking half an hour and local trains taking an hour. Why weren’t they shown on Google Maps?

It so happened that the ICE train that we were going to take from Cologne to Aachen, and for which we had the tickets, was canceled a few minutes before departure. We quickly changed platforms to take the slower (and cheaper) regional train, and when we arrived in Aachen we requested (and promptly received) a refund of the difference in fares. When we inquired about going to Ghent, we were informed that, instead of changing trains in Brussels, there was an alternative that was perhaps a little bit slower but, for travelers over 65, considerably cheaper: we could take a local (L) train (operated by Belgian Railways) from Aachen to the nearby Belgian town of Welkenraedt (French-speaking despite the seemingly Germanic name) and there, on the same platform, hop onto one of the hourly express IC trains that run clear across Belgium, from Eupen to Ostend, by way of Liège, Brussels, Ghent and Bruges. The trip from Aachen to Ghent, including the change, takes two and a half hours (ours took longer because the Aachen-Welkenraedt train was late and so the connection was missed).

Now let’s see what Google Maps has to say about this sort of trip. The train from Aachen to Welkenraedt (and vice versa) is covered, because it is code-shared as both a Belgian local train and a German regional (R) train. How about Welkenraedt to Ghent, in reality a direct train taking 2 hours and 11 minutes?

7:42 AM–12:52 PM

TrainR ICE Bus214 Bus94 5 h 10 min

7:42 AM from Gare de Welkenraedt

3 min

Schedule explorer
7:42 AM
Gare de Welkenraedt
4840 Welkenraedt, Belgium
7:42 AM

Gare de Welkenraedt

7:56 AM

RR 5006 towards Aachen Hbf

14 min (2 stops)
8:21 AM

Aachen Hbf

ICEICE 18 towards Bruxelles-Midi

And then it’s the same as the previously given trip from Aachen to Ghent.

For trips within Belgium, such as from Ghent to Bruges, similar combinations of buses run by De Lijn were given. Now it so happens that De Lijn also runs all the local transport in Flanders, so that  information about buses and trams in Ghent was readily available on GM. But for some strange reason GM is not linked to Belgian Railways. I’m sure I’m not the only one aware of this; there are probably a few million frustrated Belgians in this situation. But I have found no reference to it online.

Belgian Railways also operates several trains a day going from Antwerp to Lille (in France) and stopping at Ghent; the trip from Ghent to Lille is about an hour and a quarter. For the Google Maps result, let the map speak for itself.

Gent Sint-Pietersstation, Ghent, Belgium to Gare de Lille-Flandres - Google MapsLille, however, was not our final destination on that day; it was Amiens. But when I queried Google Maps about the trip, I got the following reply:

     Sorry, your search appears to be outside our current coverage area for transit.

It was the same for traveling from Amiens to Paris. Obviously, then, SNCF (the French railway system) is not linked with Google Maps, either. (SNCF’s online presence, however, isn’t all that great; I’ll write about that another time.)

Google Maps does, on the other hand, give information about local transit in Paris, including buses, metro and RER (suburban rail). But something strange happened when I tried to find the schedule of trains on the well-known  (see Wikipedia, for example) RER line B to Charles de Gaulle Airport, a trip taking about 35 minutes. When I entered “Paris Nord, France” as the origin and “Aéroport Charles de Gaulle 2 – TGV, France” as the destination, I got several options, and one of them did in fact involve RER B. But rather than the northbound train going directly to the airport, GM had me take the southbound:

9:28 AM
 Gare du Nord
 TrainRER B towards Cité Universitaire
 11 min (5 stops)
 9:39 AM
About 2 min
 9:43 AM
 Subway6 towards Nation
 10 min (8 stops)
 9:53 AM
 About 4 min
 10:00 AM
 Gare Paris-Bercy
 BusiDBUS towards Bruxelles
 45 min (non-stop) ·
 10:45 AM
 Paris aéroport Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle Roissypôle
About 18 min , 1.1 km
 11:03 AM
Aéroport Charles de Gaulle 2 – TGV

This is even more puzzling: since RATP (the Paris transit network, including RER) is in the  Google Maps system, why isn’t the airport line there?