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 cafe... 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. Read on if you want to know why and what could be done to stop the deterioration of Europe's international passenger train network...
Here's the successor to that train, the excellent EuroCity 'Mozart', direct from Paris to Vienna using Europe's most comfortable compartment carriages. Sadly this service no longer operates: today you must change in Munich and/or Stuttgart and book each leg of the journey separately...
Europe enjoys a dense rail network, including many international routes that have traditionally been operated in a spirit of cooperation between neighbouring national railway companies. New high-speed lines in some parts of the continent have shrunk journey times between selected cities, offering a viable alternative to flying on specific corridors. However, the network as a whole is slowly contracting in central, eastern and southern Europe and Iberia, replicating what happened in western Europe (and North America) in the wake of mass motorisation since the 1950s, while direct long-distance international routes continue to disappear.
Cross-border trains in particular are under constant threat for a variety of reasons, including the economic crisis, higher operating costs, poor management and domestic and EU-level politics. 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.
This train no longer runs via the route shown, nor does its successor run all year round. Indeed, the border crossing between Slovakia and Hungary at Komárno has been closed, extending journey times for long-distance passengers and resulting in the loss of useful local services. NEWS: through coaches from Prague to Bulgaria will not run at all in 2014.
The daily Szczecin (Poland) to Prague via Berlin EuroCity train awaits departure on 25 May 2012. A few weeks later this train was permanently withdrawn, a victim of ticketing difficulties and poor timetabling among other problems.
2014 timetable change summary (updated 21 Nov 2013):
Close but no cigar...
- Czech Republic - Poland: Kłodzko to Kudowa Zdrój within Poland is reopened, reducing the length of the cross-border gap to Náchod Běloves station in the Czech Republic to a mere 5 km walk...
- France - Spain: see below.
- Germany - Sweden: the Berlin - Malmö overnight train will run again on selected dates in 2014. We would like to feature this under 'good news', but information about this train is poor, it does not convey sleeping cars and running days are extremely limited.
- Italy - Slovenia: two train pairs from Sežana to Ljubljana start back from Villa Opicina in Italy, restoring passenger trains to this border crossing. However, a gap in the Italian rail network remains between Villa Opicina and Trieste!
- Slovenia - Hungary: a service between Ljubljana and Budapest is once again offered via the shortest possible route, but a change of train is required in Maribor. Thankfully through tickets are available at the low price of 39 EUR single, 49 EUR return.
- Greece remains isolated from all its neighbours!
- Albania: there is no replacement in sight for the station in Tiranë, closed in summer 2013 to make way for boulevard widening. The line to Pogradec, close to the border with Macedonia, was severed by road construction works in September 2012, with no indication that it will be reopened.
- Balkans: no trains between Belgrade (Serbia) and Romania; the poor service of just one train pair between Belgrade and each of Zagreb and Sofia (overnight but without sleeping cars!) will not be improved.
- Belgium - Luxembourg - Switzerland: trains no longer run east of Basel in either direction; the morning train from Brussels is decelerated by 26 minutes; the SBB carriages are replaced by SNCB/NMBS coaches, meaning no laptop sockets. The slow death continues... We understand it will be game over for direct trains in December 2014, but this has not been confirmed.
- Czech Republic - Bulgaria: the direct through coaches no longer run.
- Czech Republic - Poland: the daytime direct Eurocity train pair is cut.
- France - Italy: the overnight train between Paris and Rome is withdrawn; Limone - Breil-sur-Roya - Ventimiglia is likely to lose passenger trains in June 2014.
- France - Germany: the last remaining classic Eurocity train pair between Strasbourg and Munich disappears.
- France - southern England: the traditional train - ferry - train route via Dieppe - Newhaven becomes even more unattractive, thanks to the withdrawal of the last remaining direct trains between Dieppe and Paris. Journey times are extended by 30 minutes.
- Germany - Netherlands: local trains between Bad Bentheim and Hengelo are withdrawn.
- Poland - Lithuania: the 'temporary' suspension of the daily international connection (with two changes en route) is rumoured to be extended until March 2014 at the earliest.
- Western Europe - Russia: the through coaches from Basel to Minsk and Berlin to Saratov, Tchelyabinsk and Novosibirsk are withdrawn, destroying the last direct rail links between western Europe and Asian Russia.
The situation in south-east Europe remains dire. Back in 2007 it was possible to travel between Ljubljana/Budapest/Vienna and Thessaloniki/Istanbul without changing, but today Greece is completely cut off from its neighbours by rail and two connections - which often do not wait for each other - are required to reach Turkey. There is no day train between Belgrade and Sofia, making many trans-Balkan rail journeys extremely difficult if not completely unfeasible.
Photo courtesy of afc45014 on Flickr.
London - The Netherlands: Any Dutch Station tickets via the Channel Tunnel are available again from €62.50 from NS Hispeed.
France - Spain: overnight trains between Paris and Barcelona/Madrid are expected to be withdrawn once direct Paris - Barcelona daytime TGVs begin in
autumnlate 2013. Yes, the journey time will be shrunk considerably... but will still be around 6 hrs 20 mins from Paris to Barcelona! That's a very long time in trains designed with the same level of comfort as short-haul planes! Add 2.5 hours for journeys to/from Madrid, and you can see that these routes are eminently suitable for night trains or higher standards of comfort at the very least. We welcome the introduction of direct daytime trains, but not the reduction in choice.
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 and has removed all mention of Thalys from its promotional material.
Germany - Poland: the Hamburg - Berlin - Wrocław Eurocity train (that ran to/from Kraków until December 2012) is no longer actively promoted, unlike the Berlin - Wrocław - Krakow 'Intercity Bus' that takes about the same time.
France - Switzerland: a new cross-border regional network centred on Geneva is to be launched in December 2017. More here.
Why is Rail Worth Saving?
Trains can offer safe, fast and low-carbon mobility for all, reducing the environmental impact of travel significantly. Rail produces only 25% and 30% of the per passenger km carbon emissions of planes and cars respectively. This figure is 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 - we believe uniquely in Europe - integrated into Britain's national system.
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 were to become 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 without first ensuring it is taxed like other modes, the train became unable to compete with 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 operator Veolia in 2012, the remaining Berlin - Malmö train pair runs 2-3 times per week and without sleeping cars in the short Swedish high summer only. We are of course grateful to Veolia for continuing to participate in the InterRail scheme!
European and national transport policy favours road transport. The European Commission and national governments continue to drag their heels over the imposition of ‘user pays’ and ‘polluter pays’ principles with regard to 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 maximum permitted truck weights continue to be raised. These policies undermine the economic viability of rail freight. If rail freight disappears from a particular route, passenger trains then have to bear all the 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 operating subsidies. European funding institutions have demanded cuts to public transport subsidies 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 2011 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 closed 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 inter-city journeys by 2050 - will be achieved if this trend continues?
Domestic politics and legal, institutional and language 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 because of the language barrier. 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 can be incompatible. It is for these reasons that WCN has called for EU funding specifically for the operation of cross-border passenger trains. 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 recently 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.
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.
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. Since the EC-led liberalisation of international passenger trains in 2010, operators have been free to launch their own services in cooperation with any company that holds an operating license. At the same time long-distance operators are under pressure to maximise profits above all else. What's wrong with that? Well, profit margins are thin, so the cherry picking of premium routes by new/foreign operators threatens the economic viability of existing trains. Through and inter-available ticketing between operators may be withdrawn. 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, 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.
Update: It is feared that the Hamburg - Vienna Eurocity train pair will be split in Prague from December 2014, while the Hamburg - Bratislava/Budapest Eurocity route will be split there in December 2015. If a private operator becomes involved in the operation of the trains north of Prague - as is rumoured - it is likely that through ticketing will be lost and connections in Prague will not be guaranteed. The Berlin - Budapest/Vienna overnight train pair also faces an uncertain future. The route is currently an example of best practice.
High-speed lines have the ability to shrink journey times significantly. But they can also introduce conflicts of interest and reduce consumer choice, especially when the opening of new lines is accompanied by cuts to 'classic' services and international long-distance routes. 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. Such trains can make more trips per day than slower trains over the same distance, maximising efficiency from the operator's perspective. 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'. By removing choice, passengers are forced to go high speed or find an alternative mode.
Destination board on a classic EuroCity train from Belgium to Italy. In recent years the route has been decelerated and cut from 3 train pairs per day to 2, while the trains no longer run south of Zurich/Chur. In 2011 eastbound trains were cut back to terminate in Basel (owing to delays picked up in Belgium and France). French and Belgian Railways want to force passengers to use expensive TGV trains via Paris (a much longer route with awkward cross-Paris transfer). NEWS: as of 15 December 2013 the westbound trains will begin in Basel, signifying the end of SBB's involvement in their operation. Sadly this means the trains will convey only Belgian carriages of variable quality and lacking laptop sockets.
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 'go anywhere' trains have not been modified to be able to travel over high-speed infrastructure. Today there are no direct trains between Paris/Strasbourg and Vienna or Prague, while only one overnight train to Berlin remains. 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 - Switzerland/Italy/Spain. There is a general lack of regard for the needs of spontaneous and longer-distance passengers.
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, despite the '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.
High track and station access charges have killed off many marginal routes in recent years, despite these being supposedly being limited to reflect genuine marginal costs. A high-profile example is the high 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. Since then the overnight trains from Paris to Germany take a much longer route through France, while journeys to/from London take much longer and are more expensive, a double whammy for the poor passenger! There are currently no direct trains between Brussels and Berlin/Hamburg.
An increasingly distant memory... The train conveyed through carriages to Russia at one time. At least one change of train and two tickets are required by anyone contemplating the journey today.
High track access charges are alleged to have made the Berlin - Kiev - Odessa route (cut in October 2012) uneconomic. With the 'unbundling' of infrastructure management and operations comes fragmentation, leading to internal markets, new profit centres and transaction costs, problems that do not burden car users, bus operators and airlines!
The Berlin - Saratov/Novosibirsk/Tschelyabinsk train stands in Berlin Gesundbrunnen station on 5 October 2013, a train that might not run in 2014.
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 no liberalisation of the passenger market. 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. Swiss Federal Railways 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?
What Should Be Done?
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...
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:
- The European Commission should participate pro-actively in the international timetable negotiation process, acting to discourage cross-border closures, poor/broken connections and disjointed ticketing.
- The European Commission should urgently review and mitigate the negative consequences (high track and station access charges in particular) of the requirement for trains and infrastructure management to be separated beyond the level of accounting transparency.
- The European Commission together with CER and UIC should disseminate best practice in the financing and operation of international passenger trains, through high-level conferences and publications.
- 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.
Short- to medium-term goals:
- 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 funding and/or demanding subsidy cuts. 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.
- Train operators should rethink their strategy in order to attract more business on routes of > 3 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.
- 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.
- 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 such that there are no major gaps in the strategic European passenger rail network and individual countries do not completely isolate themselves or make trans-European rail travel via their territory unfeasible.
- 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.
- The Commission should take the lead in the development of an integrated, regular-interval long-distance trans-European passenger train network, rather than the current disjointed and often meaningless TEN-T corridor-based approach. There should be greater emphasis on planning and funding operations rather than capital expenditure on infrastructure.
Action Taken by WCN
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 been deemed commercially unviable and substantially reduced. Today there is no suitable 'carrier' train for the carriages within Germany, and in any case DB is incentivised to charge a higher fare on its replacement domestic (non-interoperable) ICE. 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.
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 do nothing to address the root causes of the ongoing loss of direct trains and ticketing cooperation...
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 our discussion forum...
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 debate on WCN's discussion forum.
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!