SHARE
COPY LINK

TRAVEL NEWS

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Member comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

TRAVEL NEWS

Copenhagen Airport passengers warned of more queues on holiday weekends

Long queues were reported at Copenhagen Airport during last week’s extended public holiday weekend and similar issues are likely during two more upcoming holidays.

Copenhagen Airport passengers warned of more queues on holiday weekends

Staff shortages at security checks, caused by a lengthy rehiring process following the Covid-19 crisis, have been blamed for crowds and long queues at Copenhagen Airport during peak times this spring.

Long waiting times at security were reported both Thursday and Sunday at Copenhagen Airport, resulting in a significant number of passengers missing flights, broadcaster DR writes.

The airport’s commercial director Peter Krogsgaard told DR that Copenhagen is not alone in experiencing problems with queues.

“Copenhagen Airport and all airports in Europe have had a lot to do in re-hiring and training many employees after corona,” Krogsgaard said.

“We are therefore seeing that, now passengers are coming back and fortunately want to travel again, we are under a bit of pressure to begin with,” he said.

This means that passengers planning to travel during two more upcoming peak times – the public holidays on Ascension Day (Thursday May 26th) and Pentecost (Monday June 6th) – should brace themselves for lengthy queues at the airport.

Up to 70,000 passengers are expected during the first of the two public holidays, according to Copenhagen Airport.

“We expect to be very busy and are therefore advising all passengers travelling within Europe to arrive two hours before their flight. If you are going to outside of Europe, to the Unites States or Asia, you should come three hours before,” Krogsgaard told DR.

Passengers have few options should they miss flights due to long waits at security, a consumer rights consultant said to DR.

“You are in a very bad situation if you get to the airport too late in relation to the waiting times there actually are at security, because it’s your own responsibility to get to the airport in time to make the flight,” Vagn Jelsøe, senior consultant with the Danish Consumer Council (Forbrugerrådet Tænk), said to DR.

The airport expects to be fully staffed by the beginning of June, DR reports.

“Since January, we’ve done nothing other than hire a lot of new people and they must be trained and educated, and it takes some time for them to get to the security lanes,” Krogsgaard also said.

Airline SAS last week said it would cancel around 4,000 flights over the summer. The decision was made due to staff shortages combined with delayed deliveries of new aeroplanes, SAS said.

SHOW COMMENTS