Many people seem to think that international train journeys are very complicated, expensive and slow, compared to flying. Do you think these people are correct in believing so?

“Most people who travel internationally by train opt for journeys of about five hundred kilometres, which is to say, to Paris, London or Frankfurt. Those are quick journeys, particularly if you’re travelling south. Let’s assume people start from Rotterdam. It takes less than three hours to get to Paris, without any hassle. If you include the amount of time you spend at airports checking in and going through security, journey times are very comparable for cities like those three. And yes, train fares will vary, but the same is true for air fares. Sometimes tickets will be extremely cheap, and at other times they’ll be expensive.”

Dennis Huisman is endowed professor Public Transport Optimization at the Erasmus School of Economics’ Institute of Econometrics. In addition, he works for NS (Dutch Rail) as a logistics processes expertise manager, in which capacity he helps develop the Dutch Rail Timetable. He was awarded a PhD in 2004 for a thesis on integrated and dynamic vehicle and crew scheduling.

The cities you just mentioned (Paris, London) are direct destinations. What if your destination is a little further away, like Eastern or Southern Europe?

“There are many high-speed connections to Southern Europe. For instance, France and Spain have a lot of high-speed trains. Of course it takes a while to reach a city like Barcelona, which is pretty far away, after all – some 1,500 kilometres. Obviously, that takes longer than a flight. But you’re still leaving in the morning and arriving at your destination at night, just like with a plane. Trains to Germany and Austria are a little slower, but also cheaper. If you’re going on a longer trip – let’s say a conference or holiday – a train journey is a good option. If you’re going on a short business trip, train journeys are relatively time-consuming.”

What kinds of European destinations aren’t well served by railroads?

“There are still a few places on the map that are hard to reach. For instance, Portugal is hard to get to. Also, there is quite a bit of water in Europe, and trains must go around that. When you go to London, you can travel through the tunnel, but if you’re travelling to Scotland, that is quite the journey. Scandinavia can be hard to get to as well, although they’re building a new tunnel between Hamburg and Copenhagen. And it’s generally easy to get to big cities, but getting to the Spanish beaches by train is quite the chore.”

Kwestie – treinen treinreizen europa europese vlag – bas van der schot
Image credit: Bas van der Schot

It is often said that trains operated in different countries don’t connect properly, in terms of systems, rails or timetables. Can such obstacles be removed?

“Such differences definitely exist. For instance, France and the Netherlands have the same overhead cable tension, but Belgium doesn’t. The Netherlands uses the ATB automatic train control system, which we were basically gifted by the Americans after World War II. Other countries have different systems. When you travel to a different country by engine, you must have all the equipment designed to help you work with their system with you, which costs a lot of money. Back in the old days, we’d switch to a different engine at the border, but that takes a lot of time. The individual train control systems are being replaced by a pan-European system on more and more stretches, but that’s not a problem that can be solved quickly.

“My own research mainly focuses on mathematical models and algorithms designed to come up with optimal timetables. The challenge is to do so on a genuine pan-European scale. Later this year we’ll embark on an EU project that will tackle that issue, known simply as EU Rail. This is a broad programme designed to innovate the railway system, which will include things such as self-driving trains and sustainability. One example from my own field of research is how to create well-coordinated timetables in which trains don’t have to come to a standstill at the border or have to drive more slowly there. It’s very hard to get everything to fit. Particularly when one country wishes to make changes [to its timetable], because the neighbouring countries must then follow suit.”

“Another objective of the EU project is to make train travel more affordable by reducing costs. How can maintenance be made cheaper? What is the most efficient way to use equipment? For instance, the latter can be done by increasing capacity utilisation. When that is done, energy consumption will be reduced and fewer carriages will be required, and it so happens that these are the things on which most money is being spent. As far as this kind of efficiency is concerned, the Netherlands is already way ahead of most countries – for instance because we use public transport chip cards to measure very thoroughly how full our trains are. This allows us to configure our trains in such a way that it’s easy to reduce the number of carriages at slow times and increase the number of carriages at peak times.”

Air travel is subsidised to a considerable degree. Shouldn’t we be heading towards a situation where air travel receives fewer subsidies, while train travel receives more?

“Air travel is subsidised in that, among other things, no VAT is charged on tickets and no excise is levied on kerosine, but as far as train travel is concerned, the infrastructure in place in most countries is paid for by taxpayers as well. I don’t think it’s true that air travel is given more favourable conditions than train travel. Of course, train travel could definitely do with larger subsidies, but those are political choices that aren’t all that relevant to researchers like myself.

“Another major point that will make cross-border travel by train more appealing is the fact that trains now attract business travellers. The fact that many organisations and businesses have implemented rules that stipulate that relatively short journeys must always be made by train (such as the policy recently implemented by EUR – ed.) is a huge boon in this regard. Business travellers tend to be willing to pay a little more for added room and luxury, and so they indirectly finance the cheaper tickets sold to tourists.”

Foto NS beeldbank rechtenvrij

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From 1 January 2022, all business trips under 700 kilometres by train

From 1 January, employees may no longer book flights for business trips under 700…

The owner of recently complained in De Telegraaf that it is still impossible to sell all train tickets sold in the EU on one single website. Some people who wish to make a long train journey must still visit different websites to buy tickets for the various legs of their trip. Why do these things have to be so complicated?

“Just so that we’re clear on this: for people who wish to travel to the major stations in Belgium, France or Germany, there is no problem whatsoever. However, things get more complicated for certain destinations, such as Barcelona.

“The problem is that different systems must be linked, which must be in a country’s best interest. I think that bigger countries, in particular, think it’s not all that important, because their focus is on the domestic market. As far as this is concerned, things are very different from aviation, where there is an international standard for the sale of tickets. The EU is working hard to encourage everyone to link their systems, so that it will become easier to book a trip to any destination within Europe.”

Kwestie – treinen treinreizen vliegschaamte sneeuw brug vakantie
Image credit: Bas van der Schot

While we wait for that to happen, there are obviously many beautiful train rides in Europe for tourists to enjoy. In your capacity as a lover of trains, do you have any tips we can use this summer holiday?

“As far as scenery is concerned, I think Switzerland offers the most beautiful train journeys. You can take the ICE or night train to Switzerland, then go on gorgeous trips in the country itself, such as the stretch between Chur and Tirano, Italy, via Sankt Moritz, which includes the Bernina Pass. This is UNESCO World Heritage with gorgeous viaducts. In summer these trains come with panoramic carriages with glass walls rather than windows. You basically feel like you’re seated outside, enjoying the view.”