I recently caught up with train guru Mark Smith - The Main in Seat 61 - and we got talking about the renaissance of rail and how the long term future is looking bright for overland travel in Europe, especially given the recent resurgence of night trains, such as the launch of Austria's state railway company ÖBB's Brussels to Vienna sleeper service. However, he lamented that some of the great train journeys of yesteryear were no longer available. So I asked him about his favourite routes that he wished were still running and below is what he said. It's a look back at great train journeys that no longer exist, but could it also be a glimpse of the future?
(Above: Mark Smith enjoying a cocktail at the Eurostar lounge before boarding the train to Amsterdam to try the new direct train from Amsterdam to London. Photo: Richard Hammond)
The Paris-Madrid 'trainhotel'
Every night from 1980 until 2013, this little articulated sleeper train left Paris around 8pm and arrived in Madrid around 9am. With an easy connection by high-speed train from London, Amsterdam, Brussels or Cologne to Paris, and onward high-speed trains from Madrid to Cordoba, Seville or Malaga this wonderful hotel-on-rails linked much of northern Europe with the Spanish capital and Southern Spain. I used to love having dinner with wine in the restaurant then returning to my compartment for a good night's sleep, with views of the walled city of Avila over breakfast next morning. Today, you travel by high-speed train throughout, with an overnight stop necessary in Barcelona. Ironically, high-speed trains are slower!
The Newcastle-Norway-Sweden ferry
There used to be two excellent ferry companies competing across the North Sea to Norway, and DFDS's ferry extended to Gothenburg in Sweden. Comfy en suite cabins, restaurants, bars, cinema, open deck, a 1-night crossing direct from the UK to Scandinavia. Two companies became one, then in 2008, none. Incredibly, there are now no passenger ferries between the UK and anywhere in Denmark, Norway or Sweden. It's a long way round by train through Brussels, Hamburg and Copenhagen, especially if you live north of London - when it's just 150 miles across the North Sea! There seems to be no sign of any ferry resuming.
The Cologne-Copenhagen sleeper
In the absence of a ferry, the Amsterdam/Cologne-Copenhagen sleeper provided a time-effective link to Scandinavia, with connections by high-speed train from London, Paris & Brussels to Cologne, and from Copenhagen to Stockholm and Gothenburg next morning. Today, the journey must be done by daytime trains, with an overnight stop in Hamburg if you're trying to get from London or Paris to Copenhagen or Stockholm. Again, fast trains are slower than a sleeper! However, in this case there's hope. The Swedish government is tendering for a Cologne-Copenhagen/Malmo night train to be reintroduced, in the face of increased demand for train travel between Sweden and the rest of Europe. We have Greta Thunberg to thank for much of that!
The Paris-Munich/Berlin/Hamburg sleeper
This was a very useful and well-used sleeper, linking Paris and Germany time-effectively overnight. Like the Paris-Madrid sleeper, it was popular and well-used, that wasn't the problem. High track access fees played a key part in killing it - when we can all see that the track it used is still there, fully staffed and maintained, so absolutely no saving made by cancelling the train. With connections from London to Paris, and from Berlin to Warsaw, Munich to Vienna, Budapest and Zagreb, or Hamburg to Copenhagen, this sleeper linked London and Paris to much of central and eastern Europe, time-effectively. Most of these journeys now need to be done by daytime trains, with overnight stops, a slower and much less time-effective option, often with changes of train where the sleeper was direct.
The Hellas Express, Munich-Zagreb-Belgrade-Thessaloniki-Athens
A long-gone train, this, which I used to reach Athens in 1984, 1989 and (en route to Egypt by train and ferry) 1990. You now need to change in Zagreb, in Belgrade and in Thessaloniki, and the Belgrade-Thessaloniki section has become summer-only with no trains at all off-season. It was an epic journey across the Balkans, with seats, couchettes and a Yugoslavian sleeping-car - no restaurant or catering car, on my first trip to Greece in '84 I got most of the way on two packets of chocolate digestives. Incredibly, it was one of two daily Munich-Athens trains, with a third international train to Greece running Venice-Belgrade-Athens. Popular with interRailers and migrant workers, it now seems as much part of ancient history as sailing to India by P&O liner. But I'd love to see it back!
Mark Smith's website is the go-to place for information on train travel worldwide: seat61.com