Can an old train station in Germany help us shape the future of rail transport?

Railway map of 1861 from the very north of Germany with the state Schleswig-Holstein (public domain > Wikipedia

My son and I visited Tönning the past weekend. A place where time stands still. At least at the train station.

There, in Northern Riesland, where Germany borders Denmark, at the small train station for a community of 5,000 people, a dispatcher (german: Fahrdienstleiter) is still on site. 

I love this way of personnel-intensive rail travel. When you arrive at such a small station and a train station attendant is doing their job, you feel good and safe. 

The train route from Flensburg to Tönning (see map on top) was the first in that region. In 1854 the line to Tönning was opened, primarily to export live cattle to England and import coal. 

Those times are long gone. And certainly, soon there will be no more staff at the Tönning station.

But still there is. And that’s why my son, a train fanatic, and I went there last weekend. 

Since the dispatcher has to oversee the station, we could watch her through the large glass pane at work. Even tickets are still sold there personally. 

We both love to immerse ourselves in such a vanishing world. And we are both aware of the ambivalence of this love. It is progress that allowes us to travel to Tönning at all. Progress has made train travel cheaper. Progress creates equality.

As much as we value the old world of trains, the more we hope that the European train network will not develop at the same pace over the next few years as it has in previous decades.

On the trip to Tönning, I read a startling article about the European train network in the latest edition of the business magazine Economist.

So little has changed in the past few decades:

  • Europe’s electric railways still use four different voltage levels
  • Almost every country still has its own signalling and safety systems
  • At Europe’s edges, even the width of the track varies: the Baltic countries use the Russian Empire’s wider gauge, and Spain and Portugal have one of their own.
  • Because systems are incompatible, only a few agencies sell rail tickets across the entire continent of Europe.

The biggest problem is probably that the national railways were often not interested in offering cross-border connections. “For the national carriers that dominate the sector, such as Germany’s Deutsche Bahn and France’s SNCF, cross-border trips are a side business and competitors a nuisance,” the Economist writes. 

And that regardless of the fact, that wherever cross-border rail lines have been introduced, they were often a great success: 

  • The Eurostar carried nearly 80 per cent of traffic from London to Brussels and Paris.
  • And a big share of those travelling between Paris and Frankfurt go on French TGV or German ICE trains.

But the reality is: Transnational high-speed connections are still the exception.

The EU wants to double high-speed rail traffic by 2030. 

That’s a big challenge. 

I would like to add another one: More train stations where arriving and departing is a pleasure! Not everything can stay as it was. But sometimes, the old can also be a role model for the future. After all, railway stations are the entrance gate for the passengers. If you like to go there, you take the train more often.


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