As the Connecting Europe Express pulls out of Lisbon, Portugal, on Thursday to begin its 20,000-kilometer (12,400-mile) journey across the Continent, it does so as an ambassador of the EU’s rail aspirations — as well as its challenges.
The first of which will emerge a few days into the journey when an entirely new train will be needed at the French border, where the rail gauge changes.
Track size is one of the oldest headaches of running trains across European borders. It’s just part of the broader challenge facing Europe, where dozens of rail networks developed independently and still interact only begrudgingly, offering a hodgepodge of passenger rules, ticketing systems and timetables.
The EU now believes the momentum is shifting. Legislation continues to pry open the most stubborn national networks to competition. More travelers are seeking out rail as an alternative to flying. Pilot projects are meanwhile testing new technologies in digitalization and automation.
“Rail has major advantages,” Carlo Borghini, executive director of the EU investment project Shift2Rail, which is funding many of those projects, told DW. “But if rail is underused due to a different number of barriers that are still present, then clearly these advantages are lost.”
The Connecting Europe Express is meant to highlight those advantages. A one-month journey that requires three separate trains to cross 26 countries, it’s the flagship of what the EU has dubbed the European Year of Rail.
Brussels believes it’s the right time to trumpet one of its oldest forms of public transport. Its future mobility strategy released late last year calls for a broad shift to rail. By decade’s end, the EU wants to double the amount of high-speed rail across the Continent, with a focus on connecting big cities.
The bloc’s latest legislative package for rail carriers also went into effect this year. The new rules are meant to advance competition in the sector, allowing, for example, carriers based in one member country to operate across the bloc.
Yet EU climate goals are driving most of the current optimism.
Rail accounts for less than 1% of transport-related greenhouse gases in the EU. Air travel by comparison accounts for 3.8%, a difference singled out by Brussels and factored in by more passengers traveling over land.
“We see people keen to reduce their impact on climate change wanting an alternative to flying over increasingly long distances,” rail expert Mark Smith told DW.
Smith, who runs the online site The Man in Seat 61, is closely following the development of Europe’s night trains. Once a staple of Europe’s rail landscape, the overnight routes dwindled as high-speed rail slashed travel time and cheap airlines made big inroads.
Now, just a few years after major carriers like Deutsche Bahn sold off their sleeper wagons, night trains are seeing a turnaround.
Austrian rail carrier ÖBB started its new Vienna-Amsterdam route this summer and plans to open three more routes by 2023, including connections to Paris and Rome. The company says its current overnight routes are often overbooked and that it expects to double ridership by 2025.
Smaller players are also getting involved. Swedish operator Snalltaget opened an overnight route between Stockholm and Berlin. Dutch startup European Sleeper is partnering with existing rail firms to forge its own night train network. Its first overnight route between Belgium and Prague is set for an April start.
The new night train from Austria’s ÖBB is looking for more travelers
The economics of night trains are still difficult. Loads are limited and rolling stock hard to find. The high access fees for tracks around Europe meanwhile bite deep into margins.
ÖBB Chief Executive Andreas Matthä told an audience this week that the branch needed fairer market conditions to compete with cheap flights, chief among them a sales tax exemption on international trains, a benefit already enjoyed by international flights.
Smith also believes market advantages are distorting competition.
“It’s not a level playing a field,” he said. “And there does need to be action to level up that playing field so that air and rail can compete fairly. At the moment, it’s the least climate-friendly mode of travel that’s getting all the breaks.”
Whether EU countries are ready to take on popular cheap airlines, which have been hard-hit by the pandemic, remains to be seen.
The bloc recently proposed ending the industry’s fuel tax exemption as part of its Fit for 55 roadmap for reaching its 2030 climate goals. An overhaul of its emissions trading scheme, which is also called for in the roadmap, would also force airlines to pay more.
Trains currently move 7% of travelers in the EU and about 18% of goods, figures that could rise if flights become more expensive.
Some member states are mulling their own initiatives. French lawmakers voted this year to ban some short-haul flights. German politicians have debated a similar move in the run-up to general elections.
If passengers and companies are to go willingly to rail, the experience will have to be a better one, experts like Smith and Borghini say.
Pulling together disparate timetables and ticketing procedures can make journeys smoother and reduce delays, they argue. Creating a common set of rules and traveler rights should put more power in passengers’ hands.
As head of Shift2Rail, Borghini oversees a €900-million ($1.06-billion) fund that’s accelerating the technical projects necessary for more efficient rail, from automated wagon-couplers to noise-abatement technology to future signaling infrastructure.
“We need to have something like we have for air traffic management, an integrated system,” Borghini said.
Technologies like real-time satellite tracking and automation offered new solutions, he said. The investment is considerable, but more countries are interested. Borghini said several EU members were looking at using the bloc’s pandemic recovery funds for rail expansion.
With the aviation and automobile industries also racing to develop sustainable technologies, rail’s chance is now, Borghini argued.
“If you want to have a different concept of mobility, sustainable mobility, we need to do it this decade,” he said. “Otherwise, other solutions will come.”
If you arrive in the diamond and port city of Antwerp by train, you should definitely take the time to admire the architecture. The huge central station, which locals call the “railway cathedral,” is one of the city’s main attractions. When King Leopold II of Belgium saw it at its opening in 1905, he was impressed. His comment: “C’est une petite belle gare.” (“It’s a lovely little station”).
In the same country, but in stark contrast to Antwerp: Liege-Guillemins railway station — a light-flooded futuristic structure of glass, steel and concrete. Every day 500 trains stop at the station, which is slightly outside the city center and an important junction in Europe’s high speed network. It was designed by the celebrated Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
It’s not just the architecture of Amsterdam’s central station in the Netherlands that’s impressive. It stands on three artificial islands supported by 8687 wooden piles. The neo-Gothic building was designed by the Dutch architect Petrus Cuypers, whose work consisted mainly of churches — and with its towers and embellishments, the station bears some similarity to a medieval cathedral.
The Gare de Lyon in Paris already looks impressive from the outside: a magnificent building in Belle Epoque style. But its interior is splendid as well. Two marble staircases lead up to the iconic restaurant, “Le Train Bleu”. Its ornate walls feature frescoes depicting the loveliest landscapes in France. This is one train station you really shouldn’t miss!
This station is a television celebrity — at least the four huge statues next to the entrance are. They often play a role in advertising campaigns and are landmarks in Helsinki. On the one hand, the building’s Finnish granite gives it a massive look, and on the other, its large windows allow light to pour in. This masterpiece by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen was inaugurated in 1919.
The Victorian brick facade of London St. Pancras, now officially St. Pancras International, looks almost palatial. Inside, large halls with many shops and restaurants await travelers. The station is a terminus mainly for international trains. Most domestic services terminate at King’s Cross, the modern station right next to it, where some scenes from the “Harry Potter” series were filmed.
With 23 platforms, a 298-meter facade and some 80,000 square meters of floor area, Leipzig’s main station is considered the largest terminus in Europe. And it’s more than just a railway station: here there are more than 140 shops, restaurants and services on three levels. In addition, events regularly take place in the side halls. On Sunday, many shops are open — an exception in Germany.
Budapest is rich in magnificent monumental buildings, and Keleti station is definitely one of them. Opened in 1884, in its time it was considered the most modern railway station in Europe, as it had electric light and central signaling control. Nowadays its Renaissance Revival architecture is what most impresses visitors.
Atocha railway station, built from 1888 to 1892 in Art Nouveau style, is one of Madrid’s two long-distance train stations. It has a surprise for passengers: a huge tropical garden with a turtle pond and 7000 plants. It’s also well worth looking upwards, because the concourse is famous for its gigantic iron and glass roof.
Beautiful stations don’t always have to be big. Lisbon’s Rossio station, on the square of the same name in the heart of the Portuguese capital, proves that. The small terminus with its two horseshoe-shaped entrances opened in 1890. The facade is designed in the Neo-Manueline style, a revival of the 16th century Manueline style so typical of Portugal.