This Golden Age Of European Rail Travel Will Return

The most golden age of European rail travel that there has ever been arguably occurred between December 9th 2019, when the latest incarnation of the pan-European rail timetable came into operation, and on March 11th 2020, when all international trains to and from Italy were suspended when it imposed its lock down.

For in those three months there were an unprecedented number of train travel opportunities for exploring the continent.
A happy situation which arose due to the continuation of an unheralded renaissance across Europe’s rail network in recent years.
Not only has the volume of journey opportunities been increasing, but the trains and stations are also becoming ever more fabulous.

This golden age had to be paused, but now that the travel restrictions, that were a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic are easing taking the train is still a fantastic means of seeing the best of Europe.


What made the latest timetables special is that the opportunity to take high speed trains across Europe has continued to flourish, but in conjunction with this, yet more once abandoned routes taken by conventional daytime trains, were revived.

In addition the Nightjet network, which has restored night trains to numerous routes across Western Europe, has continued to expand.
The number of regional and local trains crossing borders also rose, building upon the upward momentum of recent years.
International European trains

Why this period of time would have been (and will be) so special

An easy assumption is that the most fabulous period of time in which to take an international journey by a European train was during the 1920 -30s.
But the film star aura of the likes of The Orient Express were as beyond the reach of virtually all travellers, as their revived equivalents are today.

Then in post-war Europe the T.E.E trains perpetuated an aura of glamour for international train travel.
But those then contemporary luxuries such as air-conditioning and an at-seat service from catering staff, came at an exclusive first-class price, travellers opting for second class often had no option, but to stumble across Europe on combinations of slower trains.

The dawn of the age of the high speed train inevitably transformed rail travel for the better, if you happened to be making a direct journey between two cities served by a high speed line.
Though the capability of high speed trains to match or better the travel times of an end-to-end journey by plane, cast a shadow over those day and night trains, which still snaked across Europe on longer routes.


Hence high speed trains didn’t herald a new golden era of international rail travel, particularly in Western Europe, because pretty much every new journey opportunity they delivered, was matched by a corresponding loss of a long-standing travel option.

The opening of the high speed line between Perpignan and Barcelona contributed to the cancellation of direct day and night trains between Switzerland and Spain.
The launch of Eurostar led to the removal of trains which had met the ferries from Britain in Oostende and conveyed travellers on to the likes of Wien, Warszawa, Hamburg and Zurich via Bruxelles.
The high speed trains from the UK didn’t connect into trains on to those distant destinations when they arrived in the Belgian capital, because they had disappeared.

Now one of the most evident signifiers of rail travel’s recent revival, is that for the first time in over 20 years, it has once again become possible to travel between London and Austria by train, with just one connection required in Bruxelles.


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Later, in contrast to recent years, during the early part of the 20th century, the opportunities to make direct journeys by European international trains continued to decline.
 

Back in the winter of 2010 I holidayed in charming Vicenza, but the city’s eternal beauty wasn’t the sole reason for the choice of location, I was spending time there because it is also a great base for exploring the best of northern Italy by rail.
Though travelling to it by train at the time was more awkward, because despite its location on the Milano to Venezia/Venice railway, Vicenza was then served by just two international rail services; a daily EuroCity (EC) train to and from Geneve and the night train on the Paris <> Venice route.

A situation that had arisen due to Italy being deprived of most of its international rail links a few years previously.
Being a tourist magnet hadn’t saved Venice from losing its daytime trains to Germany and all of its direct rail services to Hungary and Slovenia.
The long-standing trains between Venice and Austria were substituted by buses provided by the railway companies.

Milano had also lost its trains to Germany and Spain, as well as the long-established rail link between northern Italy and the south of France.


Those cross-border services from Italy weren’t exceptional, Krakow also lost its daytime express trains to Berlin, Prague and Vienna, just one example of another city popular with tourists, losing virtually all of its direct international rail services.
 

Switzerland had already been deprived of its overnight trains to Italy and Spain when in December 2016 the nadir was reached when City Night Line, the provider of most of central Europe’s overnight trains, shut down most of its network.
 

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New and Improved Journey Opportunities
 

Since that low point just four years ago, a fantastic renaissance of rail travel opportunities across Europe has occurred..
Surges of travellers have taken to the trains across the continent from Austria to The Netherlands, with sales of Eurail and InterRail passes reaching new heights.

This boom in rail travel has partially been enabled by many of those cuts to international services being reversed.
Since my visit in 2010, Vicenza has gained up to one or two trains per day to Munich, a daily train to Zurich and an overnight service to Wien/Vienna – and this is a revival that has been mirrored elsewhere.
Those international rail links to and from Krakow have returned, more trains to both Munich and Wien than ever before now depart from Venezia, while Milano has regained its train services to central Germany and the south of France.

 

Larger cities have experienced an even more dramatic resurgence of international rail connections.
Wien/Vienna has benefitted from new daytime rail links with cities in southern Poland, to Kosice in Slovakia, an additional service to Venice and a new service to Bolzano in northern Italy.

Every 24 hours four train services link the German and Austrian capitals.
Just four years ago there were none and now the Berlin and Wien/Vienna via Dresden and Praha/Prague route has been revived with the launch of a new Railjet service.
That this welcome addition to the timetables occurred less than 24 hours after Germany re-opened its borders, is a beacon of hope that international rail travel will continue to thrive.

Thanks to the remarkable success of the relatively new Nightjet network, Austria’s capital has also had its overnight connections restored with multiple cities including Berlin, Bruxelles and Milano.
This Golden Age of European rail travel
For the past three years the volume of new and restored international rail links on the annual major timetable change in early December, has been far greater than the lists of terminated services.

Particularly welcome additions, include the services on these routes:
(i) Zurich <> Venezia/Venice
(ii) London to Amsterdam by Eurostar
(iii) A new Berlin <> Wien/Vienna route via Nurnberg and Linz – exploiting the opening of a high speed line in Germany.
(iv) Milano <> the Cote d’Azur
(v) Praha/Prague <> Krakow
(vi) The ‘Celta’ services on the Vigo <> Porto route
(vii) The return of trains between Trieste and Ljubljana.

Then in late 2019 European train travel took another leap forwards with hugely exciting additions to the most recent timetables, with yet more of those long wished for, once lost services, being revived:
(1) A new Nightjet service restored Belgium to the European night train network.
(2) The Milano <> Marseille route once again had a daily year-round service, supplementing the recent revival of Nice <> Milano services and turning the clock back more than 20 years to when the ‘Liguria’ TEE service took this route!
(3) That Berlin – Dresden – Decin – Wien/Vienna daytime service has come back, but now the journey was going to be by Railjet!
(4) Berlin had its overnight link to south-east Poland restored, including a new connection on to Ukraine.
(5) Liverpool once again had direct trains to and from Scotland.
(6) For the first time it was going to be possible to board a train in Amsterdam and alight from it in London!

 

Other established services were transformed for the better on the latest timetables:
Yet another new high-speed line in Spain means that Barcelona has its faster ever services to Alicante and Valencia.
Many of Britain’s most picturesque cities and towns, including Harrogate, Lincoln and Worcester have never previously had such frequent rail links with London.
And other planned innovations, such as Europe's longest journey by high speed train have gone ahead as soon as restrictions were eased.

This was followed by announcements of changes to be looked forward to at the end of this year including the restoration of overnight trains to/and from Amsterdam, plus more services on the Paris-Turin-Milano route.

Positivity was also beginning to build around ideas for the future, such as direct London <> Bordeaux trains, more overnight trains from both Sweden and Switzerland and a transformation of the Lisbon <> Madrid route.

Those long-distance services steal the headlines, but many cross-border local and regional services, have also experienced a renaissance in recent years, enabling canny Eurail and InterRail pass users to save money by avoiding the more expensive rail pass reservation fees.

Local and regional routes transformed for the better include:
- More trains and better connections when travelling between Port Bou in Spain and Cerbere in France on the Mediterranean coast.
- The trains between Milano and central Switzerland via Lugano and Bellinzona.
- TER trains from Paris linking up with trains to multiple cities in southern Belgium.
- The long-awaited re-opening of the link between Geneve and the Haute-Savoie region of France.
- The restoration of services between Trieste and Ljubljana after an absence of more than a decade!


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This new golden age of European had to be temporarily paused, but it’s good to see that train operators evidently restored services at the earliest opportunity.

It’s perhaps inevitable that not absolutely every pre lockdown international train service will still be available, when the next key annual update occurs to European train timetables on the second Sunday in December, but the losses will hopefully be minimised.

That's because the overwhelming majority of European rail services, both domestic and international, are in effect provided by national governments, so they will to some extent be insulated them from financial impact of Covid-19.
When international train services had to be suspended for months during the mass migration, they were restored, so history should hopefully repeat itself.
Most of those new and enhanced and revived rail services listed above were proving to be highly successful and the infrastructure required to support them – the stations, trains and railway tracks obviously hasn’t disappeared
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It's not just the journeys becoming ever more fabulous
 

The restoration of many international rail links in recent years isn’t the sole contribution to the renaissance of European rail travel, because that infrastructure, the trains and the stations, has also continued to evolve for the better.
New trains

In the past three years there has been a surge in the arrivals of new trains with improved passenger facilities; such as the
ICE 4 and IC 2 in Germany
TGV Oceane in France
the LD IC trains in Switzerland
the Giruno trains between Italy and Switzerland
the Eurostar e320s
the Frecce 1000 trains and the Frecce 700 trains in Italy
the Azuma and the IC Express and the Nova trains in Britain, to name just some examples.

 

Older trains, such as Thalys trains, the Italian IC trains, the EuroCity trains to/from Czech Republic and the Inter7City services in Scotland have brand new interiors fit for this golden age of rail travel.
 

This wave of new trains is still coming and by 2025 there will be better than ever passenger facilities on these routes (and many more);
Barcelona <> Lyon and Paris
Hamburg <> Copenhagen
Amsterdam <> Berlin
Bruxelles <> Amsterdam via Breda

And highly innovative new coaches will be introduced on the Nightjet routes, which will have a transformative effect on overnight train travel.


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Passenger facilities and the transfer to and from the trains at stations is also continually being transformed for the better across Europe.
During the past five years, a swathe of previously awkward to use stations have in effect been reconstructed or wholly replaced, including  Wien Hbf, Salzburg hbf, Edinburgh, Gent-Sint Pieters, Birmingham New Street, London Bridge, Krakow Glowny, London Kings Cross, Napoli CentraleReading, RennesRotterdam and Utrecht.
Europe's new Stations have helped create this Golden Age of rail travel
Other major stations currently at various stages of transformative reconstructions include Glasgow Queen StLyon-Part Dieu, Munchen Hbf, Paris Gare Du Nord and Stuttgart hbf – the work at these stations will ultimately be completed, a little later than planned perhaps, but it will be done
And these are just the show-stoppers, countless other stations now benefit from additional elevators, escalators, shopping facilities and enhanced travel information.

New feats of engineering will also be completed, which will have a transformative effect on the trains which will use them.
The rail service between northern Switzerland and Milano will take another leap forwards in when the Ceneri Base Tunnel is opened – it may now be delayed until next year, but it will happen.

Exploring the beauty of Switzerland by train will be enhanced with new technology enabling direct trains to connect Montreux to Interlaken via ‘The Golden Pass route’ – a Montreux <> Luzern journey will then require just one simple change of train!
More additions to the Spanish high speed network will enter service.
The new higher speed route in Denmark will be fully utilised and these are just some examples of forward-facing steps.

New ticketing services, which have enabled the booking of epic international journeys involving multiple trains, to be as simple as buying tickets for a London to Paris trip, will also endure, as will the opportunities to explore Europe with Eurail and InterRail passes.

This movement will endure and innovations such as Germany’s decision to suspend VAT on sales of train tickets and reservations will be permanent and hopefully set a pattern to be emulated.


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A golden era for using Eurail and InterRail
 

Eurail and InterRail pass users were, and still will be, able to benefit from those new rail links, trains and stations.

What will also hopefully be ongoing is the transformation for the better of how these passes can be used and purchased.

Innovations such as:
- fixed reservation fees on Eurostar and Thalys services,
- the new validity on Thello services

- more Swiss independent railways included, along with the opportunity to only pay a reservation fee on the Glacier Express.
- most overnight journeys now only consuming one day of pass use instead of two.

Plus the increase in the range of passes available and the addition of new countries of validity, had all contributed to a surge of sales and interest around using rail passes.
 

Those timetable additions which have made it easier to follow a pan-European itinerary by train will hopefully be retained, as they show up on the travel planning apps used by rail pass customers and prompt thoughts along the lines of ‘so I can go by train from Italy to Croatia via Slovenia’.
 

Another contributory factor to the surge of interest in rail passes has no doubt been the momentum around train travel being a contributory factor in enabling an eco-friendly approach to travel for pleasure.

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Rail Travel will continue to evolve

With doubts being raised about the short-term viability of air travel, many of Europe’s international rail links may yet enhance their role of providing a vital service.

Taking a train to a beautiful destination may yet in time, become a more desirable notion for many people who wouldn’t have previously considered doing so.
Hopefully for the sake of the millions of Europeans who earn their living from rail travel this isn’t wishful thinking.

 

What is fortunate is that relatively few major railway engineering projects have been impacted by the lockdown, no high speed lines used by international services were due to open this December, so plans for new transformative services won’t have had to be placed on hold.

But if few new high speed lines will be available to exploit changed attitudes to choosing between air or rail, it may become imperative to fully exploit existing infrastructure.
Research is already a suggesting a greater willingness to travel by train, with tolerances for travel times when choosing between plane and train rising to more than 4 hours.

Those newly introduced new services mentioned above are particularly welcome because they enable direct journeys to be taken.
So what could be potentially transformative would be new direct journey opportunities by high speed trains such as:
London <> Koln
Berlin <> Bruxelles
Amsterdam <> Munich
Zurich <> Roma
Paris – Strasbourg – Frankfurt – Leipzig – Berlin
Bruxelles <> Zurich via Lille and Dijon (which, with the connection available in Lille, would transform journeys between London and Austria, Italy and Switzerland).
Are any of these proposals really more outlandish than having Marseille linked by daily TGVs to Frankfurt, an innovation that has been hugely successful?

 

Hopefully something else that can be taken off the wishful thinking pile, is better planning of connections.
Appreciate that this is easier said than done, but any barriers to preventing a resurgence of rail travel in 2021 and beyond should be removed if they’re remotely feasible.

From a UK perspective the detriment to not only have to change trains in Paris, but also to transfer between stations, could be avoided by at last making Lille Europe station the connectional rail hub that it was designed to be.
Having only one smartly-timed connection of 30-45 mins available per day from a Eurostar into a departing TGV to any other destination, isn’t and won’t be good enough.

Lille Europe is one of many examples which seemingly defy logic.
Does a train from Copenhagen have to arrive in Hamburg less than 30 mins before the departure of the night train to Austria?
Can the Raijlets from Venice not arrive in Villach less than 25 mins after trains from there to Ljubljana and Zagreb have already departed?


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The availability of direct trains matters for multiple reasons, not only does it remove the perception of risk of not having a stress-free journey, particularly on services with compulsory reservations, it also simplifies the booking of tickets.
 

But on routes on which connections between trains can’t be feasibly avoided, allowing potential travellers to take more control over their booking options could be a factor that could persuade some prospective travellers to take the train.
A comparatively low-cost initiative would be allowing individuals to de-risk the taking of more complicated end-to-end journeys, by always allowing the flexibility of increasing the time available in which to make a connection.

A London to Milan journey with a 45 min connection in Lille on to a train to Zurich, with time to have something to eat and drink at Zurich station before boarding the train to Italy - with all parts of the journey covered by ticketing that has absolute protection against having to re-book in the event of a train delay.
Is this unrealistic?

 

If plans to transform rail services on multiple routes such as those between Sweden <> Germany and Madrid <> Lisbon need to be paused, they shouldn’t be forgotten.

Hopefully the momentum that had been building around new rail travel opportunities will be sustained.
If the easing of lockdown situations progresses on to international travel restrictions being lifted by the end of this year, a cull of cross-border rail travel opportunities at the December timetable change could be detrimental to long-term perceptions of pan-European rail travel.

Though whatever occurs when the travel embargos are removed and timetables are amended, it will still be possible to explore Europe by train, with or without a rail pass.
Many cross-border local and regional services are integral to commuting, hence they cannot be discarded and indeed continued to operate during the lockdowns, so even if some of the long-distance express trains are culled, international journeys will still be available.
Perhaps they will be more awkward, but they will definitely still be possible.

 

Enabling long-distance international rail journeys to be less and not more complicated, will hopefully still be the key driver of travel service planning.
Because exploring Europe by train was and still will be fantastic!