For traveling throughout Europe, new long-distance railway connections are becoming an alternative to air travel. They are much more environmentally friendly and are gaining increasing interest. However, several obstacles still need to be overcome before Europeans prioritize rail travel.
Rail travel is gaining popularity among Europeans. Since the launch of the Paris-Vienna overnight train in December 2021, 70% of available tickets have been sold. This means almost full wagons on its three weekly round trips.
The Nightjet service, operated by the Austrian national provider OBB, departs from Paris’ Gare de l’Est at 7:30 pm and arrives in Vienna, the Austrian capital, the next morning at 10:00 am. The cheapest tickets are offered at 29.90 euros.
This is one of the many routes that have been opened to connect major European cities via direct train routes without transfers. And more are on the horizon.
Italian provider TrenItalia hopes to establish a direct line between Paris and Madrid by the end of 2024, following the “incredible” success of its lines connecting Paris, Lyon, Turin, and Milan since 2021.
A night train connecting Paris and Berlin is expected to be launched by the end of the year, and a high-speed line will connect the two capitals by 2024. This will reduce the current travel time from 10 hours to 7 hours.
The appeal of long train journeys has been growing over the past eight years, explains railway expert Mark Smith, owner of the seat61.com website dedicated to train travel.
Today, he explains, more and more people are choosing the train, driven by two factors: “On the one hand, frustration with airports or airlines; on the other, concern about reducing their carbon footprint.”
A greener, simpler train?
The environmental arguments in favor of trains are convincing. OBB’s calculations also show that a two-hour flight between Paris and Vienna generates 419.6 kg of carbon emissions, compared to 41.5 kg for the Nightjet.
On equivalent journeys and per person, trains in France emit up to 130 times less greenhouse gases than airplanes, according to evaluations by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (Ademe). However, there is a lack of political action prioritizing trains.
In France, a law has been in place since May that prohibits short-haul flights for journeys that can be made by train in less than two hours. The announced objective was environmental. But in practice, the rule has so many exceptions that only three air routes have been affected.
For example, it is still possible to take a plane from Paris to Lyon or Bordeaux, even though these journeys can be made by high-speed train (TGV). Flights also remain inexpensive.
According to a Greenpeace report from 2023, inter-European journeys are on average twice as expensive by train compared to airplanes. This price difference is partly explained by the tax exemptions granted to airlines.
In the 1990s, the rise of low-cost air travel democratized fast, affordable, and weekend trips. In Europe, the success of airplanes led to the disappearance of night trains, which were widely regarded as unprofitable. As a result, air travel became increasingly expensive.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York significantly increased security requirements at airports worldwide, resulting in longer waiting times for travelers.
To the point where a one-and-a-half-hour flight between Paris and Nice – for example – was no longer faster or more convenient than a five-and-a-half-hour train journey, especially taking into account the central locations of train stations and the offer of taking luggage on board trains at no additional cost.
The shortcomings of inter-European trains
Twenty years later, notes Mark Smith, “trains can be equipped with power outlets and Wi-Fi, allowing for work during business trips. And leisure travelers, not being in a hurry, are willing to travel even further.”
This does not mean, however, that long-distance train travel is always easy in Europe. Crossing a border by train may involve making reservations with different national railway companies, each with separate insurance systems for each purchase.
Routes and prices are often established by local markets, explains Jon Worth, who heads Cross Border Rail, a project offering an overview of inter-European railway connections.
“The railway industry in Europe is still very national, and each state primarily thinks about the services it will offer in its own national market,” he points out.
The direct line connecting Paris and Barcelona illustrates the advantages and disadvantages of train travel in Europe perfectly. A six-and-a-half-hour journey connects the two city centers, thanks to hundreds of millions of euros in funding from the European Union, which have turned this railway into a high-speed line.
Travelers can enjoy a croissant for breakfast in the French capital, stroll to Gare de Lyon, and arrive in Barcelona-Sants in time to have tapas for lunch under the Mediterranean sun. At least those who could get a ticket.
“In many regions of Europe, the infrastructure is in good or very good condition, but in some places, very few trains run,” explains Jon Worth. According to him, the Paris-Barcelona line is “consistently underutilized.”
The SNCF operates only two high-speed trains per day on that route, with the most expensive tickets reaching 250 euros for a one-way journey. On the same route, dozens of flights are operated day and night for a much lower price.
And yet, trains almost always operate at full capacity, especially in the summer, where seats are sold months in advance.
“The same situation applies to the Paris-Vienna night train, where most sleeping berths are booked as soon as they go on sale, even nearly two years after the launch of the line.”
“The increase in demand for train travel is certainly not due to governments or railway companies. It comes from the bottom,” says Mark Smith.
In 2022, Interrail (a combined ticket that allows travel on almost all trains in Europe) recorded its highest sales in history, 50 years after its introduction.
According to Mark Smith, the development of an offer capable of meeting the explosion in demand is likely to be slow, but signs of hope are emerging.
In France, Spanish operator RENFE is considering reestablishing the Paris-Barcelona line, which should lead to a drop in prices. Between Paris and Milan (a seven-hour train journey), competition between SNCF and TrenItalia already keeps fares comparable to those of low-cost flights.
Austrian national provider OBB, currently at the forefront in Europe, has expansion plans that include new lines and sleeper cars, which are currently lacking throughout the continent. The additional sleeper cars could boost rail traffic. There are even plans to increase the frequency of the night train between Paris and Berlin to operate daily.
New private companies, such as European Sleeper and Midnight Trains, are also entering the European market.
The missing piece of the puzzle is political will, according to Jon Worth, the expert behind the Cross Border Rail project.
“Transport is the only sector of the European economy where CO2 emissions continue to increase,” he says. “We all know that we should prioritize trains over airplanes for our vacations. What is missing is political impetus,” the impetus that will persuade Europeans to choose rail travel.