In Europe, it’s planes vs. trains. For many travelers, rail is the way to go.
By Paige McClanahan
Train travel in Europe is on the upswing, thanks to growing interest from travelers, a renaissance in sleeper trains, and new investments in high-speed rail lines across the continent. But to see major growth in passenger traffic — which is one of the goals of the European Green Deal — the continent’s railways will have to overcome a number of challenges, including booking difficulties and competition with short-haul flights, which remain the cheaper option on many multicountry routes.
In France and Austria, the pandemic brought the planes-vs.-trains question to the forefront. The French government’s COVID bailout package of Air France required the airline to eliminate domestic flights when there was a rail option that took under 2 1/2 hours to complete; the measure was later written into law.
The Austrian government placed a similar condition on its support to Austrian Airlines, demanding that the company end its 50-minute flight between Vienna and Salzburg, a journey that passengers can make by train in about three hours.
The European Commission also designated 2021 as the “Year of European Rail,” seizing the opportunity to spread the word about train travel, particularly to a younger audience. While passenger traffic was growing steadily through 2019, it was starting from a low base: Before the pandemic, only 8% of all passenger travel in the European Union was by train.
But in addition to the public relations campaign, European leaders are also working to reduce practical barriers to cross-border train travel by introducing new data-sharing systems; replacing outdated infrastructure; and building new high-speed routes, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.
“The idea is that for train trips of less than four hours, no businesspeople will choose to fly, and for trips below six hours, normal people — tourists — will take the train,” said Alberto Mazzola, executive director of the Community of European Railways and Infrastructure Companies, which is based in Brussels. Mazzola added that government leaders are throwing their weight behind railway infrastructure, particularly high-speed lines. “We heard this 20 years ago,” he added. “The difference today is that we are seeing the investments.”
Night trains on the rise
Europe’s night trains are a big part of the rising tide of rail on the continent. On the decline since the 1990s, overnight services suffered alongside the growth of low-cost air carriers and a rise in government investment in high-speed trains, whose faster daytime services often displaced their slower nighttime counterparts. But that trend was already starting to shift before the pandemic, and now the momentum behind night trains appears to be building fast, with new sleeper connections cropping up across the continent.
“It’s true that we have a real revival of night trains in France and in Europe,” said Alain Krakovitch, director of travel at SNCF, France’s state-owned railway company. “It is a very strong demand, both from customers but also from elected officials, mayors and the government.”
Last year, SNCF relaunched overnight services between Paris and Nice, with tickets starting as low as 19 euros, about $21, for a midweek low-season ticket. That compares with 31 euros, not including baggage fees or the cost of airport transfers, for a short flight on EasyJet leaving on a similar day. SNCF also offers overnight services between Paris and Toulouse, and between Paris and Lourdes in southwestern France. A night train to Hendaye, a French coastal town near the Spanish border, will run in July and August. And change-free overnight service between Paris and Berlin — a journey that currently takes eight hours and requires at least one change — is scheduled to begin in December 2023 as a cooperative effort between four European operators.
So far, said Krakovitch, demand has been strong.
“It’s true that this is a huge draw for passengers. The idea of being able to fall asleep in Paris and wake up in Nice saves a night in a hotel,” Krakovitch said. “It allows you to arrive very early in Nice without being tired. It’s a product that has many benefits, but we had to invest heavily to relaunch it. We hope to keep this momentum going.”
It’s a similar story elsewhere in Europe. Last year, the Swiss Federal Railways launched a new overnight connection from Zurich to Amsterdam (with stops in Basel, Switzerland, and Cologne, Germany), adding to overnight services connecting Switzerland’s largest city to Berlin; Budapest, Hungary; Prague; and Zagreb, Croatia; among other destinations. European Sleeper, a Dutch Belgian company founded by two entrepreneurs, is planning an overnight connection between Brussels and Prague, with stops in Amsterdam and Berlin, among other cities; they hope to launch the service this summer, but the start date is not yet confirmed.
But while night trains are offering new connections for travelers, they serve only specific routes. People who are looking to make connections between cities that aren’t linked on those networks continue to face challenges, both in booking their tickets and in the prices they are charged. Some long-distance journeys with multiple stops are still much cheaper by plane than by train.
The fact remains that, despite the European Union’s support for rail, the bloc’s governments continue to grant enormous subsidies to airlines — in the form of bailout packages as well as low taxes on jet fuel — although that could change soon. And while the French and Austrian bans on short-haul flight bans attracted attention in Europe, in effect, the measures ended flights on just one route — Vienna to Salzburg — in Austria, and three in France: Paris to Bordeaux, Paris to Lyons, and Paris to Nantes. In the French case, passengers are still allowed to fly those routes if they make up part of a longer plane journey.
Herwig Schuster, a transport campaigner for Greenpeace’s EU Mobility for All campaign, called the French and Austrian measures “a starting point” and said the European Union should prohibit flights for which there is a train alternative that takes under six hours, instead of just two or three. Such a measure would eliminate about one-third of Europe’s most popular short-haul routes, but Schuster maintained that consumers are ready for such a shift: A recent climate survey found that 62% of Europeans support a ban on short-haul flights. The biggest obstacle, he added, would be making sure that rail options are at least as affordable as flights.
On several European routes — especially longer-distance trips that cross multiple national borders — flying remains the cheaper option: A one-way, midweek flight from Zurich to Barcelona, Spain, in July costs as little as 45 euros on low-cost carrier Vueling, compared with 140 euros (and many more hours) to cover the same distance by rail. Flying is also usually the more affordable option for trips from London to Madrid, Copenhagen to Rome, and Paris to Budapest.
The fact that Europe’s vast rail network lacks a single ticketing system presents another challenge, said Mark Smith, who runs The Man in Seat 61, a website with resources for train travel in Britain, Europe and around the world. But he said that in many cases, trains are a good value compared with planes, especially when you account for baggage fees and the cost of getting to and from the airport. Booking in advance, just as you would for a flight, can also save travelers a lot of money, Smith said, adding that he advises people to reserve their long-distance train travel one to three months ahead to avoid last-minute price hikes. He also recommends sites like Trainline and Rail Europe for booking multicountry trips in Europe.