For the second December in succession, Europe’s rail operators face an end-of-year balancing act. The 2022 rail schedules came into force across Europe on 12 December, but train companies are unsure whether to shout about bold innovations or hunker down and keep quiet until the pandemic abates. This time last year we were anticipating the launch of sleeper services from Amsterdam to Vienna and Innsbruck. In the end, those new trains from the Netherlands to Austria didn’t start until May.
The pandemic has made 2021 a challenge for anyone trying to keep up with Europe’s changing railway timetables. Schedules were tweaked frequently, often with very positive results. A wonderful new direct daytime Eurocity service from Vienna to Trieste started in June, as did new summer season night trains from Bratislava and Vienna to Split.
So, looking ahead to what’s on offer in the 2022 schedules, bear in mind that Covid’s cruel grip may still lead to some services not running over the immediate upcoming period. Uncertainties over travel prospects are challenging for tour operators who specialise in rail-based holidays, but Byway Travel, for example, is already advertising Austrian and Hungarian trips that make the most of some new routes highlighted below.
Over the past 12 months the outstanding hub of timetabling innovation has been Vienna, and that looks set to continue in 2022, reinforcing the Austrian capital’s status as Europe’s best-connected city in terms of rail links. But there are also important developments in Spain, Italy and elsewhere. Here are some top choices for new routes that should debut this month, focusing on two night trains, two daytime detours and two new high-speed rail options.
Paris to Vienna by night
14 to 15 hrs (overnight, timings vary). Thrice weekly from 14 Dec. From Paris on Tues, Fri and Sun, returning from Vienna on Mon, Thur and Sat nights. One-way in a couchette from €59.90 or in a sleeper from €94.90
Austrian operator ÖBB adds Paris to its network this month with a new Nightjet to Vienna. Train NJ469 will leave Paris Gare de l’Est in the early evening. It’s a trip for the longer evenings, when the ride up the Marne Valley is a delight at low sun angles. Slip past Champagne vineyards, and by the time the train crosses the Rhine you’ll be dozing off, to awaken next morning in Austria. The train drops passengers in Salzburg at 07.30. Travellers bound for Vienna can linger over breakfast, with arrival in the Austrian capital just after 10am.
This new Nightjet follows the same route to Vienna as that taken by the Orient Express prior to the latter’s withdrawal in late 2009. During its final spell in service, the Orient Express carried the train number 469, so the Nightjet’s number is a nice nod to railway history.
The Vienna Nightjet is not the only new night train to start from Paris this month – there’s also a new SNCF overnight service to Tarbes and Lourdes.
Amsterdam to Zürich by night
11 hrs 37 mins. Daily from 12 Dec. One-way in a couchette from €59.90 or from €99.90 for a sleeper
After the success of the new night trains from the Netherlands to Austria, Switzerland steps up this month with a new daily Nightjet from Amsterdam to Zürich. This night train follows the classic Rhine Valley route south from Cologne, so passengers who twitch the window blinds at one in the morning may well be rewarded with glimpses of the Lorelei.
Travellers to and from London wanting an unhurried way to reach the Swiss Alps will value this new link, using the Eurostar to Amsterdam and having a wander there before joining the night train. Onward connections in Zürich are excellent, with an easy transfer onto the new direct service to Bologna (arrival 14.35) or the train to Genoa (arrival 15.52). This new Nightjet connects in Zürich with the Eurocity Transalpin train to Graz via Innsbruck.
Stuttgart to Vienna via the Tyrol
9 hrs 45 mins. Daily from 12 Dec. Fares from €37.90 second class, €56.90 first class, €71.90 business class
Austrian operator ÖBB and its partners have been aggressively expanding their daytime Railjet network in recent years. This time last year saw the first regular Railjet service to Berlin from Graz in Austria, and now Stuttgart gets a daily Railjet to Vienna. This new train will be called Bregenzerwald. It isn’t the fastest, and those in a hurry to reach Austria from Stuttgart will still find it faster to travel via Munich. But the beauty of the new direct train from Swabia to the Austrian capital is the glorious route it takes, meandering south down to Lake Constance, then running via Bregenz to join the celebrated Arlberg Railway to reach Innsbruck. It then loops back through a corner of Bavaria, without stopping on German territory, continuing east to Salzburg and following the Empress Elizabeth Railway to Vienna.
It’s a longish ride, but there’s a restaurant car on board. This is surely a case for splashing out that bit extra for first class or even ÖBB’s swish business class, which comes at a fixed premium of just €15 above the first-class fare. And if you don’t like the idea of a 07.44 start in Stuttgart, there’s the option of joining the same train in Ulm at 09.02.
Ljubljana to Budapest via Graz
8 hrs 40 mins. Daily from 12 Dec. Through fares not yet available, but probably from €40 second class
There has long been a direct train from Ljubljana to Budapest. It’s called Cittadella. Now there’s a newcomer linking the two cities by a very unusual route, which is more scenic and also twice crosses the line of the former iron curtain. If there’s a train which captures how Europe has changed over the past 30 years, it is this new direct service from Slovenia to Hungary via Austria’s Styria region.
Make this a journey for a June day, when the sun rises in Ljubljana just after 5am. Perfect timing for the new 05.05 to Budapest, which runs down the Sava Valley before cutting through the hills to reach Austria. Expect a feast of fine scenery on this journey, which takes in some deeply rural terrain to reach the Hungarian capital in the early afternoon.
Madrid to Santiago de Compostela (high speed)
From 3 hrs 20 mins. Four trains per day from 21 Dec. Fares from €20.65 standard class, €36.60 comfort class
Spain continues to expand its high-speed network by stealth, giving little notice of the opening of new lines. A long stretch of the 400-mile Madrid to Galicia route opened last autumn, with another 75 miles of new railway opening this month, so from 21 December the travel time from Madrid Chamartin to Santiago de Compostela is trimmed by another 70 minutes. A decade ago this scenically thrilling journey took seven hours, now it’s less than half that.
Genoa to Naples (high speed)
6 hrs 40 mins. Daily from 12 Dec. Fares from €59.90 in Smart, €66.90 in Prima, €116.90 in Club Executive
Private operator NTV Italo continues to challenge Trenitalia by expanding its network across Italy. This month sees Italo regularly serving Genoa for the first time, with a new daily service from the Ligurian port to Naples from 12 December. Trenitalia’s only direct daytime train between the two cities follows the coastal railway, taking eight hours to do the 450-mile trip. NTV Italo’s new service loops north through Milan to join Italy’s main high-speed route south, through Florence to Rome and beyond. That 590-mile journey to Naples gives those who only reluctantly leave their private jets at home plenty of time to relax in Italo’s smart Club Executive class and enjoy a high-speed dash through a great sweep of Italian countryside.
Other key changes
Unfortunately, new timetables inevitably bring some bad tidings. The much-anticipated reinstatement of a direct train from Warsaw to Lithuania has been delayed again, and probably won’t happen before mid-2023. There is as yet little sign of normal rail services being reinstated from the European Union to the Russian Federation or the Republic of Belarus, but from 12 December the high-speed Allegro trains are running again from St Petersburg and Vyborg to Helsinki. Sunday’s departures launched the first regular passenger service from Russia to an EU capital for almost 20 months.
Berlin loses its night train to Przemyśl in south-east Poland, but gets a new direct daytime link by way of compensation. It means that this modestly sized community near the Ukrainian border can now claim direct daytime trains to seven European capitals. Many direct trains from Przemyśl into Ukraine have been reinstated over the past six weeks and on 12 December the direct overnight service to the Black Sea port of Odessa returned.
Of the “might happen, might not” new routes being touted for 2022, the one that really kept rail travellers on tenterhooks was Trenitalia’s proposed new twice-daily Frecciarossa service from Milan to Paris via Turin and Lyon. It was rumoured that the first trains might roll before the end of the year, though Trenitalia was very coy when it came to any mention of the start date. But tickets eventually went on sale on 13 December, with one-way fares from just €29 and the first Frecciarossa departing on 18 December. When it leaves Paris’ Gare de Lyon at 07.26 on Saturday, it will herald a new era of competition for SNCF’s long-standing TGV service from Paris to Milan, and for SNCF’s plum business route from Paris to Lyon.
Let’s not forget the growing interest in slow travel. In Britain, travellers with time on their hands may relish the new direct trains on Sundays from Carlisle to Whitby; they started on 12 December. The 4 hr, 30 min trip takes in Cumbria, the Tyne Valley and the North York Moors, with 38 stops along the way. Surely fun, but wouldn’t it be so much better if the timetable allowed more than just 26 minutes in the Yorkshire seaside town before the train sets off on the ride back to Carlisle?