When European international train travel beats the plane


Travelling through Europe by high speed train isn’t only speedy, it’s inexpensive, comfortable and productive. I recently needed to travel from rural France near Lyon to Frankfurt, a trip that took five and a half comfortable, productive hours in a wide first class seat with direct aisle access costing just under €80, on one of France’s international TGV trains and a German ICE.

The cost alone — a flight in Lufthansa’s economy (now 29” down the back) for over €340, which is the only nonstop on the route — would have swung it for the train, but the convenience of city-centre travel and the productivity gains of five hours of work time on the train versus five hours of non-productive time was a real bonus. If I hadn’t wanted to go to Frankfurt Airport, I could have stayed on the same French train all the way to central Frankfurt, which would have made the train even more convenient if I were heading into the city.

I boarded the double-decker TGV Duplex at Lyon, following the clear platform digital signs to ensure I was in the right section of the platform for my car. This isn’t quite Japan-style queueing where the door of the train stops at a precisely marked spot, but it worked well enough.

Inside, I climbed the stairs with my luggage and popped it in one of the spacious racks, which were half empty in the mostly full carriage. No weighing or measuring of my bags here, which is a real advantage.

Spacious suitcase racks are a #PaxEx bonus for travellers. Image: John Walton

Spacious suitcase racks are a #PaxEx bonus for travellers. Image: John Walton

The squashy recliners were supremely comfortable, and my window matched up with the countryside of France that started to zip by at first 260 km/h and then 320 km/h as the train headed along to the LGV Est, one of the newest stretches of high speed rail in the world.

I was impressed that the onboard crew — multilingual in French, German and English — came round quickly to offer at-seat service from the snack bar, and enjoyed a tasty and perfectly melty croque-monsieur with a crisp Kronenbourg beer before knuckling down to get some work done thanks to the at-seat AC power socket and large work table.

After changing crews to a German team at Strasburg, five hours later the TGV pulled into Mannheim for my 18-minute connection for the direct ICE high speed train to Frankfurt Airport. With elevators and ramps, the connection was easy and I enjoyed ten minutes in the late summer sunshine with a cold drink before the ICE arrived.

Where the French TGV first class seats are roomy if a little dated, the ICE3 seats on this train were up to date but less spacious. Rather than making the seats wider, Deutsche Bahn has widened the aisles. The seats were comfortable enough, but I was pleased to have been on the TGV for the longer leg of my trip.

A full bar and bistro/restaurant car sits between first and standard class, although the first class attendant offered to bring my glass of German Sekt sparkling wine directly to my seat. I was delighted to find myself in one of the nose sections of the train, right behind the driver’s seat. If only this had been the front of the train rather than the back, or at least the train hadn’t been coupled to another! Regardless, it was a slightly odd yet very cool passenger experience, with added whimsy from a little packet of complimentary Haribo gummy bears.

But the key to the overall experience was the matter-of-fact simplicity of this kind of European interconnectedness across national borders and rail networks. It’s this well-designed connectivity — together with the #PaxEx advantage over airlines — that makes high-speed train travel in the EU so appealing.

A glass of bubbles and a window seat on a sunny day- Ideal. Image: JOhn Walton

A glass of bubbles and a window seat on a sunny day – ideal. Image: John Walton

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  1. Glen Towler

    This is true of European trains but not true of train services in the UK. When I left the UK in 2003 it was cheaper to fly than catch the train also much quicker of course and that was 13 years ago. I think things have only got worse in the UK for travel on trains.

  2. Chris Kjelgaard

    Those double-length ICE trains which split at Frankfurt Airport to go off to two separate destinations can present a nightmarish scenario when you are trying to make a really tight connection, particularly when like me you have bad knees and you are pushing very heavy luggage!

    In late-October 2013, I had to make what I thought was going to be an easy 17-minute connection at Munich Hauptbahnof from a Railjet train (operated by Austria’s OBB) which I had boarded at Salzburg during its long journey from Budapest via Vienna to Munich. However, the train was a few minutes late arriving at Salzburg and a good 10 minutes late when it reached Munich.

    As luck would have it, the train I needed to catch was right at the far end of the station from the platform at which the Railjet train arrived. With my bad knees, I tried to sprint to the other side of the station, only to find out the reason the train I was going to board had two different train numbers was that it was in fact two full-length ICE trains connected together! Naturally, the farther-away of the connected ICE trains was the one in which I had booked my seat and the carriage was almost halfway along the second train. So I ran full-tilt (very slowly, really, looking at the carriage numbers as I went to try to find the right one) while pushing along a heavy carry-on case and a large, heavily loaded suitcase (in the event I found it weighed 62lb). Very luckily, both suitcases had four wheels each and moved easily.

    I found and boarded my carriage (the designated quiet carriage, though one man sitting in it conducted a 20-minute conversation on his mobile phone at the top of his voice, despite my repeatedly glaring at him and pointing to the ‘Quiet’ sign), getting into my seat only moments before the train started moving. I began coughing and coughed almost uncontrollably for an hour, all the way to Nuremberg. On the very straight stretch of track from Munich to Nuremberg, the ICE train reached its maximum speed (300 km/h, 186.25mph) even though the track passed through several long tunnels. The track grew much more windy as it followed river valleys after Nuremberg but I really enjoyed the view all the way. I found my seat very comfortable.

    But the best part of the whole trip was the cost of the ticket. To book a specific seat on the ICE train, and to travel from Salzburg to Frankfurt Airport, a four-and-a-half hour journey, I paid just €34! To fly from Salzburg to Frankfurt (a 45-minute flight) on that same day, booking several weeks in advance, would have cost me, would you believe, nearly €900!