Rail travel in Europe

High speed railway lines in Europe as of 2015
Networks of Major High Speed Rail Operators in Europe, 2015.
A German ICE train

Trains are a convenient mode of short, medium and long distance travel across Europe. Western and central Europe in particular has a dense and widely used railway network. Trains are also a "greener" way to get around than airplanes, cars and – in some cases – buses (depending mostly on occupancy and type of train/bus), generating much lower CO2 levels per passenger over the same distance.

Understand

For short distances, European trains are fast, reliable and frequent. For longer distances they can be preferable to flying for several reasons. Trains have more spacious and comfortable interiors, may offer scenic routes, and do not require long waits at security like at airports. They usually run more frequently as well, and take their travellers to railway stations located in or very close to city centers, whereas airports, especially the ones that budget airliners fly into, can be up to 100 km away from the city center, requiring expensive and time-consuming connecting services. Ultimately, many people may choose the train over the plane for the feeling of romantic travel they provide.

Trains are flexible and the opportunities for train-travel in Europe are endless. Virtually any town larger than about 50,000 inhabitants has a railway station with frequent connections. Towns that aren't served by trains usually have good bus connections that are normally integrated with the railway system - railway stations normally also serve as hubs for local buses, subways or tramways. Transfers are fast and convenient all over Europe; you rarely need to wait longer than 2 hours for a connecting service. On major routes even a one hour wait between connections is the exception rather than the rule.

The quality, speed and price of train travel depends on the country, Western European countries generally offering higher speed and more luxurious trains at higher prices than Eastern European countries. Like flights virtually all train tickets are cheaper when bought in advance and usually a train ticket bought well before departure is cheaper than a flight with that difference declining or even the trend reversing the closer you get to departure. If you compare prices, remember that you also have to get to the airport/train station and especially for out of the way airports the costs of doing so can be substantial. Train travel is getting faster every year through the construction of new high speed lines which travel up to 320 km/h (200 mph), and upgrading of conventional lines to 200 km/h (125 mph) or more. Especially Germany, France, Belgium, Spain and Italy have extensive high-speed networks and there is construction or at least talks of construction in nearly every major European country. Some high speed lines have virtually eliminated air travel a short time after their opening and even on those lines where fast trains and flights still compete, bargains may be had for flights, as they cannot compete on speed (alone) any more. The most drastic examples of this are the Frankfurt-Cologne line that sees no direct flights any more and the Paris-London and Madrid-Barcelona lines where flights have become both rarer and cheaper since high speed rail arrived.

While railway passengers need to be alert about pickpocketing and luggage theft, especially on crowded commuter trains, overall the security situation on trains in Europe is the best for perhaps any mode of transport anywhere in the world. Overall including accidents study after study has shown European trains to be the safest mode of transport when measured in deaths/injuries per passenger kilometer even beating air-travel (usually the second placed mode) in terms of security more often than not. Since baggage isn't screened, there is also the remote danger of terrorism, though attacks are incredibly rare extremely rare and shouldn't be a major concern to visitors . Still any large congregation of people - such as railway stations - or "national symbol" (which trains, especially the high speed variety are often perceived to be) is a possible target for a terroristic attack.

A problem with rail may be overcrowding. Increasing numbers of commuters in Europe are switching to rail travel to escape congestion on the roads, and it is often impossible to find a seat in 2nd class at rush hours. Still plenty of seats often remain in the 1st class, and some travellers choose to stay there in such situations even though they have a 2nd class ticket. Although not strictly permitted, one often gets away with it because tickets are less frequently checked during periods of overcrowding. Overcrowding is especially common in urban agglomerations such as South-East England, Benelux, The Ruhr region, and the Po Valley. However, outside of rush hours and popular routes trains are often only 50% full. A good way to find out whether a route tends to be overcrowded is the price of early bird tickets. If there is still a early bird ticket of the cheapest category available a day or two prior to departure, chances are that this train won't be too full.

All trains have coach seating - usually labeled as 2nd class in the local language. Most long distance trains travelling from one large city to another large city will have first class seating too. In some countries, such as the UK, Netherlands, France and Germany, trains have so-called "silent" compartments, where you're not allowed to make noise or use mobile phones. Some high-speed lines (such as Eurostar or the Spanish AVE and the Austrian railjet) have a different class-scheme with usually three named classes. They are often comparable to airplane-classes with the "third" class still offering more legroom than economy-class. Discussing the details of each service would be beyond the scope of this article. The websites of the various railway companies will usually describe the differences between classes in their "flagship-product" and often also show pictures.

The only trains that have sleepers are trains that will take until the next morning to reach their final destination like the Amsterdam to Warsaw or the Göteborg to Narvik route. While sleeper trains are still very much alive in Central and Eastern Europe, there is a tendency in the German speaking countries as well as Spain and France to reduce or eliminate those services due to "economic" reasons.

Planning your trip

Swiss railway trail between Preda and Bergün

Most countries have timetables and travel planners available on the sites of their national railways. The website of the German national railways has a very convenient route planner that covers almost the entire European railway network (and beyond), as well as bus, metro, and ferry connections in Germany. Price information is available for train rides which go through Germany only, however: for that information you still need the national websites. Locally, look for the departure timetables posted in the station. Staff at the ticket counter may be able to help you out with planning your trip. Most ticket vending machines will also be able to give some information on timetables, though the specifics vary.

An invaluable website for planning rail journeys is Seat61.com, is not a company or a travel agency, but a personal site. Still it has one of the most comprehensive guides to all aspects of rail travel. If you want a paper timetable to take with you consider buying a European Rail Timetable.

When planning your trip, Mappy is a good online tool for discovering if your hotel is near any train station in the UK. Mappy always indicates the location of the station with an engine icon. On other maps, the station may be hard to find.

A good app for planning trips with public transport as well as long and short distance trains is Öffi that has good coverage of most of Europe as well as some non-European cities such as Philadelphia and has become one of the leading public transport apps in Europe in recent years.

Tickets

Regular tickets

The cost of rail travel varies greatly by country. Eastern European countries tend to offer very cheap travel. Italy is comparatively cheap as well.

Domestic

Some countries price tickets based only upon distance traveled, so called KM-tariffs. These are still common in Eastern Europe, saving you worries of advance purchase and giving you more flexibility. Many countries still using this pricing have higher regular KM-rates but have discounts for trains that are less in-demand available for advance purchase (e.g. Denmark, Switzerland, Spain). Increasingly railways are using rates based on a number of factors and selling tickets based on demand, speed of the connection, etc. in a similar fashion to most airline pricing. In countries where this is the case (especially France, Germany, Sweden and Great Britain) you should try booking in advance rather than walking up to the ticket desk on the day of travel, as that becomes akin (also in price) to buying a flight at check-in. The up-side of countries with this scheme is that advance fares can be significantly cheaper, for instance tickets from Edinburgh to London are just £25 if booked in advance, saving 75% over common walk up fares of over £100. Germany and France sell tickets for their high-speed networks identically to airlines, meaning a cross-country advance ticket might cost €19 and same-day you can expect to pay €200 or more.

In many countries with KM-tariffs there is a higher per-KM price for faster trains (e.g. Finland, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania) while in a few countries tickets are valid for any train of your choice (e.g. Czechia, Switzerland, Austria) offering the highest flexibility and easiest to understand.

International

For decades, basic international rail fares have been subject to the TCV (Tarif Commun pour Voyageurs - Common Fare for Passengers) which provided a common basis for calculating fares (normally based on distance) and conditions of carriage (how much luggage you can carry, what you're entitled to if your train is delayed or cancelled, etc.). In recent years more and more trains have been introduced whose fares are not TCV-based e.g. Thalys, CNL, Cisalpino, many of which are "global priced" - you pay the same fare regardless of how far you travel on the train. Global-priced trains are often problematic when you try to use a pass like Eurail or InterRail on them, as they may require you to pay a "passholder" fare to get one of a limited number of seats made available for pass holders. International tickets sold don't use TCV anymore either, instead railways have assorted partnerships and offer tickets and specials for competitive prices, especially if booked in advance. It is still possible in some countries (especially in the East) just to buy a domestic ticket to the border station, and buy the onward ticket then onboard from the conductor in the next country, meaning you pay a cheaper domestic rate in both countries. It also helps to be creative, for instance a trip from Vienna to Istanbul can be made by purchasing a special discounted CityStar ticket from the Hungarian railways from the Austrian/Hungarian border to the Bulgarian/Turkish border and just buying cheap domestic tickets from Vienna to the border and Istanbul to the border, saving you as much as €200 off of a single ticket.

Booking

Advance booking can normally be done online, through the websites of the national railway companies. For international tickets use the railway website of either country you are travelling through. Compare the fares, as they may differ. In some parts of Europe you may not be able to book these online, you can try calling the railway's hotline or using a booking service like Rail Europe (www.raileurope.co.uk). Many tickets can be printed at home, they may be mailed to you (postage payable) or made available for collection at a railway station. Alternatively you can book and collect tickets from the Rail Europe shop on Piccadilly in central London.

Discounts

Group Travel

Group travel often incurs discounts, in some countries two people traveling together get a discount, in others a group of six or more is required for discount. In Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic there are discounted one-day network tickets for groups up to 5 people.

Return tickets

Some railway companies offer a discount for return ticket. On some routes, for example Budapest-Sarajevo and Budapest-Zagreb a return ticket is even cheaper than a one-way ticket.

CityStar is an interesting discount (about 20-40%) in international tariff, available in many of Central and Eastern European countries. If you travel in a group of 2-5 people, the second and next passengers have additional 30-50% discount. Conditions of use are:

Generally, City Star tickets are valid one month.

Discount Cards

Most railways have a discount card, normally with versions for youth, adults, seniors and the disabled offering a standard discount on domestic tickets. You may need local documents or residency to obtain it but often all you need is a passport photo and ID. Discounts vary. Cards are valid for one year unless otherwise noted.

RailPlus is a program offering a 25% discount on all border crossing train tickets in Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Great Britain, Italy, Croatia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Romania, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Czech Republic, Ukraine and Hungary. It is included in some national discount cards, but must be purchased separately in other countries. In France, Ireland, Sweden, Portugal, Spain and Norway the Railplus scheme is only for those under 26 years of age. The RailPlus card also provides a discount on some international ferries.

Advance Purchase

Both domestic and international advance purchase tickets are offered increasingly through a number of schemes. Some are unrefundable or even set to a specific person's name, others can be changed for a fee. Consider carefully whether there is any possibility that you may need to travel earlier or later than you booked. If you're making a day trip somewhere, are connecting from a flight, have reason to fear local road traffic or otherwise can't commit to an exact time, ask before booking what the penalties are for missing your train, and how much extra a more flexible ticket would be. If you have a restricted ticket, do take care to get the right train, as if you get the wrong one by mistake you may have to pay a full open single fare, a "penalty fare" or a fine, or you might even be prosecuted. So:

Don't expect too much sympathy if you get it wrong or if you miss your train. The only exceptions are, of course, if your train is cancelled (then you can get the next one) or if you miss a connection because of a delay to or cancellation of some other train on the same ticket.

Railway specific information:

Other Schemes

Normally these are not for set destinations, rather for a trip with in the country or from anywhere in the country to another country, but have other restrictions of how and when they can be used. It is possible to buy tickets from on-line auction and listing sites as many people end up with non-refundable tickets that they cannot use. Some railways, like Sweden's SJ sell left-over tickets via on-line auction themselves. Some countries offer specials on or around national holidays, others have special schemes offering train tickets combine with event tickets or incentives to foster tourism in a certain area. In Germany both (usually short-term) Bahn Cards and train tickets have been sold as a promotional gimmick by supermarkets, Tchibo and other similar stores. The way this usually works is that you buy a ticket for a certain fixed price and later fill it in with the date and train you are using (read the terms and conditions carefully as sometimes certain days are excluded and tickets with multiple trips on them may or may not be restricted to being used by one person only).

Buying 2nd-hand early bird tickets

Often, (international) train tickets are much cheaper in pre-booking then bought directly before departure. Often also, people pre-book a ticket two months in advance, finding out that the planned, non-reimbursable itinerary doesn't fit their actual travelling need at the time of departure.

Luckily, through the Internet, other travellers can buy these tickets, often much cheaper than the last-minute price at the official counter.

For example: Amsterdam-Paris with the high speed Thalys costs 45 euros two months in advance, and € 145 directly at departure. The tickets are often not on name.

For France, check out

For the Netherlands:

For Germany:

Frequent traveller programs

Due to competition with airlines and in order to establish more loyal customers several railway operators have introduced frequent traveller programs that are somewhat similar to those offered by airlines. Although there are some efforts at cooperation between the major state owned railway companies of France, Germany and some other countries, bonuses and statuses from one country usually don't translate into benefits elsewhere. One exception is the Railteam lounge offered at some major stations that are accessible to customers of all partner railways.

Rail passes

See also: European rail passes

If you plan a longer journey with many stops, but you don't like a fixed itinerary, a rail pass may be the best choice. The rail pass allows you unlimited travel on a specified number of days or a specified number of "segments" within a certain period of time. There are railway passes for almost every European country, as well as global passes for all of Europe. See European rail passes for details.

Stay Safe

When travelling, you need to watch your luggage and stay alert. This is true when you're on a train as well. Theft can be comparatively common on metros or trains with a lot of stops in short succession, since this will allow a thief to get off the train quickly. Trains that cover longer distances are usually safer; on high speed trains passengers routinely take laptops on their journeys. Late in the evening and on nights in the weekends, travel in well lit areas of the train and if possible in the same car as the conductor.

the red dot on the top of the ICE window can be broken with the hammer in case of emergency to provide an additional exit

In the (unlikely) event of an accident there are usually more ways to exit then just the doors. In ICE trains for example, there is a red dot on the windows that you can hit with a small hammer to remove the window. Emergency brakes are usually present in every car and clearly marked and often in a "signal"-color. Note that they are also equipped with a seal so if you pull the break without justification a heavy fine (often exceeding 1 000 € for first offenders) will be leveled against you and it will be easy to prove that you are to blame. However if you can convincingly claim some reason why you believed there was a danger to you or the train that justified you pulling the brake, even if it turns out to be a mistake, you are usually not charged.

Always, report suspicious characters to the conductor and move to a more populated and lit area.

Routes/Lines

International

Historical/ Scenic

See also: Heritage railways, Tourist trains


Specific countries

Trondheim-Bodø line (Nordlandsbanen) in March

Please see the following articles for rail travel guides for specific European countries:

For other countries see their respective "by train" section in the "get in" and "get around" sections of the articles.

Passenger rail companies

Country Company Website
Albania Hekurudha Shqiptarë (HSH) currently not available
Armenia Հարավկովկասյան Երկաթուղի currently not available
Austria Österreichische Bundesbahnen (ÖBB) ÖBB
Westbahn Westbahn
Burgenland Südburgenländische Regionalbahn (SRB) SRB
Carinthia Reißeck-Höhenbahn Tauerntouristik
Lower Austria Niederösterreichische Schneebergbahn (NÖSBB) NÖSBB
Niederösterreichische Verkehrsorganisationsgesellschaft (NÖVOG) NÖVOG
Salzburg Pinzgauer Lokalbahn Pinzgauer Lokalbahn
Salzburger Lokalbahn (SLB) SLB
Styria Graz-Köflacher Bahn und Busbetrieb (GKB) GKB
Steiermärkische Landesbahnen (StLB) StLB
Tyrol Zillertalbahn (ZB) ZB
Upper Austria Stern & Hafferl Verkehrsgesellschaft (StH) StH
Salzkammergutbahn (SKGB) currently not available
Vienna Wiener Lokalbahnen (WLB) WLB
Vorarlberg Montafonerbahn Bludenz-Schruns (MBS) MBS
Azerbaijan Azərbaycan Dövlət Dəmir Yolu (ADDY) currently not available
Belarus Беларуская чыгунка (БЧ) БЧ
Belgium Nationale Maatschappij der Belgische Spoorwegen (NMBS)
Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Belges (SNCB)
NMBS / SNCB
Bosnia-Hercegovina (Federation) Željeznice Federacije Bosne i Hercegovine (ŽFBH) ZFBH
Bosnia-Hercegovina (Srpska) Жељезнице Републике Српске (ЖРС) ŽRS
Bulgaria Български държавни железници (БДЖ) БДЖ
Croatia Hrvatske željeznice ()
Czech Republic České Dráhy (ČD) České Dráhy
Denmark Danske Statsbaner (DSB) Danske Statsbaner
West Jutland Arriva Arriva Trains Denmark's
Estonia Edelaraudtee Edelaraudtee
Finland Valtion Rautatiet (VR) VR
France Société National des Chemins de fer Français (SNCF) SNCF
Georgia საქართველოს რკინიგზა Georgia Railway
Germany Deutsche Bahn (DB) DB
Greece Trainose (Τραινοσέ)
Hungary Magyar Államvasutak (MÁV) MÁV
Ireland Irish Rail (Iarnród Éireann) Irish Rail
Italy Trenitalia Trenitalia
Apulia Ferrovie del Sud Est Ferrovie del Sud Est
Latvia Latvijas Dzelzcelsh (LDZ) LDZ
Lithuania Lietuvos Gelezinkeliai (LG) LG
Republic of Macedonia Македонски Железници (МЖ)
Moldova Calea Ferată din Moldova (CFM) CFM
Netherlands Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) NS
International travel site of NS
Norway Norges Statsbaner (NSB) NSB
Poland Polskie Koleje Państwowe (PKP) PKP
Portugal Comboios de Portugal (CP) CP
Romania Căile Ferate Române (CFR) CFR
Russia Russian Railways (RZD) Russian Railways Wesite
Serbia Железнице Србије (ЖС) Serbian Railways Wesite
Slovakia ŽSSK Slovakrail ŽSSK
Slovenia Slovenske Železnice Slovenske Železnice
Spain Red Nacional de Ferrocarriles Españoles (RENFE) RENFE
Sweden SJ AB (SJ) (SJ sells tickets for most rail companies in Sweden but not for MTR) SJ
MTR Express (MTR) MTR
Switzerland Aare Seeland Mobil (ASm) ASm
Appenzeller Bahnen (AB) AB
Schweizerische Bundesbahnen (SBB)
Chemins de fer fédéraux suisses (CFF)
Ferrovie Federale Svizzere (FFS)
SBB / CFF / FFS
Aargau AAR bus+bahn AAR
Vaud Chemin de fer Bière-Apples-Morges (BAM) BAM
BDWM Transport AG (BDWM) BDWM
BLS AG (BLS) BLS
Baselland Transport (BLT) BLT
Brienz-Rothorn-Bahn (BRB) BRB
Cisalpino AG (CIS) CIS
Chemins de fer du Jura (CJ) CJ
Dolderbahn (Db)
Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi (FART) FART
Forchbahn (FB) FB
Ferrovie Lugano-Ponte Tresa (FLP) FLP
Frauenfeld-Wil-Bahn (FW) FW
Gornergratbahn (GGB) GGB
Jungfraubahn Holding / Berner Oberland-Bahnen (JB / BOB) JB / BOB
Chemin de fer Lausanne-Echallens-Bercher (LEB) LEB
Ferrovia Monte Generoso (MG) ]'
Matterhorn-Gotthard-Bahn (MGB) MGB
Meiringen-Innertkirchen-Bahn / Kraftwerk Oberhasli (MIB / KWO) MIB / KWO
Chemins de fer Montreux-Oberland Bernois / Transport Montreux-Vevey-Riviera (MOB / MVR) MOB / MVR
Turkey Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Devlet Demiryolları (TCDD) TCDD
Ukraine Ukrainian Railways Ukrainian Railways
United Kingdom In England, Scotland and Wales National Rail is an umbrella term and organization
that represents the various private train operating companies together and provides ticketing and timetables.
UK National Rail
In Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Railways is the state-owned system. Northern Ireland Railways
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