15 April 2024

JP Colenbrander

Unlocking cross-border transportation: navigating challenges to make trains the preferred choice for European cross-border travellers

As the Netherlands stands on the cusp of a new government and a forthcoming political agenda marked by new orientations, we feel compelled to ask: are we still on track to achieve our goal of making train travel a compelling option for (international) travellers by 2030, all while advancing the objectives of green and sustainable transportation in Europe? 

The question arises against a backdrop of numerous challenges, including a shortage of train personnel, a lack of integrated European train ticket system, aging infrastructure, and rising train tickets prices.

In this blog, we aim to delve into the current status of (international) train travel and the obstacles that stands in its way. Moreover, we will provide insights to position trains as the true alternative to short-distance air travel, if not the preferred mode of cross-border transportation in Europe.

Whereas in 2017, the Dutch government barely paid attention to sustainable transportation in the coalition agreement, the focus on alternative forms of mobility other than airplanes and cars increased rapidly in the following years. 

In 2018, Eurostar’s launch of a direct train connection between London and Amsterdam was celebrated by business and political circles alike, showing a clear appetite for business train travel in the Netherlands. A year later, the ‘Anders Reizen’ coalition’s sustainable travel goals were included in the Dutch Climate Agreement, a widely supported agreement among numerous organizations, companies, and the government.

Although the COVID-19 crisis put a dent in this development (remote work made train travel meaningless), the new coalition agreement of 2022 stated again the ambition to focus on improving international train connections to ‘sustainably connect’ the Netherlands. 

However, these ambitions poorly conceal the fact the situation today is not conducive to a massive change in behaviours, and a dramatic shift from car and plane to train travel. Delays in international lines increased, infrastructure repair works multiplied, and affordability issues continued to hinder its progress. 


To get travellers on board with train travel, a behavioural shift is needed. Travellers, whether for business, family visits, or holidays, are inclined to opt for trains if the latter offer them more benefits than other means of transportations. However, in reality, these benefits can be limited. They include factors such as competitive ticket prices, seat availability, comfort, and reliable punctuality. While transportation companies are responsible for pricing and accessibility, the public sector shoulders the responsibility of creating favourable conditions, stability, and transparency within the industry. In the case of our Dutch Railways, it became painfully clear that this mix is not consistently provided to travellers: ticket prices fluctuate upward due to a lack of seats in peak hours, staff to operate or clean the trains is scarce, and anyone who used the train as a mode of transportation in 2023 knows how often trains are delayed or do not run at all…

This lack of political coherence manifests today in several ways:

  • The lack of efficient domestic connections to international hubs, especially for those living beyond a 15 km radius from central stations, leads to reliance on infrequent local trains, resulting in a preference for personal transportation methods like airplanes and cars due to reliability concerns. Politics should invest further in last-mile solutions, to extend sustainable ways of transportation to the many.
  • Affordability and efficiency issues increase, with international business travellers opting for planes over trains due to cost and speed factors, exacerbated by rising train ticket prices. A lack of unified online ticketing platforms further complicates the situation.
  • Economic disparities between airlines and train operators persist despite trains being more eco-friendly. Politicians hesitate to enact policies favouring trains (new VAT regime for plane tickets) and providing better investment conditions for international train operators, hindering the competitiveness of cross-border train routes.
  • Governments could also be supporting further collaboration between train and airline operators to foster sustainable transportation. By seamlessly integrating services (long-haul flights, with better European cross-border train connections), travellers can choose between modes for optimal efficiency and reduced carbon emissions. This collaboration could translate by shared resources and infrastructure, ultimately advancing the development of eco-friendly travel options.

Only a few people would deny that an affordable and punctual train is a pleasant mode of transportation. The comfort of hopping on a train, from one central station to another, and arriving in the beating heart of a metropolis, in a way that helps reduce CO2 emissions, is priceless. Yet, there is still much to do to convince travellers.

Currently, the Dutch outgoing State Secretary of Infrastructure and Water Management is working on the ‘building blocks’ for international rail. A new cabinet will make decisions in this regard. In our view, the International Rail Strategy should focus on increased cooperation with neighbouring countries to develop coherent European policies and harmonized modern rail infrastructure. This requires allocating adequate financial resources and achieving greater stewardship between the private and public sectors. Achieving sustainable and efficient mobility for international and domestic passengers will come at that cost.


Share this resource
15 April 2024

JP Colenbrander

Hague corporate affairs logo

Receive our latest insights

Or follow us