For some of us, a train is much more than a train; the means of transport is the journey in itself, not the destination.
Regardless of whatever personal value a train may have to you, it is usually essential that it provides you with a comfortable seat, travelling at a reasonable speed at an affordable price. A quick scan of the British press before, during and after the privatisation of National Rail and you’ll find that the general British public share a common opinion on British trains: they’re of poor quality, slow, don’t have enough seats and overpriced.
But how bad are British trains, really? Do foreign rail services fare much better? As someone who has travelled the length and breadth of Europe by train, embarking on all sorts of services, from the standard regional train, through the German ICE intercity, to the Train Hotel overnight luxury service between the Spanish and French capitals, I’d say the continent has something to offer but it’s not as brilliant as it may seem.
First of all, let’s compare a pretty standard service in the UK with one on the continent: Newcastle to London; Poznań to Kraków (Poland). Both have similar distances (around 550km each).
No matter what train you take in Poland, the journey time is almost exactly the same (save a minute or two here and there): 8 hours 50 minutes in total. The British operator offers different services completing the journey in different lengths of time: from 3 hours 50 minutes to an astonishing 2 hours 45 minutes. Taking the cheapest, lowest quality service available on the Polish route or taking the most expensive, highest quality one unfortunately does not change the comfortableness of the seats (non-reclinable and in compartments) nor does it have an affect on the availability of wi-fi, or rather lack there of. On the British route, whether you complete the route with EastCoast or a combination of XCountry and other operators, wi-fi is widely available; although it does come at a cost (2.50GBP is the minimum tariff, getting you 1 hour of internet access).
Unless you’re sitting in First Class, seats are also unreclinable on most British standard class trains; however, they are usually quite comfortable with tall backs, you can choose whether you’d like to sit next to the window or in the aisle, the direction you’d like to face, and you can opt for a table seat if you so wish. Furthermore, carriages are ‘open’, which means the seats are all in the same carriage and not split into compartments (like something you’d see in a screen version of an Agatha Christie novel).
Many services on the continent still have compartments (Spain and Poland included amongst others); although this looks very unusual and therefore exciting to people from outside the Old Continent, it is however somewhat uncomfortable with little leg room and if the carriage is full you’re often forced to play a war of footsy with your opponent.
Fast services, legroom, comfortable seats, open carriages – surely British trains have at a single vice? Unfortunately, they do. Above all, the cost of a train ticket in the UK is not only high but it is creeping up and up every year. Turning up to London King’s Cross and asking for a single on the next service to Newcastle can set you back an astonishing 105GBP! And that’s only if you accept the terms and conditions of that particular ticket (non-exchangeable and can only be used during off-peak hours). Fortunately in Europe, although some Europe train operators run airline style ticket pricing (whereby you can get your ticket cheaper if you book further in advance), generally speaking train fares are at an affordable price: Venice to Milan will only set you back 20EUR.
We aren’t ones for onboard restaurants in the UK. Although some services offer full three course meals for their First Class passengers, the concept of a universally accessible restaurant carriage for all travellers doesn’t really exist. On the continent, I think in just about every intercity service I’ve ever travelled on, there’s always been an onboard restaurant, offering a wealth of starters, mains and desserts as well as wine and champagne (though they do come at a price).
UK trains are overcrowded? Although I have read and heard this many times in the news, I’ve yet to see an overcrowded train and do wonder how it is even possible. First of all, on British trains where seat reservation is possible (which is on most of them) you can reserve a seat for absolutely free (on the continent this always comes at a cost). Secondly, major intercity services on the continent run several times a day on the continent (Dresden – Berlin 6 times); however, there is a train going to London from York almost every 30 minutes throughout the day; generally speaking, major routes in the UK are serviced very frequently, much more so than on the continent.
All in all I think there is a fair amount of positive things going for British trains. Although they aren’t perfect, perhaps the continental operators could pick up a thing or two from their British counterparts.