‘We’re supposed to be borderless’: why train travel in Europe falls short

In many ways, the lives of Europeans have never been so intertwined: freedom of movement has made it easier for people to move or work across borders, projects like Erasmus encourage cultural and linguistic exchanges, and the EU has connected politics between member states like never before.

But, as a new research project has revealed, the dream of a truly interconnected Europe comes up against a very practical obstacle: many rail connections between different countries are not suitable for service.

“We are supposed to live in a Europe without borders, but when it comes to rail transport, borders still exist,” said Jon Worth, an activist and blogger who founded the Cross Border Rail project to highlight rail transport issues. European.

His message to the European Commission? “EU transport policy is failing.”

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Worth first noticed the problems of cross-border rail travel when traveling across Europe for his work as a communications consultant.

While services varied from state to state in the EU, the one constant was that, regardless of location or countries involved, traveling across borders by train was often far more difficult and inconvenient than necessary.

This observation has become the seed of an ambitious new project: crossing all the internal borders of the EU and the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) by train. In doing so, he wanted to paint a picture of the scale of the problem across Europe.

“You have to know the problem exists first, and then you have to pretty much start fixing that problem to figure out what you’re going to do about it,” he told The Local. “I didn’t really think of that as the goal of my project at first, but I’m basically bottling up the practical experience from the ground and taking it to policy makers and saying, this is what that we need you to fix.”

A 30,000 km train journey

From the Italian coastal roads to the mountains of central Sweden, the journey involved traveling more than 30,000 km by train, taking 186 different trains and covering 900 km by bicycle and 1,500 km by ferry, taxi and bus when gaps in rail services have emerged.

By experiencing the routes first-hand, Worth realized that cross-border services suffered from four key problems: repair work was needed on key areas of the route, some areas had infrastructure but no passenger transport , timetables were disjointed between countries and ticketing bugs were making it difficult for people to find and book services.

Worth noticed, for example, that passengers traveling from Germany to Strasbourg often had to pay more than double the actual ticket price due to a bug in Deutsch Bahn’s fare system.

While a Berlin in Kehl Sparpreis A ticket normally costs €61.90 and a regional connection between Kehl and Strasbourg only €4.30, those booking the entire journey will be charged €147.80 for a full fare ticket.

“It’s all the more absurd as Strasbourg is the seat of the European Parliament,” Worth explained.

In other places, including several routes between France and Spain, the services were good but there was simply no information about them available on many booking platforms.

This is because Spanish operators Euskotren and Rodalies de Catalunya do not upload timetables to UIC Merits, the timetable system used by trip planners like DB Reiseauskunft and ÖBB Scotty. The result is that only travelers with good local knowledge of rail services would even know the trains were running.

“This type of data gap can be found anywhere in the EU,” Worth explained.

“Simple Fixes”

In some cases, a small investment seemed to be the solution.

Like in the small town of Seifhennersdorf in Saxony, Germany, which has been cut off from its unique rail service to the Czech Republic due to a level crossing that needs fixing.

Or in the French town of Valenciennes – ironically enough, the location of the EU Railways Agency – where there is no direct route to Mons in Belgium due to 2km of missing track, and the only remaining route requires a long detour with irregular rail services.

In Lithuania, a train waits for hours in Turmantus before returning to Vilnius, rather than continuing the remaining 25 km to Daugavpils in Latvia, leaving a gap in connections between the two countries. In Worth’s opinion, a little extra fuel would solve this problem.

In other cases, countries had failed to coordinate their train schedules, rendering these services virtually unusable.

This was the main problem between Tallin in Estonia and Riga in Latvia, where passengers heading north face a nearly three-hour delay when changing at Valga, and passengers heading south have to wait near four hours for their connecting train.

Worth discovered a similar problem going from Marseilles in France to Genoa in Italy: there are no direct long-distance services via Nice and Ventimiglia and regional trains are so poorly coordinated that anyone trying to make the trip has to wait at Ventimiglia for 1 hour 55 minutes eastbound and 52 minutes westbound.

These examples – and several more – have been compiled into a list of 20 case studies where Worth says problems could be quickly and easily fixed.

“What I want to show is that there’s a whole range of problems that you can solve without too much money,” he said. “There are simple solutions to so many of these problems.”

READ ALSO: How a cross-border train drove up property prices in Switzerland and France

“Practice what they preach”

Every day of his 40-day trip through Europe, Worth sent a postcard to EU Transport Commissioner Adina Valean – but has yet to receive a response.

“I want the EU to solve these problems, but I don’t think that at the moment the EU – the Commission is special – has the knowledge or the political will to really solve them,” he said. declared. “The EU says it is in favor of improving international passenger transport, but whether it actually practices what it preaches, I’m not so sure.”

Having built up what he describes as “a head full of knowledge and a hard drive full of images” through his direct experience of travel and conversations with local activists, his question is: “Why is the EU not doing she doesn’t do that, why doesn’t a Commission official do that? »

Concretely, the Greens campaigner hopes the EU will “get its hands dirty” and step in when needed to ensure that communities along Europe’s borders are better served by the rail network, especially when the governments of one or more countries criticize the brakes on an essential project.

“The European Commission currently has no idea what is happening on the ground in the majority of cases,” Worth said.

For Worth, two factors will be crucial in solving the European cross-border rail problem: having the political will to cooperate across borders and having a clear idea of ​​the impact that a reliable rail service can have on the lives of the residents of the region.

One example is the ease of travel between Copenhagen in Denmark and Malmö in Sweden, where trains run every 20 minutes and 24 hours a day.

“I met someone who was going to the dentist in Malmö from Copenhagen,” Worth said. “It basically shows how much people’s behavior has changed because they have a reliable train. People need to be able to rely on the train and allow their lives to change, knowing that the train can handle the pressure.

Whether the trains are run by private or public companies, by Slovakia, Austria or Spain, the main priority is for governments to agree that “this is the function they want the trains to perform”, said said Worth.

“It’s only when you’ve been to some of these places that you can truly fully understand what it would really take to address these issues,” he said. “And that aspect of how the personal is political is really, really central to me.”

The local has approached the European Commission for comment.

READ ALSO: Yes, traveling by train across Europe is much better than flying, even with children

Mary I. Bruner