April 24, 2024


For splendid leisure

Six of the best new train journeys in Europe for 2021 | Rail travel

7 min read

Europe’s railways are slumbering through these dark days of the pandemic. Rarely have services been cut so drastically. In late November, there was just one train a day running from Paris to each of Amsterdam, Barcelona, Zurich and London. But brighter days are on the horizon, and many European rail operators are already promising much-improved services and a wide range of new routes for 2021.

The date on which the 2021 schedules come into effect is Sunday 13 December. So expect new timings on many routes from that date. But note that this year some service enhancements have been deferred until early 2021, as there is no point in launching new routes at a time when most people are sensibly staying close to home.

Amsterdam to the Austrian Tirol and Vienna

The Hungerburgbahn, a hybrid funicular railway in Innsbruck, designed by Zaha Hadid.
The Hungerburgbahn, a hybrid funicular railway in Innsbruck, designed by Zaha Hadid

Departures every evening from early 2021. Amsterdam to either Innsbruck or Vienna in 13 hours 40 mins. From €29.90 seated, €59.90 couchette, €89.90 sleeping berth
Austrian rail operator ÖBB has an expanding network of comfortable Nightjet services, and has announced that long-distance night trains will return to the Netherlands in 2021. Departures from Amsterdam every evening at 19.30 were due to start on 13 December, but ÖBB now expects an early 2021 start for this useful new overnight link. The main train will run to Vienna, but there will also be through carriages via Munich to to Innsbruck.

For passengers from London, a direct Eurostar at 11.04 gives a comfortable connection in Amsterdam, with three hours to explore the Dutch city before joining the night train to Austria. On those days when the Brussels to Vienna night train runs, passengers bound for the Austrian capital will be able to leave London later and connect there into the onward Nightjet. That service from Brussels will resume in early 2021, with the frequency nudged up to three times weekly.

Gotthard Classic: Basel to Locarno

Zurich main train station (Hauptbahnhof), Switzerland
Zurich station. Photograph: Ladiras/Getty Images

Starts 14 December 2020. Four hours 30 mins. Every two hours from Basel SBB. Buy the Saver Day Pass well in advance for 52 Swiss francs (about €48). This ticket permits unlimited travel for a full day throughout Switzerland
The historic Gotthard railway was sidelined when the Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT) opened in 2016. The GBT slashed timings on the main Zurich-Milan axis, but it’s a long, dark tunnel and means that passengers miss the best of the Alpine views. Latterly, the only direct trains from Zurich and Basel over the old scenic Gotthard route have been excursion trains on weekends and public holidays – these have run all year round from Zurich, but only in spring and summer from Basel.

That all changes from 13 December when a Swiss rail company called Südostbahn (SOB) launches year-round hourly services over the classic Gotthard route, so linking Switzerland’s major northern cities with the country’s southernmost canton of Ticino. The old line is increasingly styled as the Panoramastrecke (panorama route). This is indeed a glorious stretch of railway, skirting the east shore of Lake Lucerne and taking in the beautiful Leventina district on the south side of the Gotthard.

These new services will be branded Treno Gottardo, relying on the extremely comfortable Stadler Traverso trains which SOB has latterly been using on its Voralpen-Express panorama train from St Gallen to Lucerne. Book a seat in first class on the new Treno Gottardo and watch the Swiss scenery slip by beyond the carriage window.

When the Treno Gottardo starts later this month, it will run as far as Bellinzona, but from April 5 the route is extended to beautiful Locarno, the town on the shore of Lago Maggiore which hosts Switzerland’s premier film festival.

Munich to Zurich via Austria

The main railway station in Munich, southern Germany.
The main railway station in Munich. Photograph: Matthias Balk/AFP/Getty Images

Starts 13 December 2020. Four hours. Six a day. From €18.90
This route sees a major upgrade with chic Swiss Astoro tilting trains making their debut on the line in mid-December. It is a marvellous run that takes in three countries; this line slips through a corner of Austria as it skirts the eastern shore of Lake Constance (which is called the Bodensee in German). Swiss operator SBB plans to trim another 30 minutes off the journey time in late 2021. This is one of only two routes in Germany to carry the Eurocity Express (ECE) designation. The other is the once-daily direct train from Frankfurt-am-Main to Milan.

For travellers from northern Europe, this much-improved service from Munich to Switzerland offers an attractive alternative to the traditional approach via Germany’s Rhine valley and Basel. The Astoro trains have an excellent restaurant car, so grab a seat and enjoy a platter of Swiss ham and cheese with a glass of Chasselas as you cruise through the Bavarian borderlands towards Lake Constance.

Return of the Wawel: Berlin to Kraków

Wawel Royal Castle in Kraków, which gives its name to the Eurocity Wawel train.
Wawel Royal Castle in Kraków, which gives its name to the Eurocity Wawel train. Photograph: Łukasz Gągulski/EPA

Starts 13 December 2020. Seven hours. Once daily. From €27.90
Six years ago, a classic Eurocity train slipped inexplicably from the schedules. The Eurocity Wawel linked Berlin with Kraków in southern Poland. Now it’s back, giving the opportunity to travel by day from the German capital through Lusatia and Silesia to Kraków. The train takes its name from the great royal castle in the Polish city. With a convenient mid-morning departure from Berlin, the EC Wawel also gives a helpful additional daily connection between Berlin and Wrocław.

The reinstatement of the EC Wawel will be a boost for travellers from Britain looking to combine a stay in Berlin with a visit to southern Poland. Timings of the new service are much improved; the old Wawel took well over 10 hours to reach Kraków. The train carries a full-service restaurant car so you can linger over lunch as the train cruises through the Oder flatlands and the forests of western Poland.

Habsburg borderlands: Prague to Przemyśl

Przemyśl, south-east Poland. Photograph: Mariusz Switulski/Alamy

Starts 13 December 2020. 10 hours 50 mins. Once daily. From 789 Czech koruna (€29.90)
Cast back just a few years, and the town of Przemyśl by the River San in Poland’s south-east corner was a backwater on Europe’s rail network. Now it has developed into an unlikely hub for international connections. The departure boards at the town’s beautifully restored Habsburg-era station boast direct trains to Berlin, Vienna and even Graz in Austria’s distant Styria region. In November, the railway station at Przemyśl took top prize in Poland’s Station of the Year competition.

From mid-December, Przemyśl’s repertoire of far-flung connections is extended with the addition of both Prague and Budapest. The 460-mile run from the Czech capital is served by a daily Eurocity service that will leave Prague just after 10am each morning. Once the Covid restrictions on rail services over the eastern border of the EU are lifted, this train will also carry Russian sleeping cars to Moscow – these interlopers will be detached from the Przemyśl train at Bohumín in the eastern Czech Republic, from where the main train continues north-east through Kraków and on through the one-time Habsburg crownland of Galicia to reach Przemyśl around nine in the evening. Przemyśl is the jumping-off point for onward journeys into Ukraine, with direct trains to Lviv, Kyiv and Odessa.

Better links to Italy, Sweden and Romania

Piazza Raffaele de Ferrari in Genoa.
Piazza Raffaele de Ferrari in Genoa. Photograph: Tomasz Koryl/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy

Many other additional services are likely to launch in the first few months of 2021. There has been talk of extending one of the Zurich to Milan high-speed services to Genoa which, if it comes to pass, will restore a direct link from Zurich to the Mediterranean.

On March 31, Swedish operator Snälltåget will launch a direct night train from Berlin and Hamburg to Stockholm, initially running at weekends but ramping up to daily from 5 June. This will be a boost for travellers from London who will be able to travel during the day from London via Brussels and Cologne to Hamburg, connecting there into the direct overnight service to Stockholm.

French operator SNCF will probably restore the daily Paris to Munich TGV from 14 March, a bonus for passengers from Britain travelling to southern Germany. This train will give an excellent connection in Munich on to the Kálmán Imre night train to Budapest, which is being upgraded in 2021 to include a restaurant car on the latter part of the journey so that passengers can take breakfast as the train rolls over the Danube plain towards the Hungarian capital. In Budapest, there are convenient onward connections to Serbia and Romania. After the constraints on travel in 2020, it will again be possible to leave London late morning and be in Romania by mid-afternoon the following day.

Nicky Gardner is co-author of Europe by Rail: the Definitive Guide. The 16th edition is available from the Guardian Bookshop for £14.78. Find out more about the book at europebyrail.eu

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