A European rail network for the 21st century

“We need serious investment in international rail travel, putting the needs of European citizens at its heart.” Amelia Womack, Green Party Deputy Leader, argues for more affordable and convenient continental train travel.

A Eurostar train travelling through the countryside
A Eurostar train travelling through the countryside

The Eurostar train moving through countryside

Amelia Womack
Amelia Womack

On Saturday, I was delighted to join the Young Greens at St Pancras International station. It was an enjoyable day, with people marking on maps where they wished to travel by train.

Some 500 miles away, German Young Greens were out in force for the same cause, talking to their communities about our shared demands across Europe: affordable, convenient, continental train travel.

We are in a climate emergency. That’s the official declaration of the UK Parliament. But when it comes to train as the practical, cost-effective, carbon-efficient means of travel, we’re going backwards. And we are in desperate need for a network and system fit for the 21st century.

While the Conservatives back, and Labour fail to oppose, the third runway at Heathrow airport, travel by train to the continent is about to be made more difficult, with Eurostar's announcement that it will no longer sell through-tickets to key German destinations. This news came after an agreement with Deutsche Bahn collapsed. Once again we’re seeing a demonstration of the fact that markets don’t provide many of the solutions we need.

We are in desperate need for a network and system fit for the 21st century.

Public services need to be run for public good, and that means a fast, affordable, and convenient alternative to short-haul flights for European travel. It means serious investment in international rail travel, putting the needs of European citizens at its heart.

I was proud that Greens are again leading in international cooperation, with Grüne Jugend (Green Youth) taking linked action on this in Germany. The protests were demanding not just the current ticket arrangements be restored and made far more streamlined, but also that night train connections, which make longer journeys more practical, should be expanded.

A common train company booking system for international rail would make booking tickets quick and easy – as simple as booking a flight, with a single operator. Currently, the best advice is often provided by a private individual, ‘The Man in Seat 61’. His website is a brilliant initiative, providing masses of information, but why should booking a train ticket to the south of Italy or Berlin, both journeys I’ve taken, require reference to him?

Members of the European Parliament, as our representatives in European affairs, are uniquely placed to make this vision a reality.

Streamlined bookings and fares would help transform rail from international transport's poor relation into the transport mode of choice. It is already far more pleasant, comfortable and less stressful – certainly on most continental trains.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg came from Sweden to Britain by train. Once again she’s showing the way forward; and Sweden too is leading in planning to restore sleeper trains to enable its citizens to head south by train.

Freedom of movement has been enjoyed by the parents of many of the Young Greens I was with at St Pancras on Saturday. The Green Party is passionate about retaining that right for Britons now, and in the future. But change is needed – change to reflect the physical limits of this one fragile planet, and the climate emergency that is just one sign of how we are breaching them.

One of the changes needed is to see a website where one click can book you an affordable train trip to Rome, or a lovely long weekend in Berlin, perhaps starting with a comfortable sleeper from Manchester or Edinburgh.

That was the plan when the Channel Tunnel opened. It is one that needs to be revived.

You can stand under the indicator board in Brussels Midi and see trains to Rome, trains to northern Germany, trains far East. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be seeing the same at St Pancras.

What’s needed is political will. And demands from the public – like those delivered by the Young Greens – for a change to public transport run for public good.