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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.

People in a sleeper train
Passengers in a couchette cabin. Photo: 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

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DISCOVER FRANCE

South-west France offers €10-per-day unlimited rail travel

Check out France's beautiful south-west this summer with a €10-per-day unlimited rail pass, created by local authorities to help people explore the region.

South-west France offers €10-per-day unlimited rail travel

Occitanie, in south-west France, has created a €10 per day rail pass that allows travellers and holidaymakers unlimited travel on local trains the length and breadth of the region.

The pass is valid on local TER services run by the Occitanie region and allows travel on 19 rail lines to all of the region’s 150 stations.

The Occitanie Rail Tour Pass offers unlimited rail travel for between two and six consecutive days from Lourdes to Nîmes, Perpignan to Rodez – and all points in the region in between.

The pass will be valid on all 19 liO rail lines, from all 150 stations in all 13 départements across the region. It cannot be used on the high-speed TGV trains or on Intercité or night train routes.

Additionally, the region’s liO buses can take passengers to parts of the region the train can’t reach for an additional €2 per trip.

The rail pass is intended to open up a region that stretches from the Pyrenees and Mediterranean in the south to the Massif Central in the north, taking in towns and cities including Toulouse, Montpellier, Auch, Lourdes, Albi, Perpignan, Rodez, Narbonne and Nîmes.

The Occitanie region in south-west France. Map: Wikicommons

The region is part of the historic area of Languedoc and is famous for well-preserved Medieval castles, beautiful coastlines, hearty cooking including traditional dishes like cassoulet and some Catalan influences from its neighbour Spain.

READ ALSO The best regional food and drink specialities in south-west France

The rail pass is available to buy now and tickets can be bought for dates until the end of July – although the offer could be extended. Buy here.

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