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TRAVEL NEWS

OPINION: Trains are in fashion so why is rail travel across Europe still so difficult?

Would you prefer to travel across Europe by train rather than plane this summer? It’s not nearly as simple as it should be, especially given the urgency of the climate crisis, explains specialist Jon Worth.

OPINION: Trains are in fashion so why is rail travel across Europe still so difficult?
Travelers speak together in a sleeper car of the Paris-Nice night train, between Paris and Nice, on May 20, 2021 on the day it returns to service after being stopped since December 2017. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP)

Buried away in the latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about the changes needed in different sectors to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions is this startling graphic (below) – it is in the transport sector where the costs to decarbonise are lowest, and even have cost savings associated with them.

So with spring blossom in the trees and thoughts turning to planning summer holiday trips, why not look for a greener route to the sun – by taking the train rather than the plane?

In terms of the public debate, trains are back in fashion.

On the back of Greta Thunberg’s efforts to shame those who fly, and to push greener alternatives instead, media from The New York Times to the BBC are discussing the renaissance of long distance travel by train in Europe, especially night trains.

One railway company – Austria’s ÖBB – has seized the moment and has ordered a fleet of 33 new 7 carriage night trains, the first of which will be on Europe’s tracks from December this year.

The argument for night trains is a simple one, namely that by travelling at night you save yourself a night in a hotel at your destination, and passengers are happy to make a longer trip while they are asleep than they would during the day – when passengers normally will not spend more than 6 hours in a train.

The problem is that beyond ÖBB’s plans comparatively little is happening in long distance cross border night trains in Europe.

There are dozens of further connections where night trains would make sense – think of routes like Amsterdam-Marseille or Cologne to Warsaw for example – but we cannot hope that the Austrians will run those. The European Commission conservatively estimated in December 2021 that at least 10 more night train routes, over and above those planned by ÖBB, would be economically viable, and running those lines would need at least 170 new carriages to be ordered. But so far no operator has been tempted.

The main players in European rail – Deutsche Bahn, Renfe, SNCF and Trenitalia – have no interest in night trains, and even only limited interest in cross border rail at all.

More profitable national daytime services are their focus. The French and Italian governments have been making noises to push SNCF and Trenitalia respectively to run more night time services but – you guessed it – only on national routes.

A few small private players have sought to run night services – Sweden’s Snälltåget and Amsterdam-based European Sleeper for example, but they have struggled to scale.

All of this is on top of the headaches that cross border rail in Europe has faced for years, namely the difficulty of booking tickets on international trains (sometimes two or more tickets are needed), timetables that are not in sync if you have to change train at a border, and lack of clear information and compensation if something goes wrong. Even finding out what trains run is often a headache, as no complete European railway timetable exists.

The EU nominated 2021 as the European Year of Rail with the aim of drawing attention to what rail can do in Europe, but the year closed with scant little progress on any of this multitude of thorny problems – in the main because the railway companies themselves do not want to solve them.

Helping intrepid cross border travellers find their way around these practical barriers has become a kind of cottage industry in the social media era.

Communities of sustainable transport nerds of which I am a part on Facebook and Twitter help each other to find the best routes and cheapest tickets, and the venerable Man in Seat 61 website acts as a kind of FAQ for international rail. 

There’s nothing quite like waking up on a summer morning and seeing the sun on the Mediterranean or the wooded slopes of the Alps out of the window of a night train. But travel experiences like that are not nearly as simple or mainstream as they should be – and it is high time the railway industry stepped up.

Are you hoping to travel across Europe by train instead of plane but finding it difficult to organise? Feel free to get in touch and with Jon’s expertise we’ll try to help you. Email [email protected]

Jon Worth is a Berlin-based blogger who specialises in European train travel. You can his original post on this subject HERE.

Member comments

  1. Yes, I agree, much more should be done here. I used to use take Eurostar to Paris, change stations, and then the sleeper to Chur via Zürich. But these days, as a frequent traveller between London, Zürich and Chur, the complexity of purchasing a rail ticket, plus the cost, make it really impractical. One big improvement would be to the ability to purchase a ticket, in a single transaction, from London to Zürich/Berlin/Milan … Only the most dedicated (and wealthy) commuter is likely to persevere with the train option, when you can purchase a return flight within a few minutes and for perhaps £150 return.

  2. I’ve lived and studied in Germany and been all over Europe by rail. The worst European train is still far, far better than the best train in the USA.

  3. EU as an organization is unable to get anything done other than talking. If there was a REAL political will we could get rid of polluting short-haul flights but that will never happen.

  4. It is price that governs. Trains are too expensive. I have been told that flying is cheap because the fuel is virtually untaxed. If that is accurate it is a policy decision that should change. Trains should be cheap, flights more expensive.

  5. I have had great success with Rail Planner. It’s very easy to plan a trip to different EU countries on the app. I have a few complaints such as the ambiguouity around bus subsitutions, but it is really quite good, and I would highly recommend it. The tickets may be a bit pricey, I will admit.

  6. I love train travel. However cheap air travel can be it has become an absolute nightmare. Stripping on and off half our clothing and jewelry, going through a security queue that can turn into a lesson in Fascism on dime. The lack of service of any kind because the airlines were deregulated a long time and the airline workers got screwed along with us. I used to love flying. No longer.
    So this article really interests me. Yes, it seems obvious that train travel is what many people want now and politically it is being thwarted. Even here in Switzerland we voted to beef up the train system a few years ago and now they have laid off heaps of personnel, the trains run late, cancel with no warning during commute hours, no more travel agents in the big stations, the little stations decommissioned and their website is useless for any info other than a time schedule and buying a ticket.
    This is so sad. I really hope journalists take this subject up and get some momentum and better travel services and night trains, dealing with luggage, making things affordable and dealing with logistics between countries. Trains are the future.

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TRAVEL NEWS

Reader question: Can I get a refund after cancelling my Austria trip due to Covid?

Summer vacations and rising Covid-19 infection numbers are a dangerous combination for travellers. Here is what you need to know about your rights if you get sick and need to cancel your holidays to or from Austria.

Reader question: Can I get a refund after cancelling my Austria trip due to Covid?

You are all set for your long-awaited vacations, but just before you leave, the coronavirus test comes back positive. What to do and what are your rights? Is it possible to get a refund on your trip to or from Austria?

Will the airline let you move your flight to a different date, or will the hotel reschedule your reservation?

As summer vacations arrive, with most European countries having no or almost no coronavirus restrictions, travelling is back – and with a vengeance, it appears. Austrian Airlines boss Annette Mann said that “people [now] have an insane desire to travel”.

READ ALSO: Will Austria see travel chaos in airports this summer?

At the same time, Austria has been facing rising Covid-19 infection numbers for weeks, and there is a fear of an intense summer wave.

On Thursday, June 30th, the country reported 12,506 new cases in 24 hours, according to the Health Ministry.

What to do if you have symptoms?

If you have any symptoms of Covid-19, including mild flu-like symptoms like coughing or sneezing, you should get tested. In Austria, there are many alternatives for those looking for the test, from free PCR at home to antigen tests.

If you test positive with an antigen test, you should confirm the result with a PCR test. Once you are a suspected case, you should quarantine until your result is confirmed. If the PCR test is positive, you need to self-isolate for at least five days.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in Austria

Self-isolation after a positive test is mandatory in Austria and most countries worldwide. That means that, by regulation, you are not allowed to leave your home for non-medical purposes during those days – or even longer,, depending on the course of the disease.

If you have a trip scheduled during your isolation period, that could be a problem.

What happens to my flight tickets?

Airline companies are not required to refund you or allow you to make changes to your flight for free – unless the ticket you purchased entitled you to these rights.

Most companies sell tickets for the same journey with different fares. Not only prices can change depending on the classic “economic, business, first class” divisions, but they can also increase dramatically depending on the type of ticket.

For example, an Austrian Airlines flight from Vienna to Rome in economy starts at €59.92. There are then three options: economy light, economy classic, and economy flex.

An empty Austrian Airlines check-in counter. Photo: ALEX HALADA / AFP

READ ALSO: Austria sees scores of flight cancellations after airline staff contract Covid

The first, with the lowest tariff, does not entitle you to a refund and will charge you €70 for rebooking plus a possible tariff difference.

A “economy classic” ticket costs €89.92, and will allow you to rebook without a charge (you only need to pay the difference in prices). It will not give you a refund.

Finally, the “economy flex” costs €129.92, allows for a refund (minus a €70 fee), and lets you rebook without a charge (you only have to cover the price changes).

READ ALSO: Airport chaos in Europe: What are your rights if flights are delayed or cancelled?

The tickets have other differences, including allowing you to carry more luggage or reserve your seat, for example. Depending on which one you purchased, you may or may not be entitled to a refund.

What about my hotel reservations?

The same is valid for hotel reservations. Most of them, especially if you have used an online booking platform, will have different fees and travellers have different rights. It is essential to understand each tariff and what they entitle you to.

For example, a twin room in a hotel in downtown Vienna could cost you €92, but it is non-refundable and you need to pay in advance.

READ ALSO: EU extends Covid travel certificates until 2023

The same twin room can be found for €108, but with free cancellation – read the fine lines and you will see that even the free cancellation is only valid until three days before the booking date in some cases.

Just like airlines, hotels are not mandated to refund you if you can’t make it to your reservation because you or a travel companion got Covid-19. Unless you paid for the more flexible (and more expensive) rate.

Photo by Jorgen Hendriksen on Unsplash

What can I do, then?

It is worth mentioning that there are a few things you could try. For example, if you purchased travel insurance, or if your debit or credit card has it automatically, you might be able to get a refund. So, check those insurance documents.

Additionally, it may be possible to negotiate directly with a hotel. While airlines are major corporations and it might seem next to impossible to find a human being able to perhaps negotiate, this is not the case with a hotel.

READ ALSO: Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

It may be that you are able to swap your reservation dates, depending on occupancy and how much wiggle room the hotel manager has. It won’t solve all your problems, but if it’s a trip to a nearby place, sometimes accommodation is more expensive than flights.

You also need to always be careful and double check the policies of tickets and hotel (or private accommodations) you buy and reserve. If you have booked through a travel agent or online platform, it is also worth looking if they have different cancellation or rescheduling policies.

Finally, if you have not made it to your hotel reservation because of a flight problem, if your flight was cancelled or delayed, for example, you have rights under the EU law.

*Prices for this story were checked on June 30th.

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