hidden europe 65

Promoting Europe: the Connecting Europe Express

Picture above: A panorama carriage of Swiss operator SBB served as a first-class seated carriage on the Connecting Europe Express, shown here at Graz Hauptbahnhof, Austria (photo © Tobias B Köhler licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0).


On 7 October 2021, a train from Lisbon arrived in Paris. The journey from the Portuguese capital had taken five weeks. The Connecting Europe Express was no ordinary train, but one which recalled the fine tradition of agit-prop trains which 100 years ago criss-crossed Russia to spread the Bolshevik message.

Oriente railway station in Lisbon is an extraordinary spot — surely one of Santiago Calatrava’s most daring and exuberant buildings. The afternoon light plays on the station’s lattice work, while on the railway platforms the columns and canopy have graceful hints of the most elegant railway stations of yesteryear.

A train waits on Platform 6. No ordinary train. For this is the train to Paris. It brings a little spice to the Oriente departure boards on this early September day. Since March 2020, there has not been a single international train from Lisbon. But today is different.

As the first wave of the COVID pandemic spread across Europe, the direct trains from Lisbon to destinations beyond Portugal’s borders were all suspended. Rail operator Renfe, which ran the nightly Lusitânia service to Madrid and the Sud Express to Hendaye in France, axed those trains. A few weeks later, the Spanish rail company indicated that there was no intention of reinstating these services after the pandemic — a policy that many fear also applies to all domestic Spanish night trains.

The loss of the international overnight services to and from Lisbon has left a daily train on each of two routes — from Porto to Vigo and from Entroncamento to Badajoz — as Portugal’s sole surviving international passenger rail links.

At a time when the rest of con tinental Europe is seeing a great revival of night trains, the Iberian region has become a black hole. So there was all the more reason to celebrate the departure, on 2 September this year, of that train from Lisbon to Paris.

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