Fans of train travel like me are looking toward 2023 with excitement – and a newly expanded to-do list.
The magic date on the European train calendar was December 11, when winter timetables kicked in. While not quite matching the bounty of peak summer services, the update udhered in new and reinstated routes, extended services and new adventures radiating across Europe in all directions.
Here are some of the most enticing European train journeys to take in the first half of 2023.
Take a sleeper train from Vienna to La Spezia, Italy
Why it’s exciting: Roll on from Vienna into an underrated Italian port city – and a more affordable base for exploring Cinque Terre.
The Austrian capital is at the heart of the ever-expanding NightJet network operated by ÖBB (Austrian Railways), and the company is adding a few eye-catching extensions. The Vienna–Milan route is extending, not just to Genoa, but to the Ligurian port city of La Spezia down the coast. Not only is this underrated spot mere minutes on an onward train from the spectacular hiking trails and colorful villages of the Cinque Terre, it’s also a much more affordable and less popular base than Monterosso, Vernazza and their fratelli. Whether you’re refueling with espresso by the Ligurian Sea after a night on the tracks or spending a few hours wandering around the old town’s labyrinthine streets before boarding a sleeper bound for the Alps, this route surely ranks as one of Europe’s top new travel experiences for 2023. Later in the year, you should be able to take this journey aboard one of NightJet’s next-generation sleeper carriages.
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Travel from Prague to Zurich via Basel, Leipzig and Dresden
Why it’s exciting: A night journey through eastern Germany, with breakfast with a view traveling along the scenic Elbe Valley between Dresden and Děčín, before finishing in one of central Europe’s most beautiful capitals.
Zurich, Switzerland is fast becoming a night train hub to match Vienna. Back following a five-year absence, the Czech Railways (České dráhy, or ČD)–operated Canopus train once again connects the Swiss city with stately Prague via Dresden and Leipzig. (This gives you the choice of two separate night routes between the two cities, as an existing night train runs on a different route; the Canopus has a wider choice of accommodation than the existing service.) Underlining its usefulness as a hub, Zurich is only four hours from Paris via the TGV Lyria service, and the starting point for countless scenic journeys in Switzerland, including the stunning Treno Gottardo ride over the Alps to lakeside Locarno in Ticino province.
A highlight of the North Wales rail line – which features expanded service in 2023 – is passing alongside Conwy Castle, which dates to the 13th century © John David Photography / Shutterstock
Move between Holyhead and London more frequently
Why it’s exciting: The land-and-sea link between London and Dublin has been tricky recently, but recent timetable changes hopefully make the carbon-friendlier hop across the Irish Sea a more viable proposition.
The North Wales line is not new, in any sense. In fact, this scenic route along the north coast is one of the world’s oldest rail routes, having been built between 1844 and 1850 to connect ferry services from Dublin with Irish Mail trains bound for London.
Avanti West Coast has recently added four additional daily departures, for five total. Avanti’s scanty service on this and other routes has been widely criticized in the UK in recent times; these additional trains are part of a hoped-for improvement between London, the West Midlands and Northwest England and north Wales. The journey should be further improved in 2023 by the introduction of updated, more comfortable train stock.
Highlights of the line include trackside views of Conwy Castle, the Menai Strait crossing to Anglesey and the stop at Llanfairpwll, still delighting passengers who can glimpse its longer (if contrived) name of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Transport for Wales operates other services along this line, including the iconic train running to Cardiff that comes complete with the best mainline on-board restaurant in the UK. Good-value combination tickets with ferries are also available.
Several hours after you board the new night train at Hamburg, Germany, you’ll wake up the following morning in central Stockholm, Sweden © GenOMart / Shutterstock
Take a night train from Hamburg to Stockholm
Why it’s exciting: Hamburg can feel a little out on a limb if you’re sticking to the core continental network. With this cozy and efficient night connection, Germany’s second city offer a gateway to Sweden’s elegant capital – and the spectacular train routes of Scandinavia beyond.
Night trains direct from Hamburg to Stockholm started running in September – with a catch. Regulatory troubles meant that most of the carriage fitted out by Swedish state railway operator SJ were not allowed to cross Denmark. So the service has been operating since launch at a limited capacity, with only four berth couchettes for accommodation. Happily, this situation has now been resolved, and passengers now have the choice of a mixed or single-gender couchette; sleeper for one, two or three; deluxe sleeper; or bargain-priced seats all offering a night crossing of the Öresund Bridge. The route is also served by privately-run Snälltåget trains running on to Berlin, though with less frequent departures during the winter and a later departure time from Hamburg.
Take new high-speed trains around Spain
Why it’s exciting: Iryo offers arguably the most comfortable high-speed services in Europe, complete with tempting dining options, as the beauty of Spain’s countryside zips past. Thanks to airline-style pricing, early bookers can enjoy these trains on a shoestring.
Iryo is a new high-speed operator that looks set to shake up the Spanish rail scene. Already operating between Madrid–Barcelona and Madrid–Valencia, by June 2023 Iryo trains will also be serving Seville, Málaga, Córdoba and Alicante. Iryo journeys promise to be fast and comfortable, offering a similar four-class service to part-owner Trenitalia’s Frecciarossa trains. On-board dining will focus on local ingredients used in sensibly priced pintxos and tapas dishes. Over the longer term, Iryo has its eye on cross-border routes, which surely would include more choice and capacity on high-speed tracks into France.
Travel into Istanbul’s long-dormant Sirkeci station
Why it’s exciting: Only a hard-hearted traveler would not thrill to see the terminus of the Orient Express enjoy some kind of new life. This may just happen some time soon. (As if Istanbul weren’t fun enough.)
The dormant tracks at Sirkeci station in Istanbul might just hum once again with arrivals and departures in 2023. With international trains to Sofia and Bucharest departing from distant Halkali and suburban trains now running deep underground to enable trans-Bosphorus services, Sirkeci has become somewhat neglected, and even its tracks – which for decades carried European international services to their terminus – have been removed. Plans to reinstate passenger trains along the coastline of the oldest part of Istanbul, hugging the ancient Theodosian Walls, are aimed at delivering an eight-station service connecting Sirkeci with Kazlicesme to the west; alongside the track, a cycling and walking track is also envisioned. While the plans looked a far from completion when I visited in October, this is a plan to keep a close eye on as the year progresses. (Rail Turkey is a well-informed site for all Turkish train-related matters and likely to break any news first.) When (if?) this line eventually does open, it will reactivate the street-level platforms at Sirkeci and breathe new life into one of the world’s most iconic stations.
The GoldenPass Express is one of Switzerland’s most eye-popping services – and offers newly direct service as of 2023 © SIRNARM USAVICH / Shutterstock
Travel from Montreux to Interlaken in Switzerland without changing trains
Why it’s exciting: Switzerland’s scenic trains, designed to offer panoramic views of some of the world’s finest mountain views, are an essential part of any visit. This technological wonder extends one of the best of these routes, linking the adventure capital of Interlaken with an easy connection to Geneva.
The GoldenPass Express is one of Switzerland’s most eye-popping services. Running from Montreux on the shores of Lake Geneva, it climbs high above the lake, then over passes and across spectacular alpine scenery, passing through chi-chi resorts like Gstaad before arriving into Zweisimmen. As of December 2022, this train continues – without requiring passengers to change – to Spiez and Interlaken Ost. This is made possible via an ingenious system that allows the train to change operating gauge mid-journey, a process that usually requires carriages to be elevated and have bogies (wheelsets) removed. The GoldenPass Express can be ridden by Swiss Pass holders without paying a supplement – though reservations do cost $14.80 ($10.57 off-peak) and are advisable during peak summer months.
Finally, follow the journey of trains from Chişinău, Moldova to Kyiv, Ukraine
Why it’s exciting: A sign of everyday life from Ukraine, where trains are a lifeline to the country.
The continued operation – not merely running, but running more or less on schedule – of Ukraine’s railways has been a symbol of resilience throughout the brutal Russian invasion. And while it will be some time before travelers from outside Ukraine can once again take the train to its defiant capital, the resumption of this service in November after 24 years is to be welcomed. Now dubbed the Victory Train, the route includes a stop at Ungheny station in the west of Moldova, from where a connection can be made to Iaşi, Romania, whose airport has been a key departure point for displaced Ukrainians.