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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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TRAVEL NEWS

Nine things to know if you’re visiting Italy in December

From planned strikes and public holiday dates to the best Christmas markets and succulent Italian festive meals here are some things that you should know if you’re planning to visit Italy in December.

Nine things to know if you’re visiting Italy in December

December in Italy is nothing short of magical. Most cities light up with twinkling displays and local life is energised by enchanting Christmas markets, which turn even the most ordinary of urban landscapes into a cheerful wonderland. 

READ ALSO: Lights out: How Christmas in Italy will be different this year

So if you’re planning on travelling to (or around) Italy in December, here are a few things you should know before you go.

No travel restrictions

People who travelled to Italy last December were required to show proof of Covid vaccination, recent recovery from the virus or a negative molecular (PCR) or antigen test result in order to enter the country.

The above mandate expired on May 31st, which means that travel to the bel paese for any reason, including tourism, is no longer tethered to any health requirements.

As for the requirement for arrivals to complete an EU digital passenger locator form (dPLF), that was also scrapped last May.

Face masks required in healthcare settings

The requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport lapsed on Friday, September 30th.

However, Italy does still have a requirement to wear face masks in all healthcare settings, including hospitals and care homes, until the end of the year.

So if you’re planning on paying a visit to a relative or friend who’s currently staying in one of the above facilities, you’ll have to wear a mask. 

Anyone refusing to comply with face mask rules can still face fines ranging from a minimum of €400 to a maximum of €1000.

Current quarantine rules 

Italy still requires anyone who tests positive for coronavirus while in the country to self-isolate, with the minimum isolation period currently standing at five days.

In order to exit quarantine, the infected person must be symptomless for at least two days, and must test negative to a molecular (PCR) or rapid antigen test at the end of that period.

Testing should be carried out at a registered pharmacy or testing centre as the results of home tests are not seen as valid for this purpose.

Should the patient continue to test positive, they must remain in isolation until they get a negative test result. However, the maximum length of the self-isolation period has now been cut to 14 days, down from 21.

National strike on December 2nd

Travel to, from and across Italy will continue to be disrupted by strikes during the last month of 2022. 

The demonstration that’s currently expected to create the greatest amount of disruption will take place on Friday, December 2nd and it’ll be a 24-hour national strike affecting airline and rail travel as well as some local public transport lines.

You can check the latest updates before your trip in The Local’s travel news section here.

Local public holidays 

Italy has three public holidays in December. Those are:

  • December 8th – Feast of the Immaculate Conception
  • December 25th – Christmas Day
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day in English-speaking countries)

As you might have already realised, December 24th (Christmas Eve) and December 31st (New Year’s Eve) are not official public holidays in Italy. However, most local companies do give their staff both days off as a gesture of goodwill. 

It’s worth noting that on all of the above-mentioned days the country will pretty much collectively stop, with all public offices and nearly all shops remaining shut. 

People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021.

People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.

Even transport services are usually very limited on the days in question, so, if you’re planning to visit around those dates, make sure to make all the necessary arrangements well in advance.

Christmas markets 

This Christmas looks set to be Italy’s first in two years without any Covid restrictions.

This means that the country’s traditional Christmas markets, a number of which were cancelled last year due to safety concerns, should be up and running again this December.

Italy’s most popular markets are located in Trentino-Alto Adige, the northern region bordering Switzerland and Austria – Bruneck, Bolzano and Brixen are all well known for their gleeful stalls.

That said, the northern mountain cities don’t claim complete ownership of Italy’s Christmas markets, as Rome, Perugia and Gubbio also have some of the best set-ups in the entire peninsula.

Galleries and museums’ special openings 

Most galleries and museums in the country tend to have special opening hours during the festive season, which means that you might be able to admire artworks by some of the most famous Italian painters and sculptors even on public holidays and as late as 10pm on some days.

For instance, in Venice, Palazzo Ducale, Museo Correr and Murano’s Museo del Vetro (Glass Museum) will be open every day (public holidays included) in December, with their doors remaining open to visitors until 9pm on some dates.

As always, you’re advised to check the websites of the museums you’re interested in visiting to know what they’ll offer visitors in December.

Christmas light in a street in Rome

Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Christmas treats

The quality of Italy’s cuisine is no secret, but the country dishes out some of the best examples of its long culinary tradition over the Christmas holidays.

While the evening meal on Christmas Eve (known as ‘La Vigilia’) tends to be quite frugal, the Christmas Day meal is anything but.

READ ALSO: Six quirky Italian Christmas traditions you should know about

A pasta dish (tortellini, lasagne or baked pasta) is followed by a veal-, ox- or poultry-based second course accompanied by a variety of vegetables.

Finally, the festive meal is finished off with a scrumptious slice (more like, three or four for some) slice of panettone or pandoro.

Prosecco or another variety of sparkling wine is generally used to wash down all of the above.

Extravagant New Year celebrations

If you’ve never spent New Year’s Eve in Italy, you might be in for a surprise.

The Italians have a reputation for being a superstitious bunch, and some of the New Year customs can startle the uninitiated foreigner. 

READ ALSO: Red pants, smashed plates and bingo: Six reasons Italian New Year is awesome

Apart from wearing red underwear to fend off evil spirits and eating lentils by the bucketload to bring wealth and prosperity, some residents, especially in the south, throw crockery out of their windows to show that they’re ready for a new start in the new year.

An alternative tradition – which seems to be slightly more friendly towards passers-by – is crashing pots and pans together right by the front door to frighten away evil spirits.

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