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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.

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TRAIN TRAVEL

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

Hoping to do his bit for the planet, perhaps save some money and avoid spending any time in airports, The Local's Ben McPartland decided to travel 2,000km with his family across Europe by train - not plane. Here's how he got on on and would he recommend it?

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying - even with kids

Summer 2022 has seen the return of people travelling across Europe en masse whether for holidays or to see family, or both.

But it’s also seen chaos in airports, airline strikes and more questions than ever about whether we should be flying at all as Europe bakes under consecutive heatwaves caused by the climate crisis.

But are there really viable alternatives to travelling 2,000 km across Europe in a short space of time – with young kids?

The predicament

We needed to get from Paris to Portugal, or to be more precise the western edge of the Algarve in southern Portugal, for a week-long family holiday.

We didn’t have that much time to spend travelling there and back so the dilemma was how could we get there, fairly quickly?

“We” in this case being a family of four including two children aged 5 and 7, one fairly easygoing mum and a dad (me) who increasingly comes out in a rash when he goes near an airport.

Normally we’d have flown – as we did when we went to the same region of Portugal in October – but the stories of airport chaos, delays, cancellations, strikes and never-ending queues around Europe at the start of the summer made the prospect of taking the plane far less appealing.

Then throw in the climate crisis and the growing feeling that we, as a family, need to make an effort for the cause.

So the thought of flying, during what forecasters say was one of the hottest Julys on record in Europe and as rivers dried up and wildfires burn, just didn’t feel like an acceptable option – to me anyway – when there are alternatives.

There was the option of driving from France to Portugal, as many French and Portuguese nationals living in France do every summer. But driving nearly 2,000 km there and back for just a week’s holiday with two kids strapped in the back for hours on end would have been asking for trouble – either a breakdown or lots of meltdowns.

So that left taking the train. But would it be viable?  Would something go wrong as my colleague Richard Orange had warned on his own rail trip across Europe with kids this summer?

READ ALSO: What I learned taking the train through Europe with two kids

Planning the route

With the help of some really knowledgeable European rail experts like Jon Worth and information from the excellent The Man in Seat Sixty-One website we looked at the various rail routes through France and Spain to southern Portugal.

One problem was the line from southern Spain to the Algarve no longer runs which meant the best we could do was get to Seville and then hire a car.

At one point the best option looked like a night train (fairly cheap with a whole cabin reserved for the family) down to the Pyrenees (Latour-de-Carol) and then a local train to Barcelona before onwards travel to Portugal.

But in the end we settled on the direct train from Paris to Barcelona, spend the night in the Catalan city before taking the train the next day to Seville and picking up the car.

READ ALSO 6 European cities less than 7 hours from Paris by train

It would be mean Paris to Portugal in two days – or to be precise 7 hours to Barcelona, one night in a hotel, before a five-and-half-hour train journey to Seville and a three-hour car journey. It was the quickest way without flying, as far as we could see.

We were about to book the tickets when friend who was travelling by rail through Europe mentioned the Interrail option.

I did Interrailing as an 18-year- old and it was a great way to spend a month travelling around Europe (and Morocco) but had never thought it could be an option for a quickish trip to Portugal and back.

But Interrail has changed a bit since 1996 and indeed since 1972 when it was first launched for under 21s.

Now it offers passes that can be used for 4, 5 or 7 days a month – perfect for travel to a few destinations in a short space of time.

And, this was the clincher – Interrail passes for under 11s are free if they are with an adult.

Well almost free, because in certain countries like France and Spain you still need to pay for seat reservations for anyone travelling.

But the cost of the passes for two adults, plus seat reservations were cheaper than just booking direct trains and much cheaper than flying (more on costs below).

The high-speed train from Barcelona to Seville. Photo: The Local

The Upsides

Let’s start with not having to wake up at 4am and arrive at the train station three hours before the train leaves just to check in a bag and then spend the next three hours queuing in various lines – bags, passport, security, boarding etc..

We arrived at Gare de Lyon around 30 minutes before the train left and boarded without queuing and the train departed on time.

Compare this with having to get a taxi or the RER train to Charles de Gaulle airport and then still find yourself in Paris three hours later as you queue to board. (I know this is not always the case but this summer the advice was to arrive three hours before your flight to check in bags.)

Plus there was no luggage limits on the train and no having to empty your bags at security because you left an old roll-on deodorant at the bottom of your bag.

Although rail stations in Spain do have airport style x-ray machines to check all luggage, they were very rapid and didn’t result in any long queues.

Add to this comfortable seats with leg room, a bar you can walk to and spend hours watching the beautiful French and Spanish landscape whizz by.

You arrive in the centre of town – in our case Barcelona – so there’s no need to get public transport or taxis to and from out of town airports. 

Spending a night in Barcelona was a great way to break the journey – albeit a bit expensive (see below).

And it all ran pretty much on time. Over five train journeys in four days we had 15 minutes of delay. Spain’s high-speed trains were fantastic.

To sum it up: when flying your holiday only really begins when you arrive at your final destination because these days the day spent travelling is one big headache, but with the train the holiday begins as soon as you leave the station.

It’s just far, far more relaxing.

heading back to Barcelona Sants station after a night in the Catalan capital. Photo: The Local.

The Downsides

But what about the kids, you say?

Yep this can be an issue. Travelling for 7 hours on a train is not easy with two young kids but if you come prepared and can think of 75 different ways to occupy them from drawing and playing cards to I-spy and “count my freckles slowly” then it’s possible the journey will be tantrum free. (Playing hide and seek on a train with 12 carriages isn’t advisable.)

And kids adapt, so the following day’s five and half hour journey from Barcelona to Seville was a breeze because they settled into the pace of life and by that point had worked out the code to get into my mobile phone.

One complaint was how long the TGV train took to get along the southern French coast. Does it really need to stop at Nimes, Montpellier, Beziers, Agde, Sete and Perpignan? Can’t local trains serve these stations and the TGV just head straight to Spain?

Another little gripe was the train food. Whilst buffet cars on SNCF and Renfe trains are great for a coffee or a beer they don’t really offer a selection of healthy meals, so you need to come prepared. We weren’t and spent a lot of money on crap food and drink during the trips.

But if you know this in advance you can bring whatever you like onto the train, with no nonsense about 100ml limits on liquid.

Cost comparison

Working out cost comparisons are hard and anyone looking to do a similar trip will need a calculator at hand. 

It’s hard to do a direct comparison between flying and taking the train because so much depends on what the prices are when you book, the route you want to take and how quickly you want to travel and whether to go first class or standard.

But for us at the time of booking (roughly two months in advance) flights from Paris to Faro were about €1,500 for four people, train tickets booked directly with SNCF and Renfe (not interrail) for four people were around €1,200 (this probably could have been much cheaper further in advance), whilst the Interrail option – 4 day passes plus seat reservations was around €810.

So on the face of it travelling by train, especially using Interrail passes, was cheaper – but then add on the cost of two nights in hotels in central Barcelona and there was no real financial benefit of going by train.

But then it was never all about money – what price on not having to spend three hours at Charles de Gaulle airport?

How easy is it to Interrail?

Interrail proved a great option for us, even though it was only a relatively short trip. It’s more suited to those looking to do multiple journeys through various countries, perhaps at a slower pace. But the kids being free was crucial for us, so other families should definitely explore the option.

The one downside to Interrailing through France and Spain is the requirement to book seat reservations for the high-speed trains.

Whilst this sounds fairly straightforward we couldn’t do it through the Interrail app or website so had to be done with Renfe directly. For most countries you can reserve seats through the Interrail app (more on this below).

With SNCF it required a lengthy phone call because we reserved the seats to make sure there were some available before getting the Interrail passes.

For Paris to Barcelona the reservations cost €34 for standard class seats or €48 for first class.

With Renfe it was more complicated although much cheaper (Around €10 to €12 a seat). We were told on the phone that to reserve seats with Interrail you have to do it either at a Spanish train station or by phone but only if you can pick up and pay for the reservations at a Spanish train station within a certain amount of time.

Neither of these were possible when booking from Paris back in May/June. But the helpful website Man at Seat 61 recommended going via the man behind the AndyBTravels website, who charges a small fee. A few emails were exchanged and our reservations for Barcelona to Seville arrived in the post a few days later. 

Renfe and SNCF could make it easier for Interrail passengers.

The Interrail mobile pass on the the Rail Planner app was very easy to use. It was just a case of adding the days when we were travelling and then adding the specific journeys.

This brought up a QR code for each trip but the ticket controllers were always more concerned about the seat reservations we had on paper.

But all went to plan.

 

Conclusion

Those days spent sitting drinking coffee, orange and beer (in separate cups) starring out of train windows at fields, hills, mountains, villages, beach and train platforms were part of the holiday.

I’d say that if you have a day or two to spare then travelling across Europe by train instead of plane is well worth it – yes, even with two young kids.

They might even thank you for it one day if we all help avert a climate disaster. 

Advice

It’s hard to give advice because each person has different requirements that need to be taken into account – whether number of passengers, time needed for travelling, destinations, cost etc.

But plan ahead and do the research to see what’s possible.

One bit of advice if you need to travel quickly is try keep connections to a minimum or give yourself plenty of time to make them.

My colleague Richard Orange had problems on his trip from Sweden to the UK via Denmark, Germany and Belgium because of delays and missed connections.

Useful links and extra info

You can explore Interrail pass options and prices by visiting the Interrail site here. The site offers plenty of info to help you plan your trip and reserve seats on trains if necessary.

The fantastic Man in Seat 61 guide to train travel across Europe is a must-read for anyone planning a trip. It has pages and pages of useful up to date info and can be viewed here.

It also has loads of information on how to use an Interrail pass and calculations to see whether it’s the best option – if you need help with the maths. The page can be viewed here.

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