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Definitely the Wrong Train: Wheelchair Train Travel in Germany

Chris Alp is a traveler, athlete, and contributor to our blog. He has traveled with WTW to Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia, where he trekked the W circuit with his wife. He shares his experience traveling solo by train in Germany with us.


My friends reckon I can be a bit too independent. This story probably proves their point! But I won’t let my wheelchair hold me back. 

I penned these memories the same evening over a beer and dinner with lots of potatoes.

15 June … a couple years back. A big day!

I am on my own this week and I previously not explored Germany. 

Woke up really early this morning to head off to Koblenz. It’s a good old German autobahn all the way and it doesn’t get any better sitting on 160kph (100 mph) listening to my playlist through the Avis Volvo’s excellent sound system. 

Where else in the world can you enjoy roads like this?

I walked (hey … I call it walking) around the old town of Koblenz after squeezing into a very tight parking spot. No disabled parking spots. I had to get my wheelchair out before I parked, then drag myself along the ground, back to the chair. 

Undignified … but I didn’t get too dirty. 

The above photo of the confluence of the two rivers (Rhine and Moselle) was a treat to be enjoyed from the cable car that I rode up, looked around, then straight came back down. Not much else happening here (it’s a Sunday) so after a quick lunch I headed to Bonn.

From here, my plan was to catch the train further upstream to Linz and ride the boat back down for what I was told would be the ‘best part’ of the river. I could only ride one way because it was getting late.

Well, that’s when the fun started.

Hmmm … Frankfurt? Didn’t sound right. I checked the train details on the page the assistant printed. The train would arrive in Linz at 9.30pm (long after the last boat leaves). I quizzed her about this and she said that she was definitely correct.

Her colleague pointed out that she was about to send me directly to Linz in Austria (700kms away) not Linz in Germany (40kms away). That was close!

The correct Linz was apparently accessed by a different station 1km on the other side of the river. And my rental car is somewhere in the middle.

Ok. Let’s go. Good old TomTom on my iPhone showed me the right way (never lets me down) and after half an hour’s brisk walk, I found the correct station. But which way? Left, middle or right platform? I figure that I was on the correct platform, so hearing a German announcement I sensed a train looming and quickly bought some ticket from the ‘German only’ ticket machine. The train arrived and with no time to even endorse the ticket I had to get on. Easy step up and I’m off. Love this German accessibility!

Thought I should check that sat nav again. Plugged in my destination and of course it doesn’t have ‘train travel’ as a mode so it’s mighty confused. We are not on any known road so the map keeps spinning around and around. Eventually, it said I was going the wrong way.

The next stop was just a few minutes away, so I thought the ‘prudent thing’ to do was get off and go back. As the train pulled away, I realised the only way down was a big flight of stairs to the subway. Maybe I need to review my assessment of German accessibility? There is no one around. 

Bumped my way down backwards to the subway level and to my relief, the stairs up the other side were accompanied by a lovely ramp. Phew! After 15 minutes the train in the new ‘correct’ direction came along. Alas. Two steps up into the train. Without blinking an eye, I was out of my chair (again) up the steps and pulling the chair behind me. A little dirtier now. A gaggle of nuns on board didn’t know what to think. They didn’t get off their seats to help either.

Ok. Now I’m back on the right track so I feel better. Time is moving on and the last boat departs soon. I check the sat nav. At last it’s no longer confused. Now I definately am heading the wrong way!

I quickly arrive back at the station I first started at. I get off. I look for the easy access off the middle platform but again, there are only stairs down to the lower level. No big deal, I have done this already. Bump, bump, bump … At the bottom, I look ahead through the tunnel and realise that the only way up is another big flight of stairs. No ramp.

Now I’m really in trouble. Starting to wish I hadn’t been so adventurous. What was so good about the Rhine and those castles anyway? Perhaps I could have seen them somehow from the car. Too late … I’m here now!

Fortunately, there were a few stragglers also getting off another train. As I got out of my chair to commence my awkward (butt first, drag the legs) climb up, a kind English speaking lad offered to carry my wheelchair up for me. Naturally I said yes. 

As he took off with my chair with my attached bag, including my passport, wallet, iPad, iPhone and … my whole life, let alone my entire mobility, I realised I might have placed a little too much trust in this young guy.

grey cement stairs along a grey brick wall
Stairs leading down to the station

I need not have worried. A now very dirty me emerged at the top of the stairs and climbed back into my awaiting chair. 

What must these locals think? Thankfully they could only see part of this situation! To think I was once an award-winning rally navigator … how embarrassing!

Now, I have 23 minutes to wait for the next train. I double check the direction. I check again. I check the time of the last boat. I check the time to destination. I have no way of knowing where the boat leaves from, relative to the destination station. And I will have 9 minutes to find it and get on board. If the train is on time. Oh dear.

The train eventually arrives. Again, two steps up but hey, I’m an expert at getting dirty. I had taken a screen shot of the train stops and counted them down. Yes, we were running late. Maybe 2 minutes. With an unknown path at the end. After half an hour, the train arrives at ‘Linz (Rhine)’ to give it it’s correct name. I get off, down 4 steps to the street (easy) and wonder what to do. 

I ask a local woman where to go. ‘It is very difficult’ she says. A long way (I figure it’s only one kilometer). 7 minutes left. 

I have no understanding of her specific instructions and follow her general thrust and choose a more logical path … through two underpasses and past some dead end. I follow my instinct, cross various roads and eventually hit water. This is good … boats float on water. I head along the river through awkward paths that wander around trees and obstacles and eventually emerge in a sea of people and boats.

Yes, this is the port! It’s not long before I find the ‘KD’ boat and an even bigger sea of people. I have two minutes left. But I don’t have a ticket and the office is closed. I ask another official looking local if they sell tickets on board and he says ‘no’ and ‘not possible to board without one’ (those crazy Germans!) so I’m stuck.

So near yet so far. This is the last boat and I have made it with two minutes spare. Yet to have it all come undone like this!

Stuff that! I’m getting on that boat! So, as the gates open, rather than blending in with the crowd as the officials collect tickets, I go for ‘fuss’. Something I learned as a kid in a wheelchair. I queued at the wrong gate, professed to not understand instructions, insisted on that particular entry and ignored the attendant when he half-heartedly asked for a ticket!

Hey, it worked.

As soon as I got on board, I hit the elevator to the top deck. 

Ahhh yes! Sunshine and tables. A light crowd, just enough to blend in. And a bar! Even better. I bought the first of two lovely local beers. Then I sat back and enjoyed a fabulous 2-hour ride down the Rhine past the huge castles, delightful villages (some that I had already past three times on the train) and the old broken bridges from the war years. Fabulous and well worth the effort!

Another blast down the autobahn and I was back at my lovely hotel. A wander around on the final night here before I head off to meet up with everyone in France tomorrow. 5 hours of hassle-free driving in the Volvo.

Believe it or not, I had a great day! Just a tad tired. And that is what travel is all about!

By Chris Alp 


This story is part of a series of Travel Stories submitted by the Wheel the World community. Read more travel stories, like Geoff’s Grand Canyon Adventure here.

For more stories of accessible adventures in Germany, check out the documentary below.

Wheel the World travels to Eifel National Park in Germany

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