The Welshman who set out on an epic 20,000 mile journey across Europe by train – and what it taught him about Wales
From Bangor to Bucharest or Swansea to Stockholm, an Interrail pass offers “convenient, borderless rail travel across Europe” with a single ticket. At least, that’s what the advert says.
Anyone who has tried to cross the continent by rail, something once reserved to a rite of passage for teenagers but now undergoing a renaissance due to growing climate consciousness, will know the reality can be very different.
Border checks, timetable differences and complicated connections can all cause long delays.
They’re an irritation for tourists on a once a year, or perhaps once in a lifetime journey, but can have a more serious effect on the lives of people who need to cross borders by rail more regularly.
People like Welshman Jon Worth, a political communications consultant from Newport who now lives in Berlin, and has just finished an epic 20,000-mile Interrail journey around Europe in an effort to root out and bring political attention to the obstruction on the tracks preventing truly borderless rail travel.
“I did this project mostly out of need,” Worth explained in an interview with Nation.Cymru yesterday. “I’m self-employed, I live in Berlin and have been living in different places in Europe now for more than a decade.
“I travel a hell of a lot to visit my clients and I want to try to avoid flying. Basically, when you try to do that you see that things break down and when you see things break down you start to get a bit annoyed and say ‘hang on a minute this ought to work better’.”
That was the seed for what grew into the Cross Border Rail project, a “slightly crazy idea” to spend the summer trying to cross every single internal border of the European Union by train.
“I discovered some extraordinary and wonderful places along the route,” Worth said. “You discover things where all of this is bundled up with war, with conflict, with politics, with borders, with areas that are a bit forgotten or cut off from the rest of the country, and that’s what made the whole thing so fascinating.
“It’s a combination of the politics of it and the joy of going and discovering these slightly forgotten corners of Europe.”
The crowdfunded trip started on June 15 with a relatively simple seven-and-a-half-hour journey from Berlin to Brussels before he sped through the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Finland in the first week.
That took in the Øresund Bridge, which links Danish capital Copenhagen to Malmo in Sweden and was the inspiration for the Nordic noir crime drama, The Bridge, by rail and road.
“Trains run there at least every 20 minutes and that’s completely changed the region,” said Worth of what he considers to be the easiest cross border rail link in Europe.
“It basically means you can live in Denmark and go for a dinner out in Sweden. I met someone on the train from Copenhagen who goes to the dentist in Sweden.
“It shows if you make a service reliable, you can completely change the patterns of how people live.”
That’s the vision of borderless travel on which Interrail, which is this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, but also the European Union, sell to the public.
“We’re supposed to live in a borderless Europe but, when it comes to rail travel, borders very much still exist,” was Worth’s message to the European Commissioner for transport, Adina Ioana Vălean, in his end-of-trip campaign video.
That became apparent in the second week of the trip when Worth hit the Baltics. First, he was stuck at the border between Estonia and Latvia for three hours because the countries’ rail timetables aren’t coordinated.
Then, when trying to go from Lithuania into Latvia, he was forced to travel the last 12 miles on his fold-up bicycle because the Lithuanian network stops well short of the border. That was nothing compared to the 50 mile bike ride required to cross between Lithuanian and Poland.
They were among 34 sections of the route Worth had to complete by bike due to a lack of rail infrastructure all across Europe. Another 12 had to be done by bus, three by ferry and two by car.
On the border between Romania and Bulgaria, Worth found an “impeccable modern bridge” across the Danube built with EU money which had been left by national governments with “absolutely disastrous” connections by both road and rail, requiring another hour-long bike ride.
“You’ve got those kinds of situations all over the place where you basically need a political agreement between countries on both sides of the borders to say OK we both want to do this and then you end up avoiding those absurdities,” said Worth.
That’s why the Welshman has been lobbying along the way, including meetings with the transport minister of Austria, whose state rail company has almost singlehandedly revived Europe’s network of night trains, as well as the director of the European Railway Agency.
When he spoke to Nation.Cymru, Worth was preparing to present the first detailed conclusions of the project to an audience including the German minister for Europe and climate action on Monday.
He wants EU leaders to end their “hands-off” approach to the problems holding back cross-border rail travel which, taken individually, can seem parochial but which collectively undermine one of the EU’s principle aims. Often the problems go left unsolved at national level because the people affected by them live on the other side of a border and can’t hold decision makers to account, he pointed out.
“I find the engagement from the European Union a bit hands off, a bit vague,” he said. “They basically say: we have set the framework to solve these problems, hey people on the ground: get on with it.
“But that isn’t working. My main demand towards the EU in the coming months will be to be more concrete and more proactive.”
Wales’ problems are almost the mirror image of what Worth found across the rest of the continent, with the country’s fastest and most reliable services being cross border. Nowhere more so than Worth’s native Newport, where his great uncle was a railwayman.
But, reflecting on his two-month train odyssey around Europe, he said: “I would say that Wales should look for inspiration in Austria, in Czechia, in parts of Germany, in the Netherlands.
“These are the places that in my view the railways does a really good job for a large part of its society.
“The question you need to ask yourself as a country is, who is the railway for and what do we want to do in our society? You start from answering that question.
“If you do that, then those other questions, how do you structure it, how do you organise it, can then begin to be answered.”
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