Europe has enjoyed or endured, depending on how you view these matters, a festival of rail strikes this past week or two. And yet, by and large, business and social life continues. The impact of rail strikes varies enormously from country to country.
Nationwide standstill in Belgium
When a Greek rail strike takes place, as one is this week, the entire network shuts down and virtually no trains run at all.
And so in Belgium, where rail strikes are happily less frequent, but where a strike generally means a total network shutdown. Belgium had a one-day strike on October 18, 2010, the first nationwide stoppage since a one-day strike in November 2009, and that did lead to the cancellation of all trains.
Even Eurostar, which has famously managed to maintain a full service from London to Paris during the recent extended wave of French strikes, was defeated by Belgium. Brussels-bound trains from London ran only as far as Lille, with passengers heading for Belgium then having to use a very limited onward bus service.
The French way
France has had an extraordinarily large number of strikes in 2010, with rail services throughout October having been much affected. But French strikes, though frequent, have a lighter touch than those in Belgium and Greece, and most long-distance rail travelers have, with patience, managed to get to their destinations.
The general pattern of service on strike days in France is fairly predictable. Generally at least two-thirds of TGV services to and from Paris run as usual, and naturally these trains are more crowded than normal. Provincial services linking two French regions (so thus not serving Paris) generally have a much higher cancellation rate than trains to and from Paris. Sometimes as little as one third of these trains have run, although during the past two days this number has crept up to over fifty percent.
Daytime international trains to and from France have been virtually unaffected by French strike action. Eurostar (from London) and Thalys (from Cologne, Brussels and Amsterdam) trains have operated entirely as normal, as have almost all direct daytime trains from France to Switzerland, Germany and Italy.
Disrupted night train services throughout Europe
Shift to night train services and the situation becomes much bleaker. Almost the entire French Lunéa domestic night train network has been scrapped on strike days (and usually also on the nights prior to or at the end of a strike day). The only intra-France overnight trains that have regularly run during recent strikes have been the Lunéa services from Paris to Nice and return. Over the last day or two, another isolated overnight train has been reinstated: the link from Paris to Toulouse.
Many international overnight services have been canceled, including the entire Elipsos network linking Spain with France, Switzerland and Italy. For passengers from Barcelona to Zürich and Milan, a replacement bus service is available when those Elipsos services are canceled–though we doubt that an overnight coach matches the comfort of a decent sleeping berth with crisp linen sheets. On some strike days, overnight trains from Munich and Berlin to Paris have terminated at Mannheim, with passengers being conveyed onward by bus. But overnight trains to and from Germany have started running again this week.
So it is always worth bearing in mind that the word “strike” comes with many meanings. With a bit of luck your travel plans may not be disrupted at all. And if all does not go according to plan, keep your cool and remember that rail workers rarely strike without good cause. Hasta la victoria siempre!