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European rail travel isn’t what it used to be… or is it? A new start is needed

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By Katia Hueso and Poul Kattler from the European network “Back on track”

The European rail network has ceased to exist, or so it seems. “Back in the eighties and nineties, I travelled extensively through Europe by train and had the feeling I could move seamlessly from one country to the other, from capital cities to offhand hamlets”, says Katia Hueso, a regular train dweller, as she defines herself. Even before the advent of Schengen, crossing borders was simple: check-ups took place mostly on board. “Even at the borders between Spain and France, whose rail systems feature two different gauge widths, timetables were coordinated and stopovers were minimal”, she recalls.

The fare system was also easy to understand, and she illustrates this with a personal anecdote: “I remember buying one single ticket from Narvik to Madrid. The person at the counter only needed to know if I wanted to travel via Valladolid or Aranda de Duero. A journey of 4,500 km, back in the nineties it involved four stopovers. Nowadays, between 7 and 10, including a bus ride in between”.

Today, the European rail network has crumbled like a dry pie. In recent times, rail travellers in Europe encounter isolated rail systems, with hardly any international connections and poor regional services. The individual fare systems are cryptic, tend to favour frequent travellers within the national network and punish international guests with higher prices and little chance of getting their money refunded in case of trouble. They offer no possibility to buy tickets to destinations beyond neighbouring countries.

This is sadly exemplified with another anecdote, Katia explains, “I still see this NS officer recommending me to use KLM instead for a journey between Amsterdam and Milano. A bit of a contradiction, it seems, when the internet could offer a comprehensive ticketing system for all…”. In a race against themselves, companies (DB, SNCF, Trenitalia, Renfe…) advertise efficiency, always associated to speed and not quality. Others, on the other hand, seem to be just an extended commuter network with no further ideals (DSB, NS…).

The European railway network is suffering

Privatisation of railway carriers, high levies for the use of rail infrastructure and unfair concurrence with heavily subsidised (low cost) airlines and bus networks seem to be the causes of this disaster. Carriers –those in closest contact with the traveller– are working on survival mode and national authorities tend to forget that this business is public transportation and cut on their tax-funded support. The real needs of the (international) rail user are ignored, companies should focus on sustainability and quality, rather than only profitability. In fact, as will be seen, sustainability and quality will positively contribute to profitability, if companies and authorities keep a strategic, long-term view of the public transportation service they are supposed to offer.

The term sustainability is commonly understood as the combination of economic, environmental and social aspects of an activity, which together allow its permanence in time without the need of external resources. Here is where the idea of long term comes to mind. In the rail business sector, however, sustainability is viewed as the capacity to make just about enough profit to survive and companies are even ready to phagocyte themselves in order to raise profit. In a downward spiral, services become even more unprofitable because of thinned-out frequencies and closures of branch lines. In the end, previously tightly woven networks become loose threads of high-speed services between major hubs that only serve high-end customers.

However, rail companies have important assets in the other two pillars of sustainability and hardly use them to their (long-term) profit. For instance, it is a well-known fact that railways are the most energy-efficient transportation system, even taking into consideration high speed lines, which have a higher energy expenditure. Although the latter may present other environmental concerns (habitat fragmentation by fencing the lines, visual impact of infrastructures or noise), they still are far less severe than the impacts of air and road travel. In addition, emissions of trains are also far lower than other means of transportation, even taking into account the use of diesel locks.

Less known are the social aspects of train travel, which in this context does not mean the more relaxed atmosphere within their carriages (although it could, for that matter). As explained above, trains used to connect people. With tight networks, the public could easily move from capital cities to rural areas and viceversa, could make journeys abroad or day trips to neighbouring towns and do this for a fair price and in good comfort. Trains were democratic, in a way. The offered a range of classes and speeds, which made train travel available to all sorts of public: from business people to students, elderly, passengers with disabilities or carrying odd-sized luggage. Many of them hardly fit in other modes of transportation, for different reasons (price, comfort, lack of facilities, lack of room…) and, as said, are poorly serviced by high-speed trains. Here is where quality comes in mind.

The concept of quality is elusive, as it may have different meanings for each individual. Surely some would like speed, but what’s the use of competing with airlines in this field? Travellers definitely value quality in other terms and correspondingly take the decision of mode of travel. Lack of queues, no security check-ups and waiting times, more legroom and the possibility to move around freely, a table to work that is bigger than a coffee tray, less luggage restrictions and the possibility to enjoy the scenery through something bigger than a peephole are important assets. But also the possibility to arrive in the centre of town, a short walk or metro ride from the final destination. Train travel gives the time to mind one’s business, without needing to pay attention to the act of travel itself, as one would need to do in other vehicles.

Passengers also value not needing to drive or not having to hit the road on the bus, where they cannot move nor work for hours, or may have safety concerns related to weather or road conditions. All this is highly appreciated by both the frequent and occasional rail traveller and many understand it should have a fair purchase price. Therefore, train travel strikes the right balance between cheap but slow travel (road) and fast but uncomfortable (air), with all the add-ins mentioned.

And, if one needs to travel relatively far, night trains offer additional advantages. Among others, to enjoy quality time with family (e.g. being able to put children to bed before leaving or have breakfast with them upon return); to get well rested to the final destination; and to use the ride as a transition from one situation (home/office routine) to the other (leisure or work away from headquarters). For those passengers not living within walking distance of main hub stations, the first –i.e. indecently early– or last –i.e. indecently late– services offered by companies as a surrogate of night trains, are completely useless. Let alone the recent invention of the so-called “ICE night trains”, which feature only regular seats, full lighting and full blast P.A. announcements, a nightmare for those passengers needing to spend the whole night…

The widespread elimination of conventional night trains in most of Europe –with the exceptions of OBB or SNCF, with very good quality night services– have soared the economic and social costs of travel for customers. They now need extra hotel nights and have less time to spend at home or at the office, because they need those daytime hours to travel. This is in fact highly inefficient and no wonder people are shifting to buses, cars or airplanes, despite all the discomfort they bring along. Alas, this is not a future scenario; it is happening here and now. Is this the kind of profitability railway carriers seek? Even in the short run?

United Public Railways of Europe is to come

It is abundantly clear that the national railway companies do not feel any responsibility for the existence of a European network of railways. Companies like DSB, DB and SNCF runs regional, state-supported network. They run profitable IC stretches. And they run a few (!) lines across borders, preferably with high-speed trains secondary with conventional trains – and only if they are profitable. The international trains have generally fallen between the chairs. Night trains suffered at first and at most, because night trains are more economically challenged than day trains.

Perhaps we need to learn from History. Over a century ago, the European rail companies were highly fragmented, with poor services and worse connections among each other. Timetables were not coordinated and stopovers at border crossings were long. George Nagelmackers, a Belgian engineer, founded in 1876 what is today known as the Compagnie International des Wagon-Lits, a company that should offer high quality international rail travel to its customers. With all the necessary technical improvements, rail travel in Europe became comfortable and speedy.

Is it time for a similar European-wide company, with good quality services, a tight network with truly international vision and sustainable public transportation in mind? A company that understands present-day traveller’s needs, beyond the temptation of speed-only or without falling into the trap of nostalgia. Today’s travellers do not need mahogany panels or brass doorknobs, neither do they expect to share their journey with Poirot. Leave the Orient Express feeling to the luxury trains that are already in the market. They just want comfort (roomy seats and tables, soft beds, clean toilets, room to move, silent carriages, few luggage limitations), service (decent bar or restaurant, press on board, wifi, forward luggage transport, combination with private cars or bicycles…), transparency (comprehensive online timetables and ticketing system) and efficiency (good regional and international connections, minimal queuing and security check-ups). In one sentence: A high quality, public transportation system. Day and night.

There is only one way: At European level there must be launched a “United Public Railways of Europe” company that can offer a network of international railway traffic, starting with a network of night trains at the main lines.

The principle should be simple: Picking up passengers from 6pm to 12pm. Night rest 12pm to 6am. Drop off 6am to 10am.

Comfort classes: Sleeper deluxe, Sleeper, Sleeper economy, seat/reclined seat.

Dining car / buffet if runs are also between 6 and 10pm. Always bar and breakfast services.

Full integrated fares with national networks. Full digital presence and booking.


A scenario from 2018 could be like this with night trains between:

1 Oslo – Copenhagen
2 Stockholm – Copenhagen
3AB Copenhagen – München/Basel
4AB Hamburg/Amsterdam – Zürich/München
5A Paris – Berlin – Warszawa
5B Paris – Hamburg – Copenhagen
6AB Paris – Madrid/Lissabon
7 Paris – Barcelona
8AB Paris/London – Milano – Roma
9 London – München – Wien
10 Basel – Zürich – Wien – Budapest
11AB Basel/München – Firenze – Roma
12AB Berlin/Warszawa – Wien – Budapest
13AB Amsterdam/Hamburg – Ljubjana – Zagreb
14 Bruxelles – Wien – Budapest


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