Six suggestions to make international train travel more attractive

October 14, 2022

I have been using the train instead of a plane for most of my long distance trips this year, and the experience has been mixed. Here are some observations and urgent suggestions for improvement.

In principle I very much prefer train travel. Flying is stressful, and security checks are awful. You have more space in the train (this is especially a concern for tall people like me), and it is fun to see the countryside pass by. Because you have more space and are more relaxed, it’s easier to work or read.

An additional benefit is that travelling by train gives you a better sense of the distance you travel. Together with the diversity of the landscapes you pass, you start (re)appreciating the beauty and vastness of the earth we live on. Also, the additional cost in time it takes to travel by train (especially over longer distances, say 700 kilometres or more) will make you reconsider whether the trip is worth the effort. And in the end, that is the only thing that significantly reduces climate impact: simply travel less.

But in order to make long distance train travel a viable alternative to flying, the following recommendations should be taken at heart.

Make booking easy
Booking a train is not as easy as booking a flight. Not all booking sites have all the schedules. Trains can typically be booked only three months in advance. Night trains can often only be booked by phone. My best luck so far have been the sites of the Deutsche Bahn or the French SNCF.
Improve reliability
As a long trip typically involves changing trains several times, reliable (long distance) schedules are essential. This is not always the case: I’ve had good experience with the French TGV so far, while the German ICE is a nightmare: delays of more than an hour are not uncommon. As most of my trips cross Germany, this is a problem. Adding additional slack in the connection time between trains is not always easy when booking online. Swedish rail is so unreliable that most Swedes prefer to take the bus instead. Force national train operators to improve their reliability.
Lower cost
Long distance train travel is much more expensive than flying, unless you book very early (i.e. three months ahead) and do not use a night train. And even then, flying might actually still be cheaper. Make flying more expensive (stop subsidising it!).
Modernise night trains
Night trains are a (very) weak link. The sleeping coaches are old, the beds are too short, too stiff, and hence basically unsuitable to actually sleep on. More private options (for single or groups of two or three travellers) are needed. Breakfast is awful. Modernise the night train fleet; travelling at night could be so enjoyable! Make sure night trains (including special sleeping cabins) can always be booked online (in a single transaction including all other parts of the trip; this is important when you miss any of your connections!) Update: 33 next-generation Nightjets expected to be in operation by 2025.
Make stations more like airports
Because some additional time to change trains is often required to make sure you do not miss that essential connection, proper services on the stations are essential. Not all stations are equipped with a nice lounge, a good bar or a proper coffee/tea shop with nice seats. (München is a recent bad example that I came across.) Often the lounge is inaccessible for international travellers, or closed later in the evening. Airports are so much nicer in that respect.
Offer proper meals on board
Long distance trains could improve their on board restaurant service, and offer proper meals instead of just snacks and sandwiches. Often flight menus are better than the food served on the train. (The Thalys is a particular bad example serving ice cold food.)
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