Paris-Berlin Trains, But no Infrastructure

Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that Macron and Scholz announced new train service between Paris and Berlin to debut next year, as intercity rail demand in Europe is steadily rising and people want to travel not just within countries but also between them. Currently, there is no direct rail service, and passengers who wish to travel on this city pair have to change trains in Frankfurt or Cologne. There’s just one problem: the train will not have any supportive infrastructure and therefore take the same eight hours that trains take today with a transfer.

This is especially frustrating, since Germany is already investing in improving its intercity rail. Unfortunately, the investments are halting and partial – right now the longest city pair connected entirely by high-speed rail is Cologne-Frankfurt, a distance of 180 km, and ongoing plans are going to close some low-speed gaps elsewhere in the system but still not create any long-range continuous high-speed rail corridor connecting major cities. With ongoing plans, Cologne-Stuttgart is going to be entirely fast, but not that fast – Frankfurt-Mannheim is supposed to be sped up to 29 minutes over about 75 km.

Berlin-Paris is a good axis for such investment. This includes the following sections:

  • Berlin-Halle is currently medium-speed, trains taking 1:08-1:16 to do 162 km, but the flat, low-density terrain is easy for high-speed rail, which could speed this up to 40-45 minutes at fairly low cost since no tunnels and little bridging would be required.
  • Halle-Erfurt is already fast, thanks to investments in the Berlin-Munich axis.
  • Erfurt-Frankfurt is currently slow, but there are plans to build high-speed rail from Erfurt to Fulda and thence Hanau. The trip times leave a lot to be desired, but newer 300 km/h trains like the Velaro Novo, and perhaps a commitment to push the line not just to Hanau but closer to Frankfurt itself, could do this section in an hour.
  • Frankfurt-Saarbrücken is very slow. Saarbrücken is at the western margin of Germany and is not significant enough by itself to merit any high-speed rail investment. Between it and Frankfurt, the terrain is rolling and some tunneling is needed, and the only significant intermediate stops are Mainz (close enough to Frankfurt it’s a mere stop of opportunity) and Kaiserslautern. Nonetheless, fast trains could get from Frankfurt to the border in 45 minutes, whereas today they take two hours.

Unfortunately, they’re not talking about any pan-European infrastructure here. Building things is too difficult, so instead the plan is to run night trains – this despite the fact that Frankfurt-Saarbrücken with a connection to the LGV Est would make a great joint project.

42 comments

  1. Matthew Hutton

    Paris Berlin night trains in 8 hours opens up a fair few journeys.

    Barcelona-Berlin, Madrid-Berlin with a super relaxed stop in Barcelona. London-Berlin, and if the 7pm Eurostar is running, Manchester-Berlin.

    Now sure maybe no one will do these things. But it’s a decent chance for a decent experiment.

    • Benjamin Turon

      Night Trains are low hanging fruit has they don’t need to be fast, 8 to 10 hours works. I point this out about many city pairs in America, you could with current Amtrak travel times run overnight services equivalent to OBB’s NightJet. Its faster and cheaper to buy new trainsets than build high-speed rail, it’s an investment that you can see start in a few years. Of course, I’m all for better intercity daylight services and high-speed rail, but starting with an overnight train makes a lot of sense.

    • Tom the first and best

      If you have high speed lines covering most of those corridors, those longer journeys could be by high-speed night trains and that would be more competitive against air travel than regular speed night train+long-distance day train.

      • Herbert

        There is currently no train in Europe capable of 300 km/h with night train equipment.

        Plus when will you do maintenance if the tracks are occupied 24/7?

        • Tom the first and best

          High-speed night trains can be built or converted.

          Conventional lines that conventional night trains run on also require maintenance, similar measures can probably be adopted for high-speed lines. There would be considerably less high-speed night travel than high speed day travel, with night travel more concentrated at particular times (particularly at the outer ends of the high-speed night network), providing times to work around. High-speed lines also have little to no freight on them, making it easier to fit works in than conventional rail.

          • Sascha Claus

            Conventional lines that conventional night trains run on also require maintenance, similar measures can probably be adopted for high-speed lines.

            Conventional lines are for low speeds and therefore require less maintenance, and there are more of them so that can be rerouted around construction sites, often with slight delays of one or sometimes two hours.
            High speed lines usually have no suitable alternative, and a detour onto conventional lines often results in delays measured in multiple hours.

  2. Krist van Besien

    Paris – Berlin ought to be routed via Brussels and Cologne (as it was in the past). Would also give Brussels a connection with Berlin again. With long distance routes you need to look at the places you call at in between, and not just stare at the ends…

    • Matthew Hutton

      If you’re doing a night train the number of passengers who will get on after the start is going to be small. Plus any that do will disturb the other passengers.

      So if you’re sensible you’re going to do something like:
      Paris Est – 11pm
      Wolfsburg – 6am
      Berlin Hbf – 7:15am

      Or perhaps:
      Paris Nord – 10:30pm
      Brussels Midi – 12 midnight
      Wolfsburg – 6am
      Berlin Hbf – 7:15am

      The question is whether serving Brussels and running a later London-Brussels Eurostar is worth the trade off of serving Spain worse. I suspect it probably is. But there is a trade off.

      • Onux

        Why would you stop in Wolfsburg, it is a city of 125k? Why not stop in Hannover at 5:30am for an early morning stop, it has a million more people, plus connections to Hamburg and Bremen? 5:30am is early but not that early compared to 6; plenty of people get up at 5:30 or earlier to catch trains or flights, begin a drive, etc.

        At the other end, midnight seems late to catch a train, especially a sleeper where you will get less than 7hr sleep (although Europeans seem to do everything later from eating dinner to clubbing so I could be wrong). I would think it better to make the route *slower* so it looks like:
        Paris 9:30pm
        Brussels 11pm
        Hannover 5:30am
        Berlin 7:15am

        Even 9pm Paris and 10:30 Brussels might work, I don’t think people on an overnight would object to 10 hr on a train. Makes catching a Eurostar from London then the sleeper to Berlin much easier too.

        • Sascha Claus

          Why would you stop in Wolfsburg, it is a city of 125k?

          Because of all those business travellers from the electric vehicle factory wihch is planned there? 😀 Currently, Wolfsburg is a stop for all (?) ICE trains because of all the business travellers from the VW headquarters, but I wouldn’t expect business trips to be a significant contribution to night train travel.

    • Alon Levy

      That would require Belgium to close its own low-speed gaps in the network and speed up unreasonably slow urban approaches. Right now the average speed between Brussels and Liège is 120 km/h, which is ridiculous.

      At any rate, if there’s continuous high-speed rail throughout, then the fastest route from Paris to Berlin is via Frankfurt, taking around 4:30; Paris-Cologne remains a strong high-speed rail route, but it’s around 2:30, and then it’s half an hour slower to Berlin. It’s good to build both to be honest – Germany and Belgium can do it at the usual construction costs, this isn’t the UK or the Netherlands.

      • Matthew Hutton

        Looking at the current daytime timetable the Paris-Berlin speeds via Brussels and via Frankfurt are pretty much the same.

        Actually via Brussels is 5 minutes quicker in terms of elapsed speed travelling rather than changing trains.

    • Onux

      This is exactly right. The Rhine-Rhur combines for the third largest metro area in Europe (excepting Istanbul) behind London and Paris (or Paris and London). Brussels meanwhile is the de facto “capital of Europe” at least from a bureaucratic perspective. The EU TEN-T plan for “Main Line for Europe” going Paris-Munich-Vienna-Budapest is missing the point, the Main Line for Europe in terms of population and political/economic importance is Paris-Brussels-Cologne-Berlin. Given that the Chunnel means you can get from London to Brussels and share any infrastructure to Germany beyond makes Brussels-Cologne the clear winner for any primary France-Germany link, and the priority for any infrastructure improvements to make it happen. A 5:00 vs 4:30 time difference won’t outweigh the ability to do London-Berlin in 5:15 as well, or Brussels-Berlin in 3:30.

      I don’t think Paris-Frankfurt through Saarbrucken is even a “do it both” category. You can already to Paris-Frankfurt via Strasbourg and any improvements to that route have the advantage of helping Paris-Munich as well (plus part of Frankfurt-Munich for that matter). I can think of many, many more places in Germany or Europe that would benefit from 210km of new HSR track before I picked Frankfurt to somewhere-on-the-LGV-Est via Saarbrucken. That amount of track could take you from Brussels to Cologne and a quarter of the way to Dortmund, solving any low-speed-Belgium problems while serving tens of millions not hundreds of thousands.

  3. Oreg

    Very interesting proposal.

    Current trains between Frankfurt and Saarbruecken don’t touch both Mainz and Kaiserslautern. It’s either Mainz – Bad Kreuznach – Idar-Oberstein or Mannheim – Kaiserslautern. The latter is what the current direct ICE service between Frankfurt and Paris does.

    So you propose a brand new route, probably via Alzey, right? Wouldn’t it be good enough to continue going via Mannheim, given that they are about to upgrade the Riedbahn (Frankfurt–Mannheim) and POS Nordast (Saarbrücken – Ludwigshafen)? There are a lot more synergies to share the infrastructure with other services and the connections in Mannheim.

    • Alon Levy

      The Frankfurt-Mannheim section is so congested – and will get more so if it is upgraded to provide better service – that it’s best to avoid it and go via Mainz.

      • Onux

        If Frankfurt-Mannheim is so congested then it is better to build 70km of new track between for a Paris-Berlin service via Frankfurt, rather than 210km of track via Mainz-Saarbrucken. Even if you continue new track to Karlsruhle and then through Strasbourg to meet LGV Est at Vendenheim it is about the same distance of new track, but along the wide, flat Rhine Valley, not through hills. If Frank-Mann is so congested then adding two new tracks helps relieve that congestion for Cologne-Munich services, while tracks Frankfurt-Saarbrucken will go mostly unused as Paris-Berlin service will never reach that kind of traffic. Same for new tracks through Karlsruhle/Strasbourg: it would improve service Frankfurt-Zurich or Paris-Munich while, once again, all that new track through Mainz and Kaiserlautern is servicing only itself, not providing high speed service on important transnational routes.

      • Oreg

        They are planning to add two more tracks later with the Neubaustrecke Frankfurt–Mannheim — probably for the reasons Onyx mentions.

      • Mark N.

        But isn’t the congestion between Mannheim and Frankfurt at least partly due to the lines there being so much slower than the true HSR connections to the north and south? I would think that the very flat topography there would also provide greater capacity reserves than a route cutting the corner and going directly to Saarbrucken by way of Mainz. Topographically, the best approach to Saarbrucken also looks like it would be by way of the valley through which the A6 runs, which opens up into the Rhine Valley just opposite Mannheim. A route this far south would also serve Kaiserlautern, which is a decent size city of about 100k.

        • Alon Levy

          The congestion is because it’s Europe’s second busiest intercity rail link, narrowly behind Paris-Lyon. Making it faster is going to increase the overall traffic by getting more people to ride the trains, even as it creates more capacity by ensuring all trains run at the same speed.

          • Onux

            Then the clear answer is to put your funding into making the Neubaustrecke Frankfurt–Mannheim four tracks instead of two, so that there is plenty of capacity to serve Col-Frank-Munich, Paris-Stras-Frank-Berlin, Col-Frank-Zurich, etc., etc. Building a full HSR line through Saarbrucken that will only see 1 tph Paris-Berlin and otherwise serves as nothing more than a RB/RE route is not a good use of that funding.

          • Sascha Claus

            […] otherwise serves as nothing more than a RB/RE route is not a good use of that funding.

            Would a HSL even be a usable route for local trains? Would it pass by (or through) the towns and villages and be useful, or would it be a collection of beetfield stations, kilometres away from the nearest settlement?
            The latter doesn’t sound like something useful, unless traffic in the city is enough of a hell to push people onto park and ride.

  4. Frederick

    Rheinland-Pfalz has so many nature parks and reserves, people will oppose tunneling through it.

    How much slower if we do it via Strasbourg?

  5. Roger “4freedoms.substack.com” Senserrich (@Egocrata)

    Would a line that long be really worth it, though? Berlin-Paris is around 1,000 km, about the same distance as Barcelona-Seville. With trains running only on HSRs (OK, Madrid-Seville is not a pure 300 km/h HSR, but it is a fast line) most runs take 5h35 or so (sometimes changing trains in Madrid, sometimes not. Renfe scheduling…). Pre-COVID, Renfe had about 250K passengers doing that route a year, which is not much.

    Sure, Paris is much larger than Barcelona and Berlin is much larger than Seville, but it is a cross border train. This is a project that would live or die on intermediate stops, not end to end passengers. Frankfurt-Saarbrücken would make sense only if there is enough traffic from Paris to Frankfurt. Right now, trains take about 3h30 to 4h. Would cutting that to 2h15 (550 km HSR with one or two stops) justify spending 4-5 billion (or two billion at ADIF pricing, point still stands)

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, I think the intermediate markets are very strong: Paris-Frankfurt, Paris-Mainz, Berlin-Frankfurt (being upgraded to some extent already – I think the target time is around 2:45 right now?), Berlin-Saarbrücken, Berlin-Mainz, Frankfurt-Saarbrücken. I wouldn’t build HSR just for one of them, but then again France didn’t build HSR just for Paris-Lyon but also for Paris-Dijon, Paris-Saint-Etienne, Paris-Grenoble, a Paris-Marseille speedup, etc.

      • Onux

        Paris-Mainz and Berlin Saarbrucken are “very strong”? Both cities combine for ~1.25M (I think? European metro population figures are all over the map – EMR, ESPON, Eurostat, OECD, etc.).

        Setting aside Krist van Besien’s point about a Brussels/Koln routing (which has 11-14M depending on how your count the Rhine-Rhur and is the clear winner for ‘intermediate’ markets) Strasbourg and Mannhiem combine for 2-4M (again, wild variation in sources). The obvious stop in Karlsruhe for connections adds about 0.5M more (maybe, I’m not sure how Karlsruhe Region vs Karlsruhe District are counted in Mannheim metro). Plus Strasbourg is technically a capital of Europe as the European Parliament sometimes meets there while Karlsruhe is the seat of Germany’s two versions of a Supreme court, which make both cities destinations far beyond their population (at least from Berlin, Paris already has LGV Est to Strasbourg).

        I don’t see why you would build 210km of greenfield HSR through the foothills of the Palatinate forest to serve two minor regional cities when you could use the Saverne tunnel LGV Est already punched through the Vosges (same low mountain range as the Palatinate) and reach the tenth largest metro in Germany.

    • Matthew Hutton

      Some of the reason cross border high speed trains have a bad reputation is that Thalys and Eurostar are expensive.

      Additionally Paris and London are in many ways very similar. Both have lots of good restaurants, museums etc.

    • Mark N.

      Germany, even for travel just within its borders, suffers from a paucity of east-west HSR connections so a line right through the middle would lessen travel times immensely even for cities not directly on the route. For example, Mannheim is roughly equidistant from Stuttgart and Saarbrücken, but Mannheim-Saarbrücken currently takes over twice as long as Mannheim-Stuttgart. Cologne would benefit similarly.

      • Herbert

        Ironically during partition the problem was a lack of North-South connections, which is why they were prioritized…

  6. adirondacker12800

    despite the fact that Frankfurt-Saarbrücken with a connection to the LGV Est would make a great joint project.
    Why wouldn’t the train just run through? To Paris or Frankfort depending on which way it was going?

    • Alon Levy

      It would run through – in fact it already does, there are direct Paris-Frankfurt trains that do Paris-Saarbrücken (about 380 km) in 1:47 and then Saarbrücken-Frankfurt (about 200 km via Mannheim) in another 2 hours. What I mean by connection isn’t a transfer but a high-speed line closing the low-speed gaps, including the short one on the French side of the border.

  7. df1982

    You mention HSR for Berlin-Halle, but are you really proposing a brand new line for that leg? The existing line can do a solid 200km/h pretty much the whole way, and given how straight and flat it is, is there not scope simply to increase the top speed on the existing line (and if so, what would it require, since it doesn’t look like curves are the limiting factor there)?

    By contrast Erfurt-Fulda is an absolute embarrassment. It’s one of the most important intercity corridors in the country and it’s a slow, windy goat track. The fact that Berlin-Frankfurt trains can do almost the same time by going via Hannover tells you something. I know there are plans to deal with that section but progress on them seems to be moving at a snail’s pace.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes. I should blog about this again, but, the reason Berlin-Halle is relatively fast is that the terrain is flat. The same flat terrain can support a 300 km/h line without tunnels and with little bridging, so the cost per minute saved is limited even while it’s starting from an already fast base.

  8. Herbert

    Once again Saarland voted the wrong way in its “Anschluss, France or independence” referendum…. Saarbrücken would have HSR (and a few EU institutions to boot) if it hadn’t gone with Germany…

    By the way, the Hanover Würzburg line will some day link to a truly fast Nuremberg-Würzburg line (the existing line is capacity constrained which also hampers proposals for S-Bahn expansion worth its name) and Nuremberg of course already has the fast line to Ingolstadt….

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, and Hamburg-Hanover might actually finally happen, which is exciting. With relatively limited extra investment, it’s possible to take the longest all-HSR city pair from Frankfurt-Cologne at 180 km to Hamburg-Nuremberg at 580.

  9. Onux

    Although I know there were Cold War issues at play, I find it astonishing (crazy?) that Hannover-Wurzburg was the first HSR line built in Germany instead of Cologne-Munich.

    Cologne-Munich hits three of the “Big 5” German cities – with Stuttgart as the 6th largest – and if you count Rhine-Rhur as the metro area of Cologne between one fifth and one third of the entire German population lives in the five major stops along the line. During the Cold War of course this fraction would have been even higher for W. Germany, plus the capital, Bonn, is just south of Cologne. Col-Mun is ~540km, reasonable to do as a single line (compare Tok-Osaka at 515km, Paris-Lyon at 409km, Bos-Phil at 518km or Bos-Wash at 735km) but even if they only did the 327km of Hann-Wurz that would have gone about from Col-Stuttgart at 355km.

    The thought that you could have an all-HSR route of 580km from Nuremberg to Hannover but not the 540km from Col-Munich seems absurd – by some figures Stuttgart has as many people as Nuremberg and Hannover combined, at Cologne, Frankfurt, Munich are all larger than Stuttgart!

    • Mark N.

      And there are still wide gaps in the Cologne-Munich route that are many years away from being built. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    • Frederick

      As a comparison, London to Edinburgh is ~640km. The faster train with less stops takes ~4h20m and the slower train takes ~4h50m. Meanwhile, Cologne-Munich also takes 4h20m while the trip is 100km shorter. The Brits aren’t shameless enough to promote the East Coast Main Line as HSR, but it is faster than many ICE already!

      For HSR, 400-700km is the Goldilocks zone where there is an advantage against both cars and planes. Germany hasn’t done enough to capture this market.

  10. Tom the first and best

    A greater direct role for the EU in cross-border-rail infrastructure could be the main solution for the EU`s notorious cross-border rail issues. This may require a further move towards EU level parliamentary democracy (i.e. the EU Parliament deciding who is on the EU Commission, from MEPs, and being able to replace them mid-term with a majority vote (like a normal parliamentary democracy)), away from inter-governmentalism, but the EU needs that anyway.

    • Matthew Hutton

      The shadow rail minister in Britain has recently spoken to SNCF about running more trains from Britain to beyond Paris.

      Other countries politicians could do something similar – and I think that alone will make a big difference in the years ahead.

      The other change is Eurostar (for example) offering more tickets beyond Paris/Brussels/Amsterdam but I’d have thought UK domestic politicians could push that forward without the EU.

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