Letter from Europe

Crossing the Water

Issue no. 2019/8

Picture above: Side by side: an ICE train and a truck on the Scandlines ferry from Puttgarden (in Germany) to Rødby (Denmark) (photo © Oliver Foerstner / dreamstime.com).


There are three places in Europe where passenger trains are still regularly conveyed on ferries. One of them is the Scandlines ferry that carries the regular daytime Eurocity trains from Hamburg to Copenhagen. But the days of that rail-ferry link are numbered.

Dear fellow travellers

In The Bridge Builders, Rudyard Kipling asks "Can any say that their bridge endures until tomorrow?” The fate of the railway bridges which spanned the great rivers of India was in the hands of the Gods. Some say that's still true today. Building railways through the mountainous Ghats was a formidable challenge but it was nothing compared with the difficulties of getting the trains over the Ganges, the Brahmaputra or the Soane.

As Christian Wolmar recounts in his excellent Railways and the Raj, the Soane might be a mere trickle in the dry season, but it expands into a mighty torrent over four kilometres wide in times of flood.

Running tracks across the dry river bed was an option for the drier times of the year, but how might one handle rail traffic in times of flood? No ferry could safely transport an entire train across the tempestuous Soane in spate. In the end, the East Indian Railway Company opted for a bridge, a solution which nicely suited British engineering companies contracted to supply the great lattice girders which were shipped out to India in kit form.

Ferrying the train on a boat

Watery expanses have always formed a challenge for railways. And not just in India. In the early days of rail travel in Europe, trains were regularly transported on ferries across major rivers. By 1850, there were railways on both sides of the River Rhine, but no bridges over the river. The Prussian military authorities in Berlin were dead set against rail bridges being built across the Rhine, so the train companies developed a number of ferries across the river which were able to transport an entire train. There were six different routes in all, opening at various times between 1852 and 1870. The last of these rail-ferry routes, a 550-metre crossing between Bonn and Oberkassel, remained in regular use until the First World War.

Even on the Rhine, so placid compared with Indian rivers, the train-ferry services were often suspended because of floods and river ice. Further north in Europe, where severe winters were reliably predictable, there were places where railway lines were built each winter across frozen rivers. Trains were thus able to cross the River Torne between Haparanda in Sweden and Tornio in Finland. But when Lenin took this route on his celebrated return to Russia in April 1917, he and his party hired horse-drawn sledges to ferry them over the frozen Torne. Crossing rivers sometimes demanded ingenuity on the part of passengers.

Managing train ferries in tidal waters (like the English Channel) created extra challenges, as heavy locomotives and carriages cannot cope with steep inclines as they roll on and off ferries. For many years, there were direct overnight trains from London to Brussels and Paris (and even for a spell to Switzerland). Passengers could snooze their way across the channel. The sleeping cars were conveyed from Dover to Dunkerque, a three-hour crossing by ferry.

The last remaining train ferries in Europe

There are three places in Europe where passenger trains are still conveyed on ferries. There are year-round services across the Strait of Messina between the Italian mainland and Sicily. There is a much longer Baltic crossing used by the night trains from Berlin to Malmö, a route which generally runs only in spring and summer, although this autumn there are a handful of direct night trains from Berlin to Stockholm which are routed via the Sassnitz to Trelleborg ferry.

The last of Europe's three surviving train ferries is that over the Fehmarn Strait. It has historically been used by the regular daytime Eurocity trains from Hamburg to Copenhagen. It is one of two main rail routes between the two cities; the other route via Odense is longer but doesn't rely on a ferry.

For the last few months, trains have not been routed via the Fehmarn Strait ferry, but the service will be reinstated on Sunday 29 September. Danish State Railways will run six Eurocity trains each day between Copenhagen and Hamburg (three in each direction), all using the Scandlines ferry between Rødby and Puttgarden. But this really is the last call for this unusual rail route. This autumn season is its swansong, as the service will run for the very last time on Saturday 14 December 2019. Thereafter, direct trains from Hamburg to Copenhagen will all run via Odense. It’s expected that trains will revert to the Fehmarn route in about ten years. By then, there will be a 17-km submarine tunnel linking Germany and Denmark.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)