Monday, 20 March 2006

Travel waffle with sophisticated thievery

Got to get out of this place
Call it a restless spirit or some form of dementia. I cannot seem to spend more than four weekends in a stretch before I need to get out of the country.
Living in the Netherlands which by fortune of land recovery from the sea makes it 30% larger than it would have been means in 2 hours I could be in Antwerp (Belgium) or Düsseldorf (Germany), in 3 it is Brussels or Cologne and in 4 it is Hanover, Hamburg or Frankfurt in Germany or Paris in France and in 6 comfortable hours of travelling by train – I could be the Blue Angel in Berlin.
I would say, I love travelling by train and it is only comfortable if you are travelling in the right section of the train where the seats recline, you are served at your seat and a majority recognise the need for civility.
At least, if you were to complain about some attitude, you would not have the great unwashed screaming back at you for pointing out they are wrong.
Town confusion pay attention
One interesting thing about train travel in Europe is the announcements as you arrive at a station.
For example, once when we were approaching Antwerp (English), Anvers (French) or Antwerppen (Flemish/Dutch), the announcer indicated passengers to Ghent should change trains.
What I found striking about the announcement was the fact that if you missed your language and there are 4 languages for travellers through Belgium; you would be completely lost, because each language might just provide another name for the same place.
In the case of Ghent – which sounds like Gent in English with a G rather than a J sound; Gun with a silent N in French and Hent with a hard G sound like the CH from Loch in Dutch/Flemish – the foreigner has no chance of ending up at the proposed destination.
Also, you have Liege (French), Luik (Dutch/Flemish), Lüttich (German) and you begin to realise that place names are hard enough if you are not in England where Leicester Square is the Shibboleth – the Americans are always caught just as Greenwich (pronounced – Grennitch) or Southwark (Suddock) shows up the natives from the aliens.
Less perfume more culture
This time, it was Cologne (English), Köln (German) or Keulen (Dutch) and no, they do not sound the same either. Just as River Niger and the Republic of Niger do not sound the same as the first is English and the second is French.
So, I decided I would spend the weekend in Cologne and found that the joy of Internet bookings does not extend to train services in the Netherlands, Belgium or France if you are travelling within 5 days.
However, journeys over 101 kilometres within Germany offer the prospect of booking online and you get a PDF which you can print out as your tickets up to within 10 minutes of travel.
Makes you wonder why one cannot book within 5 days of travel and one can guess that the unions have thwarted that automation to keep postal workers occupied.
Internet booking should be a no-brainer; I have been booking trips in the Internet since 1995 when British Midland first started the service with http://www.IFlyBritishMidland.com.
The steal of the century
So, I got to the station and bought a ticket off the automatic ticket machines thinking I only had 20 minutes before the train. Alas, I was thinking 15:07 for the train which in fact ran at 14:07 and the next was at 17:07, so 2 hours or so to kill.
I make a beeline to the Left Luggage department which is a self-service facility of lockers which accept coins for activation.
Since many would not have the coinage to add to EUR 3.70 for the small lockers a note-to-coin exchanger does the job of converting 5, 10 and 20 Euro notes to just Euro or Eurocent coins which are 1 or 2 Euros and 50 Eurocents.
This is the steal of the century and it is so innocuous it is atrociously corrupt. You need at least a 2-Euro coin, a 1-Euro coin, a 50-Eurocent coin and then a 20-Eurocent coin to make up EUR 3.70 for the locker.
Utter, utter, thievery
The exchanger does not offer 20 Eurocents, the locker does not give change and the staff do not give change.
So, if you desperately need a locker and cannot get change for 50 Eurocents, you forfeit 30 Eurocents which goes to somebody’s pocket because the receipt you get says EUR 3.70 even though the system has swallowed 4 Euros.
If the collector counts the number of tickets issued and say up to 50% of locker users never get the exact change, it means 5% of the take from that day gets pocketed.
I would not be surprised with this scheme and scandalous abuse does not go high up in the service provider’s echelon.
It would have been easier to make it EUR 3.50 or EUR 4.00, but no free money would go to the station mafia.
I do remember complaining about this years ago when the locker price was in Guilders and the staff just shrugged – it is a nice little earner and the Dutch are good at making money. I just do not want to be fleeced in this way.

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