Back on Track: WCN's Campaign to Improve Europe's Cross-border Trains

Rendezvous on Champs-Elysees... Leave Paris in the morning on T.E.E.
In Vienna we sit in a late-night café... Straight connection, T.E.E.

So sang Kraftwerk in their 1977 masterpiece Trans-Europe Express, but there are no direct trains on this route today. And bad luck if you want to travel between Paris and Munich, Berlin or Hamburg: overnight trains were axed in December 2014. Read on if you want to know why and what could be done to stop the deterioration of Europe's international passenger train network...


Europe has long benefitted from a dense rail network, including many cross-border routes that have traditionally been operated in a spirit of cooperation between neighbouring national railway companies. Today, however, the passenger rail network as a whole is slowly contracting, including the loss of both regional cross-border and direct long-distance international routes.

Cross-border trains are under particular threat for a variety of reasons, including lower demand and higher operating costs (than equivalent domestic routes), poor management and domestic and EU-level politics, compounded by the economic crisis. In recent years passengers have faced line closures, timetable cuts (including the loss of direct long-distance trains), poor connections, ticketing difficulties and insufficient information provision, prompting World Carfree Network to launch Back on Track at the end of 2012. Our aim is to raise awareness of cross-border rail problems, highlight solutions and encourage positive intervention at the national and European levels, while supporting other groups with their own regional pro-rail campaigns.


News Archive

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Belgium - Luxembourg - France - Switzerland: Direct trains Brussels - Basel and Luxembourg - Basel ran for the last time on 2 April 2016, making the Eurocity brand extinct in Belgium and Luxembourg. Although a single TGV train pair between Brussels and Strasbourg via Lille has been introduced, journey times on the Luxembourg - Basel axis are now significantly longer.

France (- Luxembourg / Spain): SNCF will withdraw almost all overnight 'Intercités de Nuit' services on 1 July 2016. The following routes will disappear:

  1. Paris Austerlitz – Luchon – Cerbère
  2. Paris Austerlitz – Toulouse / Rodez – Carmaux – Albi
  3. Paris Austerlitz – Tarbes / Hendaye - Irún (with legendary 'near miss' non-connections to/from Vigo/A Coruna)
  4. Paris Austerlitz – Savoie
  5. Paris Austerlitz – Nice. RZD has apparently expressed an interest in taking over this route.
  6. Luxembourg – Nice / Portbou. This leaves Luxembourg without any long-distance trains except a few daily TGVs. IC and EC services to France, Germany and Switzerland have already disappeared.
  7. Strasbourg – Nice / Portbou
This leaves just two routes in place, namely Paris - Briançon and Paris - Rodez - Latour-de-Carol. According to Le Monde, the French government has invited expressions of interest from private operators to reinstate the withdrawn services.

Germany (- Czech Republic / Italy / Netherlands / Switzerland):

  • DB has indicated that it will withdraw all remaining CNL sleeper train routes by December 2016, to be replaced by overnight ICE and bus services. However, Austrian Railways (ÖBB) has apparently indicated its interest in taking over some services, while it seems likely the Prague - Zurich service will be rerouted via Linz.
  • Car-carrying night trains between Düsseldorf and Verona will again run once a week in summer 2016, this time operated and marketed by the partnership of Treinreiswinkel and Euro Express.

Poland: service updates March 2016:

  • 16 months after the loss of the Eurocity Wawel, direct trains will once again link Berlin and Wrocław via Cottbus, this time in the form of a weekend service between 30 April and 25 September 2016. The States of Berlin and Brandenburg have promised 100,000 EUR each in financial support. The service will use DB Regio DMUs and be operated in partnership with the Polish operator KD, with single tickets from end to end costing just 19 EUR. More information can be found here.
  • A Zielona Góra - Frankfurt (Oder) train pair was extended to/from Berlin Lichtenberg from 1 April 2016. This has been achieved by opening up empty rolling stock transfers to/from Lichtenberg depot to passengers. As of 28 March 2016 the journey planner of the Verkehrsverbund Berlin-Brandenburg (VBB) showed the service running daily except Thursday (!) and with different timings between Frankfurt (Oder) and Berlin depending on the day of the week. It appears the service is financed until the end of 2016.
  • A first step towards the provision of several daily services between Berlin and Gorzów (Wielkopolski) took place on 20 March 2016 with the introduction of one train pair between Krzyż and Berlin Lichtenberg. This is the result of welcome cooperation between the Lubukie Region (UMWL), the Verkehrsverbund Berlin-Brandenburg (VBB), Arriva Polski, DB Regio and the Niederbarnimer Eisenbahn (NEB). Trains are 'additional' on the Polish side but run in place of existing franchised NEB services between Kostrzyn and Berlin. VBB tickets are valid between Gorzów and Berlin. It remains to be seen whether Arriva will pursue its plan to operate a Torún - Berlin train pair via Krzyż.

Poland: recent situation. Almost all passenger trains in Poland are financially supported by the national government or the voivodoships. Unfortunately the amount of money available is decided on an annual basis and towards the end of each year, leading to a great deal of uncertainty about what will run in the following year... In some cases new services are started only for funding to be cut just a few months later. This start-stop approach also affects international trains: see this blog post, this article on cuts announced for the start of 2015 and the following list:

  • Warsaw - Minsk: the long-standing daily overnight train with convenient departure and arrival times was reduced in frequency to twice a week from 28 April 2015 and axed completely on 13 December 2015.
  • Wrocław - Berlin (DE): the SPD in Berlin is running a campaign for the reinstatement of the EuroCity service that ran for the last time on 13 December 2014. In late 2015, the States of Berlin and Brandenburg announced they would financially support weekend services in summer 2016, although the Polish ministry of transport had declared that no money is available. UPDATE: the service will run between 30 April and 25 September 2016, funded entirely by Germany according to the information available to us.
  • Wrocław - Dresden (DE): Funding for these trains is in place on the German side of the border from December 2014 until December 2018. 4 days before the timetable change in December 2014, it was announced that financial support had been secured on the Polish side until 28 February 2015. On 20 February it was confirmed that the trains would not run from 1 March owing to a lack of money. This meant Wrocław had no direct services to/from Germany and a new 2 km gap in the European passenger network was created between Görlitz and Zgorzelec. Polish trains were granted permission by DB Netz to run into Görlitz station from 21 September 2015, making it possible to extend regional trains of the Polish operator from Zgorzelec to/from Görlitz from the 2015/16 timetable change. A further announcement was made on 24 September that money has been found by the government of Lower Silesia to fund 3 KD train pairs Wrocław - Dresden through 2016, also starting in December 2015. Bringing the story up to date, both the Dresden - Wrocław services and 6-7 pairs of additional KD trains across the Görlitz/Zgorzelec border began operating on 13 December 2015, the contracts having been signed just three days in advance!
  • Wrocław - Trutnov (CZ): the Lubawka - Kralovec border crossing sees passenger trains only on summer weekends. Direct Wrocław - Trutnov trains did not run in 2015, but 3 pairs of Jelenia Gora - Trutnov trains were provided on weekends between 25 April and 31 August 2015.
  • Kraków - Bohumín/Ostrava (CZ): this new service started on 14 December 2014 and ran for the last time just 17 days later! A truly absurd situation that leaves the Skawina - Oświęcim line with no passenger trains, just months after the completion of EU-financed upgrading!
  • Poznan - Frankfurt (Oder) (DE): regional services ceased on 31 December 2014, just 5 months after they (re)started in August 2014. A weekend service primarily to serve students then resumed from 6 February 2015. Update: this service ran for the last time on 31 August 2015, following PR's decision to stop running all commercial services.

Services between Wrocław (Poland) and Dresden (Germany) were withdrawn from 1 March 2015, a victim of a host of financial and organisational problems, then restored from 13 December 2015 with a different operator in Poland.

Baltic States: since the end of May 2015 there are almost no international passenger trains within the Baltic States, while the Vilnius - Warsaw train remains "suspended until further notice". An entire region of the EU cut off from central Europe - how did it come to this? It remains to be seen whether the Via Baltica project, predominantly intended as freight corridor, will bring improvements.

  • Estonia - Latvia: weekday engineering works in Latvia between February and May 2015 caused broken connections in Valga on the Tallinn - Riga route.
  • Estonia - Russia: From 15 February 2015 the private Go Rail service of two daily train pairs between Tallinn and St. Petersburg was reduced to two per WEEK. From 12 May 2015 there were no passenger trains at all on this route, with Tallinn - Moscow also withdrawn from 19 May 2015. Update: a daily Tallinn - St. Petersburg - Moscow service operated by Russian Railways resumed on 10/11 July 2015. More information here.
  • Lithuania - Latvia - Russia: from 31 May 2015 there are no passenger trains between Lithuania and Latvia, following the withdrawal of the Vilnius - St. Petersburg night train.

News Archive

December 2015 Timetable Change

Good news:

  1. Bulgaria - Russia: a daily Sofia - Moscow service via Belgrade and Budapest is provided by RZD.
  2. Bulgaria - Serbia: a daytime direct service between Sofia and Belgrade runs again after a gap of 4 years. Approximate timings: Sofia 11:30 - Belgrade 19:30, Belgrade 07:35 - Sofia 16:30. It continues east of Sofia to/from Istanbul, at least in theory, depending on engineering works in Turkey.
  3. Croatia - Romania: Bogajevo - Erdut has reopened with two regional train pairs on weekdays - better than nothing!
  4. Croatia - Slovenia: the two train pairs on the Čakovec - Mursko Središče - Lendava route now operate on Mondays to Saturdays, not just on Saturdays.
  5. Czech Republic - Germany: Cheb - Aš - Selb - Hof has reopened with 9 daily train pairs.
  6. Czech Republic - Poland: interesting announcements have emanated from Poland...
    • An additional EuroCity train pair between Prague and Warsaw, with a further extra train pair between Ostrava and Warsaw.
    • 6 train pairs Cieszyn - Český Těšín - Frýdek-Místek (after a gap of 6 years with no trains)
    • Reopening of the Bohumín - Chałupki - Rybnik (- Katowice) border crossing with 3 EuroCity train pairs and 4 local train pairs. The reopening was postponed to 18 January 2016. Until then EC trains were diverted and local trains bustituted.
    • Czech Republic - Poland: direct services now run between Liberec and Szklarska Poręba Górna via Tanvald, following the approval of ČD RegioShuttle trains for use in Poland, or at least on this specific route. This permission apparently came just a few days before the timetable change!
  7. France - Germany - Poland - Russia: the Russian night train service linking Paris and Moscow runs 3 days per week, an increase in comparison with most of 2015. It continues to operate overnight between Paris and Berlin. From June 2016 there should be an additional 3 train pairs per week between Berlin and Moscow using RZD's new Talgo trains.
  8. Germany - Poland: the 3 daily train pairs Dresden/Görlitz - Wrocław run once again, this time in partnership with Polish operator KD. An additional 6-7 train pairs to/from Görlitz are provided by KD, running to/from Jelenia Gora/Wegliniec/Zielona Gora.
  9. Germany - Switzerland: some Zurich - Munich EuroCity trains will be extended to/from Basel.
  10. Hungary - Poland: the direct EuroCity train Varsovia between Budapest and Warsaw is restored after an absence of one year. On selected dates it will convey through cars Burgas/Varna/Sofia/Bar/Beograd - Moscow.
  11. Hungary - Russia: a daily Budapest - Moscow service is provided by RZD.
  12. Serbia - Turkey: direct trains between Belgrade and Istanbul - or somewhere between the Bulgarian border and Istanbul in any case depending on construction works - were expected to be restored after an absence of many years.

Back to Current News

Nice try, but...
  1. Lithuania - Poland: draft timetables indicated a new Mockava - Białystok - Warsaw - Kraków TLK service, presumably with connections to/from Vilnius. Orginally planned to start at the timetable change, the latest talk is of spring or summer 2016. Will it happen...?
  2. Poland - Ukraine: draft timetables showed two daily train pairs between Przemyśl and Lviv, including a night train to/from Warsaw, but these are reportedly postponed until further notice.

Back to Current News

Bad news:
  1. Belarus - Poland: the Minsk - Warsaw overnight service no longer runs.
  2. Belgium - Luxembourg - Strasbourg - Switzerland: the Brussels - Basel direct service of 2 train pairs daily (plus a Luxembourg - Basel pair) was permanently withdrawn from 3 April 2016, coinciding with the opening of the LGV Est through to Strasbourg. Luxembourg - Basel is left without direct services, with significantly longer journey times as a result of poor connections.
  3. Denmark - Germany: Copenhagen/Aarhus - Berlin direct trains are cut back to operate between Denmark and Hamburg in reaction to the extremely high fuel consumption of diesel ICE-TD trains, which will be taken out of service completely by the end of 2016.
  4. Czech Republic - Germany: the overnight train between Prague and Oberhausen is cut back to start and end in Cologne. In the southbound direction it is decelerated by 2 hours between Berlin and Prague (arriving at 11:30!), running attached to the first EuroCity of the day in this section. This means Berlin loses its early connection to Dresden and Prague.
  5. France - Switzerland: Lille - Geneva TGVs no longer run.
  6. Germany (north - south): the overnight train between Berlin and Munich has been withdrawn, a good 3 years before the high speed line via Erfurt will be in full operation.
  7. Germany - Poland: the overnight train between Oberhausen and Warsaw has been cut back to start and end in Cologne.
  8. Germany - Slovakia - Hungary: direct EuroCity services between Berlin and Budapest via Bratislava have been cut back from 3 train pairs to 1 service in each direction. Within Germany most trains run to/from Hamburg (one train pair to/from Kiel), but Rostock and Stralsund are no longer served.
  9. Lithuania - Russia: the night train Vilnius - Moscow no longer operates, meaning there is longer a daily service between the two cities. In this direction the (non-daily) Kaliningrad - Moscow train is an attractive alternative, but it arrives in Vilnius in the middle of the night in the other direction.

Why is Rail Worth Saving?

Trains can offer safe, fast and low-carbon mobility for all, reducing the environmental impact of travel significantly. On average, rail produces only 25% and 30% of the per passenger km carbon emissions of planes and cars respectively, based on average occupancy figures. These figures do not include the additional climate change impacts of emissions at altitude: aviation figures should be multiplied by a 'radiative forcing index' of between 1.9 and 2.7. Note also that GHG emissions from rail are even lower in countries with a high proportion of renewable electricity generation, including Sweden and Switzerland with their abundant hydro-electric power and almost zero-carbon rail operations.

Trains offer direct city centre to city centre travel and allow passengers to use their on-board time productively. Many people simply enjoy the experience of watching Europe passing their window seat... we often wonder why most railway companies do not follow the lead of Switzerland in actively promoting the comfort and pleasure of rail travel!

Towards Carfree Cities IX conference participants enjoy a networking opportunity en route from York to a study tour in Newcastle, courtesy of Grand Central. Although this company is a private 'open access' operator, ticketing is integrated into Britain's national system: we regard this as both passenger-friendly and a sensible long-term business model.

Without railways, there would be many more cars and trucks on Europe's roads, leading to increased congestion, air pollution, fossil fuel consumption, reliance on energy imported from politically unstable parts of the world, noise and accidents (9 people die every day on British roads, considered to be among the safest in the EU). Without Europe's dense network of passenger train routes, how would you get around? Would you buy a car, fly more and/or suffer slow long-distance bus journeys? Or hitchhike...? Would your want to live in your city if it becomes overrun with even more motor vehicles?

What Has Gone Wrong and Why?

European and national transport policy favours aviation. Flight tickets and aviation fuel remain largely untaxed, representing a huge subsidy and making it very difficult for rail to compete on price.

In the early 1990s German and Swedish Railways cooperated in the operation of three daily train pairs between Prague/Dresden/Berlin and Malmö in Sweden. Thanks to the European Commission's liberalisation of aviation, the train became unable to compete with undertaxed low-cost flights on price. A vicious circle of falling passenger numbers and service cuts followed, culminating in first DB, then SJ, pulling out of its operation. Since being taken over by the private operators Veolia and GVG in 2012, the remaining Berlin - Malmö service runs 2-3 times per week and without sleeping cars in the short Swedish high summer only. We are of course grateful to the operator for continuing to participate in the InterRail scheme, one of very few 'open access' operators to do so.

European and national transport policy favours road transport. The European Commission and national governments continue to drag their heels over the implementation of ‘user pays’ and ‘polluter pays’ principles for private car use, putting rail at a competitive disadvantage. The road freight industry covers only 60% of the environmental and infrastructure damage it causes, representing another perverse subsidy, while around two thirds of trucks are operated illegally in some way (exceedance of maximum permitted driving hours, overloading, etc). Maximum permitted truck weights continue to be raised across the EU, the Commission having somehow been persuaded by the road haulage lobby that 'supertrucks' will lead to fewer truck movements! Of course it does no such thing and simply undermines the economic viability of rail freight, especially the 'wagonload' market. If rail freight disappears from a particular route, passenger trains then have to bear all the infrastructure maintenance costs.

A Rijeka (Croatia) - Ljubljana (Slovenia) - Vienna (Austria) train climbs out of Rijeka in October 2012. Croatian Railways (HZ) announced that the entire Croatian section of the route would lose its passenger trains in December 2012, on the eve of the country's accession to the EU, but WCN's petition helped to persuade HZ to reverse this decision. Within Croatia this line is extremely slow, raising questions as to why speeds were not increased during recent (EU co-financed) work to change the electrification system. In contrast, the parallel road has been lavishly upgraded, undermining the economic viability of the railway. Such scenes can be seen across vast swathes of central and southern Europe.

European policy favours road infrastructure projects, and infrastructure spending in general over financial support for operations. European funding institutions have demanded cuts to public transport funding in many countries during the economic crisis. Motorways and other trunk roads continue to be built and upgraded across the continent, despite the known negative environmental and social consequences, thanks in part to co-financing from the EU's Cohesion and Structural funds, especially in central, eastern and southern Europe. In contrast, parallel rail infrastructure is frequently neglected. This damaging policy background undermines other EU-level transport policy and environmental objectives. Greece stopped running international passenger trains in March 2011 (since partially reinstated in May 2014) and has closed many domestic routes, including lines recently upgraded with EU money! White elephant motorways and airports continue to be built...

A hugely expensive and hardly used new toll road in the Greek Peloponnese, as seen from a charter train on the Korinthos - Tripolis - Kiparissia line in April 2013, a railway that was modernised with EU money in 2006 but lost all its trains in 2011. No, we are not joking! Public transport disappeared almost overnight, leaving passengers with a choice of the car or staying at home. We wonder how the EC's noble modal shift goals - including a target for rail to account for half of all medium-distance journeys by 2050 - will be achieved if this trend continues?

The nature of demand, domestic politics and institutional barriers. Transport is often low on the list of political priorities. Railways come even lower, while there are few votes to be had from improving cross-border railways, where demand is generally lower than on equivalent domestic routes owing to language and cultural barriers. At a time of economic recession, governments tend to look for easy targets for spending cuts, especially when European institutions add to this pressure. In most cases there are genuine additional operating costs associated with international rail routes, while funding/contract mechanisms each side of the border are often incompatible. It is for these reasons that WCN has called for EU funding specifically for the operation of cross-border passenger trains, possibly by means of Public Service Obligation contracts. Disputes between neighbouring countries can also lead to worse cross-border services, something that is clearly not in the broader interest of the 'single market'.

Until a few years ago there were direct trains between Szeged (Hungary) and Subotica (Serbia). Each railway then decided to ban the trains of the other country, for reasons that remain unclear. Passengers are now forced to change trains at the extremely basic border station of Horgoš (pictured). Patronage has dwindled to the extent that these elderly railcars can handle the limited traffic that remains. Update: in the wake of Europe's refugee crisis, the route between Röszke and Horgoš was physically severed in September 2015.

Direct trains were provided between České Budějovice and Vienna until the partially EU-financed electrification of this route on the Czech side was completed. Instead of celebrating this modernisation, we find ourselves wondering why the service has deteriorated.
Image courtesy of Al Pulford.

Management, incentives and conflicts within the rail sector. Although far from perfect by any means, national long-distance rail operators have traditionally cooperated with their neighbours in the areas of timetabling and ticketing, culminating in the EuroCity network that peaked in the early 1990s. This has dwindled in recent years as railways have focussed on their core domestic markets, often in readiness for additional competition from 'open access' operators and/or a desire for profit maximisation. We suspect many railways do not understand the potential size of the market for long-distance international rail travel, which they assume to be too small to be worth developing, despite passengers' increasing desire for a more relaxed and environmentally friendlier alternative to the modern-day air travel experience.

Incumbent operators in Italy, Germany and elsewhere have reacted extremely badly to the threat of competition from their neighbours, resulting in the total loss of cooperation (marketing, through/inter-available ticketing between operators, ticket sales, optimal connections, passenger rights, etc.) in some cases. This is very bad news for passengers who - rightly or wrongly - regard 'the railway' as a single system, something that should be hailed as a great strength in comparison with the fragmented aviation and long-distance bus sectors!

Update 1: France - Belgium - Germany: since mid-2013 Thalys and DB no longer sell through tickets for journeys involving both companies. DB has stopped selling any Thalys tickets, since it regards Thalys as an 'open access' competitor. So instead of 'the railway' advertising its offer of 9 high speed train pairs per day between Brussels and Cologne, operator A promotes the five red trains and operator B the four white ones, while pretending the other trains do not exist! Believe it or not, DB still holds a 10% in Thalys until March 2015! Madness!

Update 2: The Hamburg - Berlin - Dresden - Vienna Eurocity train Vindobona was cut in December 2014. Astonishingly this means the end of direct trains between the capital cities of two German-speaking countries! Direct daytime trains between Berlin and Bratislava/Budapest will be reduced from four pairs (in 2014-15) to one pair of trains from December 2015. The route was an example of good practice.

High track and station access charges have killed off many marginal routes in recent years, despite supposedly being limited by European-level legislation to the recovery of marginal costs. A high-profile example is the excessive cost of infrastructure use in Belgium, which led to the gradual withdrawal of all overnight trains to/from/via the country, the last to survive being the (Paris -) Brussels - Berlin/Hamburg train, binned in December 2008. Until their complete withdrawal in December 2014, City Night Line trains from Paris to Germany had to take a much longer route through France, while journeys to/from London took far too long and were more expensive, a double whammy for the poor passenger and highly damaging for the economics of night train operations.

Direct trains between Berlin/Hamburg and France are history since 14 December 2014 (with the exception of the tricky-to-book RZD train between Berlin, Strasbourg and Paris), a gift for the airlines...

High-speed lines have the ability to shrink journey times significantly. But they can also introduce conflicts of interest and reduce choice, especially when the opening of new lines is accompanied by cuts to 'classic' services and international long-distance routes formerly operated under the EuroCity banner. This problem has affected routes to/from France and Belgium in particular, while the journey planner of the former is notorious in being programmed to offer TGVs via Paris when searching for cross-country journeys in southern France! Why is this? Operators want passengers to use high speed trains, in part to justify the construction of new lines and ensure high load factors on trains that are energy-greedy and expensive to operate. However, such trains can make more trips per day than slower trains over the same distance, reducing the number required. Management can be so preoccupied with the most profitable high speed services that classic routes are no longer marketed at best, or suffer 'death by a thousand cuts'. Provincial towns and cities away from the high speed network can be left with a significantly worse service. By removing choice, passengers are forced to go high speed (often at a much higher fare) or find an alternative mode.

Most high-speed trains in/to/from France, Spain and Italy are 'globally priced', jargon that means there are (i) limited or no through ticketing options, (ii) compulsory reservations and (iii) limited-quota and/or expensive supplements for rail pass holders. French TGVs are generally comfortable enough for journeys of up to 3 hours, but not for longer trips such as Paris - Italy/Spain. There is a general lack of regard for the needs of the (poorly studied) longer-distance market and passengers requiring flexibility in their travel plans, the latter being another example of rail squandering an inherent advantage over other modes...

Destination board on a classic EuroCity train from Belgium to Italy. In recent years the route was decelerated and i) cut from 3 train pairs per day to 2; ii) cut back to run north of Zurich/Chur only; iii) cut back to end in Basel eastbound in December 2011; and iv) cut back to start westbound in Basel in December 2013. Comfortable Swiss rolling stock with laptop sockets were replaced by basic Belgian carriages in December 2013. French and Belgian Railways want to force passengers to use expensive TGV trains via Paris (a much longer route subject to global pricing and with awkward cross-Paris transfer). The two remaining Brussels - Basel direct services ran for the last time on 2 April 2016. This has left the Luxembourg - Basel route without direct trains.

Operational constraints. Although high-speed lines can permit speeds as high as 320 km/h, time savings are often squandered by the need to change trains in places such as Brussels, Cologne, Frankfurt, Hendaye/Irun and Strasbourg. This is because high-speed trains tend not to be 'interoperable', and classic 200-230 km/h rolling stock is considered too slow for high-speed infrastructure (especially in France). Today there are no direct trains between Paris/Strasbourg and Hamburg, Prague and Vienna. What is the solution? Integration of timetabling and rolling stock concepts, such that international trains can be operated as extensions of core domestic fast trains and 'foreign' carriages can be used on domestic services, maximising resource efficiency. This is fundamentally incompatible with the current model of each operator specifying its own bespoke rolling stock, exacerbated by a fragmentation-driven increase in the number of players.

Cooperation and interoperability the traditional way! This Paris - Vienna day train (and its overnight counterpart) disappeared with the opening of the Ligne à Grand Vitesse (LGV) Est between Paris and Strasbourg. Such trains have fallen out of fashion in western Europe as they are generally limited to 200 km/h and cannot be used on French-style high-speed lines with special signalling, despite the otherwise 'go-anywhere', flexible and low-cost nature of the rolling stock. But many people prefer direct journeys rather than having to change several times and fight with the booking systems of multiple operators.

Best Practice

It's not all doom and gloom! Switzerland remains a beacon of sanity: per capita rail use is the highest in Europe despite the wealth of its citizens, near-universal car ownership, an absence of high-speed lines and little liberalisation of passenger services. Switzerland's unwaving political commitment to a sustainable transport system, long-term planning horizons, timetable and capacity optimisation and targeted infrastructure improvements are a model for the rest of the world to copy. A ticket can be purchased from any public transport stop to any other, regardless of the number of operators used. A ticket valid on all modes for one year can be purchased for around 3000 EUR. Cooperation and integration are at the heart of the Swiss public transport philosophy. While retaining some commercial freedom, Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) has a brief to maximise rail mode share and accessibility to, from and within the country. This is in stark contrast with the narrow aim of profit maximisation on selected corridors seen elsewhere. SBB retains good relations with its neighbours, as there are few if any competition-related conflicts. Local cross-border routes to Austria, Germany and Italy are well integrated into the national system.

Elsewhere in Europe regional cross-border routes/networks have been successfully tendered, and a handful of trans-European long-distance routes and ticketing schemes remain. Examples can be found in Appendix III of WCN's open letter to the European Commission.

Positive examples do exist! Local authorities in the Germany/Czech Republic border regions in particular have worked hard to offer attractive timetables and integrated ticketing. In this example there is cross-platform interchange and a short wait between a local train from Dresden and a regional cross-border service to Dečin. We welcome competitive tendering for the operation of publically-specified regional routes, provided that the railway still functions as an integrated system.

Another survivor and another example of traditional cooperation with interoperable rolling stock! Yes, it takes 7 minutes to change locomotives at the border, but passengers enjoy comfortable and spacious carriages and a reliable service. Why sacrifice that for the sake of 7 minutes? UPDATE: We hear that DB no longer plans to seek authorisation to use its ICx trains in the Netherlands. We hope that comfortable, reliable and flexible EuroCity trains will continue to operate on the Berlin - Amsterdam route.

One ticket and no stress when travelling between the south of England and the Netherlands via the Harwich - Hoek van Holland ferry. This is now the only properly integrated Rail & Sail route between the UK and continental Europe. We hope it will survive the threatened conversion of the Hoek van Holland to Rotterdam line into a metro...

What Should Be Done?

WCN has set out a number of solutions that require the will of the European Commission in particular, but also national governments and/or rail operators to implement:

    Short-term goals:
  1. A body at European level (the Commission or its agency ERA) should participate pro-actively in the international timetable negotiation process, acting principally to discourage needlessly poor/broken connections. This is not a technological problem!
  2. High track and station access charges are stifling growth and threatening marginal routes. The European Commission should urgently review and mitigate the negative consequences of the requirement for operations and infrastructure management to be separated beyond the level of accounting transparency. Stronger regulation is likely to be necessary.
  3. The European Commission and partners such as UIC/CER should disseminate best practice in the financing and operation of international passenger trains, through high-level conferences and publications.
  4. The European Commission should support the development of online and printed ”Man in Seat 61”-type information resources in all Member States, in order to provide impartial expert advice on international surface travel in an easy-to-understand way.

  5. Short- to medium-term goals:
  6. The European Commission and European financial institutions such as the EBRD should consider broad transport mode share and environmental policy goals first and foremost when assessing applications for infrastructure co-funding. Financial institutions' demands for public sector spending cuts must also consider these over-arching long-term objectives. Rules on the use of co-financed infrastructure should be enforced and/or strengthened, such that Member States cannot withdraw (e.g. Greece) or simply not provide (e.g. Danube Bridge 2, etc) passenger rail services on lines recently built/upgraded with European money.

  7. Medium-term goals:
  8. Train operators should rethink their strategy in order to attract more business on routes of > 4 hours travel time. Direct trains, optimised connections, through ticketing and good on-board facilities (WiFi, comfortable seating in a variety of business- and group-friendly layouts, catering) can attract and retain passengers. Consideration should be given to retrofitting classic trains with the equipment needed to use high-speed lines at 200-230 km/h. Cramped, poorly connecting and globally-priced trains simply encourage or force long-distance travellers to use alternatives.
  9. The European Commission should take the lead in pushing for the implementation of ‘user pays’ and 'polluter pays' principles with regard to road use and flights.
  10. The European Commission and both EU and non-EU countries should research, plan and - where necessary - co-finance the operation of cross-border rail routes to fill gaps in the passenger rail network. Public service obligations (PSOs) and competitive tendering are possible solutions.
  11. The European Parliament and Commission should prepare legislation to oblige passenger train operators to sell and accept through tickets for journeys involving more than one operator. This might well require the establishment of systems such as the Rail Settlement Plan used in the UK. If this is not possible, the Commission should take the lead in developing/procuring an independent, impartial and free-to-use trans-European booking service. In addition, legislation on passenger rights should be updated to reflect the fragmented nature of the railway in many parts of Europe, in particular journeys made using combinations of two or more tickets.

  12. Long-term goals:
  13. The Commission should take the lead in the development of an integrated, regular-interval long-distance trans-European passenger train network, rather than applying the TEN-T corridor-based approach that is better suited to freight. There should be greater emphasis on planning and funding operations rather than capital expenditure on infrastructure.

The 'Mimara' offered a direct and comfortable direct link from Berlin to Zagreb until the year 2000, and was fully integrated into the German InterCity/InterRegio network that has since contracted substantially. Today there is no suitable 'carrier' train for the carriages within Germany. As a consequence you have to change once or twice and journeys are longer despite the use of a shorter, faster route in Germany.
Lower image courtesy of Peter Biewald.

Action Taken by WCN

WCN launched an online petition against Croatian Railways in November 2012 in response to its plans to cut almost all international trains. This pressure helped to save 12 out of the 44 daily trains listed for withdrawal.

This was followed up with an open letter to the European Commission's Transport Commissioner and the Director General of DG-MOVE (the EC's Transport and Mobility wing). This explains the problems, provides detailed lists of recent line closures and timetable cuts, and outlines WCN's suggestions to improve the situation in the short-, medium- and long-term. We found the Commission's reply unacceptable, since it fails to acknowlege its role in creating some of the problems and possibly mitigating them in the future. Instead, the Commission continues to pursue (i) 'vertical separation' of infrastructure and operations, and (ii) expensive, disruptive technological solutions as virtuous policy objectives rather than means to a particular end. Yet these goals are likely to exacerbate rather than solve the problems of fewer direct trains, poor connections and fragmented ticketing...

In response WCN has teamed up with Michael Cramer MEP to try to get proper answers out of the European Commission. Why have EU infrastructure funds been repeatedly mis-spent, and why is the EC's rhetoric on seamless mobility (one journey, one ticket, etc) not matched by legislation to preserve through ticketing and passenger rights when using multiple operators? Michael is assisting us by asking questions in the European Parliament.

World Carfree Network continues to monitor the situation and will bring you updates here and via the Back on Track mailing list.

Further Information

Questions, comments and your own examples of good and bad practice in cross-border railways are welcomed by e-mail to , WCN's Back on Track Campaign Co-ordinator.

You can also join the Back on Track mailing list.

Written Questions in the European Parliament

Note that parliamentary questions are generally posed by elected Members of the European Parliament and directed at the European Commission (the EU's unelected executive agency). You can judge the quality of the answers for yourself!

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 This page was last updated 28 March 2016