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How €93 million of EU money prevents Polish trains being used EU-wide

16036201402_1dc0cb950b_hPolish Railways PKP has just launched its Pendolino EIC Premium service – a fleet of brand new, 250km/h capable Alstom trains that connect Gdansk, Warsaw, Wroclaw, Katowice and Krakow. The trains are the first capable of speeds greater than 200km/h in central and eastern Europe, and were hence launched with some fanfare. Alstom even has a swanky video about them here.

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 16.48.23Yet one frame of the video, shown here, caught my eye “Ready to cross the borders” it says, and the technical specification of the trains means they could run on German, Czech and Slovak electrification systems as well as Poland’s. But a line in Railway Gazette’s story about the launch caught my eye:

However, certification for international operation is not seen as a priority, as the trains are restricted to domestic services for an initial 10 years under the terms of a grant from the EU Cohesion Fund which covered 22% of the project cost.

Could this, I wonder, really be true? EU money obliging PKP to use the trains only on national routes? Isn’t that contrary to all of what the EU stands for, trying to foster cross-border cooperation?

The sad answer is yes, this is indeed true, but the story is a little more complicated than Railway Gazette explains.

€93 million was indeed granted to PKP IC for the purchase of the 20 Alstom trains, contributing 22% of the purchase cost of the 20 trains and the maintenance depot. However EU Cohesion Funds are normally allocated only for infrastructure, or for regional rolling stock. These PKP trains were to be deployed on long distance InterCity routes. This meant that the €93 million Cohesion Fund grant (from DG REGIO) was classed as State Aid by the European Commission’s DG Competition, as explained in DG Competition’s press release here.

This press release led me in turn to the competition case that can be found here, and specifically this PDF that explains the Commission’s reasoning. The important paragraph is this one:

  1. The Commission considers that, because of the targeted nature of the investment aid, the aid does not compromise the effective opening of the international passenger transport market and cabotage following the entry into force of the third railway package.

Basically DG Competition is arguing that if these trains were deployed on international routes, the state subsidy for their purchase would distort the international railway market that is theoretically open to competition. Deploy them in Poland, where the argument about territorial cohesion can be applied to justify the grant, and this is OK. Of course there is currently not a single long distance international line to or from Poland where there is any competition in passenger rail.

So there you have it. The European Union, as a criterion for granting Poland €93 million for new high speed trains, prevents these trains being used internationally. This comes of course at the same time as Berlin – Wroclaw cross border services have been axed, and the EU is funding ghost airports in Poland.

I despair.

(oh, and as if that were not absurd enough, the new trains don’t even have wifi!)

A rail postcard from Forst (Lausitz)


Dear Violeta*,

I’m a regular long distance rail traveller, and when things used to go wrong with EU-wide rail I would write postcards here on my blog to your predecessor, Siim Kallas. You can find old postcards from Hendaye, Göteborg and Liège. This is my first postcard to you, but I fear it will be one of many.

wreath-smallToday I was at Forst (Lausitz), on the German-Polish border. This was a sad, and very special trip, for it was the very last ever departure of the EuroCity “Wawel” train between Berlin and Wrocław (Breslau). Trains have been running between those cities for 161 years, or about 50000 days, but today was the last one. A wreath was laid at the station in Cottbus to commemorate the final departure, and a saxophonist played a lonesome tune on the platform.

Berlin and Wrocław were, of course, previously in the same country, and indeed it took less than four hours between them in the 1930s. If today they were still in the same country I rather suspect the service between the two would not be axed.

How does that make you feel as the European Commissioner responsible for transport?

The EU is supposed to make Europe grow together, not apart. But now all the passengers on this connection will have is a poxy bus. I cannot imagine anyone ever laying a wreath to mourn the final departure of a bus.

The final train was, I suppose, fittingly depressing. Two carriages were missing from the train, and the heating and doors were broken on one of the other carriages. The train left Berlin 15 minutes late.

European rail of course cannot go on like this – if rail is to be viable it needs to build on the joy and comfort of the train, and focus on passenger comfort. The bus that will replace the train has on board wifi, but very few EU-wide rail services do.

What, I wonder, are you doing about this as Commissioner?

Some low-cost changes to infrastructure could improve things a lot at the German-Poland border, as Michael Cramer MEP explains (PDF here) – have you made the case for this to Mr Juncker in for his €315bn investment package?

Anyway, until next time, have a good weekend and safe travels. There are people out there that want EU-wide rail to work, and we’re hope you do too!

* – Violeta Bulc is European Commissioner for Transport. More about her here. Photos from the last trip on EuroCity Wawel can be found on Flickr here.

Building an organisation to defend EU-wide rail

NightTrainsThe Vindobona EuroCity train has been connecting Berlin with Vienna daily since 1957. But from mid-December this year the route will cease to exist. This service that operated across the Iron Curtain is being seen off by liberalisation and the profit drive of EU railways. The Paris – Berlin night train, the only direct train between the EU’s two founding powers, will be axed at the same time. The Copenhagen Night Train runs for the last time this month. Philip Oltermann tells the story of the decline in The Guardian here.

The story about why this is happening is a complicated one, but at its core is the change in the nature of Europe’s railways – from being public services with a public ethos, to competitive, profit making businesses. The EU itself is behind this change, forcing railways to separate their networks from their operations to try to promote competition. This change has worked to a certain extent for rail freight, but when it comes to passengers it means long distance services that run only a couple of times a day, and are borderline profitable, become too complicated and cumbersome to operate and are cut from the timetables. Track access charges – i.e. the cost to a rail company to run a service on a neighbouring country’s tracks – are often cited as the reason.

Why then is no-one acting to save these services, and to offer passengers an alternative to flying?

My conversations with policy makers in Brussels tend to come up with the rather bland “There’s no political will to fix this” as an answer. I take this as shorthand for “No-one has lobbied me about this issue.” Rail companies and manufacturers do lobby a lot, but passengers do not.

The organisation that should work on this issue is the European Passengers’ Federation. The problem is that they have a single member of staff, based in Gent, and they do not seem to actually campaign. Other organisations I have contacted or investigated have no transport policy person (Friends of the Earth EU, Greenpeace EU), do not deal with modal shift to rail (Transport & Environment), do not deal with rail consumer rights (BEUC), or care about EU wide issues but not about rail (European Movement FR and DE).

The challenge then is to actually build an organisation, or build a position within an organisation, to be able to work on this issue. I can do what I can as an individual rail traveller using my blog and Twitter to inform people about what is happening, and to pester them about it, but I cannot myself be an organisation that lobbies and campaigns.

The very minimum that has to be sorted out in EU-wide rail for the next five years is:

  1. Complete transparency of track access charges, for all routes, in an open data format. If these charges are indeed the reason cross border services are axed, then we need to know how high the charges are. Partial systems like RNE CIS exist, but as track operators are either public bodies or monopolies full access to all charging information is vital.
  2. An EU-wide timetable system. Deutsche Bahn’s Reiseauskunft is the de facto EU-wide timetable, but it is only as good as the data that national operators give it. Italian regional trains are, for example, missing from it, and it also now prioritises DB’s bus services rather than competitors rail services. If you run a train on a track in the EU then the timetable for that train must be made available for all, 3 months ahead of the train’s departure.
  3. Full ticketing information for all services, with APIs. If I want to book Amsterdam to Warsaw, or Frankfurt to Kosice, I should be able to get one price from a single website, and for that to include all reduced price tickets. No such website currently exists (despite the efforts of Loco2, Capitaine Train and others), as railways do not systematically make ticket data available in the same way as airlines do. Some trains – like DB’s CNL Night Trains – cannot be booked at all through third party websites. So if you run a train on track in the EU you have to make all ticket data for it available for third parties to use, to allow end-to-end ticket booking to be possible. Make trains as easy to book as flights!
  4. Clear rules for what happens when there is a delay. If the train run by one company is delayed, meaning you miss a connection onto a different company’s service, what happens? If it’s a High Speed Train in the Railteam network you should be OK, but if it is not, and especially if you had to book two separate tickets due to the lack of proper booking websites (see point 3 above) you can easily be stuck.

Beyond that there are more complicated issues that will actually require some money to fix, or deal with competition between rail and other transport means. These are:

  1. Introduce cross border services where tracks exist but services do not. At borders like Ventimiglia, Port Bou, Hendaye and Villa Opicina no through services run, and even changing at the border is complicated due to timetables that are not aligned, or regional services that stop a few kilometres from the border. The EU needs to make a systematic analysis of every cross border line, ranking each, and moving towards the idea of a European core network of passenger services, with stipulations of how often regional and long distance services should run.
  2. Rebuild 15 cross border lines. Michael Cramer, the German Green MEP, has listed 15 cross border lines that once existed [PDF here], but no longer do, and require only minimal investments to re-open. EU Regional Funds could be used for this purpose, but only of course if services will run! (see point 1)
  3. Examine competition between transport modes. Rail operators – not least in Germany – have long complained that VAT on rail tickets (and not on airfares), coupled with high track access charges, are killing services, especially after the deregulation of the long distance bus market in Germany (see more on InterConnex axing services here). Fair competition when it comes to taxation rates, and access to infrastructure, would be a good start.

This is how a sort of manifesto for EU rail passengers could look for the next 5 years, with pressure applied systematically to new Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc, and MEPs in the Transport Committee.

Now I just need to find the right person or organisation to make all of this happen…

Graphic by Jon Worth. Copenhagen, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome refers to night trains. Wroclaw and Vienna refers to day trains. Made with Creative Commons images – DSC01196 by taschenschieber, TrenHotel Chamartín by VivirElTren.es, Maarsbergen 1778 CNL 404473 uit Kopenhagen by Rob Dammers, PKP Cargo SU46-037 / 5 630 013 in Cottbus by Tegeler and BB 36007 Fr B It & Rame Thello entière by 8Uhr.

Non-Schengen compliant border control between Rzepin and Frankfurt (Oder), 11th March 2014, 2156

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 01.40.243 police officers or border guards, 2 Polish and 1 German as far as I could tell (the one who spoke to me was Polish) boarded train EC 40, the Warszawa – Berlin express, at Rzepin on 11th March 2014. I was in the front carriage of the train, where the officers boarded. A few minutes after the train departed Rzepin the police passed through the train, and the following conversation followed when I was approached by the officer. This is the word for word transcript of the conversation:

Border Guard (BG): (says something in Polish)

Jon (J): Sorry I don’t speak Polish

BG: Polish border guard. I would like to see your ID or passport.

J: It’s an identity check or a border control?

BG: No it’s not a border control

J: (I get my wallet and take out my German driving license)

BG: It’s not enough. It’s a driving license. Your ID or passport.

J: Could you tell me why that’s not enough?

BG: Because the driving license does not allow you to cross the border

J: But this is an identity check not a border control?

BG: It’s not a border control.

J: So you’re demanding the document from me…

BG: I’m not demanding you. The law says that in order to cross the border which you are going to cross…

J: So it IS a border control

BG: No it is not a border control. It is an identity control.

J: So hence my driving license is OK.

BG: You need to show what you need to cross the border.

J: Sorry. That is a contradiction. That is a border control.

BG: It isn’t.

J: (I show him my passport)

BG: When you are going from France to Great Britain they do the same as here.

J: Yes, I know, I teach European law, that’s why I am asking you.

BG: European law says exactly what I told you.

J: No it doesn’t.

BG: You better read… (Border Guard walks off)

So what is going on here?

The official had no obvious emblems on his clothing, so I cannot confirm whether he was indeed a policeman or border guard. His jacket was obscured by a yellow high visibility vest. However he introduced himself with the words “Polish border guard”.

Border controls are not allowed in Schengen, and ID checks in border areas are regulated by Article 21 of the Schengen borders code:

Article 21
Checks within the territory

The abolition of border control at internal borders shall not affect:

(a) the exercise of police powers by the competent authorities of the Member States under national law, insofar as the exercise of those powers does not have an effect equivalent to border checks; that shall also apply in border areas. Within the meaning of the first sentence, the exercise of police powers may not, in particular, be considered equivalent to the exercise of border checks when the police measures:

(i) do not have border control as an objective,
(ii) are based on general police information and experience regarding possible threats to public security and aim, in particular, to combat cross-border crime,
(iii) are devised and executed in a manner clearly distinct from systematic checks on persons at the external borders,
(iv) are carried out on the basis of spot-checks;

The check to which I was subjected clearly breaches (iii) – the officer introduced himself as a border guard, and talked about “the border you are going to cross” as if this were central to the control he was about to carry out. The guard is right that I do need more than a driving license to cross the border, but he also has no right to demand that from me as he is only conducting an identity check.

The further question then arises: if this were simply an identity check, and not a border control, what are the ID requirements for non-Poles in Poland. The law regulating this is here (in Polish). The important part of this is § 4, Google translated as follows:

§ 4 The officer determined the identity of the person legitymowanej based on:
1) ID card;
2) passport;
3) foreign identity document;
4) else establish a reliable instrument equipped with a photograph and indicating the number or series;
5) statements of another person, whose identity was determined on the basis of the documents referred to in paragraphs 1-4.

So what is my German-issued photocard driving license? Is that covered by 4) or not? If so then the correct procedure would have been similar to the Puttgarden experience where the official could have checked my identity on the basis of the driving license alone, and would have no right to demand to see my passport.

Anyway, I will submit an official complain to the European Commission about this to test what is happening here. If you’ve managed to read this far then you might also be interested in similar stories from St Jean de Maurienne and Padborg, and the website dedicated this this issue – FreeMovement.net

[UPDATE, 12.3.2014 at 0200]
Since publishing the original blog entry, I have been sent the link to the Polish law covering the border guard rules. PDF here. The rules there are rather similar to the law above that applies to the police – again Google Translated:

§ 4 The officer determined that the person identity legitimacy reformed on the basis of:
1) the identity card;
2) passport document,
3) the travel document;
4) any other niebudzacego doubt a document bearing a photograph-and assigned a number or series;
5) benefits a person who the officer is known to the person;
6) benefits of another person, whose identity it was-cond breakthrough was determined in a way, about whom referred to in paragraphs 1-5.

A rail postcard from Liège


Dear Siim,

I’m writing to you today from Liège. In one way this is a surprise, in that I am not supposed to be in Liège, but judging from experience I suppose it was inevitable I was going to have to write to you from here at some point.

I was booked on the 1425 DB ICE17 service from Bruxelles-Midi to Köln Hbf, but first we were told the train would start from Bruxelles-Nord instead of Midi. When fellow passengers and I arrived at Nord it turned out the ICE train would only start in Liège-Guillemins. I realised this was happening, and jumped on the first Belgian IC train heading east, but SNCB had not thought to tell the rest of the ICE passengers this, while DB on Twitter (@DB_bahn) could tell me that the ICE train had a problem, but not where the train itself was, nor the scale of the delay. So I am sat writing to you while waiting for further passengers to arrive here in Liège, when they could all have been here 30 minutes ago if DB and SNCB had talked to each other.

The problem Siim is that this line – the high speed section between Hergenrath and Leuven, via Liège, and the improved sections between Düren and Köln, and Leuven and Brussels, have been built with EU funds. But the service that runs here is awful. DB ICEs essentially compete against Thalys trains, and if something happens to the ICE on the Belgian side, or the Thalys on the German side, as a traveller you have no way of knowing what is going on. The ICEs here are also regularly beset by technical problems due to an incompatibility between the Siemens trains and the Belgian signalling system, while the Infrabel also stops the ICEs running to their 300km/h top speed.

Do you realise, Siim, that it’s incidents like these that make people want to fly? As a passenger I do not give a damn about what the reasons are. I understand that things go wrong, but I should be entitled to reasonable information about what is happening – regardless of who runs the service – and that all the railway firms collaborate to help get me to my destination as fast as possible. Today that lack of collaboration alone is going to cause me a further hour of delay to my journey.

What are you doing about these sorts of things?


NOTE: this is the latest in my series of rail postcards to the European Commissioner for Transport, Siim Kallas. Previous postcards have been sent from Hendaye and Göteborg.

A rail postcard from Göteborg


Dear Siim,

I hope you liked my last e-postcard from Hendaye.

Today I am writing to you from Göteborg, Sweden. I’m only writing this from the comfort of the train south of Sweden’s second city because I’m lucky – my train from Oslo arrived 2 minutes early, at 1038. Meaning I could catch the 1040 train to København. But that was just luck. Normally I would have been hanging around in Göteborg for a full hour. Who sets these timetables, Siim? Because they sure are not done with international passengers in mind.

There are coaches that run direct every day between the capitals of Denmark and Norway – do you wonder why trains cannot do the same? I do.

If my Oslo – Göteborg train had been very delayed, and I had missed the 1140 train to København, no-one would really know what my rights would be. Because no-one can book a through ticket between Oslo and Berlin (my final destination) any more, at least not online. So for Oslo – Göteborg I have a NSB ticket, and for Göteborg – Berlin a separate DB ticket. If the NSB train had broken down, and I ended up getting stuck, who pays? Or who has the responsibility to give me a hotel?

It’s even more laughable in the other direction, Siim. You cannot even buy tickets for the Göteborg – Oslo service at the station in Göteborg, and there is no NSB ticket machine there either. You need either to have a mobile ticket or have the ticket posted to you. Not ideal for passengers that want to turn up and ride, is it?

Plus if you looked at the Swedish rail timetable on their mobile app you would not even find an Oslo train, or indeed a København train for that matter, as all services show just the Swedish part of the journey. That’s not very handy to foster EU-wide rail travel is it now Siim? And isn’t that your job?

Until next time,


P.S. I was even subjected to a customs control of questionable legality at Oslo S this morning. But that’s an issue for your colleague Cecilia.

The worst international train service I’ve taken for a long time – in Switzerland! (OK, with an Italian train)


The Cisalpino joint venture between the Swiss SBB and Trenitalia no longer exists, wound up in 2009 due to failing service quality and problems with an order of new trains. The sad news is that now, with the EuroCity trains between Switzerland and Italy using some of the same railsets Cisalpino used, the situation seems to have worsened further.

Zürich HB – Milano Centrale via the Gotthard pass should be one of Europe’s great rail journeys, and judging by the numbers of passengers in my 9 car Trenitalia-operated ETR470 set that formed EC19, the 1109 departure from Zürich scheduled to arrive Milano at 1450, it remains popular – every seat was taken as far as Arth-Goldau, and close to every seat after that.

However there was very little with the service that was done right. Firstly seat reservations are a mess. It was impossible to reserve seats on the train when booking a through ticket from Germany, but upon boarding it was immediately clear that every seat was reserved. I asked the guard, a monosyllabic Swiss (and not befitting of the normally superb SBB – SBB guards are the only Swiss staff on this service), how to actually reserve seats on the service. “In stations” was his answer. “What about online?” He shrugged and moved on.

The ETR470 set itself is an awfully built and dreadfully maintained train. The double glazing in many of the windows has popped, giving heavy condensation between the panes. Not especially pleasant when you want to admire the Alpine scenery. Information provided to passengers is only via crackly, incomprehensible announcements, and many lights and seats are broken or not working. And all this for a train built in 1996 – not even 20 years old.

Not being able to see out of the window at my seat due to the condensation, I sought refuge in the restaurant where two tables were unavailable as the staff were using those to sit and gossip, often leaving the bistro bar unattended, and that area had boxes hanging around, and a disconnected fire extinguisher. The food was overpriced, and the service slow and surly, and half the items on the menu were unavailable. A crude, hand-drawn sign warned passengers to not try to pay by credit card. To cap it all, the espresso was made of some sort of Nescafé. If nothing else the coffee should be OK in a Trenitalia service!

The lesson from this trip is to try to take one of the SBB owned trains on this route (either a loco-hauled one, or a SBB-owned ETR470), because this Trenitalia run service is one of the worst long distance trains I have been on for a long time (and that includes a recent trip in Romania!) The problem is it seems impossible to know which services on this route are run by SBB and which by Trenitalia. Apparently only the loco-hauled trains convey bicycles, so that’s perhaps something to look out for.

Of course a further and wider question is how these services will look in the future, not least from 2016 onwards when the Gotthard base tunnel opens.

Taking the train rather than the plane for business travel in Europe: does it work?

Screen Shot 2013-07-25 at 11.39.30Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know I take the train for almost all my journeys, and many of these are business trips. Sean Hanley has asked me to sum up my experiences in a blog entry, so here goes. This post should be read in conjunction with the ones about the Eurostar Aachen trick, and Germany cheap tickets, and all my travel observations are here.

1) Set your limits
The train is not going to be your best bet for every rail trip in Europe. Distances are often too great, and on many routes connections are simply too poor. For example London – Amsterdam / Brussels / Köln / Frankfurt / Strasbourg / Lille / Paris / Lyon / Montpellier / Marseille / Geneva / Zürich should all be viable with just one change, and a journey time of 5-6 hours. London – Hannover / Berlin / München / Milan / Toulouse / Barcelona are too far for most people, or need 2+ changes. Within continental Europe even some short hops (like Milan – Marseille, or München – Prague) have such awful connections that flying may still be the best bet. For timetables I always still use DB Reiseauskunft (in English here) for timetables for my entire trips.

2) Booking tickets
This part needs a blog entry all of its own! This remains the major headache to make EU-wide rail workable. Rail company websites, with the exception of Deutsche Bahn’s, remain pretty damned awful, and often will not give you prices for tickets right through to your destination. Services like Loco2 (UK), Capitaine Train (FR) and Waymate (DE) are trying to make EU-wide booking viable. Buying two tickets for a journey can sometimes be cheaper than one through ticket, even within one country. Working out how and where to split is one of the most time consuming processes when trying to get decent ticket prices. This stuff takes a lot of time and learning still. I always try to avoid the websites of Eurostar, SNCF and Thalys if I can, but sometimes that is impossible, especially if you want to amass frequent traveller points (see below).

3) Book ahead
Think as you would when booking flights – book ahead! Most rail companies allow you to book 3 months ahead, and operate a rolling booking system, where days become available one at a time. Put a date 92 days ahead of your departure in your diary! If you then cancel your trip, different countries’ railways have different systems. DB makes a 15 Euro fee to cancel a ticket, but more or less any ticket can be cancelled, while Eurostar and SNCF tend to make their cheapest tickets impossible to cancel or refund.

4) Ticket collection
Most railways (Eurostar, DB / ÖBB / SBB (mostly), SNCF / SNCB (partially)) have online ticketing systems, where you either download a PDF, or have a barcode on your smartphone. This option, or paper tickets sent to your home address, are almost always preferable to collection of tickets at ticket machines in stations. Always avoid having to collect a ticket at a station in a country other than the country with whose company you purchased the ticket in the first place – it’s very often a nightmare.

5) Points mean prizes
If you travel a lot by train a Frequent Traveller card can be very helpful. Here again DB excels, with its combination of BahnCard and BahnBonus cards giving reductions for regular travellers, and access to lounges in railway stations in many European countries, including Eurostar. While DB and Eurostar lounges tend to be better than SNCF’s, all of them give you a quite place to work with free internet access if you have an hour to spare at a station.

6) In the trains
Quality and amount of space varies enormously. German ICEs generally offer more legroom and headroom than Thalys / Eurostar / TGVs. Spanish and Italian high speed trains generally have more than 2 classes of accommodation to choose from – the higher levels are very smart. For business travel I would never have a problem with 2nd class on DB, but always try to go for first class on Thalys or TGV if I can, if the upgrade is not too costly. On DB it is also possible to book in a quiet carriage – always worth doing. Most French trains are compulsory reservation, while German trains are optional reservation, for a €4 charge. I will always pay this if my journey is longer than an hour.

7) Reliability
I’ve had some delays when travelling by train in Europe, but few serious issues. Some lines (notably Brussels – Köln) are less reliable than others, and night trains are more prone to delay than daytime trains and high speed trains. Also if you use a night train, make sure you book a Schlafwagen (Sleeping Car / Voiture Lits), rather than a Liegewagen (Couchette) – you will not be in a good state for a business meeting after a night in a counchette.

8) Internet Access
My second major gripe, after ticket booking. Too few European rail services are wifi-equipped. Thalys is the only high speed service with wifi, but it’s often so slow so as to be unusable. DB has wifi on some routes only, while no Eurostars and very few TGVs are currently wifi equipped. I partially work around this using a Huawei mifi, but even still I do not have proper internet access on moving trains.

So then, does it work? The answer is yes, but with a few niggling problems, and that it will not work for all business travel in Europe. But the next time you’re travelling for work, try booking it with the train. If you have questions or need assistance then do ask below, or tweet me – I’ll do my best to help! I most definitely do not regret taking the train rather than the plane.