Simon Calder: Trains to Europe on track at last

The man who pays his way

Spare seats are rare from British airports this summer, because UK airlines lead the world in filling planes. Charter carriers, the pioneers of low-cost aviation, aim to fly with every seat occupied. No-frills airlines, notably easyJet, use sophisticated "yield-management" – constantly tweaking prices – to fill nine out of 10 seats year-round. And to maximise the "load factor," airlines such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic overbook: selling more tickets than there are seats. They usually predict correctly the number of no-shows, and get away with it.

Yet thousands of empty seats will depart from the UK this weekend for Europe. The spare capacity is on Eurostar trains from London to Paris and Brussels. High-spending business travellers demand a convenient schedule between the capitals, so Eurostar despatches a train every hour or two from early till late to Brussels, and more frequently to Paris. Each train has 750 seats, the equivalent of two Jumbo jets. And that implies plenty of empty seats in August as commercial and political life in the Belgian and French capitals slips into a deep slumber.

Handily for the train operator, hauling a seat from London to Paris or Brussels is cheaper by rail than by air. Eurostar can tolerate load factors that would prove disastrous for airlines. But this summer the company is responding shrewdly to the waste of space by selling £99 return fares for travel in August. You neither need to book weeks ahead nor choose anti-social departure times to get these tickets. For anyone within reasonable reach of London St Pancras, an impulsive day-trip for lunch in the Grand Place in Brussels or a picnic in the Place des Vosges in Paris is yours at the drop of a debit card.

If you can stay longer, the tranquil Ardennes and the Champagne region are within easy reach – though roaming free in a great European city when there's no-one home is a rare treat in itself.

The Sunshine Express

Another smart move from Eurostar: starting next May Day, a year-round rail link from the Thames to the Med.

At last. Currently you can catch a direct train to the French Mediterranean from almost anywhere in Europe (including principal stations from Moscow to Nice), except Britain. As work on the Channel Tunnel began, extravagant promises were made about through trains linking Scotland with Paris and Bristol with Brussels. The rolling stock for these "Regional Eurostar" services was built but never used for the intended purpose, and has now gone west: the carriages were sold at cut price to Canada, and were last seen rolling through Ontario. Likewise, trains from London deep into Europe were pledged, but in 20 years Eurostar has ventured little further than a ski train to the French Alps and summer Saturday services to Avignon and Aix-en-Provence (or at least the ungainly TGV station vaguely near the city of Cézanne). Now, a proper big city in an alluring location will appear on the destination board: Marseille. All the train traveller need do is sit and watch almost the entire length of France waft past in a speed-induced Impressionistic blur en route to la mer bleue.

The Sunshine Express, as I call it, will whisk you from a London mist to a Mediterranean heat haze – and from one great terminus, St Pancras, to another. Marseille St-Charles is an elegant, angular gare, courtesy of that towering engineering genius, Gustave Eiffel. From here, it is a 10-minute walk to the port along La Canebière, built as Louis XIV's avenue to the sun.

Marseille is an intriguing destination, in some places resembling a cousin to Algiers, in others a gastronomic heaven. Like other previous European Capitals of Culture, it is more rewarding after its year in the spotlight. The city's cultural infrastructure was transformed for last year's festivities and can now be enjoyed with less of a jostle.

You can also change in Marseille for a fast ferry to Corsica or a slow boat to North Africa, thanks to the network of trans-Mediterranean routes from the port. The new rail link could help shift the balance of travel away from aviation and back in favour of trains and ships. Flying to the city can be a dismal experience: Marseille-Provence airport has the most utilitarian no-frills terminal in France (against stiff competition from Lyon St-Exupery). And while the airport is convenient for Arles, it is an awkward 20 miles north-west of Marseille. City-centre-to-city-centre, the train could prove a match for the plane in time and money – and a benefit for the planet.

Bridging the gap

More good train news from Europe. The European Rail Timetable reveals a small piece of railway history has been forged amid the ripple of fortress-topped mountains and deep river valleys where Bohemia and Upper Saxony collide. An international link has reopened. Granted, it connects two towns that you may never have heard of: Dolni Poustevna in the Czech Republic and Sebnitz in Germany. They lie east of Dresden, where the international border throws a loop that temporarily places the Czech Republic north, rather than south, of Germany.

After the Second World War, both towns ended up on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain, but the line between them was severed. New tracks have been laid and local trains now shuttle across the border. The main line between Dresden and Prague remains one of the most dramatic inter-city rail journeys on the Continent, but the reconnection will enable dedicated train travellers to take an even prettier route through the heart of Europe.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Bid Writer

    £25000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Day In a Page

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back