The train should be the climate-friendly and inexpensive means of transport of the future and replace the airplane. Can this work? Our author Yves Bellinghausen travels across Europe. A relentless self-experiment
Late on a Sunday evening in the summer, I’m standing on an unnumbered platform in the small Halkali train station, about an hour west of Istanbul, and I’m a little embarrassed as I tell the young British woman standing in front of me that I’m catching a train to go to Lisbon.
We are queuing to board the night train that is going to Sofia today. The young Brit smokes one last cigarette before boarding and has already strapped a neck cushion around her neck, always ready to fall asleep in any seat, no matter how uncomfortable.
No, no, I tell her, I don’t do Interrail, I just buy tickets at the counter as if the train were a normal means of transport, I don’t want to go sightseeing in Sofia or visit dreamy Croatian fishing villages on the way. I don’t want to drift, I want to get to Lisbon ASAP – I want to rush, if that’s possible by train, stopping only if the next westbound train isn’t until tomorrow.
“I don’t really think that makes sense,” says the young Briton, she doesn’t think it makes sense. Then she shows the conductor her ticket and gets on. And she’s right: If you want to travel through Europe quickly and cheaply, you don’t take the train, you take the plane.
But that should and must change in the coming years. The shame of flying is spreading, and the European Union promises that international high-speed trains and night trains could soon be a real alternative to airplanes: Traveling by train through Europe should become cheaper, faster and more comfortable.
But how cheap, fast and comfortable is train travel across Europe today?
I board the night train to Sofia, squeeze my way through the narrow aisle, past adventurous couples with disposable cameras and gigantic backpacks, until I’m standing in front of my compartment.
I pull open the door and my jaw drops: I paid 65 euros for the compartment – and it exceeds all my expectations.
In the cabin, maybe four square meters in size, there are two comfortable seats – no, more like armchairs – in the direction of travel. In front of it a pull-out desk. A sink next to the door, the towel smells of lemon. I can fold down a cot to sleep on from the wall. And there’s even a fridge! Inside I find chocolate, peach juice, pretzel sticks and water. I’ve lived in shared rooms with less comfort.
I sit in the left chair, then the right, listen to some music on the bunk before jotting down some notes at the desk, then sip the chilled juice. I feel like a 20th-century diplomat on a business trip.
100 years ago, long train journeys were still fashionable. Luxurious night trains drove across Europe, there were magnificent on-board restaurants, and the Orient Express drove between Paris and Istanbul. The railway was the undisputed king of long-distance transport. But after the Second World War, first the automobile and then the airplane dethroned the railroad.
Since the 1990s, the EU has been specifically subsidizing low-cost airlines to promote European integration. The state railways continued to thin out the night train network. In 2016, Deutsche Bahn completely exited the night train business. But now a renaissance is on the horizon: the state-run Austrian Federal Railways are expanding their night train connections through Europe again, they are buying modern night trains with showers and private mini-compartments, as are the Swiss Federal Railways. Even Deutsche Bahn is rediscovering night trains.
If you take the train, you have to collect all the information yourself
The next morning I wake up in my pretty, air-conditioned cabin and research on the internet how to get on towards Lisbon.
There are a few websites that promise to check all train, bus and flight connections and present the best one. This works quite well for shorter distances, but neither omio.com nor rome2rio.com can show me a train connection across Europe. There is no official uniform booking system for the European railways anyway.
If you want to travel across several borders, you have to collect your own information from the various national railways. My plan looks like this: I want to make my way to Vienna, the hub of Central Europe, and from there keep going west.
I get off in Sofia, go to the ticket counter and ask for a ticket to Vienna. The answer: There is only one connection to Romania, but only the next morning at 7:35 a.m. In Romania I had to buy another ticket from the state railway that would take me to Vienna.
I buy the ticket and look for a hotel for the night. I had imagined traveling across Europe to be a little faster.
The next morning I immediately recognize two faces from the night train from Istanbul on the platform: Tom from Scotland, on his way to Budapest, and Dinesh, an Indian with a surprisingly small backpack and gray temples, who says he still has to decide where exactly he is going wool. First north.
“Why don’t you just fly to Munich?”
Our regional train goes to the Bulgarian border town of Vidin. There we change to a small diesel multiple unit and chug for hours on a single-track route through sunflower fields to Romania. We need more than three hours for 82 kilometers as the crow flies. The gaps in the European railway network often run directly along nation states: Europe does not have one railway network, but a few dozen national networks. Before the train can really become a European alternative to the plane, these networks must grow together.
The diesel multiple unit ends in Craiova, I hurry straight to the counter and say that I want to buy a ticket to Vienna: In an hour and a half there is an Intercity going to the Romanian city of Arad, from there I could catch the night train to Vienna at half past one, in which there are unfortunately no berths, only seats. “No problem,” I say through gritted teeth and pull out my credit card.
I sit down next to Dinesh on the platform. He has now made up his mind: he wants to go to Munich. “Why don’t you just fly to Munich?” – “I’m here because I want to see something of Europe.”
We board the train to Arad. Dinesh stares out the window as if he has to memorize every single meander of the Danube that we have been passing for hours. “Amazing,” he murmurs, but I don’t think it’s that great anymore, I’ve been on the train for 15 hours now and I just don’t want to stare at landscapes anymore.
Then we reach Arad. We run out of our late train and jump on platform 11 just in time to board the night train to Vienna. Unfortunately, my seat is in a fully occupied six-seater compartment. I hope I can at least snooze.
Gradually I have the feeling of merging with the train, the steady rattling of the axles, the dull clicking when we drive over a switch, the hollow rustling in the tunnel, the short pressure wave when a train approaches. I see the train in my mind’s eye, three bright lights making their way through the night, past dark Romanian villages where nobody is awake but a few dogs.
“Passport!” Hungarian border guards wake me up. I show my passport, then continue dozing. I can hear the snoring from the next compartment, but maybe I’m just imagining it, my left leg has fallen asleep and my neck hurts. I can’t sit up anymore, so I just lie down – maybe around four in the morning – lengthwise in the aisle.
This train journey is developing into an odyssey
Shortly before Budapest, the conductor comes and says that I should please sit down again. So I slump back into my seat and glumly stare out the window. You have to be a die-hard railroad fanatic to travel like this.
I get off in Vienna. It’s half past eight in the morning. I left Sofia almost 26 hours ago. I brush my teeth on the platform, spit into a trash can, go to the counter and say: “One ticket as far west as possible!” I secretly hope that absolutely nothing is running today, I don’t want to get on any more trains. But then I buy a ticket to Geneva for 200 euros. Departure in 23 minutes. Damn.
A crack runs through Europe’s railway network: East of Vienna, many trains only run a few times a day, they are often old and slow, but very cheap. West of Vienna, the trains often run hourly on important connections, they have WiFi, are modern and fast – but sometimes more expensive than the plane.
I spray deodorant under my unshowered armpits and get on the Railjet to Zurich. I’ve now been sitting on the train for 30 hours without a break, I keep dozing off and waking up when the conductor announces the next stop.
I stumble off the train in Zurich, catch the next one to Geneva and fall into my hotel bed after a 38-hour journey. I sleep deeply and long.
Is this what the means of transport of the future will look like?
The next morning I get up in a good mood because today I’m doing the right thing: I’m going to take high-speed trains to Madrid. I walk along Lake Geneva and have breakfast in a boulangerie on the Rhône before boarding the Intercity to Lyon. There I take the AVE to Barcelona. Like the ICE or the French TGV, the AVE is a high-tech train. I race through southern France, enjoy the peace and quiet in the air-conditioned compartment, work a little and read the newspaper, have coffee and cake in the on-board restaurant and listen to music.
Another half hour layover in Barcelona, then I rush on to Madrid. The journey from Geneva to Madrid is twice as far as the journey from Istanbul to Sofia and is still three hours shorter.
There are considerations of using the high-speed network for night trains as well: Deutsche Bahn commissioned a study showing that a high-speed night train from London to Madrid would only take twelve hours.
The train can already replace the plane on many routes in Western Europe – if only a ticket from Geneva to Madrid did not cost 300 euros. On long routes, low-cost airlines are often cheaper than the train – also because they don’t have to pay taxes on kerosene, but the railways do on the electricity they need.
I arrive in Madrid around midnight. The next westbound train doesn’t leave until the next morning. I take a hotel, fall into bed around one o’clock. Five and a half hours later my alarm clock rings: I jump up and have to get my bearings first: Istanbul? Sofia? Geneva? Ah no, Madrid.
I need more time by train than Apollo 11 once did to the moon
There is no direct connection between Madrid and Lisbon. So I first get on the regional express to Badajoz, a small Spanish border town.
There I have to wait five hours for the next train to Lisbon and go for tapas on the market square. I strike up a conversation with the waiter and tell him that I’m driving from Madrid to Portugal and that, including all changes, it will take around 12 hours. He replies: You could have flown to Brazil during that time.
I laugh and try to explain to him that I’ve actually just come from Istanbul and have been on the road since Sunday, which is longer than it took Apollo 11 to get to the moon back then.
Maybe he thinks this is all a joke or thinks he misunderstood my broken Spanish. He just says “Ah, bueno” and gives me the bill. I board a slow train that whisks me across the border into Portugal, and in the small town of Entroncamento I board a regional express to Lisbon. At 20:24 I finally get off in Lisboa-Santa Apolonia.
I’ve been living mainly on station sandwiches for five days, I was on the road for 119 hours and 16 minutes, slept little and paid 939.23 euros for this odyssey including hotel accommodation.
On the other hand, I’ve only changed trains twelve times since Istanbul, haven’t missed a single connecting train, and now I know really well how the landscape in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, France, Spain and Portugal looks.
If there were a high-speed train that would take me back to Leipzig overnight: I would take it immediately! Traveling by train could be so comfortable. But actually, the journey home would mean two and a half days by rail. I fly.
Yves Bellinghausen is a scholarship holder of the Karl Gerold Foundation. This was founded by the long-standing FR publisher and editor-in-chief Karl Gerold and regularly awards grants and travel grants to young journalists. Information on the scholarship and the application for it at www.karl-gerold-stiftung.de