1. Transport
  2. Rail
February 13, 2017updated 02 Aug 2021 9:34am

What can Britain learn from Europe’s trains – and vice versa?

By Jack May

Ok, confession straight out of the gates: this is mostly a chance for me to brag at length about the fact that I just spent two weeks frolicking around Europe on trains whilst the world started turning out the lights and giving up in the face of the first fortnight of Trump’s presidency.

With that out of the way, let’s get down to business. Armed with a large rucksack, an extended overdraft, and an Interrail pass, I set off across eight countries: Britain (definitely counts), France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and the Vatican City (definitely counts).

I hopped on trundling clapped-out regional chuggers, gleaming high-speed wonders, pitifully grimy and disorganised city underground networks (here’s looking at you, Rome), and also one erroneous €70 taxi after I got cocky about how late German trains would run.

And several things became clear. One is that Europe’s trains really are very good, and better than ours in a number of important ways. But another was that despite their glamour, and the lustful glances we shoot at them over the Brexit-infested water of the channel, they’re not flawless – there’s plenty the continental can learn from our way of doing things on rails.

But first, what lessons can we learn from the caffè-sipping, currywurst-chopming, beret-sporting ways of our continental cousins?

Or; ‘Where the f***’s my f***ing train?’ Image: Spixey.

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No platform 9¾ at the 11th hour

My least favourite bit about going back to university would always be waiting with the masses in King’s Cross station, staring vapidly at the departures board. As the train’s scheduled departure time drew closer and closer, the crowd would grow, becoming ever more tetchy and anxious, necks craning to look up at a bank of LEDs devoid of any useful information as to where the train actually was.

Finally, one minute before the train is due to leave, the words ‘Platform 8’ and ‘Boarding’ flash up. The hordes push, curse, maim, slaughter, and tut to scramble to the platform in the 45 seconds before the train’s alleged departure time. And yet, the same train departs from the same station at the same time on the same day every week, heading to the same place. Why is it so hard to tell us in advance which platform the train is leaving from?

Germany is a big winner here. You go to the station, you look at the departures board, and it tells you which platform your train will leave from. You go to the platform, and a board shows all the trains that arrive at that platform every day, and where on the platform your specific coach will pull up. It’s beautiful. I love it.

St. Pancras, the only London station with evidence of an outside world. Image: Franselplatz.

Become citizens of the world

Obviously, when you’re in a large international rail terminus, there are a lot of languages going on. I was minding my business in Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof – slightly lost myself – and a German teenager, a French couple, and a Spanish old lady all came up to me in succession asking for help, in their own languages.

Let me tell you – GCSEs can only get you so far. But these large stations across Germany, Italy, and France – and the metro, U-Bahn, and S-Bahn stations in many cities – announce in things in at least two languages, often three and – in one case – five.

In the UK, St Pancras might blab a bit of French at you, but apart from that you’re out of luck. The London Underground certainly won’t make a habit of speaking to you in French, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a suburban rail service that’ll whack out some German on its way down to East Croydon.

And for what it’s worth, I think that’s a great shame. Not only does it make it harder for international visitors to work out where they are or where they’re going – despite the fact, as we always hear, that English is a ‘global language’, but offering more languages makes a place feel so much more welcoming.

So, in a few months’ time I expect to hear: “Dans quelques instants, nous arriverons au Cirque du Piccadilly. Changez ici pour les trains de Bakerloo. Descendez ici pour boire beaucoup en Soho”. Or something. Or is London not truly open, Sadiq? Is Britain not truly global, Theresa?

An SNCF train hurtling to its next jingle-ridden station. Image: David Gubler.

Master the sound of music

No, I’m not talking about the dreadful tunes they pipe through the stations on the Rome Metro, which is sinful and should be banned. No. I’m referring to the beautiful blessing from on high that is the SNCF station announcement noise.

It’s wonderful. If you haven’t heard it, or weren’t paying attention last time you were in Gare du Nord (have you seen your wallet recently?), it’s here. It’s so cool that people have made remixes of it. Slinky, sexy remixes. Hip, happening, en vogue remixes. Also a guy beatboxing on a flute.

Hey, Virgin East Coast? Think you’re so cool with your fancy trains and cool branding? Get back to me when a guy takes time out of his life to beatbox to your jingle. And another guy takes time out of his life to watch it on repeat (nope, definitely not me, that would be weird).

Generic pretty photo of train in Alps. Image: David Gubler.

Take back control of platforms

We’ve all had it. The embarrassing moment when you head to the train platform in plenty of time and muster your most suave cosmopolitan-businessperson pose; umbrella under the arm, flat white in one hand and newspaper in the other. The train pulls in and you glance up, nonchalantly. Oh, hey, you think. That’s my train.

And then it hurtles past you and comes to a hasty stop miles away from you at the other end of the incredibly long platform. You’re forced to crack out your embarrassingly gangly run, most of the flat white ends up all over your trousers, the newspaper failed to mind the gap between the train and the platform, and your hair’s a state.

This would never happen in Switzerland. In the land of the rather insular and a little xenophobic hijab-banning folk Swiss, the platform information board tells you which ‘zones’ the train will stop at. It tells you that if you have a first class seat, you should stand in Zone A, if you’re a second-class citizen you should wait in Zones C-E, and that if you’re feeling peckish, Zone B will host the overpriced Swiss snacks. Germany does the same thing, and it’s wonderful.

Get it together, Britain.

Smug photo I took from the panoramic bar on a train in Switzerland. Image: Jack May.

Grab ‘em by the kuchen

The humble train food and drink trolley, immortalised by J.K. Rowling, has gone out of fashion. In the days of, as insinuated above, the latte-grabbing pastry-chomping masses there is little demand for goods trundling down the narrow aisle of the 7.14 to King’s Lynn.

True, longer-distance trains have a pokey café bar, where you can neck a tiny bottle of wine if you’re en route to some particularly cliché family reunion, or have a break have a KitKat© if the cravings overcome you.

But in Germany, you can have flammkuchen and a glass of chilled (and actually not terrible) white wine at a restaurant-style table whilst the snow-dashed fields of Southern Bavaria fly past the window.

And in Switzerland, if you time it right, you can swig from a very large glass of very nice red wine in a window-covered carriage with 360-degree views of the Swiss Alps as club music blares and phlegm-infested (or Swiss-German-speaking, I wasn’t sure) skiers rock out some dad-dancing behind you.

Give me a high-speed train to Edinburgh with a bar for sipping a Rioja as Berwick-upon-Tweed drifts past; a long trundle down to Penzance with a steak & kidney pie as the train clings to the coast. Wouldn’t that be more like it?

Now with the virtues of European trains fully extolled, let me just grab my EU passport and my beret and hop back over there while I still can. Ciao, darling, tschüss.

P.S. – Europe, get some ticket barriers? You’ll save a whole load of money on people not paying their train fares, and you can save money by not having some poor soul march up and down every single train checking tickets. Also, more importantly, you’ll stop waking me up from my naps.

Just a thought, guys. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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