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TRAIN TRAVEL

My night on board Sweden’s new sleeper service from Hamburg

Our reporter Richard Orange took the new SJ EuroNight sleeper home from Hamburg at the start of this month with his two children. He tells us what it was like.

My night on board Sweden's new sleeper service from Hamburg
The EuroNight train to Hamburg prepares to leave Stockholm on Thursday. Photo: Jakop Dalunde

As we clambered onto the s-bahn at Hamburg Central to race across to Hamburg Altona, Alan, the friendly English chemistry researcher who had volunteered to show us the way, made a quick calculation.

“I think you’ll have at most two minutes to make it to the train, and you need to make it up to the station and up two flights of stairs.”

I rated our chances at less than 10 percent. I had booked the new sleeper launched by Sweden’s state-owned train company SJ at the very last minute (and at considerable cost) after discovering to my horror that the Danish seats-only night train I’d been planning on taking did not run on Saturdays.

My two children and I had been on the train since our Eurostar left London at 9am, and I didn’t fancy putting them through a night on the platform at Hamburg Central.

Our reporter with his traumatised-looking children, Finn (9) and Eira (10).

Hamburg Altona, a terminal station in the west of the city, is the departure point for SJ’s sleeper. Normally, the metro trip would only be slightly inconvenient, but when you’re racing to make a connection, it’s a nightmare. Thankfully, the sleeper will start to depart from the central station in March.

The moment we hit Altona, Alan, who lives nearby, shot off, me and my two children trailing behind as he flew up staircase after staircase.

Finally we arrived puffing at the platform, where we could see a train with an SJ logo, but the entrance to the platform was blocked. Had we missed it? “Do you have a ticket?” asked the guard, wearing a warm SJ jacket, and when I said yes gestured to the long line of people snaking right out to the station door.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more grateful for a system failure. It turned out SJ had somehow lost access to the records of who was supposed to be on the train, or where they were supposed to sleep, and were having to work out the sleeping arrangements manually, one passenger at a time.

Alan, a researcher at Hamburg’s Max Planck Institute, wished us goodbye and we joined the back of the queue, where we met a Swedish woman who’d come all the way from Italy with her red setter, a journey she said she’d been doing quite regularly ever since the sleeper service was launched in September.

Annoyingly, she told me that it was possible to get a reduced price on the sleeper if you have an Interrail card (as we did). When I checked, you could get a couchette from Hamburg to Stockholm for about 385 kronor, about a third of the price we paid. I went back to the guard and asked if there was any chance of getting our money back, at which point he erupted in mocking laughter.

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Half an hour later, at about half past ten, we finally got our seats. The woman who’d come from Italy was turned back, however, as she hadn’t booked a bed in a special dog compartment for her red setter.

We trundled up to the train, finding a young couple and a man with a Middle-Eastern background already in bed with their sheets laid out.

“It’s got beds! I’ve never been on a train with beds before!” Finn exclaimed as he sawn the couchette compartment. Unfortunately there were only two beds for us. The Thai-Swedish SJ guard disappeared into her cabin when we pointed this out, and after a short phone call came back and told the man with a Middle-Eastern background that he had to move to make space for us.

“I hope that wasn’t some kind of discrimination,” I said to the young couple after he’d gone. It was probably because he was travelling alone, however, and we later discovered that he’d been upgraded to a luxury two-person sleeper cabin, which assuaged my guilty conscience. In a further sign of the guards’ ability to improvise, when I bumped into the woman with the red setter while brushing my teeth, she said they’d also managed to accommodate her.

The couchette cars are refurbished, with free water, and USB ports for recharging your various devices. They are old, but they’re comfortable enough and Eira and Finn were both fast asleep within minutes of the train rolling out of the Hamburg.

I had just about drifted off by the time I was woken by border police at the Danish border at around midnight, sleepily reaching down from the top couchette to show them our passports.

My hope was that departing more than an hour late would delay our arrival in Malmö, which was scheduled for just before 4am, but unfortunately, the train normally travels more slowly than it needs to to allow passengers a proper night sleep, so it easily made up the lost hour.

At about quarter to four I got a friendly knock on the door, and shook the children awake in time to see the lights of Malmö’s Turning Torso tower as we crossed the Öresund Bridge.

For the remaining five or ten minutes, Eira and Finn excited pointed out “Swedish” out-of-town shopping centres until the train arrived at a completely deserted Malmö station, from where we took a taxi home.

How to get an interrail discount on the Hamburg Stockholm sleeper

On the sök resa or “search journey” page on SJ’s website, you need to click on the drop-down menu next to resenärer or “traveller”, then, when you see your name, click on ändra or “change”. Then click on another drop-down menu on välj ett kort or “choose a card”, at which point you can press Interrail and fill in your Interrail card number. You can find a guide on how to do it here on SJ’s website

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TRAVEL NEWS

‘A game changer’: Airlines demand EU explain new border system for non-EU travellers

Industry associations representing airlines have called on European authorities to plan a “public communications campaign” to alert non-EU nationals about new requirements to enter and exit the Schengen area.

'A game changer': Airlines demand EU explain new border system for non-EU travellers

The EU Entry/Exit System (EES) will record the biometric data (finger prints and facial recognition) of non-EU citizens travelling for short stays to the Schengen area (EU countries minus Ireland, Romania and Bulgaria, plus Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland), each time they cross the external borders.

Fully digital, the system will enable the automatic scanning of passports replacing manual stamping by border guards. The data collected will be kept in a centralised database shared among the Schengen countries.

The EES was created to tighten up border security and will ensure the enforcement of the 90-day limit in any 180-day period for tourists and visitors. But it requires changes in the infrastructure at the external borders, including airports, and the setting up of a new digital infrastructure to connect authorities in participating countries.

Its entry into operation has already been delayed several times. The latest date for the EES launch was May this year, but last week European authorities decided to postpone it again “due to delays from the contractors”. It is now expected to enter into force at the end of 2023, as The Local reported this week.

Airline associations including European region of Airports Council International (ACI), Airlines for Europe (A4E), the European Regions Airline Association (ERA) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) welcomed the delay and said further preparations are needed.

“The EES will be a game changer for how the EU’s borders are managed. There are, however, a number of issues which must be resolved to ensure a smooth roll out and operation of the new system so that air passengers do not face disruptions,” a joint statement says.

Things to be resolved include a “wider adoption and effective implementation of automation at national border crossing points by national authorities, funding by member states to ensure a sufficient number of trained staff and resources are deployed to manage the EU’s external border, particularly at airports,” and the “deployment of sufficient resources” to help airports and airlines with new procedures.

Airlines also said there needs to be a public communications campaign to inform non-EU citizens about the changes.

In addition, industry groups called on EU-LISA, the agency responsible for managing the system, to “strengthen communication” with airlines and with international partners such as the US “to ensure IT systems are connected and compatible.”

The decision to postpone the EES entry into operation until after the summer “will give airlines, airports and EU and national authorities the opportunity to resolve these issues and ensure the system is fully tested,” the statement continues.

The EU-LISA is currently preparing a revised timeline for the launch, which will be presented for approval at the Justice and Home Affairs Council, the meeting of responsible EU ministers, in March 2023.

This article was prepared in cooperation with Europe Street News.

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