Train travel has a certain magic. Picturesque views as you zip along the track, comfortable cars that beat airplane seats every day, and an overall feeling of romance.
Despite all this, trying to cross Europe by train can be a logistical nightmare.
Jon Worth wants to change that.
The Englishman crosses all the internal borders of the European Union by train in just 40 days. A challenge he launched in June.
The mammoth undertaking includes over 150 train journeys, 83 border crossings and encompasses 24 of the 27 countries of the European Union (Ireland, Malta and Cyprus are missing as they have no internal EU rail border ) plus Norway, Switzerland, Monaco and Liechtenstein.
Why cross the whole EU by train?
The idea was born when Jon read former Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Michael Cramer’s list of 15 rail projects for a better connected Europe.
Cramer had undertaken research and in 2015 compiled 15 missing links in Europe’s rail network that would be relatively easy and inexpensive to repair.
Worth decided to review the roster to see if there had been any progress on the lines. He found that only one of the 15 had been completed.
“What I found then with Cramer was that it was a very intellectual exercise,” he told Euronews Travel.
“He didn’t go to those borders to talk to people and photograph the infrastructure and assess what it looked like.
“So that was the starting point to basically say ‘how can I tell these stories to give color to this political project. “”
Jon took to social media to ask his followers what was wrong with cross-border rail travel and why. Responses poured in with stories of difficulties across the EU and it snowballed from there.
“So I said ‘Well, how many days would it actually take you to cross all those borders?'”
He calculated that it would take 30 days, but to make sure he had enough time at each stop he settled on 40 and the ‘Cross-Border Railway Project’ was born.
What are the difficulties encountered by European railways?
According to Jon, there are four main issues that need to be resolved.
“In some places there were tracks and the tracks are no longer active,” he explains.
“The second is that there are tracks that exist, but no trains are running.
“The third problem is that the track exists and the trains run, but they run with a regularity or schedule that does not work. So nobody would use them because there is only one train a day or there are only two trains a week.
The last problem, according to him, is related to logistics. Not being able to book a ticket online for cross-border travel or the price skyrocketing for parts of the trip in different countries.
There is no Skyscanner equivalent for book trains which, according to industry sources, is due to the fact that some national train operators‘ websites run on operating systems so old that they cannot be integrated with a centralized booking website.
How do I book cross-border rail travel?
Jon talks about his experience booking a train from Berlin, where he lives, to Strasbourg.
“If I put Strasbourg in a train search, it will give me a price of €120 for a one-way ticket,” he says.
“If I put Berlin at Kehl, which is the last station on the German side, it will cost me €35. There are only five kilometers from Kehl to Strasbourg.
It costs a few euros to travel from Kehl to Strasbourg, so if you know the workaround, the price from Strasbourg to Berlin drops from €120 to €40. But most people wouldn’t be aware of it.
Worth thinks there are many practical, low-cost ways, like resolving these kinds of situations, that can improve train journeybut the political will is not there.
“Which politicians are fixing it? Well, the European Parliament is in Strasbourg. How many MEPs are on the phone with Deutsche Bahn saying “Hey listen, this is stupid”. Why not fix it? he exclaims.
“Is the European Commissioner for Transport [Adina Vălean] on the phone to Deutsche Bahn saying ‘Why the hell don’t you fix it?’ She’s not because every time she gets a chance to take a train, she steals instead.
How does the EU tackle the problems of European railways?
Rail leaders reiterated their desire for high-speed trains to replace many flights in Europe over the next 30 years in Lyon earlier this month.
The European Commission has taken action to improve the situation on the continent railways.
At the end of 2021, and in an effort to reduce carbon emissions, it presented an action plan to boost passenger rail journeys and reduce journey times.
Lorelei Limousine, European climate and transport activist at Greenpeace, told Euronews in May that “the action plan looks promising, but we have to wait to see the concrete legislative proposals to see if there is any real change”.
As part of this action plan, the European Union is working on a platform that would compile timetables, fares and the purchase of tickets for travel across Europe.
While the moves were welcome, Worth is still skeptical.
“I’m not really convinced that the institutions of the European Union are ready to take the drastic measures necessary to impose this type of cross-border cooperation that you would need between very nationally minded railway companies,” says Worth.
“And what I’ve learned from the trip so far is that all of these problems often come down to one side of the border wanting to solve the problem, but the other side of the border not not so enthusiastic. Like at the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, the EU should say “Hey, look, Belgium wants to rebuild the line between the two”, but the Dutch side does not and the EU should therefore be insistent enough, determined enough towards the Dutch government to make a change there.