Europe disconnected: The state of cross-border rail today

April 8, 2022

A guide to travelling around Europe by train

The train has long played a romantic role in the collective imagination of Europeans. From traversing the snow-capped Alps to the rolling hills of Scotland, train travel is often seen as more than just a way of getting from A to B. It is good for the planet too. 

Despite this, traveling across Europe by train is not as easy as it should be. From inconsistent pricing to disjointed booking platforms, Europe’s train network is far from well connected. 

In a new study, T&E member VCD (Verkehrsclub Deutschland e.V.) looks into the state of play of the European rail network and how things can be improved. 

No representation without compensation

Many passengers will have faced this. Your train is running late and you risk missing your connection. What happens then? Unfortunately, it isn’t clear.

The EU-wide rules are as follows:

  • Compensation can only be claimed from the rail operator that issued the ticket; 
  • If the train is 60+ minutes late, you are entitled to a 25% reimbursement of the fare;
  • If the train is more than 120 minutes late, you are entitled to 50% of the fare reimbursed.

If, however, you miss your connection and the connecting train is provided by a different operator, then you can only claim reimbursement for the delayed train and not for the entire journey. 

The EU did recently agree on a reform of rail passengers’ rights, which will come into force in June 2023.  In future, a rail firm will have to offer a single through ticket for an entire journey if all parts of that journey are operated by it or its subsidiaries. But this does not solve the problem faced by passenger’s using multiple operators. This remains unsolved. 

Tour d’Europe

Anyone going abroad by train and taking their bike, needs to negotiate a baffling array of different rules. Whether your bike is allowed on board or not varies according to rail operator, train class, and even bicycle type.

For cross-border journeys, a separate international bike ticket is often required. However, such tickets are not universally accepted.

Midnight in Paris

Night trains allow you to cover up to 1,000 kilometers in your sleep. Until recently, this was a neglected niche market, but sleepers are enjoying a comeback, as increased demand for climate-friendly travel coincides with modern, new-generation services such as Austria’s Nightjet, run by the state operator ÖBB. 

Since 2016, the ÖBB began to expand its night train network, taking over routes abandoned by other rail operators.

In the next few years a number of new sleeper services are being opened. The following have already been confirmed:

  • Berlin – Prague – Vienna – Graz – Ljubljana/Zagreb (from Dec. 2022)
  • Prague – Berlin – Amsterdam – Brussels (from summer 2022)
  • Berlin – Paris(/Brussels) (from December 2023) 
  • Zurich – Barcelona (from December 2024)

(Un)common market

As long as there is no pan-European information and booking system, it’s generally worth comparing state rail operators’ websites along with independent ticketing platforms such as Trainline. 

Some of these have their own particular advantages and disadvantages. The Polish PKP and Italian Trenitalia websites, for instance, make ticket purchases especially complicated or even impossible.

VCD’s analysed various ticketing platforms to underline the urgent need for a trans-European travel platform.

The Polish and Italian state operators’ websites underline how far such platforms still have to go: making passengers buy separate tickets for each section of international trips. The EU’s passenger rights reform, which comes into force in 2023, may improve matters a little, but given the challenges facing European rail passengers, it is a modest step at best.

Are we on track?

The 2021/22 VCD Rail Test shows that buying tickets for international rail travel is an exasperating process. If passengers want to get a full picture of their journey and ticket options, they have to search a variety of platforms.

There is room for improvement. But it’s not just ticketing that should be made simpler. We need frequent cross-border services with attractive journey times and affordable fares if rail is to also be a viable and hassle-free option for family holidays or weekend city breaks. 

VCD and T&E call for:

  1. A trans-European rail network offering regular, high-speed, long-distance services, with guaranteed connections and ample time for changes.
  2. The expansion of the night-train network to new parts of Europe.
  3. A user-friendly pan-European online platform that allows passengers to buy continuous tickets for travel across borders and across all forms of public transport. Buying international train tickets needs to be made as easy as booking a flight. 
  4. Compensation entitlement to apply to an entire journey.
  5. Zero VAT on international journeys – as already implemented by some EU member states, including France and the Czech Republic. 
  6. Easy-to-use, easy-to-book facilities for bicycles.  

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