SHARE
COPY LINK

TRAIN TRAVEL

‘We are supposed to be borderless’: Why train travel in Europe is not up to speed

Is train travel in Europe up to scratch if people want a greener option to flying? Rail expert Jon Worth travelled 30,000km on 186 different trains across the continent to find out.

Bratislava railways Cross Border rail
A train connection between Bratislava and Berlin on day 40 of Jon's Cross Border Rail project. Photo: Jon Worth

In many ways, the lives of people in Europe have never been more intertwined: freedom of movement has made it simpler for people to relocate or work across borders, projects like Erasmus foster cultural and linguistic exchange, and the EU has connected politics across member states like never before.

But, as a new research project has revealed, the dream of a truly interconnected Europe has one very practical barrier: many of the rail connections between different countries are not fit for service.

“We are supposed to live in a borderless Europe, but when it comes to rail transport, borders still exist,” said Jon Worth, an activist and blogger who founded the Cross Border Rail project to highlight the issues in European rail transport. 

His message to the European Commission? “The EU’s transport policy is failing.” 

READ ALSO: ‘Something always goes wrong’: What I learned taking the train through Europe with two kids

Worth first noticed the problems with cross-border rail transport when travelling around Europe for his job as a communications consultant.

While services varied across different EU states, the one constant was that, regardless of the location or the countries involved, travelling across borders by train was often far more difficult and inconvenient than it needed to be.

This observation became the seed of an ambitious new project: to travel across every internal border within the EU, and European Free Trade Area (EFTA), via train. In doing so, he wanted to paint a picture of the scale of the problem across Europe. 

Cross Border Rail

Jon travels through Sweden near the town of Sundsvall. Photo: Jon Worth

“You have to first know the problem exists and then you have to practically start to unpick that problem to work out what you’re going to do about it,” he told The Local. “I didn’t really think of this as the purpose of my project at the beginning, but I’m basically bottling up practical experience from the ground and taking it to policy makers and saying, this is what we need you to fix.”

A 30,000km rail journey

From coastal routes in Italy to the mountains of central Sweden, the journey involved travelling more than 30,000km by rail, taking 186 different trains and travelling 900km by bike and 1,500km by ferry, taxi and bus when gaps in railway services appeared. 

By experiencing the routes first-hand, Worth realised that cross-border services suffered from four key problems: repair work was needed on key areas of the track, some regions had infrastructure but no passenger transport, schedules were disjointed between countries and ticketing bugs were making it difficult for people to find and book services. 

Worth noticed, for example, that passengers travelling from Germany to Strasbourg often had to shell out more than double the actual ticket price due to a bug in Deutsch Bahn’s tariff system.

While a Berlin to Kehl Sparpreis ticket normally costs €61.90 and a regional connection between Kehl and Strasbourg is just €4.30, people booking the entire journey will be hit with a bill of €147.80 for a full-price ticket. 

“This is especially absurd as Strasbourg is the seat of the European Parliament,” Worth explained. 

In other places, including several routes between France and Spain, the services were good but there was simply no information on them available on many booking platforms.

That’s because the Spanish operators Euskotren and Rodalies de Catalunya don’t upload timetables to UIC Merits, the timetable system used by travel planners like DB Reiseauskunft and ÖBB Scotty. The result is that only travellers with a good local knowledge of rail services would even know that the trains were running.

“This type of data gap can be found anywhere in the EU,” Worth explained. 

‘Simple solutions’

In some cases, a small amount of investment appeared to be the answer. 

Like in the small town of Seifhennersdorf in Saxony, Germany, which has been left without its single rail service towards the Czech Republic due to a level crossing that needs to be repaired.

Or in the French town of Valenciennes – ironically enough, the location of the EU Railways Agency – where there is no direct route to Mons in Belgium due to 2km of missing track, and the one remaining route requires a long detour with irregular train services. 

In Lithuania, a train waits for hours in Turmantus before returning to Vilnius, rather than continuing the remaining 25km to Daugavpils in Latvia, leaving a gap in the connections between the two countries. In Worth’s view, a little extra fuel would be all it takes to solve this problem. 

In other cases, countries had failed to co-ordinate their train timetables, making this services near-to-unusable.

This was the primary issue between Tallin in Estonia and Riga in Latvia, where passengers heading north face an almost three-hour delay when changing at Valga, and passengers heading south have to wait almost four hours for their connecting train. 

Worth discovered a similar problem when heading from Marseille in France to Genova in Italy: there are no direct long-distance services via Nice and Ventimiglia and regional trains are so badly coordinated that anyone trying to make the trip has to wait at Ventimiglia for 1 hour 55 minutes heading eastbound and 52 minutes heading west.

These examples – and several more – were compiled into a list of 20 case studies where Worth claims the issues could be quickly and easily rectified. 

“What I want to show is that there are a whole host of problems that you can solve without much money,” he said. “There are simple solutions to so many of these problems.” 

READ ALSO: How a cross-border train has pushed house prices up in Switzerland and France

‘Practice what they preach’

On each day of his 40-day journey around Europe, Worth sent a postcard to EU Transport Commissioner Adina Valean – but has yet to receive a response.

“I want the EU to fix these problems, but I don’t think at the moment the EU – the Commission is particular – has the necessary knowledge or the necessary political will to really solve them,” he said. “The EU says they’re in favour of improving international passenger transport, but whether they’re actually fully practising what they preach, I’m not so sure.”

Having built up what he describes as a “head full of knowledge and a hard disk full of footage” through his first-hand experience of the trip and conversations with local activists, his question is: “Why is the EU not doing this, why is a Commission official not doing this?”

In concrete terms, the Green Party activist hopes that the EU will “get its hands dirty” and intervene when needed to ensure that communities along Europe’s borders are better served by the rail network, especially when the governments of one or more countries are slamming the brakes on a much-needed project.

“The European Commission at the moment has no idea what’s happening on the ground in the majority of cases,” Worth said.

For Worth, two factors will be crucial in solving Europe’s cross-border rail issue: having the political will to cooperate across borders and having a clear sense of how much a reliable rail service can affect the lives of residents in the region.

One example of this is the ease of travelling between Copenhagen in Denmark and Malmö in Sweden, where trains run every 20 minutes and around the clock.

“I met someone who was going to the dentist in Malmö from Copenhagen,” Worth said. “It basically shows how much people’s behaviour has changed because they’ve got a reliable train. People have got to be able to rely on the train and allow their lives to change, knowing that the train can take the strain.” 

Regardless of whether trains are run by private or state companies, by Slovakia, Austria or Spain, the main priority is for governments to agree that “this is the function they want the trains to serve”, Worth said. 

“Only when you’ve been to some of these places can you really understand fully what it would really take in order to fix those problems,” he said. “And that aspect of how the personal is political is really, really central for me.” 

The Local has approached the European Commission for a comment. 

READ ALSO: Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying – even with kids

Member comments

  1. “One example of this is the ease of travelling between Copenhagen in Denmark and Malmö in Sweden, where trains run every 20 minutes and around the clock.” Oh dear what a bad example. Örusundståg which operates this “service” is so unreliable that those who live along the line it runs from Karlskrona to Häessleholm who is travelling to Copenhagen airport either drives or takes a taxi if they want to be sure of cathing their flight. And the last train from Copenhagen airport that goes any further than Kristianstad leaves at 9 p.m.

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

TRAIN TRAVEL

UPDATED: The best websites for cross-Europe train travel

Planning to travel by train across Europe but not sure where to start? Here are the best websites to help make it happen.

UPDATED: The best websites for cross-Europe train travel

Travelling across Europe by train is quickly becoming the preferred mode of transport for many people – mostly due to environmental concerns.

For others though, making the switch from cars or planes to trains is not so simple.

With planes, there are well-known websites like Skyscanner and Expedia, which makes it easy to find cheap flights. As well good connections across the continent from most major airports.

Then there is the convenience of travelling by car, which can be hard to beat – especially for those living in more rural areas. 

So what are the options for trains? Are there websites like Skyscanner but for train travel? And where can you find cheap tickets or the best routes?

Here are the websites you need to know when planning a trip across Europe by train.

Seat 61

The Seat 61 website provides tips on how to travel comfortably and affordably by train, while aiming to help visitors to rediscover the “pleasure, romance  and adventure of the journey”.

It includes an introduction to train travel in Europe, as well as an extensive search feature to find trains by starting location.

For example, The Local searched for trains from Salzburg to Italy and found routes to Venice, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples, including on Nightjet sleeper trains.

The guide then describes the features of the Nightjet service, such as air conditioning, showers and room service all useful information for any newbies starting out with train travel.

Seat 61 is run by Mark Smith, a train enthusiast and former manager at the UK Department of Transport.

READ MORE: Discover Austria: 19 ways to make the most of autumn this year

Trainline

The Trainline is an international platform focused on train travel. The company is based in the UK but has extensive coverage of train travel in 45 countries across Europe.

The aim of the Trainline is find to the cheapest tickets for a selected route. Most of the time, this means booking in advance.

The site also highlights some great offers, such as €7 tickets between Barcelona and Madrid, and Paris to Amsterdam from €20.

As an added bonus, the search function on the Trainline is very user-friendly and allows people to search by location, as well as add extras such as railcards or return tickets.

The Trainline can be accessed via the website or app.

Rail Europe

Rail Europe is a leading distributor of European train tickets. The website covers 25,000 destinations and 11,000 routes across the continent.

The search function on Rail Europe works in a similar way to other websites and users can view tickets by destination to get the best price. It’s also possible to purchase railcards direct from Rail Europe.

Additionally, the site includes a useful overview of the latest ticket releases and sales, such as special offers on journeys between Paris and Geneva.

Users can pay for tickets in Euros, Sterling or Dollar (US, Canada and Australia) on the website or the app.

Rail Europe is headquartered in Paris but was founded in New York in 1932.

READ ALSO: Ryanair to raise flight ticket prices in Austria

Interrail

The Interrail Pass is a railcard that is available for residents in Europe. For people that live outside of Europe, they can purchase the Eurail Pass.

The passes are aimed at backpackers, or anyone spending time travelling across Europe.

The Interrail website has details about the different passes on offer under the umbrella of Interrail, like the Global Pass, One Country Pass and the German Rail Pass

For example, prices for the One Country Pass for Spain start at €182 for three days of travel within one month. Or you can pay €235 for five days of travel within one month.

Whereas the Global Pass starts at €251 for seven days of train travel in one month, but goes up to €677 for a three month unlimited travel ticket.

Interrail or Eurail Pass holders can buy tickets and make reservations via the desktop website or the Rail Planner app.

Omio

Omio is a travel platform where you can book train, bus and flight tickets. It has a free app to download or users can search and book on the website.

The Omio site has a dedicated section just for train travel. It even highlights 28 routes in Europe that are faster by train than plane – as well as the amount of carbon dioxide saved on the trip.

Examples are London to Brussels, which takes just two hours, or Frankfurt to Cologne in one hour.

There is also a handy FAQ section with information about booking train tickets in Europe, baggage conditions and travelling with pets.

At the time of writing, The Local found a ticket from Zurich to Vienna on Omio for €60 (when searching for dates two months in advance).

READ NEXT: ‘A great day for consumers in Europe’: EU votes for single smartphone charger

National rail operators

Aside from the five websites detailed above, it’s also worth checking out the websites of national rail operators to find deals and travel passes.

Here are the rail operators for each country covered by The Local.

Austria: Visit oebb.at to find Sparschiene (cheap/discounted) tickets on selected routes across the country. Tickets can also be booked for the Nightjet (overnight rail service).

Denmark: DSB is the national rail operator in Denmark. Timetables and tickets can be found at dsb.dk, including discounts for travelling outside of rush hours. 

France: Rail operator SNCF can be found at sncf.com. The website even has a guide on how to save money on rail travel in France.

Germany: Deutsche Bahn is Germany’s national rail service. Visit bahn.com to find cheap tickets for travel within Germany and throughout Europe.

Italy: Train tickets in Italy can be purchased at italiarail.com. You can even get a free Italian phrase ebook if you sign up to the Italia Rail newsletter.

Norway: Travellers can check prices and book tickets in Norway at norwaytrains.com. Most trains in Norway are operated by SJ or Vy trains.

Spain: Renfe is the leading train operator in Spain and can be found at renfe.com. The website has a page dedicated to discounts and another where you can buy tickets for luxury tourist trains.

Sweden: SJ is Sweden’s national rail operator. Tickets can be bought at sj.se, including annual passes and special offers.

Switzerland: Visit sbb.ch for tickets on Switzerland’s national rail network. The website is available in four languages (English, German, French, Italian) and features offers like Supersaver tickets and the GA Travelcard.

Do you have other suggestions for websites we should add to this list? Let us know in the comments section below or email [email protected]

SHOW COMMENTS