It seems like people across Europe are traveling more by train now than ever before. In the 2nd quarter of this year, at least 2.4 billion passengers took the train in a country within the European Union according to the latest statistics from Eurostat. And the number of passengers is growing. Some media reports cite flygskam – the concept, driven by environmental concerns, of shaming oneself and others into boycotting airplanes – as part of the explanation to what may seem like a sudden boom in train travel in Europe. There are of course differences between countries that shouldn’t be overlooked. But the overarching trend is that the number of passengers on European trains has been increasing over many years, and 2019 is not looking to be an exception.
In 2012, researchers in the Transportation Research Group led by professor John Preston at the University of Southampton, published a list of 37 "hard", "soft" and "complementary" barriers that keep people from choosing to travel by train. Hard barriers are easy to measure and apply to all travelers while soft and complementary barriers are fluffier, and depend more on the individual traveler.
One of the major hard barriers is what we call reachability, or how close a train station or railway is to where people live and work. If a train station is far away or can’t take you to where you’re going, you’re simply not going to use it. But reachability isn’t that simple. Transport researchers have shown that there are two types of distances that affect us when we choose a mode of transport: the physical distance and the psychological distance.
In this article we’ll talk about distance in two ways: kilometers and steps. In other words, our focus will be on physical distance. We’ll attempt to highlight both people who live close to a station and people who live far away, what these groups have in common and what separates them. With that said, we understand that distances can depend on other things than the actual numbers. How far away a train station really is, may be affected by things such as movement-related disabilities, accessibility in public spaces, and weather, to name a few. It may also depend on how far you’re traveling – if you’re entire journey is 5 hours, maybe a 20 minute walk to a station isn’t that much. If it’s a 20 minute journey, a 10 minute walk may seem unreasonable.
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For some, one kilometer is far away, for others it’s a stroll. Moving forward however, we’ll say that people who can reach a station within 1,000 steps (that's around 800 meters) are extremely well connected to the railway, 5,000 steps are very well connected while people who live closer than 10,000 steps are simply well connected. If you live more than 30,000 steps from a station, i.e. more than 24 kilometers, we consider you to be poorly connected.
To set the scene, imagine for a minute that you travel to the far north of Västerbotten county in northern Sweden, one of the richest countries in the European Union. You’re going really north (but still nowhere close to the actual far north, as the people living there would tell you). Fast forward, because otherwise we would be here all day, and you’ve arrived in the municipality of Storuman. Situated around the lake with the same name, Storuman might not have become the principal town in the area had it not been for the train station that was built here in the early 20th century. It's therefore somewhat ironic that the people of Storuman live further away from a national railway station, which can take them to the capital, than almost anyone else who lives on the mainland in Sweden.
The train station in Storuman is still in use. A couple of months every summer, trains travelling along the Inlandsbanan pass through here. But Inlandsbanan hasn’t been used – or marketed – as a mode for public transport since 1992. Nowadays, it’s mainly used by tourists who wish to see the Swedish inland. Across Europe, there are many train stations just like the one in Storuman. And while the station in Storuman is still open for, albeit limited, business, others have not been so lucky.
We’ve analysed reachability for 410 million people across 16 European countries and more than 22,000 stations. Our estimates show, that a random person living in one of these countries will likely live somewhere between two (Czech Republic) and 12 (Croatia) kilometers from the closest relevant train station.
There are obviously countries where reachability is better than in others. But the general take-away from our estimations is that the majority of people can reach a train station relatively easily. When we add the 410 million people we’ve looked at together, we find that 350 million can reach a station within 10,000 steps. The vast majority of people in our data are well connected, at least when it comes to having a relevant station close by (though the service may not be as good).
In Czech Republic, United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany, 9 out of 10 people have to walk less than 10,000 steps to get to a train station that can take them by train to the capital. If we remove Belgium and add Austria and Denmark, we have a list of countries where at least 2 in 10 inhabitants have less than 1,000 steps to a relevant train station – people who are extremely well connected.
The absolute number of poorly connected people – as defined by people with at least 30,000 steps to a station – is undoubtedly small according to our data. In fact, we see that in 6 of the sixteen countries we’ve looked at, there’s almost no-one. Relative to the population size in each country, the people who are poorly connected can primarily be found in Croatia, Finland, Bulgaria, Sweden and Portugal.
If you studied the previous graph, you probably noticed the countries we’ve mentioned, both in terms of good reachability and poor reachability. Look a little bit closer and you’ll see something else: there seems to be a spread within all countries.
Do you remember the people of Storuman? We can see them in the top of the graph for Sweden. The largest differences can be seen in countries like Finland, Sweden, Croatia, Portugal, Italy and the United Kingdom. But even in a place like Czech Republic there are people who live further away from a station than others. This is a truism but it’s worth pointing out and leads us to our last question.
What are possible explanations for these differences? Or, in other words, what do people who live far away from a station have in common, if anything? To answer this question let’s take a step back from countries and look at the data from a different point of view. Let’s imagine three people who live in different types of areas in all of these countries: urban, rural and somewhere likely soon-to-be urban.
It’s good to stop here for a second. Because 410 million people are a lot of people. Around 73 million of them live in rural areas. And some countries are undoubtedly more rural than others.
If we only look at urban areas, at least 8 out of 10 people can reach a train station within 10,000 steps in all countries we’ve analysed. They are well connected. In Denmark, 99 percent of people who live in any of the country’s two urban areas can reach a train station within 5,000 steps. They are very well connected. Contrast that with our estimates for rural areas: only in Czechia and Belgium 8 out of 10 people are well connected.
Around 7,7 million people live at least 30,000 steps from any train station that can take them to the capital in their country. At least 4 million of them live in rural areas. They are poorly connected. While close to 6 percent of the population in rural Europe live that far away from train stations, only 0.3 percent in urban areas, and slightly below 2 percent living in intermediate areas, do.
When we read (and write!) a story like this it’s easy to get stuck on the outliers. If you do your 10,000 steps a day, walking from central Storuman to the nearest relevant train station in Lycksele would take you at least 15 days – it’d be much quicker to get to an airport.
And Storuman is not the only place where we find extreme distances. Take for example the village of Nuorgam in the most northern parts of Finland. If anyone of the 200 people living there is going to Helsinki, they first need to travel more than 400 kilometers to the small town of Kolari. Or they could travel half that distance and go by plane from the northernmost airport in the European Union, Ivalon lentoasema.
We find a similar story in the Croatian city of Dubrovnik. Should the people there catch a plane to Zagreb or travel more than 150 kilometers to Split in order to go by train? What about traveling into Bosnia-Herzegovina, you may ask. Well, that no longer seems to be an option as the Sarajevo-Zagreb train connection was suspended in 2016.
The people in Storuman, Nuorgam and Dubrovnik shouldn’t be forgotten. They are part of the millions of people who live in places where railway reachability is poor, predominantly in rural regions. These regions are often disadvantaged in terms of access to other public services too, such as maternity wards or middle and higher education institutions. And it’s not looking to change any time soon. In the last few years, entire railway lines or sections of lines have been closed down (like on the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece and in Trás-os-Montes in Portugal) or their closure is being considered (as is the case in many rural areas around France).
For people living in these places, trains may simply not be an option. But they are outliers in the data. In essence, our data shows that the railway networks in the 16 countries we’ve looked at, reach the vast majority of the citizens they are meant to serve. The railways have great potential and, for most people who live in the countries, reachability in terms of physical distance is not a barrier that should keep them from traveling by train. If the closing of lines continues, this may of course change.
Now, reachability is not everything. Our analysis doesn’t take the quality of railways or trains into consideration. And, as we said at the beginning, there are at least 37 hard and soft barriers that keep us from choosing the train.
The following places have been excluded from the analysis, even though they belong to or are connected to countries that we've analysed. Corsica (France), Bornholm (Denmark), Northern Ireland (United Kingdom), Isle of Wight (United Kingdom), Orkney (United Kingdom), Shetland (United Kingdom), Western Isles (United Kingdom), Åland (Finland), Azores (Portugal), Madeira (Portugal) and Gotland (Sweden). We excluded these areas because they are not connected to the mainland where the end destination is. There are other populated islands that are included in our results, for example Lampedusa (Italy) and Heligoland (Germany).
All stations on Denmark's new Letbanen light rail were not yet in the European station data when we conducted the research.
This article is the result of a collaborative project within the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet). Research and text by J++ (coordinated and edited by OBC Transeuropa. Contributions by Der Spiegel (Germany), VoxEurop (France), BiQdata (Poland) and LocalFocus (Netherlands).
What we did and how we did it
This article tries to answer a seemingly straightforward question: how easy it is for citizens in Europe to travel by train, and what explains differences within countries? In our attempt to answer this, we wanted to look at two measures - distances to train stations and the proportion of people who are well connected to (less than 10,000 steps to a station) versus poorly connected from (at least 30,000 steps to a station) the railway network.
Distances to a train station tell us how far someone must travel while the other measurement gives us an idea of how many people must rely on a car, bus or taxi in order to get to the train station. The cut-off point of 30,000 steps is arbitrary but is based on the assumption that you’re not likely to walk that distance just to get to a train.
We haven’t found any official or unofficial source that contains data for European countries on distances to train stations or numbers on how many people live near a train station. This meant that we needed to gather and create this data ourselves.
General problems with the quality of our data
We have not found any open international or regional source, private or otherwise, that contains an exhaustive list of train stations across Europe. If you are interested in the subject of train stations you’re, as we see it, left with four alternatives: HAFAS (HaCon Fahrplan-Auskunfts-System), RINF (European Register of Infrastructure), national authorities or any of the crowdsourced lists that can be found online.
HAFAS is a booking system developed by the privately owned Siemens-subsidiary Hannover Consulting. The upside of HAFAS is that quite a few big carriers in countries in Europe use it on their booking websites. The downside is that it’s proprietary and the company doesn’t publish their list of stations - you have to create your own. Doing this was not a viable option for us, and as we realised - the quality of the data in HAFAS is sometimes poor. Not only does the system lack stations for entire regions in some countries, the location of the train station is sometimes completely off.
The European Register of Infrastructure is maintained by the European Railway Agency and every Member State (as well as Norway and Switzerland) is supposed to report stations (and other railway related information) to the database. RINF is, as far as we understand it, the most exhaustive official list of stations across Europe. We determined that RINF is the best we can do short of approaching all states individually. With hindsight, we noticed that that coverage of private railways were less likely to be included in RINF for some countries. You can read more about RINF here.
Crowdsourced lists are not a bad alternative, but since we wanted to check if you could travel from a specific station we were relying on the name and coordinates to match another source (in our case HAFAS) which is why we determined that an official source was more appropriate.
Another issue with our data is that the population grid that we use to represent people in Europe is from 2011. Undoubtedly, populations have increased and countries have become more urbanised since then, but it’s the latest grid available.
More details on the methodology, as well as a detailed Q&A here.