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As the climate change emergency is high, I am wondering whether long-range train service across countries of same continents are being built to limit as much as possible flights (and cars) which are far worse then train in term of greenhouse gas emission (for details, see here).

For instance in European Union,

  • theoretically, it could be possible to travel by train e.g. from Portugal to Latvia; the infrastructure is more or less already there, however, it is nearly impossible for a user to simply buy such a ticket.
  • I personally tried to buy tickets from London to the south of Spain, it is quite a nightmare, at least there is no support at all from the governments/train companies to simplify it and this just encourages to buy a flight instead. Long train journey would also imply to develop night trains.

In India, although trains are slow, I found it relatively easy to travel long distances across states (night trains are well developped).

What are the limitations? Is it only political? A lack of coordination between countries to offer such a service? A lack of infrastructure? Would anyone know whether and where it is being discussed/organized?

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  • 1
    +1. Just saying that I have found the same issue, it is really hard to book long distance multi-stage public transport trips and it seems it is only IT systems that are missing. Building IT systems should be really easy/cheap from a AGW standpoint.
    – User65535
    May 23 at 10:46
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    NB, it is slightly overstated to say that buying tickets from England to southern Spain is a nightmare. Both London - Barcelona and Barcelona - Malaga can be bought at thetrainline.com and you can stay in Barcelona overnight in-between.
    – gerrit
    May 23 at 15:53
  • Portugal to Latvia by train, meh, ... what about Buenos Aires to Vancouver? That would be a train trip & a half. I can already visualize the advertising poster - Across the Andes by Bullet Train. Or how about Cape Town to Copenhagen via Cairo & Istanbul, or the western route via Gibraltar? Better still, do a loop, travel to Copenhagen via Cairo & Istanbul, then return to Cape Town via Gibraltar.
    – Fred
    May 25 at 7:45
  • @Fred haha yes exactly, but actually why not? Taking into account climate changes seriously will imply to change the way we consider long-distance travels
    – Noil
    May 25 at 10:52
  • These kinds of routs are handy for certain type of travelling,but what keeps them to be more useful and high in demand is inconvenience.That was the reason railway industry lost its vigour.The trains have improved greatly but still noise isolation, smoothing vibration, improving on train services, increasing privacy of a traveler by different approach to the interior design can get the vigour back to it.For travellers on long distance and several countries on their itenerary,train traveling will be preferential.Right now it’s boring and clumsy.Airway industry is relatively new, has the vigour.
    – Sofiko
    May 27 at 8:36

2 Answers 2

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There is very little demand for making it easier to buy long distance train tickets such as Portugal to Latvia. Most railway journeys in Western Europe are for short (<100 km) or medium (100-1000 km) distances. Unlike for flights, booking systems have developed nationally because that's where almost all railway journeys are made. Often cross-border trains can still be booked, but not beyond that. However, some booking systems do interact. The German, Austrian, and Swiss railway systems are quite compatible, as are the French and Spanish systems. Despite the difficulties and the relatively low number of long distance international travellers, today there are websites and smartphone apps that connect to multiple national booking systems. Examples include thetrainline.com and raileurope.com. When it becomes even more complicated, there are dedicated travel agencies such as the treinreiswinkel in The Netherlands, which used to advertise tickets from Portugal to Vietnam. You can read more about thetrainline at seat61.com

In the distant past, there were many more long distance international services in Western Europe. The Orient Express was famous (and expensive), but there were others such as Sud Express and Nord Express, allowing people to travel from Lisbon to Stockholm with a change only in Paris. Since 2020, there has not even been a train from Lisbon to Madrid any more. With the advent of passenger airlines, long distance passenger trains service was reduced. With the advent of ultra-cheap passenger flights, it was reduced further. Night trains are quite expensive to operate because, unlike day trains, they can only run once per day (night) and are less full than day trains. Night trains suffer not only from cheap flights, but also from high speed rail. So although you can still travel from Portugal to Stockholm by train, you'll need many trains, many tickets, and probably several hotel nights.

With the climate crisis, there are cautious hints at a revival of night trains in Europe. ÖBB Nightjet has restarted on some routes that DB CityNightLine had dropped. The Swedish government is partly subsidising the new route Stockholm - Hamburg (starting 1 September 2022). The former German transport minister suggested reviving the Trans Europe Express. But we are a long way from being able to book international trains as easily as we can book complex airline tickets, and it seems this is not coming any time soon. In fact, in 2009, BBC News reported on the failure of a Europe-wide common booking system, which is apparently very expensive:

Railteam, the alliance of European high-speed rail operators, has shelved plans for a Europe-wide common booking system because of increasing costs.

The system would have allowed customers to book tickets for Europe-wide rail journeys in a single transaction.

The platform was due to be unveiled this year, but has been scrapped for the foreseeable future, according to Eurostar.

Railteam's other members include Thalys, SNCF and Deutsche Bahn.

"All seven high-speed operators thought the platform would be a good idea but once we started looking at the system in detail we realised that it would be very complicated and therefore extremely expensive." said Lesley Retallack from Eurostar.

At present, although travellers can book some Europe-wide tickets through the individual websites of Railteam's members, passengers often receive more than one ticket for journeys onward from the carriers' normal routes.

The new system would have created a one-stop-shop for tickets for complete high-speed journeys across Europe.

In India and Russia, among other places, long distance train journeys are slow, but booking is relatively easy and there are many night trains. It helps that those systems were built within one country with one booking system (in case of Russia, also linking with its shrinking number of post-Soviet friends). I would expect that, here too, long distance train usage is shrinking due to the availability of (cheap) flights, but I don't have factual information on this.

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  • We (in Germany) checked if we could go on holiday to e.g. the South of France by train. Of course you can, but the train companies don't seem to want you to. A long-distance train may not travel at night at all. One we could have taken stops in Lyon for 8 hours. And so on. Trains won't cross borders (e.g. from France to Spain), you have to get out and change. Until the train companies decide they want our custom we will continue to use the car to go on holiday. Shame.
    – RedSonja
    Aug 1 at 13:03
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    @RedSonja There are direct daily trains from Frankfurt to Marseille that you can book on bahn.de. There are also direct daily trains from Paris to Madrid that you can book through SNCF or RENFE, no need to change at the border! I already mentioned thetrainline as a booking website and seat61.com as a general source. It's true that booking long distance trains in Europe can be a hassle, but I've taken train vacations to southern Spain many times from Sweden, Netherlands, UK, and Germany, and it's entirely possible. Don't let the complicated booking put you off. You know Travel SE ☺
    – gerrit
    Aug 1 at 13:07
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    You have renewed my interest in rail travel. Shall try it. Next stop Prague. Though we are down by the Bodensee, which often means we have to take the slow train to Stuttgart or Ulm before we even start.
    – RedSonja
    Aug 2 at 7:50
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There's an inherent reply question to your question: "What is your bench mark and what are you comparing?

Travel options for both passengers and freight is a dynamic situation where options are always under review and continuously changing.

Using trains to limit or replace car travel would be appealing and logical now from a CO2 reduction perspective given most cars now use petrol/gasoline, diesel or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), but in 10 to 20 years time the vast majority of cars in Europe, and elsewhere, will be electrically powered and infrastructure to recharge vehicle batteries will be much easier to access than now. Upgrading existing rail infrastructure or replacing it will take years. Maybe waiting for cars to change might be an easier and cheaper option.

Some of the advantages of air travel compared to rail is air travel can be more direct and it can take less time to travel, depending on the starting and end points and the travel route between them.

The other changing dynamic is the design of aircraft and the fuel used. Some aircraft can be designed to have less mass and to be more fuel efficient. Additionally alternate fuels could be used. Some airlines are already investigating options and utilizing alternatives on certain routes.

As to the development or expansion of rail travel, depending on location, politics can be an impediment. Australia is not known for its log distance rail services. What little it has is mainly for foreign tourists "wanting an experience". Since the early 1980s a number of studies have been undertaken for a high speed rail line linking Melbourne with Sydney and depending on the study also linking Canberra and/or Brisbane. Apart from "studies", nothing has happened.

It can be argued that politics hampers rail elsewhere, such as the USA, maybe Canada. Economics is also another factor. China has done much to establish a fast long distance rail system.

Also, using trains for long distance travel is logical if electrified trains are used, not diesel powered ones.

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