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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

Could trains in east Norway be set for a major shakeup? 

Train operator Vy could lose its right to operate and run some routes in east Norway with Flytoget the firm the Norwegian Railway Directorate would rather take over. 

Could trains in east Norway be set for a major shakeup? 

Flytoget, the state-owned company best known for the airport train from Oslo to Gardermoen, could soon begin operating on several new lines. 

The firm has been selected to start talks with the Norwegian Railway Directorate to operate the six train lines part of the Østlandet 2 (Eastern Norway 2) region. 

Østlandet 2 covers the Skien-Eidsvoll, Drammen – Lillehammer, Kongsberg-Eidsvoll, Drammen-Dal, and Asker-Kongsvinger lines as well as the Bratsberg line. 

“We at Flytoget are very happy that we now get to sit down with the Norwegian Railway Directorate to develop a better offer for travellers with regional trains in Eastern Norway. This is something we are really looking forward to,” Philipp Engedal, CEO of Flytoget, told public broadcaster NRK

Vy is currently the operator in charge of the Østlandet 2 region. In May, Vy was chosen as the negotiating partner for the Østlandet 1 (Eastern Norway 1) package. 

The lines that Flytoget could pick up the responsibility for service around 30 million passengers per year. Flytoget would call these routes Bytoget to avoid confusion with its airport service if it did get the rights to operate on the Østlandet 2 sector. 

Formal negotiations between Flytoget and the Norwegian Railway Directorate will begin on Monday. 

“Our clear ambition is for customers to notice a difference from day one. We feel confident that many small measures will be able to make a big difference,” Engedal said. 

If the Norwegian Railway Directorate does choose Flytoget, then the firm would have the right to operate on the line from December 2023 for ten years. 

The employees of Vy, who operate the regional trains today, will then be moved to Flytoget, according to the company. Ticket prices and route offers will also remain the same.

However, Vy has been critical that Flytoget could take over the Østlandet 2 sector. 

“The Norwegian Railway Directorate has chosen Flytoget without seeing what offer Vy can provide. The criteria for choosing Vy as negotiating party for the first traffic package in Eastern Norway were price, quality and risk. It is difficult to understand why they arrive at a different conclusion for Østlandet 2,” Erik Røhne, Vy’s executive director for trains, said in a company press release.

If Flytoget and the Norwegian Railway Directorate fail to reach an agreement, Vy said it would be happy to continue operating Østlandet 2

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