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TRAVEL NEWS

OPINION: Trains are in fashion so why is rail travel across Europe still so difficult?

Would you prefer to travel across Europe by train rather than plane this summer? It’s not nearly as simple as it should be, especially given the urgency of the climate crisis, explains specialist Jon Worth.

OPINION: Trains are in fashion so why is rail travel across Europe still so difficult?
Travelers speak together in a sleeper car of the Paris-Nice night train, between Paris and Nice, on May 20, 2021 on the day it returns to service after being stopped since December 2017. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP)

Buried away in the latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about the changes needed in different sectors to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions is this startling graphic (below) – it is in the transport sector where the costs to decarbonise are lowest, and even have cost savings associated with them.

So with spring blossom in the trees and thoughts turning to planning summer holiday trips, why not look for a greener route to the sun – by taking the train rather than the plane?

In terms of the public debate, trains are back in fashion.

On the back of Greta Thunberg’s efforts to shame those who fly, and to push greener alternatives instead, media from The New York Times to the BBC are discussing the renaissance of long distance travel by train in Europe, especially night trains.

One railway company – Austria’s ÖBB – has seized the moment and has ordered a fleet of 33 new 7 carriage night trains, the first of which will be on Europe’s tracks from December this year.

The argument for night trains is a simple one, namely that by travelling at night you save yourself a night in a hotel at your destination, and passengers are happy to make a longer trip while they are asleep than they would during the day – when passengers normally will not spend more than 6 hours in a train.

The problem is that beyond ÖBB’s plans comparatively little is happening in long distance cross border night trains in Europe.

There are dozens of further connections where night trains would make sense – think of routes like Amsterdam-Marseille or Cologne to Warsaw for example – but we cannot hope that the Austrians will run those. The European Commission conservatively estimated in December 2021 that at least 10 more night train routes, over and above those planned by ÖBB, would be economically viable, and running those lines would need at least 170 new carriages to be ordered. But so far no operator has been tempted.

The main players in European rail – Deutsche Bahn, Renfe, SNCF and Trenitalia – have no interest in night trains, and even only limited interest in cross border rail at all.

More profitable national daytime services are their focus. The French and Italian governments have been making noises to push SNCF and Trenitalia respectively to run more night time services but – you guessed it – only on national routes.

A few small private players have sought to run night services – Sweden’s Snälltåget and Amsterdam-based European Sleeper for example, but they have struggled to scale.

All of this is on top of the headaches that cross border rail in Europe has faced for years, namely the difficulty of booking tickets on international trains (sometimes two or more tickets are needed), timetables that are not in sync if you have to change train at a border, and lack of clear information and compensation if something goes wrong. Even finding out what trains run is often a headache, as no complete European railway timetable exists.

The EU nominated 2021 as the European Year of Rail with the aim of drawing attention to what rail can do in Europe, but the year closed with scant little progress on any of this multitude of thorny problems – in the main because the railway companies themselves do not want to solve them.

Helping intrepid cross border travellers find their way around these practical barriers has become a kind of cottage industry in the social media era.

Communities of sustainable transport nerds of which I am a part on Facebook and Twitter help each other to find the best routes and cheapest tickets, and the venerable Man in Seat 61 website acts as a kind of FAQ for international rail. 

There’s nothing quite like waking up on a summer morning and seeing the sun on the Mediterranean or the wooded slopes of the Alps out of the window of a night train. But travel experiences like that are not nearly as simple or mainstream as they should be – and it is high time the railway industry stepped up.

Are you hoping to travel across Europe by train instead of plane but finding it difficult to organise? Feel free to get in touch and with Jon’s expertise we’ll try to help you. Email [email protected]

Jon Worth is a Berlin-based blogger who specialises in European train travel. You can his original post on this subject HERE.

Member comments

  1. Yes, I agree, much more should be done here. I used to use take Eurostar to Paris, change stations, and then the sleeper to Chur via Zürich. But these days, as a frequent traveller between London, Zürich and Chur, the complexity of purchasing a rail ticket, plus the cost, make it really impractical. One big improvement would be to the ability to purchase a ticket, in a single transaction, from London to Zürich/Berlin/Milan … Only the most dedicated (and wealthy) commuter is likely to persevere with the train option, when you can purchase a return flight within a few minutes and for perhaps £150 return.

  2. I’ve lived and studied in Germany and been all over Europe by rail. The worst European train is still far, far better than the best train in the USA.

  3. EU as an organization is unable to get anything done other than talking. If there was a REAL political will we could get rid of polluting short-haul flights but that will never happen.

  4. It is price that governs. Trains are too expensive. I have been told that flying is cheap because the fuel is virtually untaxed. If that is accurate it is a policy decision that should change. Trains should be cheap, flights more expensive.

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TRAVEL NEWS

Spain to allow unvaccinated non-EU tourists to enter ‘in matter of days’

Spain’s Tourism Minister on Thursday announced that “in a matter of days” unvaccinated third-country nationals such as Britons and Americans will be able to travel to Spain for a holiday with proof of a negative Covid-19 test. 

Spain to allow unvaccinated non-EU tourists to enter 'in matter of days'

Spanish Tourism Minister Reyes Maroto on Thursday May 19th confirmed that it won’t be long before unvaccinated non-EU/Schengen nationals will be allowed to travel to Spain for non-essential reasons such as tourism, visiting friends or family or spending time in a second home in Spain. 

“It’s a matter of days before we eliminate a restriction that could be discouraging tourists from outside the European Union from visiting us,” Reyes told Spanish radio station Onda Cero.

“And that is that we are going to stop requiring the vaccination certificate and allow them to enter with a negative test”. 

Maroto then stated that this would have to be a PDIA test, which in Spain refers to both PCR and antigen tests. If it’s a negative PCR or similar test (NAAT-type test) it must have been issued less than 72 hours prior to arrival in Spain, or if it’s a negative antigen test, less than 24 hours before arriving in Spain.

The surprise announcement comes just days after Spanish health authorities decided to extend the ban on non-essential travel for unvaccinated non-EU holidaymakers until June 15th

Spain’s current Covid-19 travel restrictions only allow in third-country tourists such as Britons, Americans or Indians who have been fully vaccinated (including a booster shot if initial vaccination was more than nine months before travel) and those who have recovered from Covid-19 in the past six months. 

But for practically the entirety of the pandemic, unvaccinated non-EU tourists have been unable to travel to Spain, with only exceptional reasons for travel allowed. 

Reyes’ comments came about when asked by the Onda Cero interviewer when all of Spain’s Covid-19 travel restrictions will be lifted, as there are still other measures in places such as mask wearing on public transport (including planes) and proof of vaccination, testing or recovery.

“There’s a degree of safety with travel that we have to preserve. We’re still co-existing with the pandemic but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t been gradually lifting restrictions,” Maroto argued.

The minister spoke of allowing unvaccinated non-EU holidaymakers in soon as being another way of boosting the country’s recovering tourism industry, adding that her ministry was putting the finishing touches to the legislation, which will be approved in the coming days. 

A number of EU/Schengen countries have already lifted all their Covid-19 travel restrictions, including Greece and Austria most recently, as well as Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Sweden and Switzerland.

Other countries such as France and Italy, Spain’s competitors in the tourism stakes, have also already allowed unvaccinated third-country tourists in with proof of a negative Covid-19 test for more than a month now.

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