Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The cultural enrichment plan could change young lives, and maybe even revive the heyday of the Interrail train pass.
As state-funded freebies go, a plan just confirmed by the EU seems too good to be true.
This summer, the European Commission is offering 18-year-old European residents a free Interrail ticket—a rail pass that permits travel across 30 European countries for a month. What’s more, they’re not just offering it to one or two teenagers. With a budget of €12 million for this year, the commission plans to fund trips for 20,000 to 30,000 young people, with the possibility of more passes in the years to come. Exact details of how to apply and who will be get an Interrail pass, worth up to €510 ($628), will be released in the next few months. But one thing is already clear: A large town’s worth of European 18-year-olds will be able to travel from Lapland to Lisbon by train this summer, and the price they will pay is precisely nothing.
Why fund a bunch of free trips? The intent is to broaden young participants’ horizons and hopefully instill some sense of Europe’s connections. “Education is not only about what we learn in the classroom, but what we discover about the cultures and traditions of our fellow Europeans,” Tibor Navracsics, E.U. Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, said in a press release.
The commission has certainly chosen its tool wisely. For decades, spending a month traveling through Europe with the Interrail pass was not just a cheap way to get around Europe. For many, it was a latter-day version of the 18th century Grand Tour, a chance to discover first-hand what the continent actually was, and to explore its nature and heritage.
Visiting any major European station 25 years ago, you would have found the summer platforms packed with young people using Interrail passes, heading off to pretty much wherever they fancied on a whim. Its price—a then-steep £27.50 ($38) when first launched in 1972—meant that the experience was largely confined to young people who had middle- or upper-income parents, or who had jobs to help them save up. In an era when flights were still an exorbitant luxury and part-time jobs for teenagers more readily available, it was still a great deal. Night trains made it possible to cut accommodation costs, and the sheer range of countries included—all of Western Europe and even much of the Eastern bloc before 1989—was dizzying.
In 1998, the pass had its age limit removed (before that, it was only available to people under 26), but by then, the heyday of Interrail was waning. The pass shifted to a zone model, where countries were sorted into different price bands, and costs steadily rose. Above all, it was the cheaper flights available from the late 1990s that made the pass’s opportunities less special. With advanced booking, it became possible to fly across Europe for very little cash, and while Interrail tickets have remained on sale, its cultural place as a youth phenomenon has waned somewhat. The E.U.’s championing of the pass as a motor for youth enlightenment—and finding funds to match the rhetoric—could well see Interrail’s profile revive once more.
It is certainly a pass that helped to transform my life. After saving money I’d earned working a year of Saturdays in a jelly bean store, I traveled on an Interrail pass at 17. When I arrived back in London after the end of my month’s travel, following a four-day overland from Istanbul, I was scrawny from stomach bugs and limping from an injury that was entirely the fault of my own stupidity, after scrambling over a railway track with no shoes on. I also had a head full of impressions that have never left me, and set me on a path toward sitting here, writing this.
British teenagers today will still get a chance to apply for a free pass—for now, anyway, the U.K. is still in the EU. It’s still somewhat sad, as someone to whom that summer of travel meant so much, to see this new door for young people opening just as Britain’s door to the EU starts to swing shut.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that a passenger could ride a train ran to Gibraltar. There is no passenger rail in Gibraltar.