The avant garde German band Kraftwerk understood perfectly the special pleasures of cross-border train travel. The spare lyrics to their 1977 classic Trans-Europe Express celebrated the frissons that come with being stylishly on the move: “Rendezvous on Champs-Élysées / Leave Paris in the morning with T-E-E / In Vienna we sit in a late-night cafe / Straight connection T-E-E.”
Cool, sleek and, in its day, ineffably modern, the Trans Europe Express stopped running in 1995. Scores of other international rail links have gone the same way, priced out of the market by low-cost air travel. There is no longer, for example, a direct train route between Paris and Berlin. To travel the 600km between Madrid and Lisbon requires three changes and can take 11 hours. In Britain, the possibilities provided by the Channel tunnel have been underexplored for the same reason: rock-bottom short-haul air fares have turned continental rail travel into an eccentric and expensive pleasure for romantics with deep pockets.
However, a route back to the glory days may have opened up. The European commission has declared 2021 the European Year of Rail, hoping trains can help the EU achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. A revival of the Trans Europe Express – which in its heyday connected 130 European cities – is being mooted as part of a wider aspiration to raise the number of Europeans making journeys by train from the current low level of 8%.
The environmental argument for getting more people off the roads, out of planes and into trains is unanswerable. Before the pandemic destroyed demand, more than 3,000 people flew every day between Paris and Berlin. Each flight produces six times the carbon emissions of an equivalent train journey. According to a recent study, 17 of the 20 most frequently used air routes in Europe cover distances of less than 700km. Such travel habits are unsustainable. Happily, this seems to be becoming a mainstream view; a recent survey found that almost three-quarters of travellers planned to use trains more for short-haul travel in the future.
But if good intentions are to turn into real outcomes, the EU and national governments must provide meaningful subsidies and incentives to encourage a more joined-up and affordable pan-European rail network. Many more direct routes are required, along with a simplified system that makes buying a train ticket from London to Barcelona as straightforward as travelling by Ryanair. If prohibitive disparities in price can be overcome, the public appetite appears to be there. The success of a new generation of continental night trains has already established a promising precedent. In Britain, with the right level of ambition and imagination, night trains to European destinations could become a genuine alternative to flying.
The Trans Europe Express, launched in 1957, was an elite mode of transport, offering a first-class-only service. Its 21st-century equivalents, if they are to help shape a greener future, will need to be more accessible and a little less chic. But the contemplative pleasures of cruising through towns and landscapes never seen before, while sipping a glass of wine, or drinking a beer, should not be the preserve of the well-heeled. Europe’s Year of Rail is a move in the right direction. The task now is to shape the market to get people on board.