Trans-Europe Express: the iconic train service Germany is helping to revive

Trans-Europe Express: the iconic train service Germany is helping to revive

With people across Europe becoming more eco-conscious, airports becoming busier and Flugscham (literally: flight shame) becoming a social reality, more and more people in Germany are relying on trains to get them to their destinations, whether domestic or international. 

Though there has been a recent surge in the number of international routes leaving Germany, it is by no means the first time that the country has seen international connections leaving for destinations all over Europe. 

The Trans-Europe Express (TEE) 

The Trans-Europe Express, which first entered into service in the 1950s, offered passengers luxurious travel on a wide range of routes across the continent - from Calabria to Copenhagen and everywhere in between! 

In 1957, railway companies in West Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands joined forces to set up rail connections between their respective countries, carrying passengers from country to country in style. 

In later years, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, Denmark and Austria also joined the programme, and the TEE reached its peak in the 1970s with 39 different trains serving 31 routes across the continent. 

First-class was the standard on the TEE

The services were first-class only, with convenient schedules for business travellers, and attractive routes for holidaymakers too. The TEE was offered as a luxurious alternative to flying, allowing passengers to travel in style and comfort on board.

The spacious carriages offered large comfortable seats and tables for onboard dining, perfect for long-distance travel across Europe. In the TEE’s later years, second-class service was also an option, in an attempt to boost passenger numbers on the trains. 

Running trains across the continent was (and still is) not straightforward

Most countries in Europe use different voltages for their train networks. This is still a major obstacle for international trains today - with Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands all using different voltages despite being neighbours!

To get around this problem, initially TEE routes simply used diesel trains for their journeys, but eventually invested in specialist trains that could operate at two or more different voltages. Remarkably, this switch to electric trains stayed, and by 1975 all but two of their rolling stock were electrically powered. 

So, why did it ever stop?

The introduction of high-speed TGV trains across France was a key contributing factor to the demise of the TEE. The TGV, revolutionary as it was, inspired many countries to pour funding into domestic high-speed railways, rather than international connections, and rather sped up the end of the TEE. 

Additionally, the German national railway firm DB restructured the country’s entire railway network to make way for new intercity (IC) trains. These two events, when coupled together, created many problems for the service in its later years, and the TEE finally ceased operations in 1995. 

The TEE's legacy has managed to live on 

The trains’ legacy has however lived on through pop culture, immortalised by Germany’s pioneering electronic music group Kraftwerk. The group named their 1977 album “Trans Europa Express”, and released a single by the same name, which was a hit in several European countries.

The album has since then been sampled and resampled repeatedly by new artists, and in 2014 the Los Angeles Times called it "the most important pop album of the last 40 years". 

What are the plans for the future?

It seems that though the actual TEE and its iconic crimson trains might not be back any time soon, a new “TEE 2.0” may soon be on the way.

In September 2020, Germany announced plans for a new international TEE network, with proposals for trains to stop at major German cities such as Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt and Hamburg

Some of the proposed destinations include Amsterdam, Barcelona, Brussels, Budapest, Paris, Rome, Stockholm, Verona, Warsaw, Zurich.



Emily Proctor

Former Editor at IamExpat Media.

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