European rail travel is often more expensive and harder to book than cheap, no-frills plane tickets. But that's about to change.
Noting the contrast between their own skeleton rail service and Europe’s huge networks, Americans tend to think of Western Europe as a rail paradise. When it comes to cross-border travel, it isn’t really, but new lines announced this summer are certainly pushing it closer to the ideal. As of last month, Londoners have a new direct train service to the southern French holiday city of Aix-en-Provence, lasting just over five hours, while in autumn a direct Paris to Barcelona high speed TGV link begins, with a journey lasting just six hours, 25 minutes (on regular trains it's closer to nine).
Most groundbreaking of all, German state railway company Deutsche Bahn has this month gained rights of access to the channel tunnel. Starting in 2016, the company plans to run new direct services from London to Amsterdam and Cologne (taking four hours each) and to Frankfurt (taking five hours).
The five-hour journey time many of these new routes hover around is significant. Factoring in city to airport travel, security and check-in times, five hours is about the minimum for most short-hop European international flights. Trains can match or beat this limit because city center stations slash onward travel times radically. Check-in times are also much shorter – for the London/Paris/Brussels Eurostar service you can arrive up to 30 minutes before departure, while in passport-free continental Western Europe you can trim this down to around 15. Factor in a lighter carbon footprint, more legroom and a cloud-free view, and trains beat planes hands down. Indeed, airlines have already given up competing against railways on some routes, including the route between Paris and Brussels (which takes two hours by train). With yet more high-speed links on offer, the temptation for European passengers to give up the hassle of air travel will soon be even stronger.
High-speed rail isn’t quite there yet, however. Fast international trains are often (though not always) more expensive and harder to book than short hop plane tickets, whose prices started falling through the floor shortly before the millennium. Since then budget airlines such as Easyjet and Ryanair have taken over from long-distance buses as the cheap European choice. Offering a cramped service to occasionally obscure airports, their success lies in prices that, if you buy well in advance, can hit rock bottom. Meanwhile, high-speed train ticket prices have stayed high(ish), their tracks extremely expensive to lay and liable to cause controversy. The U.K.’s next planned high speed extension, for example, is expected to cost over $52 billion and will cut through protected countryside and partly destroy one of central London’s last major areas of social housing.
The U.K., often the fly in Europe’s ointment, has another barrier in the way of more international high speed lines, as it’s still outside the Schengen Area where border passport controls are abolished. With the Eurostar, it gets round this problem by having pre-boarding U.K. customs posts at Brussels, Calais, Lille, and Paris. Placing similar posts at every stop along Deutsche Bahn’s new routes would be costly (the U.K. has ruled out on-board checks), and passengers returning to London on the new Aix-en-Provence service have to make a lengthy stop at Lille. It’s not yet clear what the solution to this problem will be.
Meanwhile, some rail companies are trying to beat budget airlines at their own game. In April, France’s SNCF launched a second class-only service called Ouigo from Paris to the south coast, offering online booking only, a limited luggage allowance and prices starting at a tiny €10. Taking a leaf from the budget airlines’ books, they’re also using obscure, underexploited stations – Ouigo’s Parisian terminus is out in the suburbs at Marne-la-Vallée. There’s little of the romantic ease that attracts train buffs to this new formula, but the prices are hard to turn down. If Western Europe’s new international routes genuinely hope to take on their airline competitors, these new no-frills services may well be the shape of things to come.