There’s something about taking trains. Apart from being comfortable as one can move around the carriages, it comes with some sort of Agatha Christie‘s Orient Express communal feeling’ – and before you say it – no, I don’t mean the murder mystery 🙂 In case you liked travelling by trains, this piece is about to offer you some tips about rail travel in Europe, including its brief history, links and tips to get your tickets or what are the most scenic journeys in the Old Continent and so on.
A very brief history of trains in Europe
If we don’t count in the very early days of the trackway build to transport the boats in ancient Greece in 600 BCE or various human/animal powered wooden rails in the mediaeval days, basically if we wanted to start with the cast iron-based rails and trains powered by steam-power locomotives, we would have to go back to the industrial period in the United Kingdom.
The first working railway steam locomotive was built in 1804 by Richard Trevithick, a British engineer from Cornwall. Mr Trevithick was behind the world’s first steam-powered railway journey took place on 21 February 1804 in South Wales. Among many pioneers and inventors from this era, another significant name in the history of railways to be mentioned is George Stephenson.
I personally believe that there are at least two more names to be mentioned in relation to the most significant inventions that brought railways closer to their current state. The first one is a Scottish gentleman called Robert Davidson, who build the first electricity-powered locomotive (1837). Moving away from the British Isles, the next significant step for the railways was getting an electric tramway, which was introduced near Berlin in 1881 by Mr Werner von Siemens (yes, that one).
Current rail systems in Europe
In 2017 there was a total of 217 235km of railways in the 28 EU countries (including the UK). Germany has the largest rail network in use, with an impressive 39 219 km. The 28 120 km of rails put France in second place, with Poland closing the top 3 with its 18 513 km of railway lines.
Replacing the formerly major trade river routes, the rail network in Europe is generally rather developed, joining all major industrial centres on the continent. The map below, of course, doesn’t show the regional routes but it might give you an idea of major trade locations on the old continent.
When it comes to passenger transport, there are obvious advantages of using the train, except the comfort, it’s the fact that you arrive right to the centre of the town, your luggage is not limited, no check-in cues, various discounts and so on.
The trouble is that unless you know where to look and how to book your tickets, trains often work out more expensive if compared to the budget airline carriers. Of course, it depends on the deal you have found as well as on the price of getting to the centre of town from the airport.
Tickets, prices, booking systems
In case you were planning to explore Europe by train, one of the clever solutions could be Interrail. Their product is basically a train pass that allows you to choose from over 40 000 destinations in 33 countries. Prices start at €185, depending on your age (seniors, kids and youth have discounts), the comfort (1st vs the 2nd class) and finally the number of times you would use the train monthly. All deals are here.
There is of course competition, such as Eurail or Rail Europe and in case you wanted to save few bucks, please check out the current deals as they generally keep competing among each other. Regarding the National Railways and/or high-speed trains, such as TGV or Eurostar, it works more or less like when you’re booking your flights. Do it in advance or pick a particular train to get a better deal.
Domestic National Railways in (the border check-less) Schengen Area
Booking your tickets with domestic national railways is also not so difficult. Some systems offer price discounts if you book in advance for a particular train. Those marked with a star work on fixed prices though.
- Austrian Railways*
- Belgian Railways*
- Czech Railways
- Danish Railways
- Dutch Railways*
- Estonian Railways
- Finnish Railways
- French Railways
- German Railways
- Greek Rails
- Hungarian Railways
- Italian Railways
- Latvian Railway
- Lichtenstein‘s 4 stations railway network
- Lithuanian Railways
- Luxembourg Rail
- Norwegian Railways
- Polish Railways
- Portuguese Railway
- Slovak Railways
- Slovenian Railways
- Spanish Railways
- Swedish Railways
- Swiss Railways*
The non-Schengen Area European countries railways
Except for Ireland and the UK, I can’t say that I’ve used trains in any of the following countries. I’m therefore including links to some informative posts, in case you wanted more details regarding train travel about a particular country listed here.
- Albania: Here‘s a piece from a site called Ontrackblog about trains in Albania;
- Armenia: Here‘s an informative piece about train travel in Armenia provided by Caravanistan;
- Azerbaijan: Caravanistan informes about taking trains in Azerbaijan as well;
- Belarus: Here‘s a piece by 34travel about taking trains in Belarus;
- Bulgaria: Bulgarian Railway official site is here. Furthermore, here‘s a Culturetrip‘s piece about exploring the country on the train;
- Croatia: Croatian Railways site is here. Some train travel tips from Rick Steves are here;
- Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina: The official Railways website is here. Furthermore, here‘s a piece describing one of the most iconic train journeys from Sarajevo to Mostar, a courtesy of Bizarre Globe Hopper;
- Georgia: Here‘s an informative piece about train travel in this increasingly popular tourist destination, once again by Caravanistan;
- Ireland: The official Irish Railway site to book your tickets is here.
- Moldova: Rail explorer informs us how is the train travel in Moldova here;
- Montenegro: Happyrail offers few tips about taking trains in Montenegro here. If you wish to visit their official Railway website, please do so here;
- North Macedonia: The most informative piece I’ve found about train travel in North Macedonia is here, by Macedonia-timeless;
- Romania: The official site of the Romanian Railway could be found here. Gadventures informs us about trains in Romania here;
- Russia: Miss Tourist offers some useful information about train travel in this massive country in her Ultimate Guide here;
- Serbia: The Serbian Railway official website could be found here. Globuzzer explains the difference between train and bus travel in the country here;
- Turkey: Go Turkey Tourism informs us here about train travel in the country of Midnight Express. More details, including the official Turkish Railway website, could be found here, on Turkey Travel Planner;
- Ukraine: Ultimate guide train travel in the country hit by a conflict with Russian separatists in its east region could be found here;
- UK: The official United Kingdom Railways site could be found here.
Scenic routes, epic train stations and other tips
For the train travel enthusiasts, I’ve collected few articles describing some of the finest experiences one can get when travelling by train in Europe.
- 10 most beautiful train stations in Europe by Deutsche Welle;
- 10 best sleeper trains in Europe by The Guardian;
- 10 best rural rail lines in Europe by The Guardian;
- Scotland in a week on a train by The Guardian.
In case you were not aware, European Union and some countries have come to an agreement, regarding passport control. The so-called Schengen Area involves the 26 countries listed above. Unless there are exceptional circumstances, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, you should not need to use your passport once you enter the area.
Please note that not every EU country is in Schengen Area. More precisely, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland and Romania are not, however some non-EU countries, such as Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein have joined the Schengen Area. When read what I’ve just written, it sounds a little confusing. Trust me, it’s not. Getting around Europe is actually easy. I’d say that is the easiest and most hustle-free region to travel to if compared to any place I’ve ever been.
I’m sure that when you’re travelling, you always check the entry requirements on your government’s pages yourself, whether it’s for Schengen or any other destination.
Safety and SCAM
Europe is regarded as a very safe place. There’s tight gun ownership law, which comes with less gun crime. However, like in every tourist destination, there are various pickpockets and numerous scams going on. It’s hard to generalise anything regarding one’s safety because every place is different and your own safety of course depends on what kind of tourism are you looking for. One way or another, Europe is generally one of the safest regions to travel in the whole world.
That’s when it comes to crime and other dangers coming from humans, such as driving and so on. Then there’s of course the Mother Nature, one should never underestimate, especially upon visiting mountains or while swimming in the ocean. More details and tips about general safety while travelling could be found here, in case you were interested. FYI, the article focuses on Latin America but most of it applies everywhere.
Stay safe and healthy and enjoy your ride 😉