Wolfgang Cramer is a long time connection of mine on social media. He is obsessed about reducing his carbon footprint, and travels pretty much everywhere by train and bike, so you can see why I get along with him. He has thousands of kilometres of rail travel, Europe-wide, behind him. Yet this morning he was stuck. How, he wondered, would he get from Madrid to Badajoz (at the border to Portugal – the fastest way from Madrid to Lisboa by train) on 11 July, just over 3 months from now.

Look at any booking site and there is nothing available between Madrid and Badajoz on that day – I am showing a Trainline screenshot here, as they can show all operators in Spain. Nada.

But if you look at another part of Wolfgang’s route – Barcelona to Madrid – there are trains for sale already, and indeed the cheapest tickets on some of them are sold out already:

So what’s going on? Turns out there are engineering works in May on the route to Badajoz, that might last until mid June. And Renfe simply hasn’t published anything for July – even though by then we assume the works will be done. The general consensus among the rail nerds replying to Wolfgang was to wait and see, and something will run – but to even get that advice you need to have the right network, to know who to ask. Most travellers are not going to have that.

This is nothing but incompetence from Renfe here. A complete and total disregard for the needs to passengers. I’d prefer the approach of – say – CFR in Romania to this, where everything is released only a month ahead of the trip – but at least then you know what you will get.

It is these sorts of situations that make me so furious about railway travel. No amount of investment in new lines, investment in new trains, is going to put this sort of thing right. You do not need more money to show some basic decency towards your customers – you need a change in attitude.

Renfe in Spain is the worst at this sort of thing, but it is not as if others are immune to it. Portugal’s CP has not been exactly a shining light with regard to this connection either, as it runs knackered old 1950s railbuses to Badajoz (pictured), but at least you know when they will run – and fixing the absence of rolling stock on the Portuguese side is at least a financial question, in a way Renfe’s woes are not.

I have been facing my very own headaches trying to plan a trip to Sweden in late May – where SJ cannot tell me if the Hamburg-Stockholm night train will run or not, because Trafikverket – the network operator – has engineering works ongoing, and what the plan is to either curtail or divert the night train is not known. So I have booked a Travemünde-Malmö ferry instead.

Meanwhile Lukas, a friend who works in the railway industry, was having his own battles with SNCF customer unfriendliness in France today.

And so it goes on. And on. And on.

Travel enough by train in Europe and you encounter these sorts of situations where railways fail on their own terms. You cannot blame long distance buses not paying motorway tolls, or aeroplanes not paying tax on kerosene, for this dysfunction. These are examples of railways being useless, all on their own. Incapable of adapting their offer so as to be able to simply cover the basics – plan engineering works, communicate what is happening to passengers, sell them tickets in a timely manner, and be able to at least try to cope with some peaks in demand.

One Comment

  1. Charles

    This so frustrates me. I regularly travel from Brno to Bristol by train and after about 4 years am used to all the options and the vagaries of pricing/booking. When friends are interested, they ask me where to go to book tickets. That is not that difficult but the problem is the prices come out at about 300 euros; Easyjet prg-brs 50 euros . I manage it for about 120 euros, which is similar to the cost of flying when you include necessary extras. Until the passenger is put at the start of this process, it’s not going to change. Unfortunately, the airlines get this point pretty well

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