It's 2019, and travelling by train is more popular than it’s been in decades. But how easy is it for people across Europe to go for a walk and then jump on a train that can take them all the way to the capital in their country? EDJNet simulated more than 40 million journeys to over 20,000 stations in an attempt to answer this question.
It seems like people across Europe are travelling 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 travellers while soft and complementary barriers are fluffier, and depend more on the individual traveller.
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 travelling — 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.
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.
Welcome to Storuman
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.
What data says about train station reachability transportation in Europe
We’ve analysed reachability for 410 million people across 16 European countries and more than 22,000 stations. The following countries are included: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechia, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Slovenia and the United Kingdom. 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.
1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 30,000 steps
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.
But what about the people who can't reach a train easily? How big are the differences within countries?
(each square represents 10,000 people)
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.
In some countries, many people live in rural areas
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 travelling 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 travelling 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.