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Why not take the train? Experts on what’s needed to get more Europeans to ditch flights

Why not take the train? Experts on what’s needed to get more Europeans to ditch flights

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Skyscanner for trains and shorter journey times are just two of the improvements that are needed.

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Anna Pagani is no stranger to long journeys. She has spent thousands of euros and countless hours criss-crossing Europe’s train tracks since pledging not to take flights a couple of years ago.

A decision that has been “harder than it should be”. 

“Planning train rides takes time, patience, and money,” she tells Euronews Travel.                                       

She lives in London but frequently travels back to her native Italy and to Austria to see her partner’s family.

On top of that her job as a researcher requires her to go to conferences scattered across the continent.

“Overall, it’s a lot of learning by doing,” she confides. “Sometimes my plane to Turin would cost €9 and I’d pay more than €250 for my train.”

Why are flights cheaper than trains?

It’s an experience that many can relate to when looking into whether to take a train or a plane.

A Greenpeace report published last year found that train tickets are on average twice as expensive as flights. The analysis looked at 112 routes in Europe and discovered that for some routes like London-Barcelona the train cost a whopping 30 times more.

“Price is key,” concedes Dr Alberto Mazzola when asked how train passenger numbers can be boosted. He is the executive director of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER), an advocacy group representing European train companies.

Mazzola believes trains are treated differently than the road and aviation sectors. He says they get preferential tax arrangements, pointing to examples like airlines not having to pay taxes on kerosene and tickets for international flights being exempt from VAT.

To address these disparities, CER wants the EU to create rules that ensure fair competition between trains, planes, and other types of transportation. 

Mazzola also wants to see trip durations tackled. “If it takes 18 hours very few will take the train,” he says. He is pushing the EU to provide more funding for infrastructure to create high-speed rail links between major European cities.

How popular are trains in Europe?

Despite these challenges, trains are undergoing something of a renaissance in Europe. Passenger numbers increased by 10 per cent in the decade leading up to the pandemic, night trains are making a comeback and travellers are yearning for more sustainable travel options. 

However, a report by the European Commission found that the total number of long-distance passenger cross-border services in the EU remained the same from 2001 to 2019, and overall they make up only about 7 per cent of train journeys in Europe.

To help boost these numbers, Victor Thévenet, rail policy manager at sustainable mobility NGO Transport and Environment, insists that planning a train journey needs to be much simpler.

“People need to be able to combine different rail operators and for this, you need to have your different tickets in one single ticket,” he tells Euronews Travel. 

Buying train tickets in Europe can be complicated

There is currently no skyscanner equivalent for trains. This makes booking and managing international train journeys difficult and often more expensive.

The EU has a plan to remedy the situation in the form of the Multimodal Digital Mobility Services legislation. It was delayed last year but it is hoped it will be given another chance in early 2025.

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It would create a platform where you could buy one ticket for an entire cross-border journey instead of having to go through multiple national operators separately and give passengers stronger rights if they were to miss a connecting train.

But at the moment the signals from some companies don’t give confidence to rail enthusiasts. Since 23 May French train company SNCF has suspended the sale of some international tickets on its website, such as Paris to Berlin. It says this is due to ‘an ongoing change to the reservation system.’ In a statement to Euronews Travel the company said: “Improvements will be made from autumn 2024 before a new system is rolled out in 2025.”

The EU can help improve cross-border travel

With Europe’s railways at a pivotal moment, next week’s European elections could make or break the future of cross-border rail. 

During the last mandate the EU made some strides in improving the situation through funding climate tickets and infrastructure projects and promoting high-speed rail links. But rail advocates say there is much more to be done and MEPs can play a key role by lobbying the commission and amending legislation.

There is also concern from train advocacy groups that funding will be difficult to come by depending on the makeup of the next parliament and commission because of the backlash to the European Green Deal and the rise of the far right.

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“European citizens that really care about improving rail should definitely vote for the parties that are the most ambitious when it comes to setting a progressive and ambitious green agenda,” Thévenet believes.

Despite the current problems with train travel, enthusiasts like Anna Pagani maintain their love for rail. 

“It’s the feeling of joy when I reach a destination, crossing landscapes and languages, avoiding the car, enjoying the ride,” she says.

“I do take planes when the length of the journey or other obstacles prevent me from taking a train. But I would love to live in a world where those barriers didn’t exist.”



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