Don’t say I didn’t warn you. When I came back from our family adventure to France last year, setting off from Doncaster station with our two teenagers and travelling by train all the way to near Port Grimaud via Paris and Marseilles, I ruminated on the very real possibility that in the face of Brexit, it might be the last time we could enjoy such a jaunt.
Various rail industry bodies wrote in to say that I was being hasty in my assumptions. Then guess what? Last week the UK’s Rail Delivery Group (RDG) announced that it was pulling out of the Interrail international train travel scheme, which covers 31 pan-European countries from Norway to Turkey and starts at just £151 for a young person under the age of 28.
Eurail’s managing director, Carlo Boselli, accused RDG of leaving to “secure a competitive position” for its own BritRail pass, which gives travel in the UK only. Britain keeps all the proceeds from BritRail purchases, whereas those from Interrail and Eurail are shared with other countries. Can you see any kind of parallel emerging here? Is this what we might call an ‘isolationist policy’?
Anyway, there was an absolute outcry. Everyone from retirement bloggers to Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party, who called it a “self-defeating, regressive decision”, protested that this was a backwards step and would benefit no-one except the rail operators. And, within 24 hours of announcing its withdrawal, the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) performed a dramatic U-turn and the decision was miraculously reversed.
In a statement, Robert Nisbet, the RDG’s director of nations and regions, said: “Britain’s train companies never wanted to leave Interrail. Following the strong reaction to news of our departure, we and Eurail, the company which runs Interrail, renewed talks. We are pleased to be able to tell passengers that we have reached agreement and will be remaining part of both the Interrail and Eurail passes.”
You might be wondering what all the fuss is about. The Interrail scheme, which started in 1972, was once mocked as a rite of passage for middle-class students to go and ‘find themselves’ in the bars and flop-houses of Paris, Amsterdam or Berlin before settling down. A modern-day Grand Tour, but with backpacks and Lonely Planet.
And yes, I did first encounter it at the age of 19. When my college friend told me, I couldn’t believe that £132 (I think it was then) would buy a month doing what I wanted, where I wanted, anywhere in Europe.
But I wasn’t middle class. I worked in a pub all summer to pay for it. And that was how I first saw Paris and slept on the train station steps in Venice with the canals lapping our feet, and got rescued by some Germans in Rome, and well… Memories never fade, but my support of Interrail is anything but rose-tinged.
I believe in its democratic ability to offer adventure and freedom to anyone, young or old. I also think it fosters independence, promotes understanding of other cultures and literally forces you to think in another language. Travelling by train provides a perspective no package holiday can offer.
When we took the kids to France, friends marvelled that we left the car at home. But who wants to sit in a sweaty vehicle for 14 hours when you can reserve a seat and contemplate a whole continent? It’s far better for the soul. And the environment.
Now, let’s be clear. The RDG wasn’t planning to prevent British people from taking advantage of all this. It was just proposing to make it harder and more expensive for them to do so by removing the first inclusive leg of the journey – which for most is from a traveller’s home station to the Eurostar terminal in London.
This would have been a particular blow for anyone based in the North of England, Scotland, the South West and so on, who would then have to pay for a separate train ticket to get to the capital, drive or fly.
If this is the RDG’s view of cross-country travel, it’s no wonder our rail services are in such a mess. And what about the flip-side?
Visitors from Europe would have been obliged to stuff their Interrail passes back in their money belts and purchase a BritRail pass to explore England, Scotland and Wales, for roughly the same price as the current passes that cover the whole continent, including the UK. How many would actually bother forking out?
The RDG clearly hadn’t taken into account the potentially catastrophic consequences for the British hospitality industry. The promise of two-for-one admission to certain attractions it dangled as a carrot entirely missed the point; many ‘Interrailers’ are solo travellers and most, I’d say, dislike being herded like er, tourists.
I know that Brexit negotiations are far more complex than ordering a train ticket, but I would say that this Interrail debacle is hugely serendipitous and foreshadows what is to come. Sadly, it’s much easier to reverse a train than it is a country. Don’t say I didn’t warn you (again).