Brian Melican explores the latest rail connections around Europe…
Finally, after more than a decade of inexplicable neglect (and a worldwide pandemic), international rail travel is having a bit of a moment—as illustrated by the recent announcement of a new seven-hour high-speed Berlin-Paris direct connection and a renewed sleeper service between the two capitals from 2023.
Indeed, having reached their nadir in the late 2010s with the almost wholesale cancellation of all services in Germany, France, and Spain, night-trains are now back in the ascendancy, with old connections being reinstated and new ones forged. So as the Covid fog (of mask-breath on glasses) progressively lifts across the continent, let’s take a renewed look at some of the best rail-trips starting in Berlin.
The backbone of eastward connections from Berlin is the four-times-daily Eurocities (EC) service from Gesundbrunnen to Warsaw, with the morning departure (09:27) of particular interest for onward connections from the Polish capital (which it reaches mid-afternoon after six hours).
Meanwhile, another EC plies the southern route through Poland, leaving from Gesundbrunnen an hour later (10:35) and putting the charming city of Wroclaw at an eminently weekend-able four-and-a-half hours’ travel time; Cracow, a popular destination as buzzing as it is quaint and picturesque, can be reached in time for dinner; for the truly intrepid, the last stop at 21:05 is Przemysl near the Ukrainian border—Lviv is only another 50 miles away.
More northerly connections to Poland’s beautiful Baltic coast are somewhat less direct and slower than they should be given how close it is: yet there is one good connection to Danzig per day, changing at Frankfurt an der Oder. Another, more leisurely route goes north-east via Neubrandenburg and Stettin, using regional trains, and is an enticing option for those less concerned about making a beeline and looking to stop off at unspoiled Baltic beaches along the way.
Only 170 miles south of Berlin, Prague is the capital city to which Berlin enjoys the best connections, with direct ECs every two hours (at 16 minutes past the hour) from Hauptbahnhof to Prague’s main station. Not only is the journey, at around four-and-a-half hours, relatively short, it also includes one of the most scenic stretches of railway line in Europe when, between Dresden and Děčín, the rails hug the craggy cliffs and imposing outcrops of the Elbe valley in “Saxon Switzerland”.
From Prague onwards, almost all other parts of the well-connected Republic can be reached within a few hours, from brewers’ favourite Pilsen to beguiling Brno and the undeservedly unknown Olomouc.
For those looking to venture further southwards, it’s good to remember that Vienna is further away than many assume—it’s on the same latitude as Zürich and in the far east, not the centre of Austria—and that national operator ÖBB was one of the few to keep faith with its NightJet sleeper services while others couldn’t cancel theirs fast enough.
This means that Berlin has a superb overnight connection to the other German-speaking capital, which leaves early evening and arrives in good time for breakfast, and puts the rest of Austria, as well as neighbouring Slovakia, within easy reach the following morning.
Moreover, thanks to the network of NightJets emanating from it, the Austrian capital makes an ideal staging post for anyone looking to travel further afield. Arriving at 07:00 from Berlin, you can enjoy a day’s sightseeing in Vienna before boarding any number of sleepers to destinations as enticing as Split in southern Croatia, Livorno on the Mediterranean, or Milan, Venice, and Rome. There are also overnight connections westwards to Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam, as well as Zurich.
In a sign of just how badly Germany’s Deutsche Bahn dropped the ball when it cancelled all its own sleepers, it is also the Austrian ÖBB which now runs a direct Berlin to Zürich sleeper service, leaving Berlin at just before 9pm and reaching the Swiss city twelve hours later. This, too, is a journey far better undertaken at night, as all daytime options involve at least one change and all take at least eight hours.
East-west connections across the southernmost parts of Germany are so poor that, while the high-speed Berlin to Munich ICE takes just shy of four hours for over 300 miles, the train onward to Zürich needs almost as much time for 150 miles—even if it is, admittedly, a rather scenic route with some quite striking (some would say: hair-raising) gradients.
Zürich also makes an excellent morning starting point to reach destinations in the rest of Switzerland and beyond, with connections to Milan sliced to just over three hours since the new Gotthard tunnel opened. Fans of night trains can also avail themselves, via Bahn.com, of services from Hungary’s MAV-START, which can take passengers from Munich (via Salzburg and Vienna) or Berlin (via Bratislava) to Budapest, and Croatia’s HZPP network, which connects Munich to Zagreb and Rijeka (both passing through Salzburg and Ljubljana).
With the promised new services to Paris still at the planning stage, it has to be said that westward travel from Berlin is currently the most unattractive option. Daytime connections to France are all indirect and involve changes in southern Germany (Karlsruhe, Baden-Baden, Mannheim, Frankfurt) or at Cologne.
With the precipitous drop in punctuality of recent years, especially on the overtaxed ICE routes, over-ambitious itineraries can lead to travel chaos. One trick is to take the Zürich sleeper and get off at Offenburg for the local train to Strasbourg: don’t expect much; the station at Offenburg is a dire hole still closed at 6am and the onward connection is essentially a bus on rails. But this is an excellent way to reach the delightful Strasbourg and indeed the rest of eastern France; Strasbourg also offers excellent high-speed connections to Paris and Marseille.
Otherwise, provided you plan for delays, the Berlin-Cologne ICE is a solid, if uninspiring plank on the trek westward, with hourly direct connections taking just over four hours. From the Rhineland city on, there are ICEs to Brussels (just under two hours) and Thalys trains going further onto Paris (just shy of three-and-a-half hours).
And from Paris, there are not only good travel options to the rest of France, but even ways of getting down to Spain, too. While the sorely-missed Talgo Trenhotel sleepers to Madrid and Barcelona have been in their scrapyard graves for almost ten years now, SNCF do at least still run night services to the French-Spanish border on both ends of the Pyrenees, as well as a wonderfully quirky ride through them.
Twelve hours after leaving Paris-Austerlitz, the overnight service to Latour-de-Carol deposits you in front of a wildly over-dimensioned border station building at a sleepy mountain pass, from where both regional services down to Barcelona and diminutive tourist trains depart. (One for the rail buffs: the station has lines in three gauges!). For the less adventurous, there is also a six-hour daytime TGV service from Paris-Gare-de-Lyon to Barcelona; from here, Madrid is only a few hours away. It is sad, though, that the reinstatement of a Paris-Madrid overnight service still appears some way off.
A much less unloved capital-to-capital route is that from Berlin to Amsterdam which, like Prague, enjoys a two-hourly direct connection from Berlin. The six-hour route from Gesundbrunnen takes you speeding across the somewhat uneventful expanses of the north German plain (take reading material, but do set your alarm for the sudden drama of Porta Westfalica just after Minden) and through the irrigation-channel-and-canal chequerboard of Holland through to the Dutch capital.
With the night-train renaissance gathering pace, some of the most promising rail itineraries from Berlin now head northwards. While some long-established connections such as the plucky private operator Snälltåget’s summer-season Berlin-Malmö sleepers and the year-round Hamburg-Copenhagen inter-city services have become less exciting of late now that the last of the train-ferries have been retired and they are all routed via Schleswig and Fredericia, they still represent good options for getting to Scandinavia from Berlin.
Even better, from September, Swedish national operator SJ will be inaugurating a brand new daily night-train connection from Hamburg to Stockholm, allowing travellers to leave Berlin early evening, change at Hamburg-Altona two hours later, and be in Stockholm at 10:00 the following morning.
Here, like in the Austrian capital, intrepid travellers can enjoy a day’s sightseeing before taking their next overnight connection—by train up to the highlands of Jämtland (and potentially onwards from Östersund to Trondheim in Norway the following morning) or into the Artic circle to Kiruna, the mining city being moved, or through to the port of Narvik in northern Norway. Meanwhile, overnight ferries put Helsinki and Finland’s oft-overlooked ancient capital Turku within easy, stylish reach.
Alternatively, the new connection will be stopping at several stations in southern Sweden’s beloved Småland before it speeds on to Stockholm, allowing Astrid Lindgren readers to enjoy bucolic breaks in the imagined landscapes of their childhood and those in search of a truly great city-break destination to change for Gothenburg.
So if all goes well, within a year of this article being published, Paris will once again have a direct train connection to Berlin (both during the daytime and overnight) while Stockholm will have come considerably closer. Prague and Vienna, too, will remain well-served rail destinations from the German capital, as will Warsaw.
Now, it’s down to those of us who welcome these alternatives to ecologically irresponsible short-haul flights or nauseating long-distance coach services: we will have to make sure these trains are well used.