Hassles of Cross-Border Trains Hamper EU’s Green Ambitions
CZECH-GERMAN BORDER — The lanky man bent down to examine a rusted railroad track that cut across the empty square of a small, forgotten town, shaking his head at the weeds poking up.
“Disappointing,” was his verdict, the ruling perhaps influenced by the shuttered brick train station accumulating cobwebs in the German border town of Seifhennersdorf, not far from the Czech Republic.
By profession, Jon Worth is a university lecturer in political communications. By passion, he is the self-anointed inspector of Europe’s railroads. And he has tasked himself with addressing a dilemma: Why isn’t it easier to traverse European borders by rail?
No one asked him to undertake this mission, but his justification is clear. In order for Europe to live up to its ambitions to lead the globe to carbon neutrality, it needs to get people out of planes and cars.
On paper, Europe’s train system has a leg up on many parts of the world, including the United States. Yet its railways could almost be an allegory for the European Union itself. From the outside, the system seems boringly functional. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you discover a tangle of bureaucracy, finger pointing and the kicking of problematic cans down the road — or rails.
For the bloc aspiring to be the greenest of them all, international rail routes within the European Union leave something to be desired.
Bridges once spanning borders have lain in ruins since World War II. A multimillion-euro line between Paris and Barcelona, offering spectacular vistas, could be transporting train-loads of people every hour. Instead, it lies unused most of the day.
Traveling high-traffic commercial routes, like Paris to London, can cost hundreds of euros more than flying. Want to ride the rails from Tallinn, Estonia, to Riga, Latvia? Good luck. The national railways involved refuse to coordinate train schedules.
And travel sites for international rail bookings — for instance, the equivalent of Kayak or Skyscanner used for airplane flights — somehow either fail to exist or are difficult to find.
To understand why — and to attract attention to the problem — Mr. Worth began a one-man grassroots campaign this summer that he calls the Cross Border Rail Project.
Using crowdfunding to buy a drone, a camera and a gauge to measure trains’ air quality, he has traversed every E.U. border to determine where international rail systems work, where they don’t, and what could be done to fix them, then documenting his findings. At each stop, he writes a postcard detailing his findings to the E.U. railways commissioner, offering his recommendations.
He has yet to receive a reply, he said.
“One reaction I get is: ‘Are you this crazy?’” said Mr. Worth, as we clattered along in a glass compartment on the line to Prague from Berlin. “The other reaction is: ‘Actually, this is really interesting. Because we need to get more people on trains.’”
Mr. Worth first came to my attention while I was trying to plan a trip that seemed straightforward but ended up in hair-pulling frustration.
As an American, I’d once mocked the complaints that some Europeans leveled against their train systems. Compared with U.S. railways, the European version seems enviable.
Then I tried to book a journey from Paris to northern Spain. I ended up all the way down in Madrid before I could catch a train back to the border with France.
That was when I discovered Mr. Worth on Twitter, where he often responds to pleas from exasperated travelers. A top request is advice for getting to Portugal, whose train timetables are notoriously elusive to outsiders.
“Lisbon is supposed to be one of Europe’s 100 climate-neutral cities by 2030,” he said. “But how the hell do you get to Lisbon by train? It’s next to impossible. You shouldn’t have to be an expert to book a train.”
Recently, I joined him on the final leg of his journey traversing the borders between Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic.
On board, we met a fellow passenger, Sebastian Kaiser, who recognized Mr. Worth from Twitter. Mr. Kaiser, too, was trying to stick to traveling only by train in Europe. On this day, however, it felt hard, he said — not just because of logistics, but because of the crowds of inebriated young tourists headed to the Czech capital.
“This route is always annoying,” he said. “And it’s usually way smellier.”
In the small but passionate world of European train nerds, Mr. Worth is one of their semi-celebrities. (Another popular train aficionado helping travelers on their journeys is Mark Smith of England, through his website Seat61.com.) Throughout the trip, strangers who knew of Mr. Worth’s project would contact him — and, sometimes, even join him — to share ideas for how to improve the railroads, and to find the most scenic routes, from the Alps to the Baltic Sea.
Sometimes, you can feel the lingering effects of Word War II on train travel. On our way home from the Polish border to Berlin, one train was canceled after an unexploded ordnance was found at a Berlin station. Unexploded World War II ordnance remain a fairly common travel disruption in Germany.
But our journey exposed another type of problem, too: rail theft. We had to reroute on the German-Polish border because thieves had stripped train signaling cables of copper wires. Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway, said it needed three months for repair.
I sometimes wondered if Mr. Worth’s standards were too demanding. After all, you can still access most of Europe by train.
But to Mr. Worth, comparing the present with the past is the best justification for his mission.
In the 1930s, it took around two hours and 45 minutes to reach Breslau from Berlin. Now, it takes more than four hours, he said. In the 1990s, a train from Bucharest reached Budapest in 12 hours. Now it takes at least 15 hours. The increased travel time, he said, is the result of decades of neglect and not prioritizing international lines.
At the German-Czech border, we hopped on folding bikes so Mr. Worth could photograph two small lines linking rural Czech towns to German villages. Connections like these, he argues, are critical to inspiring people to get back on trains.
“Border travel isn’t just Brussels to Luxembourg,” he said. “These are places where border crossings are an everyday thing.”
Our final leg of the trip revealed a stark example of failed cross-border modernization. At the bridge linking the Polish town of Zgorzelec to its German sister city of Görlitz, wires erected for electrifying the railway line abruptly stop where Germany begins.
Poland and Germany signed an agreement in 2003 to electrify their cross-border lines. But nearly 20 years later, Berlin has still not honored its part of the deal. The electric wiring on the Polish side has never been used; effectively, the electric poles were put up as a giant gesture of annoyance. To this day, only diesel trains can cross that border.
“They are basically saying: ‘Hey, Germany, we’ve electrified and you still bloody haven’t,” he said. “When are you going to get on it?’”