10 things Britain can learn from Europe about running a decent rail service

trains europe railway rail uk trains travel holiday scenery - Getty
trains europe railway rail uk trains travel holiday scenery - Getty

Europe has seen a rail revolution over the last few years. An extensive network of sleeper services now connects countries across the Continent, with more routes being added regularly. Trains are becoming more competitively priced too, with governments and rail companies offering discounted or even free travel.

In contrast, many UK services are blighted by disruption and upheaval. Consistent fare increases make rail travel less affordable than ever, strikes plague timetables and passengers face overcrowding on a regular basis – all despite attempts by train companies to entice travellers back on track.

Following news that TransPennine Express is set be brought under government control due to 'continuous cancellations' (the operator scrapped one in six services during March), these are the lessons we can take from across the Channel.

1. The generosity of... Luxembourg

Spain grabbed the headlines in 2022 with an admirable initiative to make train travel free for residents for the year – but diminutive Luxembourg has been quietly doing the same thing since 2020. In fact, every passenger travels free on its train services – whether they live in the country or not. It’s part of a plan to encourage people out of their cars (Luxembourg has more vehicles per 1,000 people than any other country in the EU). But while the UK isn’t far behind in terms of car ownership, it still has some of the most expensive trains in Europe, with high on-the-day ticket prices making spontaneous travel impossible for many (cfl.lu).

luxembourg trains rail journeys ravel - Getty
luxembourg trains rail journeys ravel - Getty

2. The spectacular routes of... Switzerland

The designers of  the Swiss railway system had the forethought to send its tracks through some of the country’s most impressive scenery. Take the commuter route that hugs the north side of Lake Geneva. Trundling from its namesake city to the flower-filled, lakeside town of Montreux, it passes through vineyards and half-timbered villages against a backdrop of sparkling water and snow-dusted mountains. The lack of bells and whistles on this regular service adds to the unexpected joy of the journey, meaning the nine-to-five ends on the sort of high that UK commuters can only dream of (sbb.ch).

3. The overnight options of... Austria

They’ve thought of everything on Austria’s new Nightjet trains, which were unveiled in Vienna in 2022 and will be used on its international sleeper services from summer 2023. Siemens-designed, with features including mood lighting and en-suite bathrooms, the trains enhance what’s already an excellent service, linking some of the Continent’s most exciting cities including Vienna, Paris, Rome and Zurich. Though not exactly luxurious, Nightjet’s new trains are a definite step up from the UK’s pared-back sleeper offerings (from London to Scotland and Cornwall), with the added bonus of more civilised departure and arrival times (nightjet.com).

night train between Amsterdam and Vienna europe travel - Getty
night train between Amsterdam and Vienna europe travel - Getty

4. The speed of... Italy

What’s red, Italian and very, very fast? It turns out that Italy has a pneumatic train as swift as its supercars – the Frecciarossa 1000. Regularly reaching speeds of 300km/h, Europe’s fastest trains cover almost the entire length of the country, connecting Florence with Rome in an hour and 15 minutes and Venice with Milan in two and a half hours. With a quick change in Rome, you can travel between Verona and Naples in four and a half hours, covering a similar distance as the journey from Glasgow Central to Exeter St Davids – which takes more than seven hours and involves at least two changes. No wonder the Frecciarossa’s logo featured on the Ferrari livery at this year’s French Grand Prix (trenitalia.com).

5. The timetabling of... the Netherlands

There’s no waiting for an Uber – or, worse still, whiling away the hours before the first morning train – after a big night out in the Netherlands. While the UK’s rail offerings grind to a Cinderella-like halt before midnight, Dutch passengers can board regular trains through the night connecting Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Utrecht, with services extended to more cities during weekends. That definitely beats a kebab and a night in the Travelodge (ns.nl).

night train amsterdam rotterdam utrecht - Getty
night train amsterdam rotterdam utrecht - Getty

6. The dining experience of... the Czech Republic

Grab a pasty at the station or wait for a cheese sandwich from the buffet car? Passengers travelling long distances in the Czech Republic need not make similarly depressing decisions, because Railjet trains (between Prague and Brno, Vienna or Graz) are known for their excellent food. Served in dining cars on proper plates with proper cutlery, meals are a loving tribute to local cuisine, featuring regional specialities including fried schnitzel, sirloin steak in a creamy sauce, and honey pancakes. And, if all that seems worth celebrating, wine and beer is discounted by up to 50 per cent during regular train ‘Happy Hours’. Na Zdravi indeed (railjets.com).

7. The station design of... Belgium

Destined to turn even the most reluctant travellers into ardent trainspotters, Belgium’s stations are things of beauty – from the opulent, cathedral-like architecture of Antwerp Centraal to the striking, UFO-like beauty of Liège-Guillemins (a Santiago Calatrava-designed award winner that opened back in 2009). Both are so exquisite that they’ve become tourist attractions in their own right. And while entertainment in UK stations consists of little more than amateur piano playing (King’s Cross St. Pancras) or watching a healthy pigeon population (Edinburgh Waverley), Antwerp Centraal hosts art exhibitions, food markets and concerts while Liège-Guillemins recently held an electronic music festival, complete with spectacular light show (belgiantrain.be).

Belgium train stations Antwerp Centraal Liège-Guillemins - Getty
Belgium train stations Antwerp Centraal Liège-Guillemins - Getty

8. The slow journeys of... France

It may be known for its speedy TGV system, but France will be revelling in the joy of the journey by summer 2024, when a new, ultra-slow rail service launches. Wending its way from Bordeaux to Lyon with nine stops in between, the first route from cooperative Railcoop will cover 560 kms in seven and a half hours, meandering along old, disused or secondary tracks and linking towns that have fallen off the railway map. In lieu of a buffet car, producers and restaurants will be invited to deliver local specialities to railway stations for added joie de vivre – or to keep passengers awake until the end of the line. The idea should be of interest to campaigners clamouring to reinstate more than 100 abandoned lines across the UK (railcoop.fr).

9. The cleanliness of... Finland

Clean, spacious and brand new (the country invested €35 million in new stock in 2022), Finland’s trains are a world away from some of the UK’s stinkier, chewing gum-adorned offerings. Renowned for their spotlessness, the carriages make travelling along the country’s 3,000 km of track feel like a treat. Worth a special mention, its double-decker sleepers come with comfy en-suite cabins – and even room service. It hasn’t always been this way: residents once bemoaned the rail companies’ relaxed attitude to dusting and litter removal, before the government ploughed significant investment into the network (vr.fi).

10. The connectivity of... Germany

If you want to go from London to Manchester or Birmingham New Street, the UK offers a speedy solution. But if you’re trying to get to a little village in the countryside? Not so much. There are 5,400 railway stations in Germany, linking the major cities with more out-of-the-way destinations (in contrast with the UK’s 2,576) and it makes sightseeing by rail an attractively plausible possibility. Among the most enticing is the stopper train that traces the Rhine between Mainz and Remagen, winding its way through river-hugging towns, past hilltop castles and cobbled villages.

How do you think British rail services could be improved? Share your thoughts in the comments section below