All you need to know about travelling on the European international express trains, which don't travel on the high speed lines and often take the scenic route
It is Europe's international trains that provide so many of the romantic aspects of European train travel, especially coming from a UK perspective, where being an island race, the prospect of crossing borders by train has always seemed rather thrilling.
Partly because the exoticism of such journeys, in an age when international travel was comparatively rare, also provided the basis of so many iconic thrillers such as Murder On The Orient Express, The Stamboul Train and The Lady Vanishes.
Today's international high speed European trains provide a different kind of thrill, but they've removed much of that mystique.
However, travelling by EuroCity trains, particularly on their longer routes can still set the imagination racing, especially when they're stopped at a border station awaiting their passage into another country.
And the popularity of TV programmes such as 'Great Continental Railway Journeys' suggest I'm not entirely eccentric in holding this opinion.
EuroCity (EC) trains are European international express trains, but they are not used on every cross-border railway route in Europe - see the menu for the current list of routes.
They are not high speed trains, so they can’t use the high speed lines, which partially explains why there are no EC services to and from France; because all of the international express trains from France spend at least part of their journeys travelling on high speed lines.
There are also no EC services from and to Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain and The Netherlands.
Note ShowMeTheJourney has used the term ‘EC services’ and that’s because a wide variety of trains are used on these routes across the continent.
Though specific types of train are usually used on each EC route, which is why and how ShowMeTheJourney is able to usually include the specific trains you will be travelling by, on its journey guides.
Until the early 1990s most of the fast international express services on continental Europe were branded TEE meaning Trans-European-Express.
These trains were often glamorous icons of transport design, so fabulous that they were celebrated by Kraftwerk, but their luxury came at a price, because nearly all TEE trains were first class only.
Various factors contributed to these supreme services being no longer relevant to the needs of travellers, so the EuroCity services were largely introduced as replacements for the TEE trains.
In contrast to the TEE trains, the EuroCity services were to also convey second class coaches, but certain higher than average standards were still set for EuroCity services.
These included that they had to convey restaurant cars, be air-conditioned and be express trains, calling at only the biggest cities and towns that they passed through.
These core principles still generally apply today, in particular nearly all EC services still convey restaurant cars.
Specific trains are used on virtually all current EC routes because, usually one of the national rail operators of the countries that each route passes through, takes responsibility for providing the service.
However, from a traveller’s point of view this can seemingly lack logic, because often it is the country that comprises the smallest percentage of the journey, which provides the trains used on each route.
For example, the Austrian national rail operator provides the trains which travel on the EC routes which travel between Munich and Italy, despite the fact that these trains only spend a little over an hour travelling through Austria.
The Swiss national rail operator SBB provides the trains which are used on the EC services between north-west Germany and Switzerland, despite these trains spending more than 80% of their journeys travelling through Germany; and these are just two examples
But in Eastern Europe it’s more common for the trains to have a split personality, in an echo of how international trains used to be operated for much of the 20th century.
Travel between Villach in Austria and Zagreb in Croatia and you could find yourself travelling in an Austrian, German or Croatian railway carriage, all being used on the same departure.
You don’t have to be making an international journey to travel on an EC train/service, when on route to and from an international border, the EC routes/services usually travel between many cities in each respective country.
On this part of the journey they can share the timetable with non-international express trains – usually the express InterCity (IC) services which don’t cross borders.
On some routes even if you’re NOT making an international journey, you will still have to travel on an EC service if you want to take a direct train - and this contributes to the quirky, but fascinating aspects of travelling around Europe by train.
Take an express train between Berlin and Dresden and you will be travelling on a Czech or Hungarian train, or travel between Venice and Bolzano and you will be on an Austrian train.
To provide the EC services most of the national rail operators use the same type of train that they use for domestic IC (InterCity) express services.
However, thanks to the advent of the high speed trains and other more modern express trains, such as the Railjets, the trains used on most EC routes have a somewhat retro aura, they can date back to the 1980s.
And this can be reflected by the on board experiences, the trains now used for the majority of EC services don’t have wi-fi portals, or fancy TV screens showing info such as the next station the train will be calling at.
Although the trains that are provided by the Czech national rail operator, CD, are an exception, it has begun to refurbish and modernise the coaches/carriages it uses on EC services.
But don’t let this retro-aura put you off making a journey by EC train, some of these trains can seem a tad dated externally, but inside they are usually more spacious and therefore more comfortable than many more modern trains.
Most EC trains also convey seats in compartments in both 1st and 2nd class and most of the seats throughout the train will line up with the windows.
The fact that it's likely that you'll be able to have a good view from the windows is a big plus, as most EC trains take highly scenic routes for at least part of their journeys!
Though the trains used on the EC services between Italy and Switzerland are the exception to what’s being described above.
More modern 'Pendolino’ trains are used on these routes between Italy and western Switzerland, the EC610 trains, pictured above are among the top-rank European express trains in terms of facilities and on board ambience.
Click on the city names to access specific departure and ticket info (not every calling point has been included):
(5a) (Venezia – Verona) – Milano – Como ↔ Lugano – Bellinzona – Zug – Zurich
(5b) Milano – Como – Lugano ↔ Bellinzona – Luzern - Olten - Basel
These trains and occasionally these trains are used on this route.
(18) Munster – Duisburg – Dusseldorf – Koln/Cologne – Bonn – Koblenz – Mainz - Mannheim - Stuttgart – Ulm – Augsburg - Munich/Munchen ↔ Salzburg - Bad Gastein – Villach – Klagenfurt
These trains are used on this route.
(20) Hamburg - Bremen - Dortmund - Essen - Dusseldorf - Koln/Cologne - Bonn - Koblenz - Mainz - Mannheim - Karlsruhe - Baden Baden - Freiburg ↔ Basel - Olten - Bern - Thun - Spiez - Interlaken
These trains are used on this route.
I wanted to share my passion for train travel and explain how anyone can take the fantastic journeys I have taken.
This is one of more than 100 train travel guides available on ShowMeTheJourney, which will make it easier to take the train journeys you want or need to make. As always, all images were captured on trips taken by ShowMeTheJourney.
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