There are only three remaining passenger train ferries in Europe: one between mainland Italy and the island of Sicily; one from Sassnitz in Germany to Trelleborg in Sweden; and one from Rødby in Denmark to Puttgarden in Germany.
The idea of putting a whole train on board a ferry to cross an expanse of water is one largely confined to the past, at least in Europe. This is predominantly due to the creation of numerous fixed links, such as the Channel Tunnel between the UK and France or the Øresund bridge between Denmark and Sweden, and also the proliferation of low-cost air travel making the rail routes themselves redundant in a number of cases.
Even the three survivors are under threat. That between Villa San Giovanni in Italy and Messina on the island of Sicily is mooted to be getting a bridge replacement (although this is a very much on/off affair, most recently being declared “off” for the time being); that between Sassnitz and Trelleborg is an overnight, summer-only operation which has been suggested for closure on a number of occasions; and that across the Fehmarnbelt between Rødby and Puttgarden is being replaced by a fixed link for which the construction contracts have already been signed.
The proposed fixed link across the Fehmarnbelt will take the form of an 18 kilometre long immersed tunnel encompassing a four lane motorway and a double track railway, and will be the world’s longest immersed tunnel upon completion. It will take 7 minutes to cross from one side of the Fehmarnbelt to the other by rail, and 10 minutes by road – whichever way you look at it, a significant saving on the current 45 minute crossing time by ferry for either mode of transport. In addition, it will be far less susceptible to weather-related disruption. The shortened travel time from Hamburg to København is expected to drastically increase traffic between the two cities.
It’s fairly clear that the pros of the fixed link far outweigh the cons, which are largely sentimental. However, the good news if you’ve yet to visit, is that the construction work has not yet started. It is due to begin in January 2018 and take 8½ years, so the train ferry would appear to have a good decade left.
I last took a journey on this train ferry in summer 2007, travelling from Denmark to Germany, and I found it very interesting indeed if, indeed, it felt like something of an anachronism even then.
As befitting the nature of Denmark, the journey from København to the port at Rødby is one of numerous islands linked by bridges. After travelling via Roskilde, Ringsted and Næstved to Vordingborg (all on Sjælland), the train crosses first to Masnedø, then to Falster, and finally to Lolland on whose coast Rødby is situated.
It must be said that the scenery en route is not necessarily fantastic – although I thought that the views of the water from the bridges – in particular the Storstrøm Bridge – were memorable. Lolland is also known by the nickname “Pancake Island” as a reflection of its flatness, and the railway is as good a way to appreciate this facet of its geography as any! It is therefore something of a surprise to finally reach Rødby Færge station, its pylons and floodlights reaching higher into the sky than even the turbines of the surrounding wind farms.
The ferry connection between Rødby and Puttgarden commenced operation on 14 May 1963 – completing a direct link between København and Hamburg. This was dubbed the “Vogelfluglinie”, or “bird flight line”, as it roughly follows a common migratory route used by birds. The route briefly took on international significance in late 2015 during the EU-wide refugee crisis. Large numbers of illegal immigrants, predominantly from Iraq and Syria, were trying to reach Sweden which was displaying a more welcoming attitude to them than most EU countries. As a result, the Rødby to Puttgarden ferry and associated railways and motorways ended up being closed on police orders. Reports described “chaotic scenes” where well over a thousand refugees disembarked from ferries arriving at Rødby, some “disappearing” to evade capture by the police, others attempting to walk up the E47 motorway in the vague direction of Sweden.
Both ports painted a sad picture of emptiness and desolation, and had certainly not only seen better days but had been constructed with the intention of handling much higher volumes of rail traffic than now pass through; indeed international railfreight via this route has ceased. Rows and rows of overgrown and rusty sidings lay empty in and around the terminal as we edged our way towards the ferry. Saying that, however, it is clear that the dearth of rail traffic must be more than compensated by the proliferation of lorries and cars, as the intensive ferry shuttle service is clearly supported by something!
The ferries themselves are operated by Scandlines and can carry both cars and trains. Ferries depart each port at broadly 30-minute intervals, 24 hours a day – however only three in each direction convey trains. There are four train ferries in the fleet, all dating from 1997 – two under the Danish flag (Prins Richard and Prinsesse Benedikte), and two under the German flag (Schleswig-Holstein and Deutschland). It was the latter onto which my train rolled.
It’s slightly unnerving to be on a full size train just feet away from lorries and cars, not least for it to cross from land onto a vessel! The train slowly drew to a stand on the ship’s single railway track within the car deck, and passengers were instructed to disembark and make their way up to the passenger area, mingling with the motorists who had just parked their own vehicles.
The crossing itself was admittedly something of an anti-climax. The Deutschland has all the amenities you would expect from a modern short-distance passenger ferry – shops, restaurants, etc – and the 45 minute journey passed quickly and without incident. Before long, an announcement was made for train passengers to make their way back to the train, and after docking, the engines were restarted and the train slowly emerged from the darkness of the ferry’s car deck, back onto terra firma and into Puttgarden railway station.
Puttgarden was broadly similar to Rødby, in that it featured relatively nondescript 1963-vintage architecture simultaneously being heavily used and being slowly reclaimed by nature, depending on whether you looked at the rail or road parts of the terminal. With a harsh wind blowing straight off the Baltic, seagull droppings everywhere (I have never seen so much in one place!), rust and foliage everywhere, it was not a place to remain in for long. Indeed, it’s kind of the point of Puttgarden that nobody every does stay there for long. The port complex (as distinct from the tiny village of Puttgarden, some distance to the west, from which it takes its name) exists solely to tranship people, goods and their vehicles from land to sea, and from sea to land, as efficiently as possible. When the Fehmarnbelt fixed link is finally commissioned, will likely disappear from the map, its purpose negated.
You can’t help but feel that although – again – it will undoubtedly be a step forward when the tape is cut on the Fehmarnbelt tunnel, that it will be sad to see the end of something which has been a thriving, now almost unique, operation which has quietly gone about its business for well over half a century. If you haven’t yet experienced the train ferry from Denmark to Germany, I would recommend building it into your travel plans before that day arrives.