Letter from Europe

Europe by rail: spring news

Issue no. 2015/10

Picture above: Eurostar trains waiting at the platforms at St Pancras station in London (photo © MorganOliver / dreamstime.com).


It is that time of year when rail companies across Europe tweak their schedules for the upcoming summer season. Here's an overview of some of the noteworthy changes for this spring.

Dear fellow travellers

It is that time of year when rail companies across Europe tweak their schedules for the upcoming summer season. Here's an overview of some of the noteworthy changes for this spring.

London to Provence

It is just a month until Eurostar introduces its new direct service from London to Marseille. This is the first time in the history of rail travel that there has ever been a direct scheduled service from London to the shores of the Mediterranean. The travel time is 6 hrs 27 mins for the 1234-km journey. The new service will run thrice weekly from 1 May, with the frequency increasing to five departures each week from 5 July.

Riviera links

The number of EuroCity services from the French Riviera to Genoa and Milan increases this month. The route is already served by a once-daily EuroCity train - this is a service from Marseille to Milan operated by Thello. But from 12 April, there will be two more EuroCity trains each day from Nice to Milan, bringing the daily total on that route to three in all - plus a weekly train from Nice to Moscow which also follows the Riviera coast from Nice to Genoa before turning inland to Milan and beyond.

Across the Baltic

Today sees the welcome return of the seasonal overnight service from Malmö to Berlin. But the schedule is thin, with the timetable showing just 23 journeys in each direction over the coming five months. The debut journey for the 2015 season left Malmö at 5pm this afternoon. The first trip back to Malmö leaves Berlin next Sunday evening. The travel time from Berlin to Malmö is about twelve hours and includes the unusual feature of the entire train being shunted onto a ship on the Baltic crossing from Sassnitz to Trelleborg.

Thalys cuts

With effect from today, high-speed operator Thalys serves just four Belgian stations rather than ten. Yesterday evening saw the last departures from Paris on Thalys routes to six provincial cities in Belgium: Namur, Mons, Charleroi Sud, Ghent, Bruges and Ostend. Perceptive readers will note a touch of Belgian politics at work here. Cuts on services to the Dutch-speaking part of the country must be balanced by cuts to the French-speaking Wallonia region. Dutch-speaking politicians in Belgium have a fine term for this quintessentially Belgian sense of regional balance: wafelijzerpolitiek (waffle-iron politics).

Spanish night train axed

Next Tuesday sees the final run of the direct night train from Barcelona to Madrid. As so often across Europe, this train has been the victim of huge increases in the speed and frequency of daytime services. Ten years ago, the crack expresses from Barcelona to Madrid took five hours. Today they take just half that time, and there are now early morning and late evening departures on the route. It's surprising that the night train has survived as long as it has.

New Paris to Berlin overnight service

But elsewhere we have some very good news about night trains. From 20 June, it'll once again be possible to travel on a direct night train from Paris to Berlin. And this will be possible courtesy of Russian Railways (RZD). No, this is not an April Fool's joke. RZD is re-jigging its schedules from mid-June, shifting the departure of the Paris to Moscow service so that it'll leave the French capital in the evening rather than at breakfast time. The route of the train through Germany also changes; it will run via Erfurt rather than Hannover. The new timetable will give an excellent new overnight option between Paris and three cities in eastern Germany: Erfurt, Berlin and Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. You can read more about this in our recent article for European Rail News.

Russian cuts

The last direct services from both Prague and Vienna to St Petersburg run today - at least for the time being. The links from Vienna and Prague to Moscow remain. Another casualty of the deteriorating relations between the European Union and the Russian Federation is the long-standing link between Karlovy Vary and Moscow. The last direct train on this route will leave Karlovy Vary at lunchtime tomorrow. But there's still speculation that the route might be back sooner rather than later.

Summer fare deals

Russian Railways is having a spring sale on its cross-border Allegro service from St Petersburg to Helsinki. RZD yesterday announced much cheaper fares on this route for travel on Mondays to Thursdays in the months of June, July and August. One-way tickets booked from 60 days in advance will be available from €29 second class and €60 first class. The cheap tickets will go on sale on Friday this week.

Meanwhile, tomorrow sees the opening of the final tranche of summer deals on French rail routes. This means that bookings for all journeys on SNCF high-speed services can be made right through to 30 August 2015.

If you are interested in keeping abreast of developments in European rail travel, you may find the monthly editions of the European Rail Timetable of interest. We contribute a 'Route of the Month' to every single issue. For the April 2015 issue our featured route is the line from Porto to Vigo - a marvellous journey of just over two hours which links two great Iberian cities.

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