The European Commission, the Strasbourg Parliament and the Council of Europe have all done their bit to help shape Europeans’ perceptions of their shared continent. But, for many Europeans of a certain age, it was an innovation in rail ticketing 40 years ago this summer that did more than any institution to forge their views of Europe.
1972 saw the launch of InterRail, an initiative of a consortium of national rail operators across Europe to fill up empty train seats during the slack summer period.
Greg and Émilie live just outside Geneva. They enjoy gorgeous views of Lake Geneva and the trains that pass their front door. Their children have fled the nest, and both Émilie and Greg are looking forward to the day a few years hence when they will retire. “It’ll be a chance to explore Europe by train, just as we did in the late seventies,” says Greg as a train to Lausanne rattles past their balcony.
The couple, he Scottish and she French, met on a train traveling up the Rhine gorge in the summer of 1977. “The train had a romantic name,” recalls Émilie. “It was called the Loreley Express,” she explains. “I was on my way from Cologne to Rome and Greg was bound for Florence.” The Loreley Express was the springboard for a lifelong partnership.
Rites of passage
What was first seen as a one-off promotion quickly evolved into a long-term program that marked a generation of young travelers.
“I had little concept of Europe, before setting off from Lille with my first InterRail ticket,” recalls Émilie. “Those summer explorations, several of them, allowed me to explore Europe. And they were a chance to discover myself.”
For young Europeans from 1972 onwards, InterRail became a rite of passage. It marked a milestone in their personal development. For many, it was a first chance to travel without their parents. They set out with their rail passes and too little money. They slept on trains to save funds and they relished the freedom and uncertainty that came as part of the InterRail package. Some set out to go to Copenhagen and ended up in Cádiz.
A partner for Eurail
Americans had enjoyed the benefits of Eurail passes since 1959. For American visitors to Europe, Eurail was all about minimizing risk and uncertainty. They followed well-trodden trails, they reserved seats in advance and traveled in first-class comfort. In those early days, Eurail covered a very limited number of countries in western Europe. (It has since expanded its coverage eastward across the continent).
The InterRail experience created by young Europeans for the first time in 1972 was the complete antithesis of the classic Eurail tour. It covered a much larger area than Eurail. It dramatically changed personal mobility. Nothing was pre-booked or pre-planned. “I can remember standing at Cologne station and seeing Americans joining one of the sleek TEE trains. They all had very smart suitcases, preferred the first-class-only TEE trains, and knew exactly where they would be sleeping that night,” says Émilie.
InterRail created a very different breed of traveler — a veritable flood of young people who cared little where they went and never planned in advance. Backpacks and guitars were the norm.
The journey matters
The journey mattered more than the destination. British travel writer Tim Locke, a veteran of many InterRail adventures, reflects on the heyday of InterRail: “There really was a charming spontaneity about the whole affair. Things went wrong, but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. It was all part of the InterRail experience.”
Some devotees of InterRail took this philosophy to extremes. Manfred Weis left his Karlsruhe home in 1987 with a one-month pass valid for the whole of Europe. Over the following 31 days he traveled over 30,000 kilometers. He slept on trains for 26 nights of his journey. We met Manfred just last week, when he was en route from Spain to Poland. And yes, you guessed it. He was traveling on an InterRail Pass — some habits, it seems, are just too hard to kick.
Irishman Mick MacO set out to break records in 1995. He had never before left his native country and was keen to discover this place called Europe. The journey took such a toll on Mick that he then needed a dozen years to publish an account of his journey to 28 cities in 30 days.
InterRail: First class and senior passes
Recent years have seen an evolution in both the Eurail and the InterRail schemes. There are fewer night trains, and those that remain are not quite so tolerant of casual travelers looking for a free place to sleep. Most levy supplements for pass holders. And even daytime travel is not always free. Many premium services (eg. TGVs in France and AVEs in Spain) require compulsory advance reservation. The hop-on-and-ride mentality has been tamed.
Both the Eurail and InterRail schemes are managed nowadays by the Utrecht-based company Eurail Group. The age limits on InterRail have been completely dropped and there are even discounts for seniors. There are now second-class options on many Eurail passes, and a first-class InterRail product is now available.
The latter is a canny move. The first InterRail generation are now well settled into careers and the pioneers will soon be collecting their pensions. Eurail Group’s Marketing Director Ana Dias e Seixas is quick to point out that the freedom to roam is not limited by age. “While InterRail has long been associated with the youth market,” she says, “it has clearly evolved into a product for all ages. Travel by rail offers a sense of freedom and independence not associated with any other form of transport.”
So a big happy 40th birthday to InterRail, the rail pass that helped shape a generation and one that looks set to continue making its mark on Europe over the next 40 years.