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...

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 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.

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 A few weeks later this train was permanently withdrawn, a victim of a combination of high operating costs, ticketing issues and poor timetabling.


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Germany - Italy: Dutch operator Treinreiswinkel will operate a weekly car-carrying overnight train between Dusseldorf and Verona from July until the middle of August 2015, the first direct connection between the populous Ruhrgebiet of Germany and Italy since 2006. More info here.

Netherlands - France/Italy/Slovenia: EETC Autoslaaptrein (motorrail) services ceased without prior warning on 15 April 2015, having succumbed to price hikes of 50% in the Netherlands and 30% in other countries for infrastructure usage and locomotive hire. UPDATE 15 May 2015: Another Dutch operator, Treinreiswinkel, has announced that it will run car trains between Den Bosch and Alessandria/Livorno in summer 2015. As far as we can tell, you don't have to bring a vehicle along to travel on these trains.

Austria - Czech Republic: ÖBB reports passenger numbers between Graz and Prague have quadrupled since the introduction of direct services every 2 hours in December 2014. Despite being accelerated by an hour, the end to end journey time remains about 7 hours. This provides yet more evidence that rail can be popular for journeys of longer than 4 hours, especially when there is no need to change trains.

Spain: The overnight train between Madrid and Barcelona, that formally ran through to/from Cerbère in France, ran for the last time on 7 April.

France - Germany - Poland - Belarus - Russia: The thrice-weekly Paris - Berlin - Warsaw - Moscow service was reduced in frequency to weekly from April 2015, somewhat undermining recently announced price cuts. However, from 18/19 June it will be increased to twice weekly and re-timed to operate overnight between Paris and Berlin. The timetable for the Paris - Berlin section can be found here. We demand that DB (i) shows the train correctly in its journey planner and on all sources of departure information at stations, and (ii) sells tickets online and at stations. Just imagine how popular this could be if it were to run at least 5 days a week, with couchette cars added between Berlin and Paris!

Moldova - Romania: The daily Chisinau - Bucharest train was reduced in frequency to thrice weekly from 23 March 2015.

Poland: 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.
  • Wrocław - Berlin (DE): the SPD in Berlin has started a campaign for the reinstatement of the EuroCity service that ran for the last time on 13 December 2014.
  • Wrocław - Dresden (DE): Funding for these trains is in place on the German side of the border 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. Update: on 20 February it was confirmed that the trains will not run from 1 March owing to a lack of money. This means Wrocław has no direct services to/from Germany and a new 2 km gap in the European passenger network has been created between Görlitz and Zgorzelec. Adding to the problems is the DB Netz/EBA rule that Polish trains without German safety equipment are not permitted to run into Görlitz station.
  • Wrocław - Trutnov (CZ): direct summer weekend trains will not run this year, but there will be 3 pairs of Jelenia Gora - Trutnov trains 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. However, a weekend service primarily to serve students resumed from 6 February 2015.
  • Szklarska Poręba Górna - Tanvald - Liberec (CZ): finally some good news! We understand direct services will begin on this route in December 2015, following the clearing of technical and legal hurdles that had prevented the use of ČD RegioShuttle units in Poland.

The last train from Wrocław to Germany for the foreseeable future departed at 18:38 on 28 February 2015, the route being a victim of a host of financial and organisational problems.

Baltic States: by the end of May 2015, there will be almost no international passenger trains within the Baltic States and between them and Russia, 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 from 2025 onwards.

  • Estonia - Latvia: Engineering works in Latvia between February and May 2015 mean some broken connections on weekdays in Valga on the Tallinn - Riga route.
  • Estonia - Russia: From 15 February 2015 the service of two daily train pairs between Tallinn and St. Petersburg was reduced to two per WEEK. From 12 May 2015 there are NO passenger trains at all on this route, with Tallinn - Moscow also withdrawn from 19 May 2015.
  • Lithuania - Latvia - Russia: from 31 May 2015 there will be no passenger trains between Lithuania and Latvia, following the withdrawal of the Vilnius - St. Petersburg night train.

EuroCity cuts from December 2014: on 14 December 2014 Berlin and Dresden lost their direct connections to Vienna and Villach, the train between Berlin and Wrocław was axed and Budapest lost its direct link with Warsaw. For a summary of all the recent changes see below.

Many international City Night Line trains cut in late 2014. The following routes have been scrapped:

Meanwhile Swiss group umverkehR is running a petition to persuade SBB and the Swiss government to reverse the cuts of recent years and develop a strategy for international rail services. Click here for more information (in French and German) and to sign.

So what is going on? DSB (Danish railways) has blamed the loss of the Copenhagen routes on the seasonal nature of demand and construction work on the Danish island of Fyn in summer 2015. However, DB appears to want to withdraw from this market, having already started to take rolling stock out of service as it becomes due for heavy maintenance. Complicating matters is the situation with subsidy for the service within Denmark, with different stories emerging from DB, DSB and the Danish government.

In recent times the service has gained a reputation for poorer service in return for higher fares (for which DB is responsible) and timetabling/booking difficulties, thanks mainly to the inability of the Dutch, French and German infrastructure managers to plan their construction work at least 3 months in advance. Infrastructure managers continue to increase track access charges, further weakening the economic case for night trains. DB has stated that operating costs (the sum of track access, locomotive hire and personnel) in France are 70% higher per train km than in Germany. In the case of the routes to Amsterdam, locomotives must be fitted with a new signalling system (ETCS) to haul the trains between Emmerich and Utrecht, adding greatly to operating costs. In the meantime airlines continue to enjoy their tax-free status. Put together, this would appear to signal the beginning of the end of international night trains and car-carrying trains to/from Germany, which DB has said must cover their operating costs (or else be cut) by 2017. Despite all this, the trains are not empty: the demand is there! The key question is: who should be responsible for running such trains given the unsupportive framework conditions? Click here to read a related opinion piece in the European Rail Journal.

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December 2014 Timetable Change Summary:

Good news:

  1. Austria - Germany: the EuroNight train between Cologne and Vienna is extended to/from Düsseldorf. Despite rumours of conversion to 'global pricing', the full range of tickets is thankfully still valid on this train...
  2. Austria - Hungary: additional EuroCity trains between Vienna and Budapest, forming an hourly service at peak times. One train pair is extended to/from Debrecen in Hungary... using Polish rolling stock, in an excellent example of good old cooperation and efficient use of assets!
  3. Austria - Italy: the EuroCity train pair Vienna - Venice reinstated last year continues to run and gains a restaurant. Funding for the popular MICOTRA service between Villach and Udine has been secured until at least December 2015. More EU kick-start funding for operations please! Services now run more often and a new station has been opened on the line between Lienz and Fortezza. There are also additional trains between Innsbruck and Bolzano.
  4. Austria - Poland: one EuroCity train pair between Vienna and Warsaw is extended to/from Gdynia.
  5. Austria - Switzerland: the EuroCity Transalpin Graz - Zurich regains its panorama car, offering a wonderful view of the Alps as the train negotiates the Arlberg Pass.
  6. Belgium - Netherlands: 'Benelux' InterCity trains from Brussels are increased in frequency to hourly and run through to/from Amsterdam for the first time since December 2012, albeit on a longer, slower route via Brussels Airport (why?). This means they reach Brussels just 37 minutes before some Eurostar departures, but common sense has prevailed and such connections are officially recognised.
  7. Bulgaria - Romania - Hungary: a new daily long-distance train between Sofia and Budapest via the new Danube Bridge 2 operates, travelling by day between Sofia and Craiova and overnight between Craiova and Budapest.
  8. Croatia - Slovenia: services are restored to the Čakovec - Središče - Ormož line, with 3 train pairs on weekdays. See also 'close but no cigar' below.
  9. Czech Republic - Germany: four new regional train pairs operate between Gera and Cheb via Plauen, reducing end to end journey times by about 20 minutes.
  10. Czech Republic - Poland: the daytime direct Eurocity train pair between Prague and Warsaw is reinstated. The Polish domestic section between Nysa and Głuchołazy regains two pairs of trains at weekends only, providing new journey opportunities between southern Poland and the Moravia region of the Czech Republic.
  11. France - Italy: Thello began a Marseille - Nice - Genova - Milan open access service under the EuroCity brand. The service started with a single, badly-timed train pair, but from 12 April 2015 it was enhanced by the addition of a further two train pairs between Nice and Milan at rather more passenger-friendly times. InterRail holders unfortunately receive only a 25% discount on full fares.
  12. Greece: the two pairs of international trains restored in May 2014 will continue, linking Thessaloniki with Sofia and Skopje/Belgrade. Trains on the latter route should be extended once a week in summer to/from Budapest.
  13. Hungary - Serbia: one of the Budapest - Belgrade train pairs deleted in December 2012 has been reinstated, restoring the service to 3 train pairs daily.
  14. Hungary - Slovenia: a direct service between Budapest and Ljubljana is reinstated after a gap of two years, this time with restaurant car (at least according to the Hungarian timetable). We hope that there will be no repeat of last year's partial bustitution on the Slovenian side owing to a "shortage of diesel locomotives".
  15. Hungary - Ukraine: a new direct service runs between Budapest and Kiev.
  16. Serbia - Croatia - Slovenia: the overnight train between Belgrade and Ljubljana via Zagreb is reinstated.
  17. Switzerland - UK: Geneva - London journeys will be faster and more convenient four days a week thanks to better connections (of about 40 minutes) in Lille Europe.
Close but no cigar...
  1. Austria - Czech Republic: new 2-hourly RailJet service between Graz and Prague via Vienna. Unfortunately this comes at the cost of through trains from the Czech Republic to Villach, the Berlin - Vienna direct train and comfortable compartment coaches.
  2. Belgium - Germany: the frequency of regional trains between eastern Belgium and Aachen is doubled to hourly, with much better connections at both ends. However, a change of train in Welkenraedt is now required if travelling on regional trains between Aachen and the largest Belgian city in the region, Liège.
  3. (Bosnia -) Croatia - Hungary: the border crossing between Beli Manastir (HR) and Magyarboly (HU) regains local trains, but the long-distance train between Sarajevo and Budapest cut two years ago has not been reinstated.
  4. Croatia - Slovenia: two afternoon train pairs are reintroduced on the Ðurmanec - Sveti Rok ob Sotli - Rogatec line, closed to passengers back in 1994. Why no morning trains? Two train pairs have also been restored to the Čakovec - Mursko Središče - Lendava route... on Saturdays only, with no mention in the Slovenian Railways timetable.
  5. Czech Republic - Slovakia: several additional services operate between Prague and Košice, scene of a price war between the two national railway companies and two private 'open access' operators. However, this has come at the cost of one of the three sleeper train pairs on the route.
  6. France - UK: a new direct service London - Lyon - Avignon - Marseille will run up to four days a week... in this direction only! On the return journey passengers will be forced to detrain in Lille Europe to pass through security and passport control, adding 60-70 minutes to journey times. So why not simply provide better connections as per the Geneva route mentioned above?
  7. Germany - Poland: on 10 Dec 2014, just 4 days before the timetable change, it was confirmed that Poland had secured funding to run the Dresden - Wrocław trains until the end of February 2015. On 20 February it was announced that the money has run out: the service of three train pairs ran for the last time on 28 February 2015. This creates a new 2 km gap in the European passenger train network.
  8. Germany - Sweden: the Berlin - Malmö overnight train will run again in 2015, but with limited running days and only very basic couchette accommodation. An improvement this year is the option to stay on board in Berlin until 07:00, 40 minutes after arrival: we welcome such attention to detail. Click here for a preliminary timetable (switch to the Swedish version for the latest info).
  9. Italy - Slovenia: service boosted from two to five train pairs between Villa Opicina and Sežana, which since the Slovenian trains gained authorisation to run in Italy (on 5 January 2015) really are trains, not buses! However, a gap remains on the Italian side of the border between Villa Opicina and the rest of the network in Trieste...
  10. Norway - Sweden: an additional weekday train pair runs between Oslo and Gothenburg, but the northbound train departs far too early in the morning (at 04:30!) to be considered by most travellers.
  11. Romania - Serbia: originally announced as starting at the timetable change, it now appears that a direct train pair between Bucharest and Belgrade via the Vršac - Timişoara border crossing might resume in June 2015 after an absence of 3.5 years.

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Bad news:
  1. Albania: there is still 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.
  2. Austria - Germany: the direct EuroCity train Vindobona between Hamburg, Berlin and Vienna ceased after 57 years' continuous operation.
  3. Austria - Czech Republic/Germany/Poland: EuroCity trains to/from northern Europe no longer run as far south as Villach, the border station with Slovenia.
  4. Belgium - Luxembourg - Strasbourg - Switzerland: the Brussels - Basel service is worsened with every timetable change. This one is no exception: trains are decelerated by a further 30 minutes. The route will be split in Luxembourg from June or December 2016.
  5. Bulgaria - Turkey: the overnight train Sofia - Istanbul remains severely disrupted by construction works in Bulgaria and around Istanbul.
  6. Bulgaria - Romania: the overnight train Sofia - Bucharest appears to have disappeared, possibly as a result of the withdrawal of Russia - Balkans through carriages. This leaves one surviving day train pair that takes 9.5 hrs...
  7. Czech Republic - Denmark: the overnight train Prague - Copenhagen was cut back to Duisburg/Oberhausen in Germany.
  8. Czech Republic - Germany: Cranzahl - Vejprty lost its few remaining passenger trains. Vejprty - Chomutov is served only at weekends and only between Easter and October.
  9. Czech Republic - Netherlands: the overnight train Prague - Amsterdam was cut back to Duisburg/Oberhausen in Germany.
  10. Czech Republic - Poland: the Polish transport ministry has decided NOT to fund the reinstatement of trains between Bohumin (in the Ostrava region) and Wrocław via Chałupki, despite announcements made in the autumn.
  11. Czech Republic - Poland: the new regional service from Bohumín and Ostrava to Kraków ran for the last time on 31 December 2014, a mere 17 days after it was launched. We have not made this up!
  12. Czech Republic - Switzerland: the overnight train between Prague and Zurich is decelerated by one hour in the Prague direction Sundays to Thursdays in winter.
  13. Denmark - Czech Republic / The Netherlands / Switzerland: all overnight trains from Denmark were withdrawn.
  14. France - Germany: all City Night Line overnight trains were withdrawn, leaving Paris - Hamburg with no direct trains and Paris - Berlin with only the tricky-to-book sleeper train operated by Russian Railways, which does not run every day!
  15. France - Spain: despite the daytime Paris - Barcelona service remaining at a mere 2 train pairs per day (that take all day), overnight trains between Paris and Barcelona/Madrid have not been reinstated.
  16. Germany - Luxembourg: InterCity trains between Norddeich and Luxembourg via Cologne, Bonn and Trier no longer run west of Koblenz, bringing an end to direct connections between the populous north-west of Germany and Luxembourg. Although the replacement regional connections between Koblenz and Luxembourg will run hourly, we do not think these trains are comfortable enough for long-distance travellers.
  17. Germany - Poland: the Hamburg - Berlin - Wrocław Eurocity train Wawel was withdrawn without replacement, the final nail in the coffin being the competing IC Bus introduced by DB in 2013. Never mind the millions of Euros invested in the modernisation of the line between Wegliniec and Wrocław... The Frankfurt (Oder) - Poznan regional service was withdrawn on 31 Dec 2014, a mere 5 months after it was introduced, but partially reinstated (at weekends) from 6 Feb 2015.
  18. Hungary - Poland: the direct EuroCity train Varsovia between Budapest and Warsaw no longer operates.
  19. Lithuania - Poland: the 'temporary' suspension of the daily international connection between Warsaw and Vilnius (with two changes en route) since September 2013 continues... Click here for alternative options.
  20. The Netherlands - Poland: the overnight train was withdrawn between Amsterdam and Duisburg/Oberhausen.
  21. Romania - Serbia: trains between Jimbolia and Kikinda ceased on 31 August 2014.
  22. Romania - Turkey: the overnight train Bucharest - Istanbul remains severely disrupted by construction works in Bulgaria and around Istanbul.
  23. Russia - Balkans: direct trains/through carriages routed via Ukraine suspended as a result of tensions between Russia and Ukraine and the collapse of the Ruble.

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The situation in south-east Europe remains dire. Many journeys today are an ordeal, not a pleasure, thanks to low line speeds, unreliability, a lack of serviceable sleeping cars and border controls in the middle of the night. The lack of day train between Belgrade and Sofia renders many trans-Balkan rail journeys extremely difficult if not completely unfeasible.
Photo courtesy of afc45014 on Flickr.

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 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.

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 pair 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 has been 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). In June or December 2016 the route will be split in Strasbourg, when a new TGV service between Brussels and Strasbourg will be introduced.

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 27 May 2015