Rail is on the rise among Europeans. Since the launch of the Paris-Vienna night train in December 2021, 70% of available tickets have been sold. Either almost full wagons during its three weekly round trips.

The Nightjet service, operated by Austrian national provider OBB, departs from Gare de l'Est in Paris at 19:30 p.m. and arrives in Vienna, the Austrian capital, the next morning at 10 a.m. The cheapest tickets are offered at 29.90 euros.

It is one of many lines that have been opened to connect major European cities via direct rail routes without transfers. And more are on the horizon.

Italian supplier TrenItalia hopes to establish a direct route between Paris and Madrid by the end of 2024, after what it describes as the "incredible" success of its routes linking Paris, Lyon, Turin and Milan since 2021.

A night train linking Paris and Berlin is expected to be put into service at the end of the year, and a high-speed line will connect the two capitals by 2024. This will reduce the current travel time from 10 hours to 7 hours.

The appeal of long train journeys has grown steadily over the past eight years, says rail expert Mark Smith, owner of the seat61.com rail travel website.

Today, he explains, more and more people are choosing the train, driven by two factors: "On the one hand, the frustration with airports or airlines; on the other, the concern to reduce their carbon footprint."

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The greener, simpler train?

The environmental case for the train is compelling. So do OBB's calculations: a two-hour flight from Paris to Vienna generates 419.6 kg of carbon emissions, compared to 41.5 kg for the Nightjet.

At an equivalent trip and per person, in France, the train emits up to 130 times less greenhouse gases than the plane, according to assessments by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (Ademe). Yet political action that would prioritize the train is lacking.

In France, a law has banned since May short-haul flights providing journeys that can be made by train in less than two hours. The stated objective was environmental. But in its application, the rule has so many exceptions that only three air routes were ultimately affected.

For example, it is still possible to fly from Paris to Lyon or Bordeaux, although these trips can be made by high-speed train (TGV). Flights are also cheap.

According to a 2023 Greenpeace report, inter-European journeys are on average twice as expensive by train than by plane. This price difference is partly explained by the tax exemptions granted to airlines.

In the 1990s, the surge in low-cost air travel democratized fast, cheap, and weekend travel. In Europe, the success of the aircraft led to the disappearance of night trains that were widely considered unprofitable. Since then, air transport has become increasingly expensive.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York significantly increased security requirements at airports around the world, resulting in longer wait times for travelers.

So much so that a flight of an hour and a half between Paris and Nice - for example - was now neither faster nor more convenient than a five-and-a-half-hour train journey, especially if we take into account the location of the stations in the city centre, and the offer to carry without any cost a number of luggage on board the trains.

The shortcomings of the inter-European train

Twenty years later, notes Mark Smith, "trains can be equipped with electrical outlets and Wi-Fi, making it possible to work on them on business trips. And leisure travelers, not being in a hurry, are ready to travel even further."

This does not mean, however, that long-distance train travel is always easy in Europe. Crossing a border by train can involve making reservations with different national railway companies, with separate insurance plans for each purchase.

Routes and prices are often set by local markets, says Jon Worth, who runs Cross Border Rail, a project offering an overview of inter-European rail links.

"The rail industry in Europe is still very national, and each state is thinking mainly about the services it will offer in its own national market," he said.

The direct line between Paris and Barcelona perfectly illustrates the advantages and disadvantages of train travel in Europe. A six-and-a-half-hour journey connects the two city centres, thanks to hundreds of millions of euros in funding from the European Union, which has turned the railway into a high-speed line.

Travelers can treat themselves to a croissant for breakfast in the French capital, stroll to Gare de Lyon and arrive in Barcelona-Sants in time to eat lunchtime tapas under the Mediterranean sun. At least, those who were able to get a ticket.

"In many parts of Europe, the infrastructure is in good or very good condition, but in some places very few trains are running," says Worth. The Paris-Barcelona line is, according to him, "systematically underused".

The SNCF runs only two high-speed trains a day, with the most expensive tickets reaching 250 euros for a one-way trip. On the same route, dozens of flights are operated day and night for a much lower price.

And yet, trains almost always run at full capacity, especially in summer, when seats sell out months in advance.

"The same situation prevails on the Paris-Vienna line in sleeping cars, where most berths are booked as soon as they go on sale, even almost two years after the launch of the line."

Political backwardness

The increase in demand for rail travel "is certainly not driven by governments or railway companies. It came from below," says Mark Smith.

In 2022, Interrail (a combined ticket that allows travel on almost all trains in Europe) recorded the highest sales in its history, 50 years after its introduction.

According to Mark Smith, the development of a supply capable of meeting the explosion in demand may be slow, but signs of hope are emerging.

In France, the Spanish operator RENFE plans to restore the Paris-Barcelona route, which should lead to lower prices. Between Paris and Milan (seven hours by train), the competition between SNCF and TrenItalia already maintains fares at a price comparable to those of low-cost flights.

Austrian national supplier OBB, currently leading in Europe, has expansion plans that include new lines and sleeping cars, the number of which is currently lacking across the continent. The additional sleeper cars could increase rail traffic. There are even plans to increase the frequency of the night train between Paris and Berlin to reach daily traffic.

New private companies, such as European Sleeper and Midnight Trains, are also entering the European market.

The final piece of the puzzle is political will, says Jon Worth, the Cross Border Rail project expert.

"Transport is the only sector of the European economy where CO2 emissions continue to rise," he said. "We are all aware that we should prefer the train rather than the plane for our holidays. All that is missing is the political impetus", the one that will decide Europeans to choose rail.

Translated from English, click here to read the original article

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