OPINION – Why promote travelling by train if it often fails?

Travelling by train is one of the easiest options to transport yourself climate-friendly. The influence to try this kind of transportation is good, but when you try it out yourself you’ll think twice before doing it again. So, dear European Union, how do you want us to travel sustainably when the international rail services fail?

Train travelling is according to national geographic in a revival with more and more night jets connecting big cities in Europe. Condé Nast also predicts that travelling by train will stay populair in 2024, but with a little extra luxe. As a train journey is also seen as slow travelling and connecting with local communities, it seems like a pleasant way to travel sustainably. It’s not only a trend among travel influencers, but also the numbers are proving it. According to the numbers from Eurostat, the number of international travellers in 2022 was 21.112 in the whole European Union, while this was only 19.709 travellers five years ago.

This summer I got to try it myself, and like the NRC says it nicely, ‘travelling by train is the best advertisement to book a flight’. My trip didn’t have a good connection (yet), so my night consisted of four stressful train switches and no sleep.

Many loose ends in the European train system

The biggest problem for me is the range they offer. Most big European cities are not connected which causes a lot of train switches, not the ideal way to start your relaxing vacation. If there is a direct train, the price is often much higher because they are privately owned. When you are looking for a vacation, it’s tempting to book a cheap and faster plane instead of a stressful and long train ride.

If you do choose for the environment and not your wallet, you can only hope you get to your destination on time. If a train gets delayed at the start of your journey, it’s most likely that you’ll miss your switch. Or sometimes the train you’re expecting doesn’t show up. There you stand, all packed and ready in a station that’s not your destination. Not exactly the slow travel experience you were going for.

Instead of sleeping peacefully on a bed in a nice cabin, you spend the night in normal chairs with continuous passage.

When you make it good and well on the train, it is an art form to find your seat. My first international train this summer was packed, I could barely make it to my reserved seat. There I found some American boys who saw no need to pay extra for a seat and took mine. In airplanes, you get to pick your seat, why can’t we apply the same system for trains? This way everyone knows where he needs to be and the aisle stays passable instead of crammed with people.

Things went even worse on the next train. My railway carriage didn’t even exist. Among all the other Dutch travellers, who booked as well with NS international, we searched the whole train for our seats. Since I didn’t saw another option, I just picked a chair in not busy carriage. How the tables have turned with the train where I kicked the Americans out of my chair.

Your vacation should start on departure, not on arrival

Before my trip, I saw many videos of travel influencers taking the train. It all looked very aesthetic and even relaxed, the ideal way to travel. But for an average low-budget student who wants to make a trip sustainably, this isn’t the case. Looking back on it, it caused the biggest stress during my vacation. What if I get a delay? Or what if I got kicked off in a random town in Germany? Or what if I was sleeping when I had to get off my train? Those things you don’t see on those videos on social media but it is the harsh reality. Instead of sleeping peacefully on a bed in a nice cabin, you spend the night in normal chairs with continuous passage.

To get me on an international train again, some things must change. For instance, the train tickets must become cheaper. Nowadays, most flights to European cities are at the same price but way faster and without dragging suitcases. I think we should also invest in a proper train network. All big cities need to be connected without many switches. How else can we convince people that the train is a decent way to travel? If I also can add: possible transfer times, a regular timetable and consisting & quiet places to spend the night, without paying all your student wage, the international train system will improve a lot. This way, we can take traveling by train to a higher level, a level where I would like to give it another chance.

Is flexible scheduling the key to success?

Eveline Haugaard, from the Instagram account the rail voyage, travels almost every month by train since she was little. She loves it, especially the flexibility that it gives her. ‘For me, it’s a hassle to go through the security check on an airport and there is always so little space on an aircraft. While on the train you have the opportunity to move around and not have to plan. That’s why I started this summer with my Instagram account, to show other people my passion for travalling by train and give them some tips, since it can be difficult.’ Haugaard also likes to travel by train because of the climate. ‘Trains are very sustainable compared to an airplane, and it’s also such a nice way to travel.’

While most travel influencers show the perfect side of their trips, Haugaard noticed a trend on Instagram to break through this stereotype. ‘The Instagram vs. Reality trend gives the real story of travelling. Some big influencers only show the perfect side, like quiet photos in places that normally are very busy. But the focus nowadays is more on being transparent. Of course you still see the good side, but you also see the bad sides and even get some tips to avoid it yourself. I think that’s a good combination.’

But it’s not always sunshine and rainbows during Haugaard her trips. ‘This summer I was on my way to Italy, and all of a sudden the train stopped in Copenhagen. There was little information and a lot of chaos in the station, but after a four-hour delay, I managed to continue my trip.’ As Haugaard travels quite often, she would estimate that about eight out of ten trains are exactly on time. To not miss her connection, Haugaard plans between her switches a couple of hours. That way she can explore the city where she has to switch or she’s a little more flexible when there is a delay.

‘I noticed that there are more night trains on the market, but I think it would be nice if they make travelling by train an even bigger priority. But I’ve worked for a railway company, so I know that it can take five until even ten years to get wagons on the market.’ Travelling by train on a budget is also possible with a little knowledge according to Haugaard. ‘At the airport, you make a lot of additional costs you often forget about, such as food and transportation. With the interrail pass you can easily travel for a couple of days in the month or even plan two vacations. The regional trains are a little slower, but you don’t have to pay for seat reservations. If you know the tricks and the cheap countries to travel to by train, it can make a nice journey to get to your destination.’

Text: Lotte van den Hout
Photo: Alan Alves via Unsplash