European Rail Disunion


The OBB EuroNight sleeper that connects Zurich to Zagreb, shown here at Zagreb’s main station. OBB is the Austrian national train company, and it has revived many night trains across Europe, using Vienna as its hub.

No doubt because I think of myself as an eternal college junior—footloose in Europe with an Interrail pass and some paperback books about the fall of the Hapsburg monarchy—my preferred way to move around the continent (I live in Switzerland) is on trains. Often, to complete my eccentric profile, I drag along a folding bicycle.

In the last year, I have taken trains, and some ferries, from Geneva to Greece, and another series of trains from the Swiss border to Copenhagen and Stockholm, with a stop on the imperial North Sea island of Heligoland and a bike ride across the front lines of the 1864 Prussian-Danish War, another problem for the Hapsburg monarchy.

Yes, the journeys take days, not two hours, as on EasyJet or Ryanair, but in my mind nothing is worse for the climate, or my pursuit of happiness, than queuing up for a discount airline so that they can extort money from me in creative ways. (I recently was shaken down for €45 by one discount carrier, Wizz, when I neglected to check in online prior to arriving at the airport.)

To me, it’s emotionally “faster” to ride trains twenty hours than to fly for two hours, which becomes six or seven when you add in the aggro that comes with the national security surveillance police state at every airport checkpoint (the German word could be Flughafensicherheitspolizeistaat).


In theory, with European union, nothing should be easier than to breeze across the continent on any number of high-speed trains. After all, back in the 1970s there were Trans-European Express trains connecting Amsterdam to Rome or Barcelona to Berlin.

Sadly, in 2023, invisible iron curtains have reduced international European train travel to service that often stops short at national borders. And if you want to understand the unhealthy state of the European Union, look no further than its international trains, which operate well in Western Europe and run to ground in the East.

Here’s a brief summary of some international routes that should work well but do not:

Madrid to Lisbon. There are plans to renovate the line between these two Iberian capitals, and trains on both sides of the border do creep toward each other, but for the moment you’re better off on a bus than trying to navigate the rails. (My son Charles did it, however, in about fourteen hours.)

London to Paris. Yes, the Eurostar is efficient, and connects the two cities in about two hours and thirty minutes, but Eurostar has an airline mentality and wants all passengers in the station about ninety minutes before departure, so that luggage can be scanned and frisked travelers can hang around in a departure lounge worthy of Luton Airport. I like Eurostar, but confess its seats remind me of Greyhound. Still, it’s probably more of a success story than others on this list.

Belgrade to Thessaloniki and Athens. The line has not been operating for several years. It ends at the Serbian-North Macedonian border. There are some local trains in North Macedonia and Greece that come near the borders but when I traveled last year from Thessaloniki to Belgrade, I had to ride a local train to Doiran, walk across the Greek-North Macedonian border, and hitchhike with the help of the border guards in a truck to Kumanovo.

Belgrade to Bucharest. No direct service. You have to leave Belgrade on a bus to Vršac, take a taxi to Stamora Moravita, and switch to a train to Timișoara, Romania, which is where you catch a ten-hour intercity train to Bucharest—all for a journey less than 400 miles.

Belgrade to Sofia. The distance between the two Balkan capitals is 225 miles, about the same as between New York and Boston, but no trains connect them. Before, there was a summer sleeper that cost $10, although the grafitti-ed car that made the run looked like something commuting to the Underworld. Now even that is gone.

Zagreb to Sarajevo. There were two trains a day; there are now none. Gone too is the one train that connected Banja Luka (principal city in the Republika Srpska) and Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Hercegovina.

Albania. The country has a few rusting train sets with broken windows, and occasionally an old engine will drag them from Durres to Elbasan (bypassing Tirana), but don’t get your hopes up about taking a sleeper to Athens, Pristina, or Podgorica.

Geneva to London. About twenty flights a day depart Geneva for London and Great Britain, carrying about 3,000 passengers daily, but there is no train that links these two important cities that could be six rail hours apart. You can, if so inclined and eager to spend $600 on a one-way ticket, take the TGV (Train à grande vitesse) from Geneva to Gare de Lyon, transit across Paris to Gare du Nord, and take Eurostar to St. Pancras in London. It’s do-able, in about eight to nine hours.

Warsaw to Riga. Plans are underway to connect Poland to the Baltic States with high-speed rail, which would be a major step forward in European integration, but at the moment there is only one train a day between Vilnius and Warsaw (it takes eight hours, when it should take four), and the rest of the Baltic States are a sad patchwork of buses, local trains, and cold stations.

Bucharest to Istanbul. Another logical European route between regional trading partners, but the rail connection involves about four changes on the border and at various Bulgarian junctions.

Trieste to Zagreb. The paucity of this service is a head scratcher as both cities are now important stops on European tourist trails, but if you want to take the train between the cities that are 136 miles apart, plan on a day of slow trains and a three-hour stop in Ljubljana (not a hardship but not exactly useful if traveling on business). Some schedules route you through Vienna.

Bitola to Florina. I know, you haven’t heard of either city but the European Union invested €18 million to upgrade the 30-mile rail link between North Macedonia (Bitola) and Florina (Greece), so that there would be a second connection between the European rail network and Greece (the other one is at Gevgelija, in North Macedonia, where it took so long to check passports on international trains that a station restaurant set up tables on the platforms and served dinner to those traveling from Skopje to Thessaloniki.) Now that service, and presumably the station restaurant, is suspended, as are trains between Bitola and Florina.

The problem is that the North Macedonians hate the Greeks, and the Greeks hate the North Macedonians, and neither country wanted to restore the train service when the European Union line was refurbished. When I went to the Bitola train station and inquired about a train to Greece, the stationmaster asked me blankly: “Why would anyone want to go there?”


What works well in European rail transport are internal, national connections, and many countries, especially in Western Europe, have networks that the United States can only dream about.

In Switzerland, a bus or a train goes to every commune in the country, even those high up in the Alps. And they don’t go just once a day or three times a week (an Amtrak feature), but often hourly.

Take Rossinière, in the Pays d’en Haut, which has a population of about 550. It’s a stop on the Montreux–Oberland Bernois, a small semi-private railway, which beginning at 5 a.m. and ending after midnight is served by some 26 trains a day at a small wooden station. From Rossinière, it’s an easy trip to Montreux or Bern—and the world.

German trains don’t have quite the quirky reach of those in Switzerland, but high-speed ICE express trains go all over the country at hourly intervals, making the run from Berlin to Frankfurt in less than five hours. Last summer, to encourage green tourism, Germany offered everyone a € 9 monthly pass, good on regional trains. Some 52 million tickets were sold under the scheme, which filled up trains even at odd hours.

French trains—leaving aside the cramped design of the rail cars, which is appalling—work well, especially if you want to go to Paris on a TGV. If you don’t, you’re relegated to what is called TER (it stands for Transport Express Régional), an excellent network of local trains that operate modern cars that are happy to accommodate cyclists (of interest to me).

Unlike Switzerland and Germany, which have done away with seat reservations (adults manage to find empty seats), the French train bureaucracy thrives on selling reservations and making it impossible to buy them.

For me to get a French reservation to go with an Interrail pass, I have to bike to a railroad station in nearby France, line up, and haggle with a ticket agent about my plans. In all it takes about two hours. (No wonder most people fly.)

Elsewhere in Europe, Hungarian trains often have diners; I like Polish trains, which have a sleek German feel; Serbian trains are fine, locally, but stop at the borders; Romania has great sleepers at low prices; Dutch trains are often crowded and dirty; and Italian trains can be sublime and ridiculous, but I can recommend the Rome to Turin sleeper.


What’s lacking in European trains is any sense of what might be called European-ness. For the most part French trains serve the French and stop at the border, which is the case in Poland, Italy, Greece, etc.

Many nations sell loyalty and discount cards to reduce the high cost of rail fares for their citizens, but there is nothing except Interrail (Eurail for Americans) that allows for cross-border European discounts.

Nor is there one go-to website that makes it easy to purchase international rail tickets across the continent. (Something called Save a Train is trying, as do Deutsche Bahn, Rail Europe and Trainline Europe, but in the end I usually book on national rail sites or bike to a station with my Interrail pass.)

And here’s something that says a lot about the Balkanized nature of European rails: the French national railways, SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français) owns 55 percent of Eurostar, the London to Paris and Amsterdam high-speed line, yet it is impossible at an SNCF station in France to reserve a seat on a Eurostar train.

Nor are Interrail and Eurail as liberating as they were during your college year abroad, when with one card in hand all you had to do was jump on a moving train and wave the validity date at the conductor.

Now both passes are hostages of national reservation systems in many countries (including Poland and Denmark, hence bad news for Hamlet on his hols), and I am forever trying to figure out whether I need a reservation to go, say, from London to Liverpool (answer, not obligatory but it helps if you want a seat).


Even I am not completely sure why I persist with European trains. I grew up riding trains, in a railroad family, and I understand myself well enough to know that I don’t like cars or planes. Because I like to see places, I take trains. But it’s not always easy.

Last week, for example, with a few days left on a rail pass, I headed to meetings in Paris and London, even though there were French labor strikes looming.

Online I managed to book a TGV to Paris, but the ride required an hour-long wait at an intermediate station. When I decided to use my station down time to book my Eurostar reservation, I found out that the SNCF doesn’t sell them. For that I had to access the website, although the station wifi was down.

I did love arriving in London with my bicycle at the newly rebuilt St. Pancras International station, which is everything I want in rail terminal. It has a soaring train shed of cathedral proportions, a first-class hotel bar, many restaurants and food courts, and ample bookstores. But to get back to Geneva, I ran into the French strikes, which had cancelled most Eurostars.

I thought through my options but ruled out flying, and instead took a Southeastern train to Dover Priory (where the castle is), and a Channel ferry to Dunkerque.

My plan in Dunkerque was to ride my bicycle into Belgium and come home through Brussels and Germany. Alas, my DFDS ferry left almost two hours late because of strikes and bad weather, and for part of that delay I had to stand around with my bicycle in the rain—in a great queue of lorries, as the Brits would say.

The ferry doesn’t actually land in Dunkerque (who knew?) but ten miles to the west. Mercifully I had my bicycle and could ride (in more rain) to a motel and continue the next morning into Dunkerque, where a TER masquerading as a TGV took me to Lille and dumped me on the platform.

My plan to take a train to Amiens washed away when many local trains in northern France were cancelled. The last train to Shanghai turned out to be a TGV to Paris Nord. I took it, and then biked to Gare de l’Est, hoping I might find a train to the Swiss border. There were none, so I took a TGV to Meuse, south of Verdun, and spent a non-train afternoon biking to Les Éparges, where the French writer Alain Fournier was killed in September, 1914, in the early days of World War I. In Le Grand Meaulnes he wrote of vanished youth the way I think of vanished trains. (“I thought too that our youth was over and we had failed to find happiness.”)

Five hours later, buoyed from the bike ride through historic forests with trenches and over once-fortified hills, I rolled into Conflans – Jarny, a small station that announced several trains on its departures board. I waited and waited, and then a train worker showed up on a deserted platform and told me that the train was cancelled, but a bus would take me to Metz. I ran (pushing my bike) to the bus stop, and made the last connection of the day only because the bus was ten minutes late; otherwise, I think I would still be in Jarny.

In Metz, I rode a train to Nancy, which is a delightful Art Nouveau city and the capital of Lorraine, but there, after sleeping in a hotel (I had a brandy at midnight), I discovered all trains to Strasbourg and Switzerland were cancelled.

By this point I had the Great Escape thought of riding my bike from Strasbourg into Germany, but it wasn’t going to happen, unless, like Steve McQueen, I could levitate my bicycle over the (symbolic) barbed wire.

In the end, by frantically buying even more reservations from an electronic kiosk, I got one train to Paris and another to the Swiss frontier, which took all day. From the border station, where local trains were on strike, I rode my bicycle two hours home in the rain, crossing over a considerable hill—not sure if I was having fun or not. But now that I think about it, I have to say I was.

Post Script

A Field Guide to European Trains

Here are a few trips if this summer you are giving some thoughts to European train travels. The best website for planning is Mark Smith’s The Man in Seat 61. He maps out trains and boats from London to just about every country on the globe, but certainly all the countries in Europe, with important links on how to buy tickets and comments from rail travelers who have done the heavy lifting to figure out, for example, how to go from Thessaloniki to Edirne (you walk across the border). John Potter and his staff of devoted enthusiasts saved The European Rail Timetable when Thomas Cook folded it, and it and their Rail Map Europe can be purchased online or at Stanford’s in Covent Garden, London.

For night train bookings, have a look at OBB NightJet’s growing bedtime service across the continent, and know that it’s now possible to ride sleepers from Amsterdam to Zurich, Zurich to Budapest, and Budapest to Bucharest, close to the route of the Orient Express. Many countries, such as Switzerland, will sell to foreigners any of its discount cards, and after a one-time purchase fee, travel is half-fare. Germany is releasing a € 49 pass in May 2023, which is the deal of the century, assuming you like traveling in Germany.

Eurail and Interrail have a workable site for purchasing what is called a “paper-less” pass, which is an app on your phone. It works; I use it all the time. Plus the site is getting better at selling required reservations, which will spare you bike rides to a nearby station. Fares in Eastern Europe and Turkey are comparatively cheap compared to Western Europe, and a pass there doesn’t really save you any money. The best trains in the East are in Romania and Poland, and Turkey has some of the best night trains in Europe (to places like Kars and Van). By the way, the sleeper from Warsaw to Kyiv is still running; Polrail will sell you a berth in a four-person compartment for $70. War insurance is extra.

A lot of people despair over British rail, remembering the national company of the same name in the 1970s, but I think English trains are a delight, and work especially well with a folding bicycle. (Britain embraces eccentricity.) Keep in mind too that many European trains end at ferry terminals, and to book passage on overnight boats, consult Aferry. In the last year or so, I have taken night boats from Venice to Patras, Amsterdam to Newcastle, Dieppe to Newhaven, Nynäshamn (Stockholm) to Gdansk, and Portsmouth to Cherbourg, and all were great. It pays to stump up for a compartment with a window; you will sleep better than my friend who, heading from Venice to Patras, curled up in a sleeping bag on a life-vest box. —M.M.S.


Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.