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.

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10 hidden gems of Nice that tourists miss

Nice is one of France's most-visited cities, but there's a lot more to it than the beach and the Promenade des Anglais. We asked author and Nice resident of 22 years Jeanne Oliver to share some of her favourite off-the-beaten-track spots.

10 hidden gems of Nice that tourists miss

1 Villa Les Palmiers  

When Nice voted to join France in 1860, the celebration was held at this sprawling estate with Napoleon III in attendance.

Later, an English art dealer bought the property and redecorated with tons of imported marble christening it the Palais de Marbre. Now housing the Municipal Archives, the villa’s splendor is vividly apparent on the southern side where a vast manicured garden made up of reflecting pools and statuary recall the villa’s heyday. On the neo-classical facade is a loggia engraved with John Keats’ reminder that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”.  

Stroll the shady path to the right of the garden and marvel at the ornate dovecote which served as a status symbol and also a source of fresh squab. 

7/9 avenue de Fabron

2 Musée International d’Art Naïf 

Nearby is this fun museum devoted to naïve art. Paintings, sculptures, drawings and posters trace the evolution of this popular and accessible art form through the works of its most famous painters: Henri Rousseau, Grandma Moses, Ivan and Josip Generalic and many others.

The museum is lodged in the former Chateau Sainte Hélène which once belonged to perfumer François Coty. Linger in the estate’s park marked by the colorful sculptures of Frederic Lanovsky.   

23 avenue de Fabron

READ ALSO 10 things you didn’t know about Nice

3 The Castle Hill Cemeteries

The two cemeteries on the northern slope of Castle Hill – Christian and Jewish – are a testament to the remarkable cultural, historical and artistic diversity of Nice. 

The 2,250 tombs in the Christian cemetery display an exuberant mixture of artistic styles from sober to bizarre. Wander through the busts, medallions, sad statues, crosses, angels and crying maidens to the Gastaud family tomb where the angel of death hovers over a tomb half-opened by stone hands. It’s hard to miss the 12-metre high Grosso tomb which displays his wife and two children topped by a benevolent angel.

The adjacent Jewish cemetery commemorates the Jews from Nice who perished in the Holocaust as well as local Resistance heroes.

Notice the unusual Asseo tomb adorned with train, plane, car and pine tree sculptures. It is the tomb of a seven-year old boy who asked his parents for his favourite items. Unable to comply with his dying request at the time, they honoured his wishes in death with this moving testament to parental love.

4 Saint Pons Abbey Church

The Saint Pons Abbey is one of the oldest abbeys in the south of France, built in the eighth century on the spot where Saint Pontius of Cimiez was martyred.

Although the abbey is now a part of Pasteur Hospital and is not open for visits, the adjacent church is proudly open to display the results of its recent restoration.

Dating from 1725, the church is a shining example of Nice’s baroque architecture. Highlights of the brightly painted interior include lateral chapels decorated with twisted columns, a painting behind the altar depicting the martyrdom of Saint Pontius, and an exquisite crypt that contains the relics of the martyred saint.

5 Gloria Mansions

Only steps from the well-known Musée des Beaux Arts, lies this Art Deco masterpiece, named a historic monument in 1989. From a distance the grayish facade looks like any other apartment building.

A closer look reveals that the tinted concrete glistens with encrusted oyster shells and the balconies curve like waves in the sea. On the top floor sculpted raptors, inspired by the Chrysler building in New York, guard the building.

Behind the magnificent entrance  gate (usually open) lies a courtyard with more stylish stuccoes and bas-reliefs. Peek through the building’s entrance to admire a mammoth glass-mosaic on the opposite side.

Just visible is a monumental concrete staircase supported by green-tinted columns that spiral up to a glass roof. From the bronze hand-crafted letter boxes to the intricate railings and marble floors, Gloria Mansions is the height of 1930s design.

123 rue de France

6 Chateau Valrose

Lucky are the students at the University of Nice who study at this castle-park turned campus. Built in 1870 for a Russian baron and financier, the castle exterior is a festival of spires, pointed arches and massive staircases while the inside boasts crystal chandeliers, frescoes and a 400-seat concert hall.

The park spreads over 10 hectares on Cimiez hill with a Gothic entrance gate on the eastern side to welcome Cimiez’s aristocratic 19th-century visitors. Until the Baron’s death in 1881, the finest musicians of the day performed at the Chateau. 

Although the chateau and park are usually closed to random visitors, the University of Nice hosts a regular cycle of concerts and workshops that are open to the public.

28 Avenue Valrose

7 Villa Paradiso

The stately Villa Paradiso and its vast gardens were built in 1881 when everyone with a title or a sizable bank account (preferably both) wanted to stay on the trendy boulevard de Cimiez. 

Later it became the residence of Baron Etienne Van Zuylen and his wife Helene, née de Rothschild, who created the Nice chapter of the Society for the Protection of Animals. 

After WWII the city of Nice acquired the estate, turning it first into the Conservatory of Music and then trying to sell it. An outcry ensued, the Mayor relented and soon this historic property will house a cancer institute. 

24 boulevard de Cimiez

8 Hotel Alhambra

Horseshoe arches and minarets seem out of place in Cimiez but Orientalism was all the rage at the turn of the 20th century. Built in 1900, the building is also unusual as the product of a female entrepreneur, Madame Emilie Gabrielle Sabatier.

This clever lady built her hotel in a neo-Moorish style as a way to attract an international clientele. Business boomed until the outbreak of WWI when it was requisitioned as a military hospital. Guests never returned in force and in 1947 it became an apartment building.

48 boulevard de Cimiez

9 Maison de la Treille

This captivating old house with a luxuriant vine cascading down the front may be the Old Town’s most Instagramable spot.

Treille means “vine” and this one has been here at least since the turn of the 20th century. At one time the buidling was a tavern and then it became a centre for Nice’s language and traditions. Around 1930 artist Raoul Dufy depicted the house in a painting, Le Mai à Nice which now hangs in the Musée des Beaux Arts. 

9 rue Saint Augustin

10 Archaeological Crypt

A visit to the archaeological “crypt” is a fascinating peek into medieval Nice. Before Nice’s walls were destroyed in 1706, the Old Town was protected by a system of gates, towers and bastions, none of which are visible today – at least not above ground.

When work began on Nice’s tramway in 2007, workers were startled to discover the intact remains of fortified Nice including a moat and an aqueduct. The crypt stretches over 2,000 square metres under Place Garibaldi with a system of walkways to facilitate visits. Visits must be reserved in advance and include a guided tour (in French). 

Place Jacques Toja

Jeanne is a veteran travel writer who has resided in Nice for 22 years. She’s the author of Nice Uncovered: Walks Through the Secret Heart of a Historic City and runs the travel-planning website Her passion is exploring the many facets of Nice’s fascinating history and culture.