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OPINION: Trains are in fashion so why is rail travel across Europe still so difficult?

Jon Worth
Jon Worth - [email protected] • 8 Apr, 2022 Updated Fri 8 Apr 2022 12:42 CEST
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Travelers speak together in a sleeper car of the Paris-Nice night train, between Paris and Nice, on May 20, 2021 on the day it returns to service after being stopped since December 2017. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP)

Would you prefer to travel across Europe by train rather than plane this summer? It’s not nearly as simple as it should be, especially given the urgency of the climate crisis, explains specialist Jon Worth.

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Buried away in the latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about the changes needed in different sectors to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions is this startling graphic (below) – it is in the transport sector where the costs to decarbonise are lowest, and even have cost savings associated with them.

https://twitter.com/TUMInitiative/status/1511405279103045635

So with spring blossom in the trees and thoughts turning to planning summer holiday trips, why not look for a greener route to the sun – by taking the train rather than the plane?

In terms of the public debate, trains are back in fashion.

On the back of Greta Thunberg’s efforts to shame those who fly, and to push greener alternatives instead, media from The New York Times to the BBC are discussing the renaissance of long distance travel by train in Europe, especially night trains.

One railway company – Austria’s ÖBB – has seized the moment and has ordered a fleet of 33 new 7 carriage night trains, the first of which will be on Europe’s tracks from December this year.

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The argument for night trains is a simple one, namely that by travelling at night you save yourself a night in a hotel at your destination, and passengers are happy to make a longer trip while they are asleep than they would during the day – when passengers normally will not spend more than 6 hours in a train.

The problem is that beyond ÖBB’s plans comparatively little is happening in long distance cross border night trains in Europe.

There are dozens of further connections where night trains would make sense – think of routes like Amsterdam-Marseille or Cologne to Warsaw for example – but we cannot hope that the Austrians will run those. The European Commission conservatively estimated in December 2021 that at least 10 more night train routes, over and above those planned by ÖBB, would be economically viable, and running those lines would need at least 170 new carriages to be ordered. But so far no operator has been tempted.

The main players in European rail – Deutsche Bahn, Renfe, SNCF and Trenitalia – have no interest in night trains, and even only limited interest in cross border rail at all.

More profitable national daytime services are their focus. The French and Italian governments have been making noises to push SNCF and Trenitalia respectively to run more night time services but – you guessed it – only on national routes.

A few small private players have sought to run night services – Sweden’s Snälltåget and Amsterdam-based European Sleeper for example, but they have struggled to scale.

All of this is on top of the headaches that cross border rail in Europe has faced for years, namely the difficulty of booking tickets on international trains (sometimes two or more tickets are needed), timetables that are not in sync if you have to change train at a border, and lack of clear information and compensation if something goes wrong. Even finding out what trains run is often a headache, as no complete European railway timetable exists.

The EU nominated 2021 as the European Year of Rail with the aim of drawing attention to what rail can do in Europe, but the year closed with scant little progress on any of this multitude of thorny problems – in the main because the railway companies themselves do not want to solve them.

Helping intrepid cross border travellers find their way around these practical barriers has become a kind of cottage industry in the social media era.

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Communities of sustainable transport nerds of which I am a part on Facebook and Twitter help each other to find the best routes and cheapest tickets, and the venerable Man in Seat 61 website acts as a kind of FAQ for international rail. 

There’s nothing quite like waking up on a summer morning and seeing the sun on the Mediterranean or the wooded slopes of the Alps out of the window of a night train. But travel experiences like that are not nearly as simple or mainstream as they should be – and it is high time the railway industry stepped up.

Are you hoping to travel across Europe by train instead of plane but finding it difficult to organise? Feel free to get in touch and with Jon's expertise we'll try to help you. Email [email protected]

Jon Worth is a Berlin-based blogger who specialises in European train travel. You can his original post on this subject HERE.

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Comments

Jon Worth 2022/04/08 12:42

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h_matterjones 2022/06/25 15:44
I love train travel. However cheap air travel can be it has become an absolute nightmare. Stripping on and off half our clothing and jewelry, going through a security queue that can turn into a lesson in Fascism on dime. The lack of service of any kind because the airlines were deregulated a long time and the airline workers got screwed along with us. I used to love flying. No longer. So this article really interests me. Yes, it seems obvious that train travel is what many people want now and politically it is being thwarted. Even here in Switzerland we voted to beef up the train system a few years ago and now they have laid off heaps of personnel, the trains run late, cancel with no warning during commute hours, no more travel agents in the big stations, the little stations decommissioned and their website is useless for any info other than a time schedule and buying a ticket. This is so sad. I really hope journalists take this subject up and get some momentum and better travel services and night trains, dealing with luggage, making things affordable and dealing with logistics between countries. Trains are the future.
h_matterjones 2022/06/25 15:37
@Trevina L. is this what you mean by "Rail Planner"? https://www.eurail.com/en/plan-your-trip/rail-planner-app Because I googled "Rail Planner" and there is nothing called this specifically. Thanks for a link if this one is wrong. Cheers!
tlitchmo 2022/05/24 09:50
I have had great success with Rail Planner. It's very easy to plan a trip to different EU countries on the app. I have a few complaints such as the ambiguouity around bus subsitutions, but it is really quite good, and I would highly recommend it. The tickets may be a bit pricey, I will admit.
lcs.linclaire 2022/04/12 10:52
It is price that governs. Trains are too expensive. I have been told that flying is cheap because the fuel is virtually untaxed. If that is accurate it is a policy decision that should change. Trains should be cheap, flights more expensive.
peter_303884 2022/04/10 04:01
EU as an organization is unable to get anything done other than talking. If there was a REAL political will we could get rid of polluting short-haul flights but that will never happen.
clindoc50 2022/04/08 17:46
I've lived and studied in Germany and been all over Europe by rail. The worst European train is still far, far better than the best train in the USA.
simonmtownsend 2022/04/08 16:24
Yes, I agree, much more should be done here. I used to use take Eurostar to Paris, change stations, and then the sleeper to Chur via Zürich. But these days, as a frequent traveller between London, Zürich and Chur, the complexity of purchasing a rail ticket, plus the cost, make it really impractical. One big improvement would be to the ability to purchase a ticket, in a single transaction, from London to Zürich/Berlin/Milan ... Only the most dedicated (and wealthy) commuter is likely to persevere with the train option, when you can purchase a return flight within a few minutes and for perhaps £150 return.

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