With new routes, faster trains and even renewed carriages, the great European rail renaissance shows no signs of hitting the buffers.
Indeed, it’s never been easier to book tickets – either before you go or on the move. Operators are now rewarding travelers who explore Europe by train and, for a rail system that has been around for ages, it still has plenty of hidden classics up its sleeve.
Co-author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Train Travel in Europe, Tom Hall surveys the scene for 2024 and suggests five rides to appeal to the rail buff in all of us.
1. Paris to Berlin Nightjet, France and Germany
The revival of the Paris to Berlin sleeper service has done more than restore a key night train connection. This thrice-weekly ÖBB (Austrian Railways) service is one of the most celebrated new routes in recent years. It is a fantastic way for travelers to see both these cities in one trip, whilst enjoying a night on the rails too. The route hasn’t had a night service since the pandemic and with no daytime link, this is the only direct connection between the French and German capitals.
Trains depart from Paris’ beautiful Gare de l’Est station. If heading east, arrive in time to admire Albert Herter’s vast memorial painting, The Departure of the Infantrymen, which honors the soldiers who headed to the front in WWI from the station. With an early evening departure, the sleeper arrives before 9am in Berlin. Coming west, there’s time for a lie-in before a 10:24am arrival into Paris.
The service joins up with cars heading to and from Brussels in Mannheim – where cars to Vienna are also detached – offering passengers an alternative connection to the UK via Eurostar. However, it’s the connection between Paris and Berlin that is the most eye-catching, not least because there’s already the European Sleeper train between Brussels and Berlin.
As ever with night trains the experience trumps punctuality, so build in some additional time for any onward journeys. From late 2024 the Paris–Berlin route will operate daily, and will also run with new-generation Nightjet carriages including innovative capsule-style private mini cabins for one.
2. Munich to Bologna, Germany and Italy
As memorable an experience as night trains can be, they don’t offer much to see out the window – unless you count the occasional lengthy stop in a deserted station to add or remove carriages.
Despite being one of Europe’s most storied routes, the direct service from Munich to Bologna along the Brenner Pass line still feels like a back door into Italy from northern Europe. The seven-hour journey threads its way through Austria’s Tirol region, past pretty villages, going via the Alpine city of Innsbruck. It then traverses the pass through mountainous scenery and on through the Dolomites before reaching the beautiful city of Verona. From here, the route is flat to Bologna, arguably Italy’s most underrated destination.
While this service currently offers familiar EuroCity carriages, in spring 2024 the service will have new Railjet cars offering an updated, comfortable ride. They will include updated three-class seating and a dining car, making this a tempting option for a summer journey through the Alps.
3. Amsterdam to London, the Netherlands and the UK
In less than four high-speed hours, Eurostar trains whizz direct between Amsterdam and London. Running up to four times a day, the route is a popular alternative to flying. However, from June 2024 the route will go on an enforced hiatus for the rest of the year. This is due to construction at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station.
Whilst the work is taking place, there won’t be space for the security and immigration facilities at the venerable terminus that Eurostar requires for travel to the UK. Instead, passengers will need to take a freshly rebranded mainland European Eurostar (formerly Thalys) train to Brussels and use the passport controls there.
The Amsterdam to London service will return in early 2025 and more passengers will be able to use this route than before. In the meantime, travel in the first half of 2024 for the most convenient journey between the two capitals.
Trains from London to Amsterdam will still run direct during this time. The trains will just pootle back empty to Brussels. If this set-up sounds familiar, it’s because this was the arrangement when Eurostar first started operating in Amsterdam.
4. The Ionian Railway, Italy
For something different in Italy, aim for this slow train along its southern shoreline. Running for 472 glorious seaside-hugging kilometers, this seven-hour epic runs twice daily between Taranto and Reggio di Calabria, the latter best known as being one end of the boat train to Sicily. This service links quiet seaside towns on Italy’s instep, hugging the Ionian coast for much of the journey. As you might expect for a railway that doesn’t connect major tourist destinations, even in high summer this line has low passenger traffic, giving it a lazy and slightly secret atmosphere. In such a popular country that only adds to the appeal.
With a little imagination, the Ionian Railway can form the basis of a few days of exploration along the line such as ancient Metaponto and comparatively little-visited coastal cities like Crotone and Catanzaro. Alternatively, take the afternoon service. You can then put your feet up as this stately service rumbles on past endless sea vistas until Sicily looms into view across the Straits of Messina with the sunset for accompaniment.
Note: although this is an InterCity service, it behaves more like a regional train, stopping frequently – 23 times – and, crucially, it doesn’t have a buffet or dining car. Bring a picnic.
5. Zaragoza to Canfranc, Spain and France
Despite being the birthplace of the artist Francisco Goya and home of the Aljafería Palace, a vast turreted Hispano-Islamic fortress, Zaragoza still somehow manages to fly under the radar. Yet Spain’s fifth-largest city is well worth a visit. It has a remarkable subterranean world of Roman remains and a museum devoted to origami. It also has a firm grasp of its culinary history, best explored on a tapas tour of the atmospheric alleys of El Tubo. They make it hard to leave.
Even Zaragoza’s station is an architectural highlight. It’s also the starting point for an unlikely adventure. Twice a day, a regional service heads north into the Pyrenees. High up at an altitude of 1040m lies Canfranc, a vast Beaux Arts station building on the French–Spanish border. For many years this steep-sided valley was where passengers would change trains but it was struck into near silence in 1970 when a damaged bridge on the French side of the mountains led to the closure of the Canfranc route as a way to travel onwards to Pau in France.
That seemed to seal the fate of the “Titanic of the Mountains,” whose vast ornate exterior and grand salons fell into disrepair, only to be visited by curious day-trippers on hard-hat tours. However, a landmark hotel and spa opened in the station building last year, giving travelers a reason to linger at what remains a backdoor route from Spain to France. Two trains daily make their way from Zaragoza in a little under four hours. Whether you stay the night or not, the route onward involves a bus across the border to Bedous and a train from there to Pau, from where fast TGVs run to Bordeaux and Paris.