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Of trains and tariffs: cross-border rail links in Europe

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: No trains over the border — travellers intent on crossing the border from Slovenia to Italy have to decant at Sezana and continue their travels by bus (photo © hidden europe).


The European Union has programmes to encourage sustainable transport initiatives and to promote links between communities that are separated by frontiers. Yet every year more cross-border rail links close. We take a look at the issues preventing the success of these ventures.

Europe has a long way to go in facilitating short cross-border journeys by train. We think here not of journeys on express trains between major international centres, but rather of minor railways that weave through valleys and forests, meander across plains, stopping off at wayside halts and along the way providing links between communities separated by a frontier.

In February this year, we sped non-stop on a sleek red Thalys express trains from Brussels to Paris. In truth we would rather have taken a slower service, and four years ago we did just that, crossing the frontier from Belgium into France at Quévy. There are still hourly trains from Brussels to Quévy but no onward cross-border link. The train from Brussels terminates just short of the border. The connecting service to France was axed in December 2008.

The European Union has programmes to encourage sustainable transport initiatives and to promote links between communities that are separated by frontiers. Considerable EU support has been channelled into local cross-border rail services. Yet every year, more cross-border rail links close. Last year it was the beautiful link over the hills from Lupków in Poland to Medzilaborce in Slovakia. The last remaining passenger train from Italy to Slovenia was withdrawn in December 2011. The rail service between Elvas in Portugal and Badajoz in Spain, re-established with EU support in December 2009, was cut in January 2012.

For many years, the pretext for axing rural cross-border links was that it was uneconomic to provide immigration and customs checks on lightly-used services. But all four of the services mentioned above (from France to Belgium, Poland to Slovakia, Italy to Slovenia and Portugal to Spain) are across inner-Schengen borders where passport and customs checks were abolished some years ago. Bureaucrats very creatively construct other excuses. The branch railway from Guben (Germany) to Zielona Góra (Poland) was closed, so they say, to prevent the spread of foot-andmouth disease — even though, as that service was withdrawn, the German government was busy applying for EU support to open two new crossborder rail routes into Poland, both of which are now in operation.

Elsewhere in Europe, we have seen major investments in railway infrastructure on crossborder lines, but railway operators have not stepped in with improved services. Rail passengers travelling from Germany to the Czech Republic via the border crossing at Bayerisch Eisenstein still need to change from a German to a Czech train at the border. On journeys from Berlin to Poland via Kostrzyn — the route across that border with by far the most trains — travellers must always change from a German to a Polish train at the border.

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