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When travelling by train through several countries, for example, from Norway to Spain, travellers typically have to buy multiple separate tickets. Perhaps Oslo - Malmö, Malmö – Hamburg, Hamburg – Paris, Paris – Madrid might work. If using a service such as thetrainline, booking might be made easier, but one still gets multiple tickets. This is fine when everything goes well, but has consequences for passenger rights in case of missed connections due to delays or cancellations.

Do through tickets between arbitrary pairs of cities or stations such as Oslo - Madrid or Paris - Bucharest theoretically exist? They're not for sale on websites, but are there any other channels through which they could be sold, or do they simply not exist at all? I've used dedicated travel agents such as the Treinreiswinkel in the past, but was still issued seperate tickets. Of course, they do exist and are bookable online for some connections (Amsterdam - Barcelona, Hamburg - Milano), but I mean for arbitrary city pairs (like they exist for flights between almost all major airports, I believe). The question here is not whether they can be booked online (generally not), but if they theoretically exist at all (even if very difficult to buy in practice).

I am aware demand for this service is very small. Maybe 60 years ago, one could turn up at the station in Oslo and buy a through-ticket to Madrid? If it was possible in the past, the question would be: have those tickets ceased to exist, or just made (nearly?) impossible to buy?

(I seem to recall Interrail/EUrail + reservations may count as a single through ticket, but in this case the costs of replacing missed connections are relatively small compared to regular tickets, so I'm interested in the regular case.)

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Willeke
    Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 16:28
  • There also exists the Agreement on Journey Continuation between SNCF, DB, ÖBB, Trenitalia, Renfe, SBB, BLS, CD, SNCB, NS, CFL, DSB, SJ, SZ, and ZSSK.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 21:48

4 Answers 4

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In the past ticket prices in Europe were purely distance based. So all a ticket clerk in Oslo had to do to issue a ticket to Paris is look up how many km. that involved in Norway, how many in Sweden, Denmark, German, Belgium and France. Add up the costs of those segments and then he could issue a ticket. I have spend time with ticket clerks buying ticket from my home town in Belgium to places as far as Rome, Poprad Tatry and Brest. Tickets were written by hand at that time, and it took some time to issue them. Tickets were typically also valid for 2 months, so you take your time getting to your destination.

That changed with more and more trains requiring reservations, and having flexible pricing systems. A consequence for that is that to for example book you a TGV first a seat must be claimed for you in the reservations system, because only then is the price known. And that you have to do for each train with compulsory reservation. However the old system is still used too. If you for example book a trip from Gent in Belgium to Interlaken in Switzerland the system first will try to find seats for you on the Brussels Paris - Basel TGVs, and will then just add coupons for the Gent - Brussel and Basel - Interlaken sections, based on distance.

This makes it however a lot more complex to sell tickets, especially between railways with different ticketing philosophies.There are several sites that try to do something about that. One is https://www.international-bahn.de/en/ run by the German railways, and there are private initiatives like trainline.com.

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In the USA, tracks are privately owned by companies that operate trains. Nobody gets on a railroad unless the track owner permits it. Obviously they allow themselves to run trains, but any other access is negotiated in free-market fashion, sometimes with a government nudge e.g. "we'll approve your merger if you give BNSF access to Tucamari" or "if you buy into Amtrak you can quit the passenger business".

Europe considers this crass capitalism, and insists on open tracks. In theory, there's a simple "free market solution" to your craving for meaningful international service. However, the "open tracks" idea is very problematic - there's a reason North America doesn't do it - and that's even more so due to complex politics of the EU. Because guess who pays for rail upgrades - countries! This creates a "perverse" incentive to underwrite travel within the country, at the expense of international travel.

Even worse is the effect "high speed rail" has on each country's domestic investment choices. France has a bang-up internal HSR system that is spectacular at connecting French to other French. Italy's HSR is really good at connecting Italians to Italians. But what about those mountains between the two countries? Well that's just not a priority. So HSR has actually been rail's worst enemy, by functionally creating gaps in otherwise excellent domestic systems.

And North America has this same "domestic bubble" problem. Illinois and Michigan both have bang-up domestic lines, and Michigan even bought the track from Detroit across the state to Porter, Indiana and is HSR-ing it. But the last 100km into Chicago? Michigan's not paying for that, and Indiana doesn't need HSR going that direction. The Feds would need to intervene, and so it may be in Europe.

Now, Europe has gotten wise to this problem, and made real progress at deregulation and making open tracks work the way they're supposed to. But the first bloom of deregulation really just resulted in popular domestic routes being doubled by discount carriers (however that has been quite good for rail overall; it hasn't cannibalized the primary carriers, much the opposite, it has created new business by pulling new travelers and those abandoning airlines; and that "rising tide" has floated all boats - resulting in primary carriers gaining as well. But suffice it to say, the regulatory scheme is now a better fit for the market to respond to your international demand.

There are still technical issues, however, owing to incompatible tracks and trains. There's a whole lot more to "interoperability" than just track gage.

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    France has pretty good (high speed) rail connections to UK, Belgium, Germany, and Spain (the one to Spain is underutilised, though).
    – gerrit
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 6:56
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    @gerrit that's what it says on the brochure, but as the videos I linked discuss, it's mostly "theater of that" by having a few select city pairs that are well-served, and the rest is a gong show. France doesn't have good connections to UK, they have good connections to one station in London. Now get to Manchester. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 7:15
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In addition to Krist van Besien’s answer, one also has to consider a little known fact: in the EU, like for air passengers (the well known EC261), there are similar rights for rail passengers in case of disruption.

This means that if railways sell a single ticket from Seville, Spain to Białystok, Poland (a mere 13 trains and 34 hours!), if a train is delayed somewhere, passengers may be entitled to re-routing, assistance, accommodation and/or compensation. I think part of it is the reason for the question, but as you can see it goes a lot further than just allowing you onto the next train.

Like many airlines (mostly low cost carriers) which do not want to be responsible for any of this for connecting flights (which increases the risk noticeably when compared to a single flight) and for this reason do not sell connecting tickets (or pretend they are independent tickets with a “self-connection”), rail companies do not want to deal with this either, especially with extremely long or complex trips where a single disruption can result in extended delays.

While there are exceptions to these rights (each country can opt out for some types of services), it is far less risky for them if they avoid connections which are a bit too complex/long.

Some of the railway companies formed the Railteam alliance which delivers guarantees across their respective networks, which explains why you can book a single Hamburg-Perpignan (3 trains, 21h), Rennes-Wien (3 trains, 16h), London-Interlaken (3 trains, 10h) or Amsterdam-Milano (2 trains, 14h), but beyond that it becomes a lot more difficult, though there are exceptions (Stockholm-Milano: 3 trains, 28h).

Note that some sales channels also have an automatic limitation: for instance, the infamous SNCF-connect (French railways online sales channel) will not ever sell (or even show) a trip with more than 2 connections, whatever the railways involved (even inside France with only SNCF trains), which makes lots of itineraries impossible to book even though they are perfectly possible). I don’t know if they do this just for technical reasons (avoiding looking up too many options) or if it is because they deem such connections to be too risky.

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Before 2020 you could buy a Moscow - Nice sleeper train ticket which would take you through Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany and then into France.

Russian Railways had quite a few such routes, such as Moscow - Bar (Montenegro) or Saint Petersburg - Prague.

COVID put an end to this and the war supplied a nice tombstone.

There was also Moscow - Ulan Bator - Beijing train. This one may even run one day if China relaxes its COVID response.

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    All of those are single services, and not a combination of train on a same ticket which is what OP is asking for Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 4:51
  • Just combine it with a Nice-Barcelona train and there you go. I think there was a possibility to do that since SNCF sold both AVE and sleeper tickets.
    – alamar
    Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 8:08
  • NB: I believe Moscow - Nice passed through Czechia, Austria, Italy, France, Monaco, and France again, making eight countries in total. Moscow - Paris passed through Germany.
    – gerrit
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 12:24
  • I believe it went Moscow - Paris - Nice. Russia did not have direct rail connection with Italy.
    – alamar
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 13:17

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