Train Travel in Europe: The substitute bus

Posted in: Train


Sometimes your train... is a bus. Photo: Danny Schuhmann
Sometimes your train... is a bus. Photo: Danny Schuhmann

Rail travelers through Germany who have no great aptitude for languages usually manage to pick up the bare essentials after a few days. Among those essentials is the marvelously Germanic compound tongue-twister Schienenersatzverkehr (“SEV” for short).

It’s not a word you’ll want to use a lot. And it’s not a word you’ll want to hear too often. It is by and large bad news. It means “substitute rail-replacement bus service.”

Bus substitutions

When we book to travel by train, we generally expect to ride on a train. So it’s a bit of a downer then to find that the anticipated train is in fact a bus. Nothing against buses, but if we are expecting to snooze our way overnight from Zürich to Barcelona, it comes as a bit of a surprise to find that actually we have a long bus ride rather than the comfort of a sleeping car for the overnight journey.

Of course there are times when essential track maintenance needs to be done and on such occasions buses are often deployed to substitute for trains. And in truth, having an entire overnight train morph into several buses is pretty rare, but it does happen. Passengers on the Zürich to Barcelona route had to endure that a couple of times this year.

Sunday frolics

Weekend journeys in Britain are especially prone to bus-substitutions. There, Sundays seem to be reserved for weekly festivals of track maintenance.

Other rail-replacement bus services last more than a single day. Late last year we changed trains at Cosford in the English Midlands. The station was delightfully antiquated, a real period piece. But evidently it is now being refurbished and the station is closed for over four months, with buses ferrying Cosford passengers to connect with trains at other local stations. So, no trains to Cosford until next March.

Rural rides

In Finland, travelers bound for Savonlinna will find buses substituting for trains for six months starting December 12, 2011.

In France, the branch line that links Sarlat-la-Canéda to the wider world is presently closed for six months. Six buses a day leave Sarlat for the bumpy ride on rural roads to Bergerac, there to connect with onward trains to Bordeaux. The leg by bus takes anything between 90 minutes and two hours depending on how many intermediate stations are being served. The rail service from Sarlat is expected to restart in March 2012.

Engineering works: check in advance

Wherever you are traveling by rail in Europe, it is well worth checking just prior to your journey whether planned (or sometimes even unplanned) engineering works might affect your travels. Check when you book and look out for notices at local stations a day or two prior to departure.

Sometimes track work may mean that departure times are brought forward by a few minutes. This happens a lot in Germany where those not-in-the-know can all too easily arrive at a station to see their preferred service just disappearing into the distance.

All the examples of bus-substitutions mentioned in this article were well advertised on the websites of the relevant rail operators (as indeed is normally the case).  Thus the Cosford closure features on the UK’s National Rail website. The disruption to trains to Savonlinna is advertised on the VR Finland site, while the bus ride to Bergerac is well explained on the French TER Aquitaine website.

About the author


About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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