Trains worldwide get green light

Simon Calder
·5 min read
Long run: A Russian Railways train at Yekaterinburg station in western Siberia: Simon Calder
Long run: A Russian Railways train at Yekaterinburg station in western Siberia: Simon Calder

The coronavirus crisis caused immense damage to international rail schedules.

In the new edition of the European Rail Timetable (ERT), editor Chris Woodcock writes: “As the pandemic swept across Europe, national governments had to prioritise, above all else, the health and well-being of their citizens which resulted in unprecedented restrictions on free movement across the Continent.

“Most international borders were closed and domestic travel was severely restricted – resulting in a much reduced rail service in most countries.”

In some parts of Europe, trains were refitted with medical facilities so that patients could be moved to areas with spare hospital capacity.

In the UK, a campaign continues to keep leisure passengers off the railways, with no sign of if or when the alliance of government and train operators might ease up on the warnings against rail travel.

But elsewhere in the world, there are promising signs of innovative new services for the Covid-19 era.

Is this the age of the train?

Yes, at least in Europe. From 17 July, Eurostar is restoring many more of its services connecting London St Pancras with Amsterdam, Brussels, Lille and Paris. As travel opportunities re-open, fares are falling – with plenty of opportunities to travel to one of these great cities for under £100 return in August.

Elsewhere in Europe, many long-distance services are resuming. The ERT says that domestic trains are gradually getting back to normal in many countries. The move towards greater competition has been delayed by the pandemic, but “open access” operators are now back and giving incumbent train firms a run for the traveller’s money.

In Germany, Flixtrain will resume services between Berlin and Cologne on 23 July.

In Italy, competition that had been flourishing between the state-run Ferrovie dello Stato, branded as Trenitalia, and the open-access operator Italo came almost to a halt – with the latter reducing its level of service from 110 trains per day to just two.

The ERT reports: “The reinstatement of services began on May 4 and, since then, service levels have gradually been restored as demand for travel has increased.”

What about night trains?

The international rail guru Mark Smith says: “One more casualty seems to be the Paris to Venice Thello sleeper which now seems unlikely to run again.

“A question mark also remains over the Spanish Trenhotel sleeper trains from Madrid and the French border to Lisbon.”

The Madrid to Lisbon overnight service is one of many currently suspended, even though travel restrictions between Spain and Portugal were removed on 1 July.

“But in general European train services seem to be getting back to normal and encouraging passengers to return rather than discouraging rail travel as in the UK,” says Mr Smith.

The overnight picture is especially healthy for the trains operated by Austrian Railways. The Vienna-Berlin “NightJet” starts tonight, with services from Milan to Vienna and Munich resuming in early August.

One new international night train is proving so popular that it has been expanded from three departures each week to a daily service.

The Czech operator RegioJet is linking Prague with the Croatian port of Rijeka every night until 1 September, via Bratislava and Ljubljana. Tickets for the whole journey start at €22 (£20) one way, with berths in couchette compartments from €29 (£26).

A new train run by RDC Deutschland connects the Baltic resort of Westerland with Salzburg via Hamburg and Munich, with each six-berth couchette compartment exclusively occupied by passenger groups travelling together.

Any problems to be aware of?

Yes. Many car-carrying trains are suspended this summer, including links between Germany and Italy, Serbia and Montenegro, and Finland and Russia.

Back in March, a landslip on the high-speed line near Strasbourg in eastern France derailed a TGV train. While there was no loss of life, the affected stretch of track is currently undergoing repairs.

Services between Paris and Strasbourg, with onward continuation to Germany, are being diverted via alternative routes which means journey times are extended by around 50 minutes.

The latest European Rail Timetable has the amended schedules. The beautiful line running south from Toulouse to Latour de Carol in the high Pyrenees is closed until 30 August for pre-planned engineering work.

ERT editor Chris Woodcock says: “Although travel restrictions are starting to be eased, those intending to travel over the coming weeks are advised to familiarise themselves with the latest requirements for the countries they intend to visit.”

Further afield?

Russia has continued to run a fairly comprehensive domestic network. Trains to Kaliningrad currently run through Belarus and Lithuania without making passenger stops, as do trains to Petropavlovsk that run through Kazakhstan.

In Azerbaijan, all services are currently suspended – including the overnight train to Georgia.

Morocco, Tunisia and Kenya have all resumed rail operations. But Rovos Rail, which operates luxury cruise trains in South Africa, will not resume until 1 October.

The ERT reports: “Rail services in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia were starting to return to normal during July.

“In Australia there are no interstate services operating, although NSW Train Link services are expected to restart between Sydney and destinations in Queensland from 19 July.

“Journey Beyond, the operator of the famous Ghan, Indian Pacific and Overland services, has stated that the Ghan and Indian Pacific will not start running again until 30 August at the earliest.”

In Japan, most bullet trains are running normally.

In North America, many trains have been curtailed. Canada’s Ocean from Halifax to Montreal, and the Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver, are suspended until November.

In the US, Amtrak is operating services on all routes but, in most cases, at a reduced frequency.

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