“Rendezvous on Champs-Elysees. Leave Paris in the morning with T-E-E. In Vienna we sit in a late-night café. Straight connection, T-E-E.”
Kraftwerk’s minimalist 1976 tribute to the pleasure of long-distance train journeys will likely be familiar to music fans, but to a generation of Europeans, Trans Europe Express remains a byword for fast, luxurious international travel.
Replaced by the patchy and somewhat less glamorous Euro City brand in 1987, the stylish red and ivory TEE trains were a response to the growth of air travel and the private car in the late 1950s.
Advanced diesel and multi voltage electric trains slashed journey times by eliminating lengthy stops at international borders to check passports and change locomotives and crews.
Premium fares included first class comfort, at-seat gourmet meals and air-conditioned open saloons with large windows, allowing passengers to relax and enjoy the views as they sped through the Rhine Gorge or crossed the Alps to Milan.
Germany’s “TEE Rheingold” raised the bar even further with an American style panorama car, seating a lucky few in a raised glass dome with 360-degree views of the route.
Fast forward to the 2020s and the short-haul air travel that lured business travelers and city breakers away from trains five decades ago is increasingly viewed as unfashionable and undesirable — even before the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the intervening years, international rail travel has also changed beyond recognition with many cross-border links being lost or partly replaced by the growing network of high-speed railways.
Since the 1990s, France’s world-famous Trains a Grand Vitesse (TGVs) have spread far beyond their home country as new lines have allowed TGVs radiating from Paris to reach Brussels, Cologne, Amsterdam, London, Barcelona, Milan, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Zurich and Munich.
Although these superb trains have revolutionized journeys on specific routes, international rail travel in Europe remains a disjointed affair, hampered by a lack of coordination between operators on timetables, ticketing and marketing.
A combination of inertia, increasing costs, protectionism and the exponential growth in short-haul flights over the past 20 years meant that in 2018, 149 of the 365 cross-border rail links that once existed in Europe were not being exploited.
Despite huge efforts to attract passengers out of their cars, in 2018 rail accounted for less than 8% of all passenger travel in European Union member states.
In September 2020, German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer raised eyebrows across the continent by suggesting that the network of international routes that blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s could form the template for new “TEE 2.0” services from 2025.
Scheuer added that countries will need to identify where “inadequate rail services” exist and that national routes should be “chained together” to build international services.
Those aspirations tally with a pledge signed by 25 EU transport ministers in June to boost the market competitiveness of rail journeys of up to 500 miles.
A more detailed agenda for how this will be achieved is expected later this year.
Germany’s TEE 2.0 proposal is an extension of its $88 billion “Deutschland Takt” (regular interval timetable) program, announced in 2019, which aims to provide fast and frequent “clock face” inter-city rail services between all German towns and cities over a certain size by 2030.
Detailed planning for Deutschland Takt is now in progress, and improvements will be delivered and funded as part of the German government’s climate protection and Covid-19 recovery policies.
TEE 2.0 would build on this, making use of existing high-speed railways and hubs in major cities to provide a better coordinated network of international trains. Projects now under construction or planned over the next 20 years will deliver more and faster links with neighboring countries by 2040.
“The TEE 2.0 proposal is a step, albeit a small one, towards a network of high-speed trains that could replace short haul flights between major cities in Europe,” says Keith Fender, Europe editor of Modern Railways magazine. “It offers new direct journey possibilities taking advantage of new high-speed lines, some of which are still being built.”
Scheuer’s comments were followed in January 2021 by a joint report from environmental organizations in Germany, Poland, Spain and France — financed by the German environment ministry — that stated that direct connections between capitals such as Paris and Berlin could make a major contribution to reducing carbon emissions by 2050.
According to the report, a flight from Paris to Berlin creates at least six times the carbon dioxide emissions of a similar train journey. Flights of less than 621 miles (1,000 kilometers) between and within European countries are estimated to create 28 million metric tonnes of CO2 every year.
Importantly, 17 of the 20 busiest air routes in Europe cover distances less than 434 miles (700 kilometers).
Supporters of the plan believe that almost all of this traffic could be persuaded to switch from air to rail new high-speed lines, unblocking congestion “pinch points” at key locations and providing fast, frequent and high-quality trains.
A first tranche of new TEE 2.0 routes would build on existing services and infrastructure to provide new connections on the Amsterdam-Paris-Barcelona, Brussels-Berlin-Warsaw, Amsterdam-Frankfurt-Zurich-Rome and Barcelona-Frankfurt-Berlin routes.