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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.

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.

  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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SPORT

How will the Tour de France affect traffic and travel in Denmark?

The 2022 Tour de France starts on Friday, with the much-anticipated Danish Grand Départ setting off from Copenhagen and making its way across Denmark.

How will the Tour de France affect traffic and travel in Denmark?

The race will begin in Copenhagen and spend several days in Denmark crossing islands before riders will be transferred back to France for the race to continue from the north east of the country.

The Tour usually includes at least one stage outside France, but Covid travel restrictions meant the 2021 race was held entirely in France, apart from a brief trip into the neighbouring micro-state of Andorra.

Copenhagen was originally scheduled to host the 2021 Grand Départ.

The race usually starts on a Saturday, but next year will begin on Friday, July 1st, in order to allow time for the rest days and transfer of all teams back from Denmark to France.

READ ALSO: MAP: What you need to know about the 2022 Tour de France (and Denmark)

The Danish portion of the tour is as follows:

Stage 1 – July 1st
Copenhagen – Copenhagen – 13km (time trial)

Stage 2 – July 2nd
Roskilde – Nyborg – 199km

Stage 3 – July 3rd
Vejle – Sønderborg – 182km

Stage 1: Copenhagen

Friday July 1st sees a short 13 kilometre time trial on the streets of Copenhagen mark the beginning of the Grand Depart. Some road closures can be expected as early as Monday June 27th and throughout the week leading up to the event as the city prepares for the arrival of the Tour. As such, both traffic and parking may be congested.

The central H.C. Andersens Boulevard will be closed to traffic with parking areas blocked off in the start and finish area of the route. These closures will be in place from June 27th until Monday July 4th at 5am.

The route of the time trial itself will be closed to traffic from the early hours of July 1st, while parking will not be permitted on the route from the morning of the preceding day, Thursday June 30th.

Spectators and residents in Copenhagen are therefore asked to use public transportation to both access and travel within the city. It will not be possible to drive into central Copenhagen.

Normal traffic is expected from Monday July 4th.

Stage 2: Roskilde – Nyborg

Saturday July 2nd will see the Tour cross Zealand and eventually make its way to the island of Funen across the Great Belt Bridge.

The following municipalities can expect traffic and delays throughout the day, with motorists advised to check their routes and leave early if necessary: Roskilde, Lejre, Odsherred, Holbæk, Kalundborg, Korsør and Nyborg.

Local information about road closures during the Tour de France can be found via the relevant municipality websites. Here is the page for Roskilde, for example.

Detailed information about the second stage can be found on the race organiser’s website.

The Great Belt Bridge will be closed completely to cars from 1pm to 6pm on July 2nd, with adjacent motorway sections closing at 12:30 pm. The motorway will be closed between the Nyborg V (Funen) and Slagelse V (Zealand) junctions.

Motorists are therefore strongly advised to avoid travelling between east and west Denmark on July 2nd and to instead plan their journeys for Thursday, Friday or Sunday. Rail traffic across the bridge will not be affected, however.

Ferry connections between Jutland and Zealand, such as those from Aarhus and Ebeltoft to Sjællands Odde, are expected to book up early for July 2nd.

READ ALSO: Denmark warned of traffic and airport congestion as school holidays begin

Stage 3: Vejle – Sønderborg

Fjord city Vejle, with its steep roads and hilly countryside, will challenge the riders on stage 3 before they head south towards Sønderborg near the German border. Both towns can expect considerable queuing and extended journey times.

Passengers travelling through Billund Airport should allow extra travel time on July 3rd due to possible delays linked to the road closures and congestion around Vejle.

In addition to Vejle and Sønderborg, the Kolding, Haderslev and Aabenraa municipalities will all have road closures to make way for the Tour competitors.

Local information about road closures during the Tour de France can be found via the relevant municipality websites. Here is the page for Vejle, for example.

More information about the third stage of the Tour can be found here.

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