Travelling by train through Europe is one of the most popular types of holiday and one that can be enjoyed at any age. Once on the European rail network it is possible to travel through any or all of the European Union and Schengen Area countries and enjoy a brief visit at destinations of choice.
Of course, any form of European travel necessitates having the correct credentials and documentation which in most cases will mean a European passport for citizens born within the European Union. Non-EU nationals will require a visa unless they are citizens of countries that currently enjoy visa-exemption status with the EU which also covers the Schengen Area.
The concept of visa reciprocity
Countries that currently have a reciprocal visa-free agreement include the United States, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Citizens of these (and other) countries are free to enter and travel through the greater European area with just a valid passport.
This situation is set to change in the next year or two as the European Union introduces a system of pre-screening intending visitors from all countries outside the EU and Schengen Area. Called ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) it will be necessary for intending visitors to Europe to have applied for and received ETIAS approval before travel commences. ETIAS is a form of digital visa but in electronic format which is linked to a traveller’s passport.
For the present, however, ETIAS is not mandatory and travellers with a suitable passport are entitled to board a train anywhere in Europe and make their way to another European destination making as many rail connections as required.
Similar to ETIAS, the United Kingdom is also introducing an electronic pre-screening system for visitors. Called the UK ETA, (Electronic Travel Authorisation), the scheme is set to be phased in during 2023 and 2024 before becoming a mandatory requirement for all non-British or Irish visitors to the United Kingdom.
Railway travel in the post-Brexit era
Despite the United Kingdom no longer being a member of the EU following Brexit it is still possible for Europeans and other qualifying nationals to include the U.K. in a European rail adventure although there are just two countries from which this objective can be achieved directly: France and the Republic of Ireland.
France and Ireland are the United Kingdom’s nearest neighbours and the only two European countries that have a rail link to the United Kingdom although the Irish connection is somewhat spurious as it involves a boat trip if travelling to England or Wales.
To understand the situation a little better, a quick lesson in geography is required. The United Kingdom is not a country but a collection of four countries under a common title, the four countries being Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. The first three of these are located on one land mass called the Island of Britain which is separated from the European mainland by the English Channel. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, is situated on the Island of Ireland and separated from Britain by the north channel of the Irish Sea.
Northern Ireland (no longer in the EU) shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland (a member of the EU) and is easily reached by rail from the Republic. The remaining three U.K. members are cut off from the rest of Europe but are still accessible via the Channel Tunnel which connects Calais in northern France to Folkestone in England.
England is the largest of the three countries on the Island of Britain and the nearest one to mainland Europe. A joint project between the English and French governments to design and construct a tunnel between the countries finally came to fruition in May of 1994 with the opening of the Channel Tunnel, often referred to as the Chunnel as it lies below the English channel.
The idea of building a tunnel from England to France was first mooted in 1802 but plans were shelved due to political concerns about national security. An early attempt by England to begin construction in the 19th century failed and it was only in 1988 that work began on the project managed by Eurotunnel, a Paris-based public company, but now called Getlink.
Original estimates for the cost of construction were in the region of £5.5 billion (€6.35 billion) but by the time of completion the actual cost was £9 billion (€10.4 billion) as technical, mechanical and safety issues led to delays in construction. Ranked third in a list of the world’s longest railway tunnels, the Chunnel is almost 32 miles (51 kms) long and sits 377 feet (115 metres) below sea level at its lowest point.
Today, the Channel Tunnel carries passenger and freight trains as well as a roll-on roll-off shuttle service for road vehicles and private cars.
The terminals at either end of the Chunnel are located at Coquelles (close to Calais in France) and at Cheriton, close to Folkestone on the English side. These terminals are for the unloading of freight and vehicles but passengers may continue their journey to London, England or Paris, France going in the opposite direction.
Passengers travelling between Paris and London will have boarding passes, passports and other relevant travel documentation checked at the boarding station. In London this is at St. Pancras International with travellers from France catching the Eurostar train at Gare du Nord in Paris. Drivers of vehicles (and their passengers) will be checked at the relevant terminal in Folkestone or Calais before being allowed to board.
Republic of Ireland
International travellers already in the Republic of Ireland will have little difficulty entering the United Kingdom through Northern Ireland. Unlike some years ago, there is no physical border between the north and south and travelling to Belfast in Northern Ireland is a simple matter of taking a train from Dublin. Passengers travelling from the south to the north (and vice versa) can be asked for passports or other travel documents but, in practise, this is rarely done.
The only time a visitor is likely to be asked for a passport is when leaving Northern Ireland by plane or boat and travelling on to one of the other United Kingdom countries or beyond.
It is also possible to travel by rail to the English cities of London, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham from the Republic of Ireland although a ferry trip is also involved in the journey. Connecting trains can be taken to Dublin from all around Ireland where passengers transfer to the Irish Ferry boat which sails to Holyhead in Wales. On arrival, passengers can resume their rail journey from Holyhead station to the chosen destination in England.
Other Eurostar Routes
All international arrivals by train will terminate their journey at London’s St. Pancras station but all trips do not originate from Paris as Eurostar now runs services to several European destinations.
France is well represented with direct links from London to Paris, Marseilles, Avignon, Lyon, Lille, Disneyland Paris and the French Alps.
The only direct route for Belgium is to Brussels with most of the Brussels trains also stopping at Lille in the north of France.
Rotterdam and Amsterdam are now connected to the Eurostar network.
Passengers bound for the United Kingdom will go through border checks and passport control at the chosen station before boarding the train and may also be checked again while in transit.
England has an extensive rail network but, since the railroads were privatised in the 90’s, the system doesn’t always work as smoothly as it could or should. The railway lines are operated my multiple train companies under the banner of the National Rail Service. However, because there are so many hands at the wheel different companies have differing ideas as to what constitutes a good train service. This can mean passengers arriving at a station only to find they have missed a connection by a matter of minutes or the connecting train is not due for several hours. However, despite the ongoing issues, rail travel in the United Kingdom is a pleasant experience with most of the trains being clean, comfortable and (usually) punctual.
As England, Scotland and Wales are relatively small in size all destinations in the United Kingdom are usually reachable in a matter of hours and there is a good network of high-speed trains between most of the major English cities.
The world’s oldest railway system, having begun operating in 1825, today’s network is fast and efficient and has the added benefit of affording views of the picturesque countryside and scenery while passing through in comfort and at leisure.