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High Speed Trains are Killing the European Railway Network

High speed rail is destroying the most valuable alternative to the airplane; the “low speed” rail network that has been in service for decades.

Picture: The Étoile du Nord Paris-Amsterdam (1927-1995). Almost as fast as the high speed train, but two to three times cheaper.
Picture: The Étoile du Nord Paris-Amsterdam (1927-1995). Almost as fast as the high speed train, but two to three times cheaper.
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High speed rail is marketed as a sustainable alternative to air traffic. According to the International Union of Railways, the high speed train “plays a key role in a stage of sustainable development and combating climate change”. As a regular long-distance train traveller in Europe, I have to say that the opposite is true. High speed rail is destroying the most valuable alternative to the airplane; the “low speed” rail network that has been in service for decades.

The introduction of a high speed train connection invariably accompanies the elimination of a slightly slower, but much more affordable, alternative route, forcing passengers to use the new and more expensive product, or abandon the train altogether. As a result, business people switch from full-service planes to high speed trains, while the majority of Europeans are pushed into cars, coaches and low-cost airplanes.

A look at European railway history shows that the choice for the elite high speed train is far from necessary. Earlier efforts to organize speedy international rail services in Europe accompanied affordable prices and different ways to increase the speed and comfort of a rail trip. Quite a few of these services were even faster than today’s high speed trains.

Five years ago I promised my readers I would not fly anymore. Hopping on a plane would be a hypocritical thing to do when you run a publication called Low-tech Magazine. Since then, I have been travelling across Europe almost exlusively by train (apart from the occasional boat trip), good for some 70,000 km of long-distance travel. I went as far north as Helsinki, as far south as Málaga, and as far east as Budapest. Europe has the most amazing railway network in the world. It gets you anywhere, anytime, and it’s much more fun and interesting to travel by train than by air.

However, this is not the time to get lyrical about the pleasures of long-distance train travel. Every year, it becomes harder to keep my promise, and the advance of the high speed train is to blame. As more and more reliable train routes are shut down in favour of high speed lines, international train travel becomes prohibitively expensive. Strangely enough, many of these abolished routes are almost as fast, and sometimes even faster, than the new, expensive high speed connections.

As an example, let’s have a look at the route which I cover most often: from Barcelona, Spain (where I live) to the Netherlands and Belgium (where I grew up). It is now possible to travel all the way from Barcelona to Amsterdam by high speed train, a trip of 1,700 km. The final link between Barcelona and the French border was inaugurated December 15, 2013. Great news, you would think.


The section between Paris and Amsterdam is a busy trajectory with a long history. The first direct train between Paris and Amsterdam was established in 1927. The Étoile du Nord, a train operated by the Belgian Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits, covered the 545 km long route in about eight hours. There was one train per day in each direction. 1

The Thalys is two to three times as expensive as the Étoile du Nord, while it’s only 25% faster.

During the subsequent decades, the rolling stock was modernised, the capacity of the line was extended with extra trains, and the length of the journey was gradually reduced. By 1957, travel time had been shortened to five and a half hours, by 1971 it was five hours, and in 1995, the last year of its operation, the train did the trip in four hours and 20 minutes. At that time, the route was also covered by a night train which took eight hours. The itinerary of these services is indicated by the red line in the illustration below.

In 1996, the Étoile du Nord was retired and replaced by a high speed train which is still running today: the Thalys. It takes another, somewhat longer route via Lille, which is depicted by the blue line on the illustration. By 2011, when the whole section was equipped with new high speed track, the travel time of the Thalys had come down to 3h19, about one hour faster than the 1995 Étoile du Nord. Some years after the arrival of the high speed service, the direct night train between Paris and Amsterdam was also abolished.

Map of trains from Paris to Amsterdam via Brussels.
Map of trains from Paris to Amsterdam via Brussels.
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The relatively modest time gain of the Thalys has a steep price. The fare for the Étoile du Nord was a fixed amount calculated according to a rate per kilometre. Converted to the current kilometre charges of the Belgian, French and Dutch railways, a single ticket Paris-Amsterdam over the same route (the blue line) would now cost 66 euro, regardless of whether you buy it two months in advance or right before you leave.

The fare for the Thalys, on the other hand, is determined by market demand and booking time. If you order well in advance and if your departure time is not fixed, you might get a single ticket for as less as €44 — two thirds of the kilometre rate. These heavily advertised prices, however, are the exception rather than the rule. If you buy a single ticket the day of your departure, you pay €206, almost five times as much. Most tickets, even if ordered two or three weeks in advance, cost €119 or €129 — almost three times as much as the widely promoted fares 2. In marketing, this pricing strategy is called “reducing ticket costs”. 34

Killing the alternatives

The Thalys is two to three times as expensive as the Étoile du Nord, while it’s only 25% faster. For most people, the time gained by taking the high speed train is not worth the extra cost. However, since the Étoile du Nord has vanished, they are left no other choice than to pay more when they want to travel by train.

You can still travel cheaply by low speed train between Paris and Amsterdam — over the same route that was covered by the Étoile du Nord. But you have to be very patient: the trip takes 7 to 8 hours and you have to switch trains 5 to 6 time (Paris–Maubeuge–Jeumont–Erquelinnes–Charleroi–Brussels–Amsterdam). A one-way trip costs €66, half the price of the most common fare of the Thalys.

Erquelinnes station (1852-2012). Don’t forget your walking shoes. Picture by Low-tech Magazine.
Erquelinnes station (1852-2012). Don’t forget your walking shoes. Picture by Low-tech Magazine.
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It’s an adventure, not a regular train ride. And it’s become even more unpredictable since December 2012, when the train service between Jeumont (the French border town) and Erquelinnes (the Belgian border town) was suspended. The trip now includes a 30 minute walk or a 10 minute bus ride across the border. This is why the route doesn’t show up on online route planners. I only discovered it after I learned about the existence of the Étoile du Nord and started following its itinerary.

There is another alternative route between Paris and Amsterdam, which consists of a combination of regional trains following more or less the same trajectory as the Thalys (Paris–Amiens–Lille–Courtrai–Brussels–Amsterdam), but it’s more expensive (€99) and only marginally faster.

You can still travel cheaply by low speed train between Paris and Amsterdam, but the trip takes as long as it did in 1927 and you have to walk half an hour to cross the border between France and Belgium.

Quite surprisingly, those who want to avoid the high costs associated with the high speed train between Paris and Amsterdam are much worse off today than people were in 1927, when the trip also took eight hours, but there was no need to switch trains or walk across the border. 5


The Thalys is not an isolated case. The completion of the last link in the high speed line between Barcelona and Paris on December 15, 2013, had a predictable consequence: the abolishment of the direct night train between both cities, the Trenhotel Joan Miró. This very popular train ran daily in both directions and covered the distance in about 12 hours, leaving around 20h30 in evening and arriving around 08h30 in morning. It was introduced in 1974, and received its present name and rolling stock in 1991.

Again, this is not the time to marvel about the comfortable cabins, the linen table clothing in the dining car, or the many friends I have made on this trip. Let’s just look at the numbers. The fare for a one-way trip on the Trenhotel Joan Miró was between €70 (ordered more than two weeks in advance) and €140 euro (ordered shortly before departure). The standard fare on the new high speed train covering the same trajectory is €170, up to twice as much. As with the Thalys, heavily advertised cheaper fares (€59 euro) are available for early bookers, but the availability of these tickets is very, very limited.

The Trenhotel Joan Miró Barcelona-Paris (1991-2013). Cheaper and faster than the high speed train. Picture by Sergio Evangelio.
The Trenhotel Joan Miró Barcelona-Paris (1991-2013). Cheaper and faster than the high speed train. Picture by Sergio Evangelio.
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At first sight, it seems that you get something valuable in return for this steep price: a travel time of slightly over six hours. However, numbers don’t tell the whole story here. On a night train, passengers sleep about seven to eight hours, which brings the perceived travel time back to between four and five hours — faster than the high speed train. Furthermore, the night train meant you arrived in Paris or Barcelona in the early morning, which can be very practical. If you want to arrive early morning by high speed train, you need to take a train the day before and book a hotel, increasing the overall cost.

As of 2014, a round trip between Barcelona and Amsterdam will set me back at least €580 at standard fare. Before the introduction of the high speed train, the cost was €270.

For die-hard idiots like me, there are still cheaper options available. You can take a regional train from Barcelona to the French border, either going straight over the Pyrenees (via Latour de Carol-Enveitg) or alongside the coast (via Cerbère-Portbou). From these border stations, you can hop on a domestic night train to Paris — in spite of its extensive high speed network, France still has some domestic night trains. A one-way trip costs about €70 to €140, corresponding with the fare of the abolished Trenhotel. However, this is cold comfort as the trip takes close to 16 hours and requires an extra change. And forget all the comfort and extras that came with the Trenhotel: you sleep in a cabin with six instead of four beds, and there isn’t even a drinking fountain onboard, let alone a bar or a restaurant.

In summary, as of 2014, a round trip between Barcelona and Amsterdam will set me back at least €580 at standard fare. In 2013, a combination of the now suspended Trenhotel and the Thalys allowed me to travel back and forth by train for a minimum standard fare of €360. And in the early 1990s, combining the Étoile du Nord and the Trenhotel would have allowed me to make the trip for a minimum of €270 euro (calculated at today’s kilometre rate). The price has doubled, while the travel time remained more or less the same.

Let’s go East !

The worst is yet to come, though. The high speed line between Paris and Barcelona has also cut off my gateway to Central and Eastern Europe. Contrary to the “slow” train route that goes over the mountains and then heads straight to Paris, the high speed track does a sharp turn to the right, heading towards Narbonne and Montpellier in the south of France before setting course to Paris. If I want to go to Italy, Switzerland, Austria or beyond, I have to go in the same direction.

The Catalan Talgo Barcelona-Geneva (1968-2010). Cheaper and faster than the high speed train. Picture: RailwayMania.
The Catalan Talgo Barcelona-Geneva (1968-2010). Cheaper and faster than the high speed train. Picture: RailwayMania.
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The completion of the high speed track between Montpellier and the Spanish border in 2010 led to the suspension of three “slow” trains. The first was the Catalan Talgo, a direct train that had run between Barcelona and Montpellier since 1969. In fact, it originally operated between Barcelona and Geneva in Switzerland, but the route was shortened when the high speed line between Montpellier and Geneva was opened in 1994.

I felt lucky to be travelling on this train, which still used the original rolling stock from 1969. But, again, this is not the time for nostalgia. Look at the numbers. The original Catalan Talgo, running between Barcelona and Geneva until 1994, completed the journey in 10 hours. My only option when travelling to Geneva now involves a combination of three high speed trains and a regional train with a total travel time of eight to ten hours — just as fast as the Catalan Talgo in the 1970s, but that was direct. The train itself may have been in need of an upgrade, but the direct connection clearly wasn’t.

A trip from Barcelona to Switzerland or Italy now takes longer than before the installation of the high speed train. In spite of this, fares on the route have more than doubled.

The two other trains were abolished in December 2012. These were night trains: the Trenhotel Pau Casals, which ran between Barcelona and Zürich (Switzerland), and the Trenhotel Salvador Dalì, which connected Barcelona and Milan (Italy). They each took about 13 hours to complete their journey, leaving around 20h30 in evening and arriving at 10h00 in morning. The only way to reach Zürich now is through a combination of at least two high speed trains that take 11 hours. The only way to get to Milan is now through a combination of two high speed trains and a regional train with a total travel time of over 12 hours.

A trip from Barcelona to Switzerland or Italy now takes longer than before the installation of the high speed train. In spite of this, fares on the route have more than doubled. This is why I started thinking about doing my next trip by bicycle.

High Speed Trains are not Sustainable

Despite its supposed efficiency, the high speed train will not make my travels any more sustainable. Passengers who switch from low speed trains to high speed trains, like I have to do now, increase energy use and carbon emissions. However, most Europeans aren’t like me. If they travel between Amsterdam and Barcelona, they take a plane. If we are to believe the European Union, who has made the high speed train a key element in its strategy to make long-distance transportation less energy and carbon-intensive, passengers who now take planes will switch to high speed trains.

A low-cost plane in Barcelona. Cheaper and faster than the high speed train. Source: Wikipedia Commons.
A low-cost plane in Barcelona. Cheaper and faster than the high speed train. Source: Wikipedia Commons.
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However, if you compare the ticket prices, it’s obvious that this won’t happen. You can fly back and forth between Barcelona and Amsterdam with a low-cost airline for €100 if you book one to two weeks in advance, and for about €200 if you buy the ticket on the day of departure. 6 That’s compared to €580 for what the journey would cost you if you would take the high speed train. Furthermore, the flight only takes about two hours. Flying has become so cheap in Europe that it’s now cheaper to live in Barcelona and commute by plane each day, than to live and work in London. 7

With the arrival of high speed trains and low-cost airlines, rich and poor are simply swapping long-distance transport modes.

Historically, train fares have always been lower than air fares. The arrival of high speed trains and low-cost airlines in the 1990s has inverted this. Rich and poor have simply swapped travel modes: the masses are now travelling by plane, while the elite take the train. Since there are less rich Europeans, this obviously won’t bring any energy savings or reductions in carbon emissions.

High speed trains share a fundamental problem with almost all other “sustainable” high-tech solutions that are being marketed these days: they are way too expensive to become mainstream. This explains why installing 10,000 km of high speed train lines did not stop the growth of passenger air traffic in Europe. From 1993 to 2009, air traffic in Europe grew by an average of 3-5% per year. It is estimated to grow by another 50% from 2012 to 2030 in spite of the present economic downturn and the 20,000 km of high speed lines that still need to be built. 8

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Leon White

Thanks for this article, very informative and reminds me of my three years of travelling exclusively by train in Europe on Interrail passes. I think that is another option that was not covered here: Interrail is usually not valid without a significant surcharge on most high speed trains. Of course, living in China now, I can enjoy long distance high speed night trains :)

Kris De Decker

The Back on Track Campaign by the World Carfree Network maintains a page with recent changes to international rail connections in Europe:

Gidon Gerber

The old trains had another incredibly convenient feature: in the compartments (1st and 2nd class) you could pull the seats toward the centre so that they would be completely flat and form a bed on which you could get a quick nap or even a good night’s sleep - without paying any surcharge. It was very useful for travelling very early in the morning without having gotten enough sleep at home. You could even turn the entire compartment into one big flat surface for the whole family.

I have however less fond memories of couchettes. Normally at least one of the other passengers would snore loudly, or have smelly feet, or wake up everyone at 5.45 to announce his imminent arrival in Salzburg with his mobile phone.

Bruno R

While stating the advantages of plane, completely missing the time and cost to travel to the airport (which tends to be very remote for lowcost airlines), the time needed to register etc… You can come take a Thalys 10mn before departure, and the railway station is in the city…


I still have a fond memory on my interrail trip in 1999. I rode the Amsterdam-Paris train overnight - and in fact, I rode all my trips over night, each and every night for 13 days in a row. I did not use the trains for transportation only, but also as a place to sleep. With about 130 Euro plus the ticket I was simply riding as long and as far as the available money would get me. One of the most interesting adventures of my life. All trains were overnight long distance trains. France was a bit uncomfortable since they had these plastic seats that were designed in a way that sleeping on two of them was a bit awful. Nowadays, I would probably opt for couchettes.

It’s too bad that the time of these trains seems to be coming to an end. They provided such a great and inspiring freedom to me when I just finished school.

Andre L.

@Israel Walker (54): you are talking completely non-sense. Highway specs, the best ones, call for 350m curve radii and 55/1000 gradient for design speeds of 130km/h. You can’t possible run trains on those alignments unless you go into rack railway territory running at no more than 50km/h.


Transportation in Europe is changing. I agree that fast trains are too expensive. I can’t afford any more last minute Paris or London trip by fast train. The train is becoming the luxury city center to city center option.

Planes are the only option for longer trips and can be cheaper for annoying city->airport to airport->city shorter trips.

For me, the solution is the buses network. I use Eurolines or Megabus and I can travel in most countries for a cheaper price and last minute tickets are not much more expensive.


220 Euros you say? My trip from London to Eastern Europe (2200km) costs about 140 for diesel.



While I agree with you’re idea of a “distorted view of progress”, but I think there’s a few things to consider. The first is that HSR (if you make a distinction between rail) is still in its infancy relative to airplanes and automobiles. In essence we air currently viewing the historically most primitive HSR engines, rolling stock,and overhead wiring etc., which will likely greatly improve in efficiency and total quality over time, much like the automobile (ignoring the modern demand for features that cover this up. It seems worth investing in late rather than never, much like sustainable technology could have been more developed in the 20th century instead of hydrocarbon tech. I don’t think the global demand for high speed transport of goods or people will ever completely disappear, in a few instances (none that I can offhand think of) there may even be a need for it in a globalized world. I don’t see why rail travel at 350 km/h can’t be sustainable feasible in the future, maybe that’s just idealism.


That is a shame, because trains are still by far, the most efficient way to move people we have, outside of bikes of course. The diesel, or gas-powered bus, is IMO, just an oversized car. Loud, noisy, polluting, uncomfortable, and are no more efficient per-passenger-mile, than amerikas garbage-can cars. It may turn out that HSR is, in effect, pricing itself out of its own market.

I cant take a train to Vancouver, about 4 hours away, at any speed. Nor can I get to Calgary (7-8 hrs.) The national capital 1800 miles? No route possible, directly or indirectly. There are rail lines going to those places of course, but what are they actually being used for? Hauling coal,tar-sands goop, lumber or other raw materials to ports, or swtichyards in Vancouver for ’export’ to the US at below-market rates. But back to my options here in my local space.

If I want to go to the places I mentioned, choices are:

Planes-Heavily subsidized, polluting, and least efficient way to travel ever devised.

Car-See planes.

Bus-See car. (Least subsidized of the three). Service sporadic, expensive, and uncomfortable, and amazingly slow.

If HSR can never recover its capital costs then the cars-onlys roadways dont either. According to the Victoria Tranportation institute,

only about 2/3 of all road costs in North America are captured by taxes and user fees. The rest if deficit financed or simply allowed to fall further into dis-repair. Not that there is anything wrong with public subsidies in all instances, but everywhere you look public resources ALWAYS seem to end up going to the least-efficient, most energy intensive options we can think of. HSR looks like its joining airlines and cars-only transportation as a subsidy sink.

bob fearn

My grandmother, who lived to be almost 100, used to say, “better is the enemy of the good”. So a good train system can be wrecked by building a better (high speed) system.

What we seem to be facing are the ego-maniacs who want to make an impression rather than practical people who would just do what would work well for most people.

Thanks for this very useful article.

David Locke

I remember taking the intercity from zweibrucken to Augsburg one night. The postal service was sorting mail on the train. What did the postal services do when the night trains ended?


Airplanes used to be prohibitively expensive too.

High speed trains is an investment and it’s a good one. Prices will go down in time.


But that is inevitable. Compare automobiles from 100 years ago and today. Lorries, buses - they made a huge leap. Trains should run ahead of them to be competitive.

Just play few sessions in OpenTTD, while it is a very simplistic simulator, you would easily see how as the automotive industry progresses, trains should be sifted in longer-distance heavier-load higher-throughput niche - or be extinct.


Yes and no. As an avid rail traveller I have seen the changes in Europe over the last 35 years: We said goodbye to pre-war technology and heavily subsidized not-so-fast trains. Business travellers welcome a viable alternative to air travel.

When it comes to cost - especially in Italy this meant much higher prices. In the 80s I used to hitchhike accross Europe except in Italy with its ridiculous low rail fares.

While in Germany, taking the ICE is no big deal, the extra cost is 5 Euro (or 2,50 with popular 50% BahnCard), which is next to nothing on long routes. The situation in Switzerland and Austria is similar. In Germany we still have a healthy second tier with InterCity trains serving smaller cities, and private companies do cherry picking on select routes.

Most international night trains in the west have vanished, as have some air connections, thanks to TGV and ICE.

Jonas Ryberg

As a sad coincidence, just after I wrote here last time our national railway company SJ announced the closure of night-trains between Malmö and the capital Stockholm on 31 March next year. However, there has been a remarkable reaction to it from politicians, urban planners and even a few CEOs of large companies coming out against it. Hopefully the trains will remain if pressure is kept up over the next months!

Otherwise I just wanted to say that I agree with Bob Hex entirely. Rail integration urgently needed and despite all the talk we’re heading in the wrong direction!

Also, there must be a political decision to support reasonable fares. Governments must atleast own parts of rail companies and make sure that citizens of all classes can afford to travel.


@ Kris De Decker (28)

Well, this translation is in Google-french!

I am working to do a true-french translation…

HSR Cynic

Another fallacy when comparing HSR to aviation: security & boarding procedures.

Aviation is saddled with a draconian security apparatus that rail has thus far managed to avoid, and running the gauntlet of this security penalizes air in comparison.

If we can admit that most of this security springs from the fear of an airplane falling from the sky, rather than rational risk assessment, its fair to ask: why aren’t HSR queues subject to the same drill? Or, conversely, if HSR doesn’t need that level of security, why does aviation?

The point here is to question the systemic biases that have resulted in HSR being a viable alternative to aircraft that operate in the same speed regimen - it certainly isn’t a selection based on physics, economy, or utility.

Rather, HSR is an extraordinarily expensive and clunky admission of defeat in the face of political pressures that have hamstrung aviation from keeping its robust & utilitarian system of regional flights.

That HSR plays neatly into patronage schemes of the land-holding political class seems plain, and a giant step backwards in terms of reducing our footprint on the planet - all that electricity, high-precision equipment and constant maintenance is not carbon neutral…


Thanks Kris, for this article describing exactly what I was already suspecting. I am a frequent business traveler. So frequent that I got sick of flying: the long lines at the airport, the stress at security, the cramped seats in economy class, lost luggage at the destination, long and expensive taxi rides between airport and inner-city hotel, etc. etc. So I started to take the train instead. 1st class train tickets are just as expensive as economy class plane tickets including commutes to and from the airport, even with HSRs. And I enjoy the space and the relative tranquility.

But due to the continued abolishing of night trains, the train travels are getting slower and slower. Next month, I need to go to Madrid, from Rotterdam. Until last week, that meant leaving Rotterdam at 4 pm and arriving at 9 am the morning after. Now I’ll arrive in Madrid at 2 pm (5 hours later) or have to leave from Rotterdam at 10 am (6 hours earlier). Result: I loose at least half a working day.

Another example: there is no direct air connection between Amsterdam and Turin. Until last year, however, there was a direct night train from Amsterdam to Milan, from which one could take an HSR to Turin (or rent a car: it’s only a 90 mins drive). Not anymore. I can take a night train from Paris, but that means leaving Amsterdam at 3 pm instead of 7 pm: loss of half a working day. Etc. etc.

Conclusion: HSRs are great, but the subsequent abolishing of the low-speed network renders the advantages of the HSR mostly useless. I stopped flying to Paris, okay, but will start flying again to other destinations to which I used to take the train. Or stop flying all together and find another, less productive and less socially useful job.


To Kris De Decker, the author:

In 1995 the “Etoile du Nord” was operated with TGV (not conventional train) using LGV North from Paris to Antoing in Belgium (next to Tournai) cutting journey time by about 3 / 4 hour.

4:19 instead of 5:05.

So Thalys saves about 2 hours, not only 1 !

You have to modify your conclusions.

Gerard Mathieu. Transport Consultant

Buckaroo Banzai


As an American who spent three glorious months in 1985 traveling by rail literally all over western Europe, it is depressing to read this excellent article. That rail network was robust, extensive, and unbelievably affordable. In Italy, the fares were so absurdly low it seemed like they almost paid YOU to ride their trains. One could wake up in the morning in a European city of almost any size, throw a dart at a map, consult the Thomas Cook European Timetable, and within a few hours, be on a train to that destination that would be reasonably direct and reasonably priced. And if you had a Eurail pass, as I did for two of those months, it was even more affordable.

Just a crying shame that they have so badly undermined that wonderful network. And to add insult to injury, assuming European politics works anything like American politics, I’m sure a lot of politicians, bureaucrats, unions, and private sector contractors got rich at the public’s expense as well.

Peter Baksa

“The majority of Europeans are pushed into cars, coaches and low-cost airplanes”

Ok, but aren’t holiday trips unsustainable de facto? Allowing more people to travel less unsustainably is good? Are the operators or the people to be blamed?


Why should speed be limited to 200km/h. Actually there is an arbitrary limit of 250km/h. If the operating speed is higher trains need to fulfill higher requirements and cost much more. So DB ordered Trains for 249km/h. This would the most cost effective solution. If the topography allows line could build the tracks for much higher speeds.

The point is speed doesn’t matter but fur a HSR railway there must be some minumum traffic. It makes no sense to build a new double tracked railway line and then run only one train per direction per hour. If there is almost no traffic the line will lose money regardless if its designed for 100km/h or 300km/h.

If there is enough demand then a faster train can save money. Train crews are paid by working hours not by the kilometers they cover. Trainsets also have high fixed cost. So the faster the train runs the more passenger kilometers it can produce for the same fixed cost.

IMHO for HSR there should be one train every thirty min better fifteen or ten minutes. Longer waiting time doesn’t make sense as time is lost when transferring. Door to door traveling time will be better if there is a train with 200km/h topspeed every 15 min than a train with 300kmh every hour.

So at the end the HSR networks need to operate like a subway just with longer distances and higher speeds. The Japanese Shinkansen does so and is a huge success and profitable. Paris-Lyon is also profitable as there is enough demand.

But the time of named trains and sleeping cars is over. They are just to expensive to operate and cannot compete with low cost airlines. And they are very inflexible running only once a day. They are not suitable for business travellers. So they have a small niche for leisure travel.


For the HSR infra vs. airplane infra, I’m skeptical that airports are particularly low-footprint infrastructure. According to, Chicago O’Hare “resides on over 7,000 acres” of land, which allowing for a 20 m ROW is something like 1,400 km of track, or nearly New York to St. Louis. Clearly much depends on the width of your ROW; and most airports aren’t this big (Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, which is currently busier than O’Hare, reports an area of just 4,700 acres, or 1,902 Ha). Additionally, airports have the relative luxury of having all of their land in a fairly consistent topography. But there are 381 Primary Airports in the US and its territories (airports having more than 10,000 emplanements per year), besides the rest of the world, and all of the runways, taxiways, hangars, passenger terminals, passenger terminal trains, cargo terminals, control infrastructure, emergency vehicle garages, emergency vehicle practice areas, parking lots, parking lots, and parking lots are maintenance sinks. And since jet fuel does not spring from the ground as a boon from Boreas, there’s importation to do, by train and truck and barge.

But HSR Cynic isn’t talking about the state of airports as they are, but rather as HSR Cynic wants them to be. Of course, DC-3s are still in service, especially in places where unimproved facilities are the norm; but in general, those are not their home bases, or places where they refuel. It’s probably not politics, after all, that favors O’Hare (and Midway) versus a network of grass fields across the Lake Michigan shore, but the efficiencies of shipping JetA and avgas to one facility; and even though the routes are, in theory, as scalable as the population centers need them to be, in practice they are limited by the comparative lack of scalability of the destination facilities.

Alan Witton

Whether landscape is irrelevant is open to debate. But if the European rail network is supposed to be serving a full range of passenger and freight traffic, with passengers including business travellers, tourists and the not-so-well-off, then at least one of those sub-groups would appreciate a bit of scenery here and there! And the not-so-well-off would probably have to think long and hard before paying the extra to travel on a high speed train. Turning off at least two segments of your potential market doesn’t seem to me to be a sound marketing strategy.


This is excellent information, but you show that high-speed rail is killing rail travel for certain classes of passengers, not for everyone. To really see what is going on, we need a time series of ridership data by country.

Eurostat has modal shares by country for rail, bus, and highway but not air. These data show rail’s share of travel has declined since 1990 in Spain and Italy, but grown in France and Germany. It has grown in Belgium but remained flat in the Netherlands. So the effects of high-speed rail appears to be a mixed bag. However, without air numbers, we can’t really be sure.

Israel Walker

One of the simplest proposals to make intercity rail profitable is to simply lay HR55 rail down a single lane of an existing 4 lane road. Infrastructure cost is incredibly low because the grade and bed are already built. Further, it reduced road capacity by 50% causing congestion which makes passenger rail more attractive. Win/win, it is hated by automotive lobbyists who claim trams will cause the highways to run with blood…blah, blah, blah etc. Apparently destroying an affordable competing capacity to make more money only works when you are the owner of the more affordable competing capacity.

Though, I will say a simple principle can replace your good work on this: technological solutions to social problems aren’t. Either they aren’t solutions or they weren’t technological problems.

Etienne Bayenet

Here is a link about truck transport on train with some data from 2011. This is a booming business. If I’m right, they travel 7 days a week with more than one train a day.

The company doing Luxembourg/Spain is

Best regards,


Nomen Nescio

Nice to see it written out. A technical point: put the comments at page 2 and not page 1. Secondly: there’s enough material to do a second article on this subject.

Some thoughts:

  • using the de facto monopoly on public transport planning in Europe (Hafas) when I try to plan a trip from Paris to Brussels excluding trains with a surplus I have to travel via Epemay, Longuyon, Longwy, Luxembourg, Arlon, Libramont, Namur, Mons, and finally arrive in Brussels South. Only 21 hours 19 minutes! Obviously, one could travel via Lille or use local buses as you describe. Granted, part of the information in that system is simply wrong, can always happen, but seen how often such things happen and the fact that it’s usually not possible to do any queries that exclude expensive trains through the ‘front door’ websites of companies like SNCB and SNCF, tells us enough. They control the information and by doing so can make their Thalys and similar products more lucrative. []

  • probably blasphemy on this site but I must confess. In 2013, I fell twice for the trap. After having spend 2 or 3 evenings trying to figure out how to travel to a village in Catalonia, being really flexible from my starting city (Strasbourg, Brussels, Frankfurt, Cologne, Nüremberg, Amsterdam) I gave up and bought a plane ticket. Took me 15 minutes to compare prices, check where I had to change or direct flights and be done with it. I paid a bit under 1/2 of the train price. Another time was within Germany. Even with a Bahncard 25 and trying to get a ticket 6 weeks upfront it was again twice as expensive and would have taken 3 hours more, including commuting to the airports.

  • International rail traffic is supposedly to be open for the market. Cabbotage isn’t always possible. It’s next to non-existent. Given how rail infrastructure bodies are still having close ties with the national operators it’s not much of a surprise.

  • Buses. In Germany they’re booming since DB lost it’s monopoly a year or two ago on inter-city travel. I don’t know what will happen. Half a year ago I thought that currently trains are only affordable for the bourgeoisie and the proletariats preferred means of transport is the areoplane but this might change a bit, again. I’m curious how those different means of semi public transport will diverge or develop.

  • Across Europe there are many projects to better connect the (not so) local airports with the main city nearby. Often with rail. This is not always high-speed rail like between Köln and Frankfurt, but also light rail like in Hamburg (5 years anniversary). The net effect is that air traffic gets even more attractive. Say from Bonn there are now 3 main airports reachable within an hour.

Stefan A.

Thanks for a very interesting and insightful article. It‘s quite paradoxical to think that the EU keeps blabbing on about mobility in euroregion while regional train connections (e.g. Jeumont) are being dismantled. I never understood how a trip from Mons (be) to Valenciennes (fr) takes 2h35,(according to the NMBS/SNCB, I’ve never undertaken the trip myself) while there is a direct track between these two regional cities. The connections on the other side of the country between the cities that make up the Meuse_Rhine euroregion aren‘t much better. The Maastricht, Brussels train is the only decent train, even though the traveling time is quite long from Maastricht (nl) to Liège (be). The traditional Liège-Aachen (de) connection is as brisk as a snail carrying some heavy shopping. The connection Maastricht-Aachen is inexistent (not because of a lack of demand), even though there is a line running from Visé (be) (10km south of Maastricht) to Aachen (granted, it is a freight line), which could be used to that effect, pending a little bit of ambition and organisation (unless I‘m missing some important point). All this to say that the EU is more concerned about linking big cities with one another while neglecting regions, which is regrettable considering that many of these regions form the backbone of the EU economy and could really benefit from better interconnections.

To this point I would like to add that the arrival of the high speed network coincides with the liberalisation of rail (creating a shift towards profit driven services - this is not to say that train should run on a deficit, but there has been a shift from public service to product -). I would have liked to have your take on that, since, to me, the current transport situation is linked to the market approach (with various hidden subsidies of course). To my mind, in this context, low costs airlines would have undermined trains anyway. The prices proposed by some carriers are simply dirt cheap.

I would also be interested to see some absolute numbers, because I am under the impression (possibly the wrong impression) that the total amount of travellers has increased. For train, I know this to be true, at least in Belgium. But, also, judging by the significant enlargements made to road infrastructure across Europe, I believe there to be an overall growth. This brings me to the following point: if indeed there is growth, it seems to me legitimate to build new infrastructure and a high speed network to deal with the growing demand. Albeit, if this really is the case, I see no reason to dismantle traditional lines and night services. In this context, a comparison with the system in Japan - I only know it‘s supposed to be really good - would be nice.

If I may be so bold as to suggest a topic for a future article, I would be very interested in learning more and reading your opinion about rolling highways, combined transport and the Eurocarex project. I’ve often wondered why there were not more freight trains carrying lorries. To my mind, this would make a lot a sense and save time and possibly money for long distance freight companies; especially for traffic towards countries where heavy traffic is banned during the week-end, such as Germany.

Kind regards.

Alex Macfie

“Flying has become so cheap in Europe that it’s now cheaper to live in Barcelona and commute by plane each day, than to live and work in London. [7]” except that it’s hardly practical; this relies on the one available flight each morning and evening running to plan, and on being able to get the cheapest ticket for each trip each day (no season tickets on low-cost airlines!). That chap’s figures also assume that the person is working near where the coach from Stanstead Airport terminates in central London and so does not need a Zone 1–2 Travelcard. Although it’s worth noting as an example of how absurdly cheap low-cost airlines have become, there are too many potential points of failure for a daily Ryanair commute between (say) Barcelona and London to be doable in the real world.


Since it hasn’t been mentioned yet, I’d like to point out that the Heritage Foundation made a similar critique of high-speed rail as a costly luxury.


“Whilst not against high speed trains in principle, they should be integrated into the conventional network and conventional trains and sleepers should not be withdrawn just to force people on to the new trains. "

Certainly. This is exactly what Germany did. Seems that the ICE routes are well appreciated. And make no mistake, there are lots and lots of them – more track-miles than France.

If you pay more attention, you’ll see that the real problem is government subsidies of roads. This makes buses appear cheaper to operate (which they aren’t).

Mark Roest

A couple of ideas:

Use bi-directional monorail with ultra-light-weight (but high strength) coaches in highway medians, and anywhere else that high- or medium-density transit is needed. It would be low cost and take short radius turns easily at high speed.

Rail: Again, use very light-weight, streamlined coaches, with relatively close headways on shorter trains, instead of the heavy vehicles we use today; follow the author’s suggestion of slightly slower speeds, like 200 km/hr or less.

Buses: Again, use (the same) very light-weight, streamlined coaches as feeders to the fixed-line monorail and rail. It’s like the veins on a leaf.

Use ‘bulding-integrated-solar’ panels for the roofs of all the vehicles, and for sun-shades above them on fixed guideways. Power them with this.

Check out Gizmag for the increasingly frequent stories about designs for electric-motor aircraft. The battery technology will probably be ready to do this safely (three times the performance, with no fires or explosions) in 5 years. As we switch from fossil and nuclear to renewable energy sources and battery storage, we will be amortizing the equipment, and then running on virtually free energy. So air travel will no longer be severely (if at all) damaging to the environment. Also, as fuel is one of the dominant costs of air travel, the overall costs will be even less than now.

Guy coste

This article stoke a cord for me, as i have travelled by rail on my own (that is without my parents) since 1959.

Sure, trains of today are most of the time much better than the brittish antics of the early sixties, but the experience of travelling has been destroyed by, among lots of other things, compulsory seat booking on most trains (except on commuter lines).

When i travelled from Sweden to Montélimar (in the Rhône valley) i could choose between boarding the Nord-Express in the evening in Stockholm and changing train (and station) in Paris the next day, or travel through Swizerland to get a glimpse of some real mountains. The trip through Paris took some 30 hours.

Nowadays that trail is destroyed, because connections are no longer garanteed and you have to wait hours between two high speed trains in places like Hambourg, Cologne or Copenhagen. The time gain from higher speed disappears while waiting on cold windy platforms. Besides, how much fun is it to have to hoard one’s luggage around and try and find somewhere to stay for a couple of hours in the middle of the night in Hamburg? I could of course make it to St Pauli (like the danish lorry driver with whom i once hitch hiked, who spent the compulsory pause with a lady while i got nervous waiting, my bag beeing locked in the lorry) but buying sex is really not my cup of tea.

I had not travelled “home” to see mum by train for years - if not decades - when i decided to get home to Uppsala from Cluse (Savoie) by train through Berlin. Alas, when in Berlin - a really pleasant city in the summer - i discovered that the service via Sassnitz to Malmö was discontinued, just as the connection via Rostock. So i had to travel through Hamburg to get to Copenhagen, in over-crowded trains during parts of the trip. Needless to say that my fare was somewhere about double what i would have had to pay for a plane ticket from Geneva to Arlanda (Stockholm). After a couple of nights i Copenhagen i took a bus (direct, mind you!) to Uppsala to compensate for my railway excesses.

So, unfornately, beeing retired i won’t travel again to my “home” village by rail, unless i find a winning lottery- ticket on the street.

The other side of the rail debate is population density and route flows. Building a HSL in the wildernes makes no sense but when the Paris-Lyon line got built it simply was a question of much needed extra capacity and avoiding crowded valleys. The problem remains in the Rhône valley, where 2 tracks on the right bank and 2 on the left bank are saturated even though the LGV-line has been extended south of Lyon. In many places in Europe there is a severe lack of tracks and of land on which to build additional ones. New freight-lines or LGVs are options.

In a scarsly populated country like Sweden some lobby for a HSL between Stockholm and Gothemburg because more capacity is needed anyway, but objectors point out that the HS connection between Stockholm and Arlanda (a PPP) is anything but a financial success story.


What a great article! This makes a lot of very interesting contrarian points about high speed rail. I think that this is the exact sort of article that and The Atlantic magazine publish, you are a great writer.

However, while you make an exciting contrarian argument, if I were rebut you, I would explore these points:

-The old low speed train lines, the overnight trains, and the current regional train lines were and are loss leaders for national governments. They were/are subsidized systems where ticket revenues collected are substantially less than operating costs, operated as part of a social policy to provide affordable transport. The new high speed lines have higher ticket prices, yes, but they are also profitable or at least cover more than 100% of their operating costs (capital costs might be another story).

-The old non-high-speed lines that you mention such as Étoile du Nord surely didn’t get slower purely out of protection for the new high speed lines. Surely the reason that riding those lines takes longer now is because they provide more local service and/or carry more freight than they used to. If you were really doing an academic-quality examination of your theory that high speed rails may actually increase pollution by converting people from rail travellers to air travelers, you would have to see how much carbon was abated by providing more local service and more freight capacity that abates the use of personal cars for local transport and lorries/trucks for freight.

-You complain that the Thalys only saves an hour at 3h20m versus the fastest the non-high-speed train was able to achieve, but you had just finished recounting how the non-high-speed train had gotten faster and faster over the decades. If Thalys takes 3:20 to do Paris-Amsterdam that is actually on the very slow end of high speed rail at around 100mph average including stops. I believe that there are some TGV lines that average over 170mph including stops. As the line develops it should get faster, with times under 2h30m very achievable, in comparison to the old Étoile du Nord line where they were operating at about the limit what would ever be possible.

-You claim anecdotally that higher rail fares are converting people into air travelers, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t actually the case statistically. I haven’t seen these exact statistics but I have seen statistics showing that on almost every high speed rail route less than 4 hours in duration, rail has over half of the rail/air market share and sometimes much more like 80% to 90%. I doubt that high speed rail has caused rail to lose any market share vs air.

-Finally, it has to be said that the high speed rail developers didn’t envision your route Barcelona-Amsterdam when they designed the lines or the fare schemes. Their logic goes something like, “in order to justify the cost of high speed rail development we have to be able to charge many of our passengers, the ones we price discriminate as business travelers, fares that compare with what they pay with airlines. We are only going to be able to do this on routes up to about 4 hours long because most business travelers will only take train rides of up to 3 or 4 hours duration before they will strongly prefer flying.” Therefore they optimize routes and fares around the travel patterns of the travelers that are providing the vast majority of their revenue. Wouldn’t it only cost you half as much to only travel Barcelona-Paris or only Paris-Amsterdam by rail? I doubt that airfares on those shorter routes are half of what they are for the longer Barcelona-Paris route. In fact, they could be about the same or even more than for the Barcelona-Amsterdam route since they are specialty flights and connection flights since most locals would just take the train.


In worst case scenario train operating on 100-120kmph will take fuel in price around 850€/hour, If we will count with diesel it will take like 350kg/100km, 500€/hour but only with motor running on full load whole time. And I am sure that railway don’t pay normal prices but much lower for oil, coal or electricity.

Both systems have to be operated in way that they should be complementary. My country was once “railway land,” every small village had it’s railway station, my town have still four, three operated in seasonal mode, we even had TV cartoons about locomotives before Thomas the tank engine was first broadcasted. Instead of reconstruction railways are closed and replaced by rubber-wheel buses. And only because of ideological reasons and bribes.

System of mass transport is not good in EU nor in USA. Refusing competition on railway but enable it on roads together with really slow speed (under 60kmph!) and closing lines will within few decades totally destroy system and only like ten will (hope this will not happened) be operated. Stupidity.


Hi, I am putting up a petition in to keep the night trains. I am just trying to do something. I wonder if you would like to sign it? and distribute it to your friends.

Dr CK Connolly

Perhaps you should look to the maligned british railways for a solution. on the east coast trains do run half hourly at 200 km per hour on old tracks with city centre stations for a fares from about 50 euro for 300km. With a railcard I am paying less than that for my next first class trip to London. No wonder demand is ever increasing


I don’t understand the problem. There is always the alternative for slow trains. In fact all trains are slow in Europe. I mean look at Japan , i went with the Shinkansen. Now that is speed and service at its best, and to be honest the price is worth it, because you really travel a long distance with it, and if you want to go cheap , there’s always the older slower railways. It’s 2015 almost, and i can feel your pain. Because the slow speeds of the so called high speed trains are not worth the price you are travelling with.


Erquelinnes station (1852-2012). Don’t forget your walking shoes

Or don’t forget your folding bike :-)

Here’s one way how to get from Paris to Amsterdam on regional trains (ie. non-Thalys high-speed train; I checked for a Monday):

Paris 06h04 Amiens 07h21

Amiens 07h38 Lille-Flandres 08h58

Lille-Europe 09h33 Amsterdam 14h04


Your articles should have a date on them.


Re: (74) “Your articles should have a date on them.”

Date is embedded in the url, right after the low tech magazine dot com.

Somewhere back up the line of comments, and I can’t find it right now, they are all starting to blend together, is one about building high speed rail in median of 4 lane highway.

Where I live in middle of Missouri along I-70, the landscape prevents that, grades are too steep and curves are too sharp for high speed rail. some of the grades are too sharp for anything using only adhesion traction. I don’t have numbers to relate, but come out here and look at it, and you will see, some grades are 5 percent or better.

The median is rather narrow, placing a high speed train in it will bring the slipstream of a train running NASCAR speeds to within 15 feet of your Chevy Volt or empty semitrailer.

kris de decker

@ 74

The article was published December 16, 2013 (find the date just above the comments)

Things have gotten much worse in the meantime (we’re now February 2016). The German and French railways have cancelled all their nighttrains, making my travels between north and south europe all but impossible.

High operating costs are said to be the reason, but the real financial disaster is the high speed rail network, say the Court of Audit in both France and Spain:

Contabilidad financiera y social de la alta velocidad en España (august 2015):

La grande vitesse ferroviaire: un modèle porté au-delâ de sa pertinence (october 2014):

Like the USA, Europe might end up with just two long-distance transport options, of which the external costs are not taken into account: cars and planes. I will be forced to cycle.



if that happens i’ll cycle with you :-). I did’nt even make a driving license and not because I could’nt afford it or only because I was too lazy to do it - the main reason was: I have public transportation, bike, longboard and 2 feet to get everywhere I want (in Eurasia and Africa) without much greenhouse gases at production and use.

Harald Scoln

There are many factors at work here, and some of them applies to ferries as well.

Until last year it was fully possible to go between Copenhagen-London through trains and ferry. 3hrs of train travel Copenhagen-Esbjerg, then a short walk to the ferry terminal around a km away from Esbjerg train station, then waking up in Harwich next day and proceeding to London by train in around 90 mins. As someone who did this route quite often in the 1980’s back then it took even longer time to get to Esbjerg as there were still ferries in Store Baelt.

However, I remember meeting quite a few Swedes who took that route quite often (for them there was also the question of a ferry across Oresund to get to Copenhagen in the first place, which means that their route took at least 7-8hrs compared to my 5 hrs to get to Esbjerg). Nowadays it’s a straight train connection to Esbjerg without any interruptions and with a change in Copenhagen it would be a possibility for most Swedes to reach Esbjerg before the ferry departed.

Nowadays, however, long-distance ferries such as those between England/Scotland and Scandinavia are all memories. There are none left. When Ryanair stepped in and brought low-cost flights to the equation, over-night ferries for other purposes than booze cruises (talking about Sweden/Finland/Estonia ferries here) didn’t seem interesting any longer. Ferries in general have either become luxurious cruises combined with some transports or mostly catering to lorry traffic.

This means that all new ferry terminals are located in a non-descript industrial zone as far away from the rest of the city as possible (look at Malmo-Travemünde as an example - both ferry terminals are located far away from anything resembling a train station, and there are no bus connections to either terminal.) In Sweden there have been new successful ferry lines to Poland from Karlshamn and Karlskrona - But both terminals are located far off from town, not remotely near any public transportation even though both towns were founded as ports and could with some relatively easy modifications serve as ferry terminals which would make it possible to “land” into town directly instead of the hassle of hailing a taxi etc.

The increase in lorries on the local roads (this part of Sweden is a bit of a backwater) has brought forth demands of new road construction, though much of what is shipped in to these ports could be handled by rail if there a). was a satisfying connection to the main rail trunk routes (today there aren’t) b). was equal high pay for Swedish and foreign lorry drivers (many of these lorries are registered in countries like Bulgaria ).

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t build bridges and tunnels in the first place (in fact, loading and unloading trains and motor vehicles on ferries are quite energy consuming in itself). There are however no realistic options of bridging the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Poland or the North Sea Norway-UK. For such traffic there should be ferry terminals easy to reach (something like Knutpunkten in Helsingborg, which combines a main railway station, the main bus terminal and the ferry terminal for the ferries between Elsinore-Helsingborg).

joa Falken

Time spent on the internet to search for relatively cheap train tickts should also be added to travel time.

Time “wasted” in case pre-booked train tickets do not suit any more so well to the travel needs, in particular when other rail links are available (would would need a new, same-day-booking priced ticket) is a further category to consider. In my view, railways just copied price systems from airways without considering that they hae a different passenger structur which also would merit a different Price structure; i.e. it is not only is damaging for travellers, but for the railway Operators as well.


I noted the nostalgic comment above for the North Sea ferries Harwich-Esbjerg, etc. I used to use them too 30 years ago, long before low-cost airlines.

However, as far as I can see, flying to Denmark from England would now use less fuel than the boat. It slightly depends how you allocate fuel use to passengers, cars and other freight, but I assume that you allocate all the passenger areas of the boat to passenger transport, the rest of the boat to the freight and you split the fuel accordingly.

Maybe it’s possible to travel to Scandinavia by train using the HS1 line London-Paris and -Brussels and a further train or two from there to Copenhagen. However, I’m sure from experience that the train would cost more than low-cost airlines.


The real reason why low cost airlines are able to offer the price less than trains despite their greater energy use is because they don’t need to maintain their own infrastructure and those infrastructures that they have to paid for like airport usage are also minimal. If we want to have a energy-conscious world, then we would have to increase the cost of fuel a lot to balance that. In Japan, JR Central is now building a new maglev train system which is faster than their current high speed rail but it would use many times more electricity. The reason they are buildiing it is not just they want to cut the travel time, but also it would be cheaper to maintain maglev tracks, and thus the overall cost of the new system would still be lower.

While high speed train usually cost more than regular train to maintain their trains and tracks, when marketed probably they have a larger ability to take passengers from the hand of airlines and thus in the current time-oriented society it is still favoured againstregular train in competion against airlines.

And in some really long distance travel like over 2000km, the cost of train travel can also easily exceed the cost of flying to the destination, like you can take a train from Moscow to Beijing but that is really expensive compare to flying. That is the current economic structure of the world.


I had an interrail journey last year, and found it dissapointingly awkward.

First of all, starting from Britain which is an island, the only train out of course is the expensive Eurostar which interrail passes are not valid on-at all. To get a fairly cheap price, we also had to book our return ticket on the way back. Which meant our entire trip really revolved around getting the 14:30 from Paris to London two weeks later. In hindsight, I wish I opted for the ferry from Harwich to Hoek van Holland. The old ways of getting a ferry from Dover to Calais is no longer a viable option, because not only does the train from London no longer go straight to Dover Docks anymore, (requiring an awkward taxi or bus journey with heavy bags) but the construction of the High Speed Line from the Channel Tunnel to London means that the normal London to Dover are now incredibly slow and you have to use the more expensive high speed trains. Even at Calais, there is not much of an option for non TGV services.

Once we got to Paris, our plan was to head on an ICE to Frankfurt, which we couldn’t do because there was no more space left on the train for interrail pass holders. Needn’t matter, because I had my seconday plan on getting the Thello services from Gare du Lyon to Venice, only to be told interrail pass holders were only allowed a discount at the fare would still be 60 euros. So in desperation, we hopped on the overnight train to Nice, which was 15 euros at most.

At Nice, we wanted to catch a train to Milan, but again, it being a Thello service we had to still pay 30 euros.

We found for most palces around Europe, you either get the HST which costs much more and we already spent several hundred pounts on the Pass itself, or you can get the normal train but it is incredibly slow. What were once normal express trains are now long distance local trains now the HSL’s have been built. I would like to go interrailing again but it was so awkward last time I’m not sure if I’d bother.


I’m not sure all night trains in France have been cancelled. It seems there is still a night train from Paris down towards Foix (I am looking at tickets at the moment).

However at I know that at some point in the last year or so they did cancel the one from Cerbere to Paris (and vice-versa) - thus eliminating the option of going from Barcelona-Cerbere-Paris and then to wherever else you fancied (London, in my case).

I believe the European Parliament will soon be publishing a report on Europe’s night trains (and whether they have a future), which should be interesting.


comment no. 67 finally addressed my glaring issue with this article. HSR was not meant for journeys that are faster by plane.

And night train? Then I’d rather fly.

Joa Falken

I still doubt the claim that “Two-thirds of passengers on the high speed train between Cologne and Frankfurt are either coming from or going to the airport”.

However, as I understand the source, 2/3 of passengers that use the airport rail station (probably excluding passengers at the S-Bahn local station, where ground employees will often descend) were using an air connection.

Recently, I have entered a train there after a visit in the vicinity, so I apparently fell under the remaining 1/3 of passengers. Nevertheless, many passengers in the trains from Cologne continue for Frankfurt main station, for Mannheim, or beyond, and these are counted separately. If ½ of passengers in the train would depart at Frankfurt airport, a 2/3 proportion thereof would result in 1/3 of all rail passengers changing to the plane.

The correct figure of exits is probably lower than 1/2. Double-counting must be avoided (in case of passengers from the north departing at the airport, other passengers entering southbound, passengers changing trains, whereas other continue their rail travel beyond the airport station in the same train).

I essentially agree with the remaining analysis.


In the USA trains are like you want, watch how much Americans like them and then think about it.

Patrick Harper

I thought I’d test the claim reg. the Barcelona - Paris services, fares for direct trains between €70 and €140 still seem to be available if they are booked more than a month in advance, according to SNCF. Possibly they were higher at the time this article was published to try and cover the construction costs.

  1. Present and historical timetables and itineraries cited in this article come from a variety of sources. For present timetables starting December 2013, I have consulted the online database of the German Railways (the link goes to the Austrian version which I find more user-friendly), as well as the online timetables from RENFE (Spain), SNCF (France), NMBS (Belgium), NS(The Netherlands), SBB (Switzerland) and TrenItalia (Italy). For recent timetables pre-dating December 2013 (rail operators traditionally change timetables and trains routes in December), I have relied on the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable and my own collection of train tickets. Information about train routes was found in a variety of rail maps and atlasses. The historical timetables for the Étoile du Nord and other trains were found in the Dutch Magazine “Het Spoor”.  ↩︎

  2. All prices: winter 2013. See TGV-europe and the national railway operators listed in footnote1. Fares from before December 2013 are based on my own collection of train tickets. The Man in Seat 61 provided missing information. ↩︎

  3. Applying Low Cost Airline Pricing Strategies on European Railroads, Thomas Sauter-Servaes, 2006 ↩︎

  4. The Functioning of Inter-modal Competition in the Transportation Market: Evidence from the Entry of Low-cost Airlines in Germany, Guido Friebel, 2005 ↩︎

  5. In 2012, a joint venture between Belgian and Dutch railways introduced a competing high speed train on the section between Brussels and Amsterdam: the Fyra. Its introduction went together with the abolishment of a slightly slower but much cheaper alternative, the—which is also operated by the Belgian and Dutch railways. If everything would have gone according to plan, the route between Amsterdam and Brussels would now be a copy of the route between Paris and Brussels. Travellers would be forced to use the more expensive fast train, or take a combination of regional trains that would be ridiculously slow. However, the Fyra trains were plagued by technical problems and had to be retired after two months. An alternative route has been established — slower than the Benelux train, but faster than the combination of regional trains. It is still unclear how things will evolve in the future. For the calculations of travel times in this article, I assume that the Benelux train is still running. ↩︎

  6. Prices:Vueling, December 2013. ↩︎

  7. Can’t afford London’s sky-high rent? Try commuting from Barcelona, The Atlantic Cities, November 2013. ↩︎

  8. Challenges of Growth 2013(PDF), Eurocontrol, 2013 ↩︎