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The “Is Europe back on track?” Train Edition 🚂

The “Is Europe back on track?” Train Edition 🚂
By Weekly Focus by n-ost • Issue #12 • View online
Hi and welcome to the 12th issue of the Weekly Focus!
This is our last edition before summer break – and we hope you find some inspiration in today’s newsletter for your travels. Thanks for reading, and see you in the fall!

Unless you’re invested in scouring the internet for ticket discounts on foreign-language railway websites and change trains every few hours on your way to another country, traveling across the continent by locomotive most likely isn’t as convenient, affordable and fast as your flygskam (=flight shame) would like it to be. 
It wasn’t always like that. The original Trans-Europe Express (TEE) rail network connected France, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and West Germany, before it ceased to operate at the end of the last century. Night trains also made up an integral part of Eastern European travel culture, sometimes with samovar and all. But with the emergence of high-speed national train routes and cheap budget airlines, European long-distance day and night trains were brushed to the side.
Even before Covid-19, the climate discourse brought trains back on the agenda. Now, demand for cross-border and especially night trains is on the rise again. The European Commission even declared 2021 as the “European Year of Rail” and EU transport ministers have pledged to revive the TEE as “Trans Europe Express 2.0.”
But is Europe really back on track? And what are the actual differences in CO2 emissions between planes and rail when it comes to European routes? And shouldn’t we also think of trains (and train stations) as a social and cultural meeting point within a broader sense of European integration?
Lucy Martirosyan, this week’s Editorial Coordinator
Lorenzo Ferrari (Trento), Jarosław Kopeć (Warsaw), Leonid Ragozin (Riga), Christian-Zsolt Varga (Berlin), Aina de Lapparent Alvarez (Paris).
Lorenzo Ferrari (Trento), Jarosław Kopeć (Warsaw), Leonid Ragozin (Riga), Christian-Zsolt Varga (Berlin), Aina de Lapparent Alvarez (Paris).
🇮🇹 Trains are not only good for the environment
Train in the forest. Photo: Glenn Carstens Peter, commons.wikimedia.org, CC BY 3.0.
Train in the forest. Photo: Glenn Carstens Peter, commons.wikimedia.org, CC BY 3.0.
The new wave of climate policies in Europe is finally about to vindicate train lovers like me. Over the past 20 years, the boom in low-cost flights sadly implied a decline in long-distance train connections, including night trains.
The tide is now turning for environmental reasons – but it shouldn’t be just about the climate, we should also notice the social and political relevance of having dense and quality passenger train connections in Europe.
Planes directly connect ends to ends – typically large cities – by literally jumping over all that is between them. On the contrary, trains make their way through a variety of territories, stopping through a good deal of small-to-medium centres, and serving communities that keep rural, mountain, and border areas alive.
We could argue that the number of train links available to a certain region is a good indicator of its degree of integration in the continent’s fabric. Train connections are important in order not to leave disadvantaged or peripheral cities and countries behind, a key challenge for today’s Europe.
There are countries in Europe that have little or no direct train connection to abroad – and even when they do, it’s typically a slow and expensive one. Just ask people in southeast Europe: for most of them, train travel simply isn’t an option. In some cases, even capital cities in the region like Athens, Tirana, or Sarajevo lack direct international train links.
Given the social and political relevance of passenger train connections in Europe, public money should support their coverage of peripheral countries and regions. Companies and governments should do their part, but it’s crucial that the EU seriously invests in this field: dense and quality connections cannot only cover core Europe and a bunch of large cities, but they must be within reach of all European citizens no matter where they live.
Lorenzo Ferrari is a data journalist at OBC Transeuropa and coordinates the European Data Journalism Network europeandatajournalism.eu. He’s as happy as a kid when he’s on a train – if he ever wins the lottery, he’ll buy lifetime access to all trains in Europe.
Lorenzo Ferrari is a data journalist at OBC Transeuropa and coordinates the European Data Journalism Network europeandatajournalism.eu. He’s as happy as a kid when he’s on a train – if he ever wins the lottery, he’ll buy lifetime access to all trains in Europe.
🇵🇱 The cost of flying
GIF: Karolina Uskakovych.
GIF: Karolina Uskakovych.
The European Commission laid out a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030. And we may have to rethink how we travel.  
The idea behind “Fit for 55” is quite simple. By environmental standards, it’s not free to generate carbon emissions – but when we translate it into dollar signs, that’s when green investments become more profitable.
One of the areas most likely to get hit hardest by the higher tariffs will be planes. Luckily, international rail is becoming more and more available and might provide a convenient alternative. Especially sleeper trains, where you can get on a train in the evening and arrive at your destination by noon the next day.
Going somewhere abroad by train may generate over 90% fewer carbon emissions than flying. The longer time it takes to get from point A to point B by train is then mitigated by the fact that you travel at night. You can lay to sleep comfortably in a berth and wake up for a fresh espresso, let’s say, in Rome.
To help you imagine what it might look like, I assembled some data. I calculated emissions generated by planes and trains between some European capitals. I also checked how much such travels might cost in terms of money. Expect the plane prices to go up and the trains to get less expensive in the near future.
As you can see, the difference in emissions is just plain huge. If you have time, pick a train.
Notes on data: To calculate the emissions, I had to take some shortcuts. I multiplied the distance between the cities by the per kilometer-passenger emissions. It differs a bit from what reality looks like, as trains don't just travel in straight lines. I took the average values of 6 grams of CO2 per passenger-kilometer for a train and 195 grams per passenger-kilometer for a plane. These are average values calculated by the British Government. The value for trains is based on the reporting by Eurostar, a company running international trains in the EU with a heavy focus on carbon neutrality. Currently, many trains emit more, but let's hope this is what it is going to look like soon! Plus: I chose routes where I found an existing train connection. In the future, there might be more to choose from.
Notes on data: To calculate the emissions, I had to take some shortcuts. I multiplied the distance between the cities by the per kilometer-passenger emissions. It differs a bit from what reality looks like, as trains don't just travel in straight lines. I took the average values of 6 grams of CO2 per passenger-kilometer for a train and 195 grams per passenger-kilometer for a plane. These are average values calculated by the British Government. The value for trains is based on the reporting by Eurostar, a company running international trains in the EU with a heavy focus on carbon neutrality. Currently, many trains emit more, but let's hope this is what it is going to look like soon! Plus: I chose routes where I found an existing train connection. In the future, there might be more to choose from.
Jarosław Kopeć is a data journalist at "Gazeta Wyborcza", the largest Polish daily newspaper. He is psyched about finally taking a sleeper train from Warsaw to Paris or Rome.
Jarosław Kopeć is a data journalist at "Gazeta Wyborcza", the largest Polish daily newspaper. He is psyched about finally taking a sleeper train from Warsaw to Paris or Rome.
🇱🇻 Talking to Strangers in a Sleeping Car
Our author – Depeche Mode style – at Trakai Island castle in Lithuania in September 1991. Photo: private.
Our author – Depeche Mode style – at Trakai Island castle in Lithuania in September 1991. Photo: private.
It will be 30 years this August when a democratic revolution in Moscow put the final nail in the coffin of communism. My friends and I took part in those events. A week later we embarked on a trip to the now properly independent Baltic countries whose struggle inspired the pro-democracy movement in Russia.
Railway tickets were ridiculously cheap, which is why we spent four nights in a row sleeping on trains while exploring the three Baltic capitals by day.
Travelling in sleeping cars was a larger than life part of Soviet culture as reflected in numerous films, songs, and books. A random person in your compartment could become a friend for life, or at a minimum provide for a pleasant evening with shared food and drinks as well as one of those life-changing, deeply philosophical conversations that only happen with random people on overnight trains.
Thinking back on my travels, I’ve probably spent a year of my life sleeping on trains — from my Soviet childhood to the trips I took as a journalist and a Lonely Planet travel guide author. My latest was the 20-hour ride from Taishet to Severobaykalsk along the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM)  — in a drab old Soviet train trundling along a succession of lavishly decorated stations in abandoned ghost towns and crossing the mighty Lena river at misty dawn.
Those old trains are a rare species now. Russian Railways (RZD)  now runs a fleet of slick night trains with air conditioning instead of openable windows, vacuum toilets instead of a hole in the floor, and electric boilers instead of samovars. On the main routes in European Russia, people are now more likely to choose modern Western-styled daytime trains rather than travel by night.
In the Baltics, economic rationale killed off train services between the three capitals after independence, but these are slated for a triumphant comeback when the highspeed Rail Baltica line becomes operational in 2026. 
But will those deep conversations and impromptu parties in those moving dormitories resurrect in some shape or form as well?
Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Riga covering Eastern Europe. He’s also an author at Lonely Planet, a travel guide book publisher.
Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Riga covering Eastern Europe. He’s also an author at Lonely Planet, a travel guide book publisher.
🇪🇺 1 question to... Jon Worth
Jon Worth is a Berlin based political blogger and the founder of trainsforeurope.eu. He also teaches EU politics at the College of Europe in Bruges. Photo: private.
Jon Worth is a Berlin based political blogger and the founder of trainsforeurope.eu. He also teaches EU politics at the College of Europe in Bruges. Photo: private.
Mr. Worth, what obstacles are in the way of an affordable and fast all-European day and night train network – and what should be done to overcome them? 
The general problem in Europe-wide rail is that each of the countries’ railway companies still thinks predominantly nationally. The big exception is Austria’s ÖBB. It’s doing the most interesting work in daytime as well as overnight rail in Europe at the moment. 
But for the rest,  most of their cross-border services are often considerably less regular and of a less good quality than their national services. How can it be, for example, that a Frankfurt-Berlin train service is much better than a Frankfurt-Paris service, despite the fact that they both take about just over 4 hours? We can see that individual states and their national railway companies are not going to fix this by themselves. It’s basically a European problem, so we need the EU to take action to solve it.
With regard to night trains, there is a more specific problem. There are simply not enough carriages available to run new services! In the 1990s and early 2000s, a lot of international night train routes in Europe were cut, because they were not economic at that time. Many of the old trains were scrapped. But today, mostly due to the climate crisis, people want to take long distance train trips again because it is the environmentally friendly option and helps them avoid flying. 
So you have this crazy situation that anyone who would like to open a new night train route is running around Europe trying to lease the few sleeping car carriages there are left. That’s what the trainsforeurope.eu campaign is about. We demand that the EU should organize the procurement of a fleet of new night trains and lease them to operators, to allow long distance night train services to be reintroduced. 
There is already some political support for the idea and we are in the middle of working out the legal requirements. Probably, guarantees and loans from the European Investment Bank could unlock this problem. I hope that in the next 12-18 months we will have a solution. 
Christian-Zsolt Varga is the Coordinating Editor at n-ost with a focus on European cross-border publications. His last cross-border train travel before Covid-19 took him from Berlin to n-ost's media conference in Chișinău – in 3 days.
Christian-Zsolt Varga is the Coordinating Editor at n-ost with a focus on European cross-border publications. His last cross-border train travel before Covid-19 took him from Berlin to n-ost's media conference in Chișinău – in 3 days.
🇪🇸 The Casablanca of the Pyrenees
The Canfranc railway station. Photo: R. Chilton.
The Canfranc railway station. Photo: R. Chilton.
The history of Canfranc and its heroism is well-known in Spain, but few have heard of the railway station in the rest of Europe.
Considering its 241 meters of length, 12 of width, a classic 19th-century architectural style, and 365 windows, you would expect to find Canfranc in a European city. However, it is located 1194 meters above sea level, in the Spanish Pyrenees, far away from big towns on either side of the border. That is why it became a European spy hub during World War II.
The Nazis used the station to transport the gold they had stolen from European banks and Jews in camps. This trade with Franco’s government for Wolfram was secret since Spain was officially neutral. 
On the other side, the Résistance, the French underground movement against the Nazis, had an ally in Canfranc. The station’s head Albert Le Lay helped many Jews, possibly including the German painter Max Ernst or the Russian Marc Chagall. He also passed messages, money, and even a radio from one to the other side of the border.
Under a varnish of neutrality, locals harboured fierce idealism. The Spanish sisters Pilar and Lola Pardo, only 26 and 17 at the time respectively, took the train every other week to Zaragoza, bringing confidential messages under their clothes. The history of Canfranc is tied with those who had a vision for a democratic Europe. After the Nazis were defeated though, the rail station was nearly forgotten.
In 1970, a train derailed, no one died, but it destroyed the Estanguet bridge. Plans to rebuild it were postponed. But this place filled with unlikely heroes will get an opportunity to experience a rebirth. In 2022, the train station will become a luxury hotel, and the international line will be reopened in 2025.
Let’s hope future travelers can bring back the story. Reviving the station will shed a light on the last war Western Europe lived through.
Aina de Lapparent Alvarez is a French Catalan journalist in a dual master’s program between Sciences Po and Columbia University. Her favorite train journey is Paris-Barcelona which only takes 6 hours to complete!
Aina de Lapparent Alvarez is a French Catalan journalist in a dual master’s program between Sciences Po and Columbia University. Her favorite train journey is Paris-Barcelona which only takes 6 hours to complete!
Author's pick: What we were reading
10 of the best sleeper trains in Europe | Rail travel | The Guardian
Backpack Ambassadors: How Youth Travel Integrated Europe, Jobs
French Lawmakers Ban Short Domestic Flights, But... | One Mile at a Time
More and more trains crossing European borders - edjnet
Editing & proofreading: Lucy Martirosyan / Production: Katya Kovalenko
Editing & proofreading: Lucy Martirosyan / Production: Katya Kovalenko
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