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Fragmenting international rail links

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Léman Express trains carry commuters across the Swiss-French border (photo © Hector Christiaen /

Léman Express trains carry commuters across the Swiss-French border (photo © Hector Christiaen /

Update 20.3.20, 12:45 CET

Since publishing this article, we've been advised that Léman Express services are being further curtailed. Route L6 from Geneva to Bellegarde in France is still running, albeit with an amended timetable. Passengers travelling from Geneva to Annemasse are now advised to take TPG tram line 17, as Léman Express trains are no longer running on this route.

One of the extraordinary things about the last week has been the utter confusion across Europe about which train services are running. With the loudest media voices generally focused on their prime markets in western Europe, many missed how last week there was wholesale cancellation of train services in central Europe.

Even well-respected websites in western Europe continued to proclaim that “train services in Europe are running normally,” when in fact across a great swathe of central Europe international links were being dropped from the schedules.

The Czech Republic declared a national emergency on Wednesday 11 March and closed its borders, quickly leading to the cessation of all train services across Czech frontiers. Poland and Slovakia quickly followed suit. Hungary toppled, and then Slovenia went further than anyone else, not merely cancelling all international rail links but putting all domestic train services into hibernation too. There are simply no trains at all in Slovenia these days.

Business and leisure travellers across the region suddenly had to rethink their travel plans. Travellers with Interrail passes found themselves stranded.

It took observers in western Europe some time to appreciate that Europe’s international rail network was quietly fragmenting. The cancellation of the entire Thello network was an early indication of changing rail operations in western Europe. Thello operates overnight services from Venice, Verona and Milan to Paris. The company also runs daytime trains from Milan to Nice and Marseille. No great surprise that Thello was an early victim of changing market conditions, for it has long been critically dependent on the Lombardy market, where the impact of the Coronavirus has been particularly grave.

As of today, high-speed services across the French-German border are all cancelled. And Thalys and Eurostar have greatly trimmed their schedules. Luxembourg has been entirely dropped from the TGV network.

Yet, against that backdrop of cancelled trains, there are a few surprises. Léman Express is still running a limited service across the Swiss-French border in the Geneva area. Most local trains from Lille in France to Kortrijk in Belgium are running normally. Trains between Dresden and Zittau in Saxony are running to schedule, even though they actually cut through a sliver of Czech territory along the way.

It’s very hard to keep abreast of the changing situation. Which trains are still running, and which are cancelled? Edward Schofield has an excellent list which he’s trying to keep up to date.

Meanwhile, our friends at the European Rail Timetable have announced that, rather than publishing a monthly timetable with lots of blank pages, they will still show the schedules that would prevail were Europe not so currently afflicted. It is, they say, a chance for “readers to plan future journeys, once the pandemic is under control.” We find it a nice reminder that better times will return and there’s nothing better, during a period of self-isolation, than to spend time planning the journeys we would have made or might yet make in the future.

Copyright © Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries. All rights reserved.
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About The Authors

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries

Nicky and Susanne manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers and the authors of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The 17th edition of that book was published in 2022 and reprinted in July 2023. You'll find a list of outlets that sell the book on this website.

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