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.


Jump to December 2016 timetable change summary

News Archive

Bosnia - Croatia: on Friday 9 December 2016 it emerged that there was no agreement between the three operators (ZFBH, ZRS and HZPP) of the daily Sarajevo - Zagreb train pair to continue operating it from the timetable change two days later on 11 December. The service is therefore currently suspended until further notice, with the result that Bosnia is now completely cut off from its neighbours by rail. Just a few months earlier ZFBH had announced plans to use its modern Talgo rolling stock on the service, which was also supposed to be extended south of Sarajevo to/from Mostar and the Croatian coastal town of Ploče in summer 2017.

Bulgaria - Greece: a new overnight train pair between Sofia and Thessaloniki will run between 2.6.2017 and 2.10.2017, complementing the existing daytime service.

Bulgaria - Serbia: the direct train pair between Sofia and Belgrade is suspended from 1 February until 31 May 2017 and again from 18 September 2017 onwards, ostensibly because it is too expensive for ZS passenger subsidiary Srbija Voz to hire diesel locos from ZS subsidiary Srbija Cargo for the unelectrified part of the route. Don't you just love fragmentation!

Bulgaria/Romania - Turkey: since 21 February 2017 it is once again possible to travel by overnight train for most of the distance between Sofia and Istanbul. There is even a connecting bus service for the 25 km stretch between Halkali and Istabul Sirkesi, which is still disrupted by rebuilding work. It is expected that through carriages will operate between Bucharest and Halkali from 3.6.2017 until 30.9.2017.

France (- Luxembourg / Spain): SNCF will withdraw almost all overnight 'Intercités de Nuit' services in the near future, most having already been cut back to run at weekends only. The following routes will disappear:

  1. Paris Austerlitz – Perpignan - Cerbère - Port-Bou (Spain). Expected to run for last time on 9 December 2016. As of March 2017 rumours of a reprieve had not led to reinstatement in the SNCF journey planner.
  2. Paris Austerlitz – Tarbes / Hendaye - Irún (with legendary 'near miss' non-connections to/from Vigo/A Coruna). To be withdrawn in July 2017.
  3. Paris Austerlitz – Savoie. Expected to run for last time on 30 September 2016.
  4. Paris Austerlitz – Nice. RZD has apparently expressed an interest in taking over this route. Possibly connected with this, RZD sleeping cars have been trialled on this service since August 2016. Expected to run until October 2017.
  5. Luxembourg – Nice. Ran for last time on 30 June 2016.
  6. Luxembourg – Portbou. Ran for last time on 30 June 2016. These cuts leave 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. Expected to run for last time on 30 September 2016.
  8. Strasbourg – Portbou. Ran for last time on 30 June 2016.
This leaves just three routes in place, namely Paris - Briançon, Paris - Rodez (- Albi Ville) and Paris - Latour-de-Carol. The French government has invited expressions of interest from private operators to reinstate the withdrawn services.

Germany (- Czech Republic / Italy / Netherlands / Poland / Switzerland): DB withdrew all remaining CNL sleeper train routes at the timetable change in December 2016, replacing some of them with inferior overnight IC, ICE and bus services. However, Austrian Railways (ÖBB) has taken over some routes, while the Prague - Zurich service will be rerouted via Linz. The following international services completely disappeared:

  1. Amsterdam - Cologne - Basel - Zürich
  2. The Amsterdam - Düsseldorf part of Amsterdam - Munich
  3. Cologne - Poznan - Warsaw
  4. Cologne - Dresden - Prague
  5. Dresden - Basel - Zürich
  6. Hannover - Basel - Zürich

Greece - Bulgaria - Romania: a new direct train pair between Thessaloniki and Bucharest will run between 2.6.2017 and 2.10.2017. This is completely new between Thessaloniki and Sofia (where it runs overnight), but it will be attached to the existing daytime service between Sofia and Bucharest.

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.

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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, a situation repeated from 1 June 2016.
  • 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. A daily Tallinn - St. Petersburg - Moscow service operated by Russian Railways then 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.
  • Poland - Lithuania: a new weekends-only service of 1-2 train pairs between Białystok and Mockava was introduced on 17 June 2016. Unfortunately their average speed is just 50 km/h, much slower than competing buses.

News Archive

December 2016 Timetable Change

Good news:

  1. Austria - Czech Republic: there are big improvements to the Linz - Prague route, with 4 instead of 2.5 train pairs and most services accelerated by 45 minutes.
  2. Austria - Germany: the Munich - Hamburg night train pair has been taken over by Austrian Railways and extended to start/end in Innsbruck.
  3. Austria - Netherlands: a new weekly overnight Alpen Express operated in winter between The Hague and several Alpine ski resorts en route to Schladming. A day train Krokus Express also ran on two dates in winter 2017 with portions to/from Schladming and Bludenz. These services were operated by Euro-Express in cooperation with Treinreiswinkel.
  4. Austria - Slovakia: a new direct overnight service runs between Vienna and Košice via Poprad Tatry.
  5. Belgium - Germany: up to 3 additional ICE train pairs operate between Brussels and Frankfurt, filling some of the long gaps between trains in the Brussels - Cologne timetable.
  6. Croatia - Germany: a direct overnight service between Rijeka and Munich has resumed after a gap of over three years. This and the Zagreb - Munich service are even bookable online via the ÖBB website, a much-needed improvement.
  7. Croatia - Hungary: through carriages between Rijeka and Budapest are attached to one of the two daily Zagreb - Budapest train pairs.
  8. Czech Republic - Poland: For the first time in many years, a direct EuroCity train pair between Prague and Kraków will run between Easter and the end of September 2017.
  9. Czech Republic - Slovakia:
    - a new regional service of up to 4 train pairs/day links Ostrava and Banská Bystrica, with one train pair extended to/from Zvolen.
    - RegioJet has launched two train pairs per day between Prague and Bratislava via Brno, using paths formerly allocated to ČD.
  10. Czech Republic - Switzerland: following the diversion of the Prague - Zurich night train to avoid Germany, Tábor and České Budějovice have regained their direct connection to/from Switzerland.
  11. France - Germany: a summer weekend service will be provided between Wörth am Rhein and Strasbourg, a route that lost its direct passenger trains back in 1980.
  12. Germany - Italy: Euro-Express/Treinreiswinkel will operate weekly car-carrying overnight trains between Düsseldorf and Livorno (from July 2017) and Verona (from May 2017).
  13. Germany - Netherlands: hourly regional services between Düsseldorf and Emmerich are expected to be extended to/from Zevenaar and Arnhem from 6 April 2017.
  14. Hungary - Slovenia: the EuroCity Citadella between Budapest and Ljubljana has been accelerated by 13 minutes in one direction and 23 minutesin the other.
  15. Italy - Switzerland:
    - EuroCity services between Milan and Zürich via Bellinzona have been accelerated by 35 minutes at the cost of diverting trains away from the scenic Gotthard Pass mountain railway into the 57 km Base Tunnel.
    - a new regional route between Domodossola and Brig is operated by BLS, starting with 4 train pairs per day, stepping up to 2-hourly from June 2017. These trains supplement the existing EuroCity services.
  16. Norway - Sweden: the service on the Oslo - Stockholm route has been increased from three to five daily train pairs, following the 39% increase in passengers recorded between August 2015 and May 2016.

Back to Current News

Nice try, but...
  1. Austria - Germany: thanks to being offered poor paths by infrastructure managers, Euro-Express/Treinreiswinkel will not operate their planned Villach - Düsseldorf car-carrying overnight services in 2017.
  2. Bulgaria - Turkey: despite the completion of most upgrade work on both sides of the border, it appears the Sofia - Plovdiv - Istanbul service will either remain partially bustituted or - at best - in the form of the single night train pair. What a waste of millions of Euros of infrastructure funding...
  3. Germany - Slovenia: thanks to being offered poor paths by infrastructure managers, Euro-Express/Treinreiswinkel will not operate their planned Düsseldorf - Koper car-carrying overnight services in 2017.
  4. Lithuania - Poland: the new Mockava - Białystok - Warsaw - Kraków TLK train pair did not start in December 2016. This was originally planned to commence in December 2015 and was shown in all of last year's PKP timetables despite not operating. When will this much-needed service finally begin...?
  5. Norway - Sweden: it appears that the planned Oslo - Stockholm night train service will not start in 2016/17. A shortage of serviceable rolling stock has been cited.
  6. Romania - Turkey: despite the completion of most upgrade work in both Bulgaria and Turkey, it appears the Bucharest - Svilengrad - Istanbul service will either remain partially bustituted or - at best - in the form of the single night train pair. What a waste of millions of Euros of infrastructure funding...

Back to Current News

Bad news:
  1. Austria - Belgium: Weekly Treski ski trains between Brussels and the Austrian Alps did not run, leaving Belgium with no international overnight trains at all.
  2. Bosnia - Croatia: on 9 December 2016 it emerged that there was no agreement between the three operators (ZFBH, ZRS and HZPP) of the daily Sarajevo - Zagreb train pair to continue operating it from 11 December. The service is therefore suspended until further notice, with the result that Bosnia is now completely cut off from its neighbours by rail. Just a few months earlier ZFBH had announced plans to use modern Talgo rolling stock on the service, which was also supposed to be extended south of Sarajevo to/from Mostar and the Croatian coastal town of Ploče in summer 2017.
  3. Bulgaria - Romania: following the loss of the night train in December 2014, the sole remaining direct daytime service between Sofia and Bucharest - the capitals of neighbouring EU Member States - has been scrapped.
  4. Bulgaria - Romania - Hungary: the daily train Bononia between Sofia and Budapest via the infamous Danube Bridge 2 and Craiova has ceased, its slowness - owing to poor infrastructure and lengthy border controls - together with a lack of attractive fares having contributed to its failure.
  5. Bulgaria - Serbia: the night train between Sofia and Belgrade will be scrapped, while the daytime service is decelerated by about 2 hours owing to the poor state of the infrastructure in Serbia. Update: the direct daytime train will not run 1.2.2017 - 31.5.2017 and 18.9.2017 - 9.12.2017 because ZS has decided it is too uneconomic to hire in a diesel loco from its freight subsidiary in the low-season.
  6. Croatia - Hungary: probably a delayed reaction to the European refugee crisis, the Beli Manastir - Magyarboly has lost its 2 local train pairs, effectively closing this border crossing to passengers.
  7. Croatia - Serbia: the overnight train between Zagreb and Belgrade has been reduced to run seasonally rather than all year round and no longer conveys sleeping or couchette cars.
  8. Czech Republic - Germany: the overnight train between Prague and Cologne has ceased. This also means the last daytime direct connection from Prague to Berlin is two hours earlier (at about 16:30), a move that can only result in passengers switching to buses...
  9. Czech Republic - Poland: the remaining direct trains between Pardubice/Ústí nad Orlicí and Wrocław have been withdrawn, leaving another cross-border route upgraded with EU funds without an attractive service. At one time there were direct trains between Prague and Wrocław via the Lichkov border crossing.
  10. Czech Republic - Slovakia: RegioJet's Prague - Zvolen direct train pair has been replaced by buses on the non-electrified stretch south of Martin (Slovakia). RegioJet blames the introduction of additional services by incumbents on the Ostrava - Banská Bystrica - Zvolen section. At the end of February 2017 Regiojet diverted this train pair to/from Košice, with a bus connection betwen Vrútky and Zvolen.
  11. Czech Republic - Switzerland: following the diversion of the Prague - Zurich night train to avoid Germany, the Czech Republic has lost its only direct connection with Basel.
  12. France - Germany - Poland - Belarus - Russia: the Paris - Berlin - Moscow service has been cut from 3 services to just 1 train per week, partially substituted by a new Berlin - Moscow service operating twice per week.
  13. France - Spain: the night train Paris – Cerbère - Port-Bou is discontinued. Talks of a reprieve had led to nothing as of March 2017.
  14. Germany - Netherlands: the DB overnight service between Munich and Amsterdam has ceased, partially replaced by a new Innsbruck - Munich - Düsseldorf service operated by ÖBB.
  15. Germany - Poland:
    - The overnight train Jan Kiepura between Cologne and Warsaw has ceased.
    - The direct train pair Berlin - Kostrzyn - Krzyz (with attractive night train connections to/from southern Poland) has been cut back to Gorzów.
  16. Germany - Switzerland: Following the diversion of the Prague - Zurich night train away from Germany, Dresden has lost its only direct connection with Basel and Zurich.
  17. Greece - Macedonia - Serbia: the Thessaloniki - Skopje - Belgrade train pair has been suspended until at least May 2017.
  18. Hungary - Serbia - Montenegro/Bulgaria: direct, modern RZD sleeping cars are no longer provided between Budapest and Bar/Burgas/Varna via Belgrade.
  19. Macedonia - Serbia: the Skopje - Belgrade day train service has been completely withdrawn while the night train pair has been suspended until at least May 2017.
  20. Netherlands - Switzerland: the overnight service between Amsterdam and Zurich has ceased. This means the Netherlands follows in the unenviable footsteps of Belgium, leaving the country with no regular, all-year-round sleeper trains.
  21. Poland - Serbia - Montenegro/Bulgaria: direct, modern RZD sleeping cars are no longer provided between Warsaw and Bar/Burgas/Varna via Belgrade.
  22. Serbia - Croatia - Slovenia: the overnight train between Belgrade and Ljubljana via Zagreb has been reduced to run seasonally rather than all-year-round and no longer conveys sleeping or couchette cars.

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 3 March 2017