Rail revolution: how Europe's rail network is entering an adventurous new era

Bolstered by a growing demand for low-carbon, overland travel, Europe's rail network is entering an adventurous new era, with a number of new overnight services, high-speed trains and scenic itineraries.

Part of the railway from Lauterbrunnen to Wengen, Switzerland.

Photograph by AWL Images
By Ben Lerwill
Published 15 Sept 2022, 15:00 BST

A basic fact underpins the appeal of European rail travel: trains are great. It takes a hard-boiled traveller not to be seduced by the prospect of rumbling through the Alps in a dining car, or watching locals hop on and off as you trundle through the Balkans or be wowed by the sunlit swell of Italian vineyards revealed behind the window blind of an overnight train as it rattles into dawn. And this fact was lore long before environmental concerns and the slow travel trend boosted our reverence for rail travel. 

But with a steady clickety-clack, continental rail travel as a leisure pursuit has grown into something more than it was. Increased airport security and a heightened awareness around carbon-intensive flights — coupled with a pandemic-driven change in travel habits — have helped the rail industry to a renaissance of sorts. Various headaches still linger around long-distance ticketing and cross-border cooperation, but there’s no denying the impetus. New sleeper and intercity services have sprung up, Eurostar and high-speed operator Thalys have merged, and the noise around European overland travel has become louder and more layered largely thanks to rail’s new reach.

Other facts and figures back this up. The EU has announced plans to double its spending on high-speed rail by 2030, and earlier this year, France banned short domestic flights where a rail alternative of less than 2.5 hours exists (similar moves are being mooted by the likes of Spain, Germany and Norway). Elsewhere, research published in 2020 by ABTA showed that 47% of people were now worried about the effects of their holidays on climate change, at a time when aviation accounts for 13% of all EU greenhouse gas emissions compared to rail travel’s 0.4%. On a livelier note, evocative travelogues such as Monisha Rajesh’s Around The World in 80 Trains and Helen Coffey’s Zero Altitude have added to the momentum. 

Rail expert Mark Smith has been running the incomparably useful seat61.com for two decades. The steadily increasing traffic to his site, which now has somewhere in the region of 1.5 million visits a month, tells its own story. “I’ve noticed the type of user change,” he says. “When I first started, if someone told me why they were using it, they’d say they were afraid of flying, they were physically restricted from flying or they particularly liked trains. What they say now is two things in the same breath: they say they’re fed up with airports, airlines and the whole experience of flying and want to cut their carbon footprint.”

Steps outside Marseilles-St-Charles station, a major hub for exploring southern France by rail.

Photograph by AWL Images

This growing interest in rail is no passing fad. “It’s come from the travellers themselves,” Smith continues. “It predates Greta Thunberg. It’s reached the stage where it’s hit the media and politicians are beginning to take notice, but it certainly hasn’t come from the mainstream travel industry and it isn’t coming from the rail industry either.”

Going back further, he points to 9/11 as being a watershed moment for the industry. “It changed the rules of the game,” he says. “I remember the head of French railways saying that the magic three hours — which is the journey time where rail travel can compete with air on a level playing field — had become four or five, due to the extra security checks.”

But while the demand for rail travel may have risen, the booking technology hasn’t always kept up to speed. Making a three-part rail trip from, say, Sheffield to Barcelona might look simple on the map, but because of the various rail operators involved, the ticketing process can become tricky. The train companies themselves seemingly have little will or incentive to make this easier, so it falls to third-party websites — notably trainline.com and raileurope.com — to provide the connectivity and journey-planning logic to make the relevant reservations in one place. 

It gets a tad more complicated if you want to journey to Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Norway, Finland or any number of other European countries further afield. A one-stop shop for continent-wide ticketing simply doesn’t exist, which also means that some of the best information on money-saving passes and advance fares is buried away on country-specific websites, often not in English. 

“Americans come over here and think there’s some sort of Eurorail network, so are surprised to find there are 30 different countries with different national operators, and every single one of those has its own ticketing system,” explains Smith. “Then we’ve got private operators as well, such as RegioJet, so it’s incredibly fragmented. That’s the issue.”

Smooth operators

Europe’s rail ticketing network may be fragmented but on the plus side, there’s no shortage of rail-friendly tour operators who can sort all the research, planning and accommodation for you. Long-established operators such as Trailfinders, Saga and Riviera Travel are among those with fresh portfolios of dedicated no-fly trips from the UK, while Original Travel and Tailor Made Rail use rail itineraries from London St Pancras to transport you to Transylvania and Istanbul respectively. 

Byway Travel, which focuses purely on overland journeys, surprised many by launching during the pandemic. Why did it feel like the right time for a start-up with rail as its backbone? “There were all these general trends with sustainability at their core, such as Beyond Meat and Tesla,” says founder Cat Jones, who swore off flying years ago. “At the same time, the data around travel showed a growth curve: 36-37% of people were actively trying to fly less, which was up six percentage points in three years. Look at the slow food movement, the shop-local movement, mindfulness — it all ties together.”

She also stresses European rail travel is about far more than being whisked from A to B, advocating the benefits of being able to explore using the relevant rail passes. Some hotels even throw in regional train passes as part of a room stay. “Local knowledge counts for a lot,” she continues. “There’s huge investment in night services and high-speed rail, but the off-the-beaten-path, rural stopping services can be more fun and more flexible. They’re focused on the richness of the experience. You see how the landscapes shift. Countries like Italy and Switzerland are more enjoyable on so many levels if you don’t fly miles above them.”

London King’s Cross station, a hub for national train travel and a short walk from St Pancras International, a terminus for Eurostar journeys.

Photograph by Getty Images

Interestingly, Mark Smith reveals that for UK-based travellers, the top destinations on seat61.com by search volume are Italy, France, the Netherlands and Spain, with Germany and Switzerland tussling it out for fifth place. Collectively, of course, this list alone holds enough potential for a lifetime’s worth of travel, with a special mention going to Sicily, reachable via a train that actually gets transported by ferry. With enough will — and yes, enough time and budget — not many parts of the European map are now out of bounds by rail. 

One man who knows all about the joys of riding the tracks is Edward Schofield, who started jobbing as a sleeping car attendant for Deutsche Bahn while at university in Germany and now has more than a decade’s experience working on Europe’s railways. He also runs a website, railguideeurope.com, membership of which is free and gives access to a number of insider guides. He agrees the ticketing systems can be problematic. 

“You can get good deals, but you do have to know where to find them,” he says. “They don’t just fall into your lap like they do with air travel. For longer distances, you have to know where to look for particular deals in particular countries, and the nerd factor is still a bit high.”

The rewards, however, are ample. “On the whole, it’s a very relaxed way to cover long distances,” he continues. “There are none of these terrible restrictions on your luggage or how big your bottles can be. You just take what you like. What’s particularly magical about night trains is waking up and raising the blinds and seeing something completely different.” 

Does anywhere stand out for him? “I personally love overnight travel in Eastern Europe. Arriving in Krakow or Warsaw is great, and actually Lviv in Ukraine has always been a wonderful city to arrive into by train. Night train travel to Italy is very rewarding, too. I love Venice. In the early morning, you leave the mainland and go over a viaduct across the lagoon and see the city looming in the distance. It’s something you only really get by train.” 

These days, the same words can be applied to numerous elements of the rail experience. Whether you’re heading to Florence or Flanders, Provence or Prague, Bavaria or the Bosphorus Strait, the freedom and flexibility are hard to replicate by any other mode of transport. And if you’re serious about independent exploration, along with the arrival of various exciting new routes (see box), this year also saw the publication of the new edition of Europe by Rail by Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, a 544-page tome brimming with tips and suggestions for seeing the continent by train. 

The abiding romance around European rail travel sometimes masks the sheer variety of trip options. If opulence is what you’re after, the likes of the Orient Express and Spain’s Al Ándalus still shimmer down the line, whereas iconic journeys such the Douro Line in Portugal or Belgrade to Bar in the Balkans can cost relative peanuts. Factor in the hundreds of other services that fan across the continent like threads of a giant web and it’s hard not to feel the pull of the tracks.

And what of the future? Is the potential there for train travel to grow even further? “It’s going to be a very gradual shift,” believes Smith. “Demand will increase, but the question is whether the rail industry can move fast enough.”  

Whether you’re heading to Florence or Flanders, Provence or Prague, Bavaria or the Bosphorus Strait, the freedom and flexibility are hard to replicate by any other mode of transport.

Photograph by AWL Images

Five of the best new rail routes

1. Paris to Vienna
Launched in December 2021, this sleeper service connects the City of Lights with the Austrian capital three times a week (leaving Paris on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, returning on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays) via Salzburg. Journey time 14h 30m. nightjet.com

2. Hamburg to Stockholm 
This overnight service between northern Germany and Scandinavia, running from the start of September 2022, has daily departures in both directions. The northbound train departs Hamburg at 21.55, the southbound train leaves Stockholm at 17.34. Journey time 12h 20m. sj.se/en  

3. Paris to Milan 
Late 2021 saw Italy’s high-speed Frecciarossa launch a service between Paris and Milan, in direct competition with France’s TGV service. The new trains go via Lyon, Chambéry and Turin, and also shave 20 minutes off the previous journey time, now 6h 40m. trenitalia.com

4. Ljubljana to Budapest
The capitals of Slovenia and Hungary have long been linked by rail, but this new service travels via Graz in Austria, adding extra time and serving up more scenery and more border crossings. Journey time 8h 40m. potniski.sz.si

5. Paris to Lourdes
This new overnight service runs from Paris down to Lourdes, a major Christian pilgrimage site in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The service also stops in history-rich market town of Tarbes, slightly further north. Journey time 10h 30m. sncf.com

Published in the October 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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