Dear friend,

not too long ago I took some days off and travelled from Belgium back to Italy; I wanted to do some sightseeing (and, incidentally, to try and be slightly more environmentally friendly), so I decided to travel by railway. There is no direct train connecting these two countries, so I had to choose whether to travel through Germany and Switzerland, or through France and Switzerland (of course, France borders Italy, but these days the high-speed connection is not available, I guess because of a landslide that happened last summer external link ).
Since I have wished to visit Lyon for quite some time, I decided on the latter option. And, after visiting Vienna, Prague and Bratislava last summer, I took the opportunity to get to know another European capital city, Bern.

To follow this plan, I had to buy train tickets from railway companies in four different countries (websites exist that would allow buying them all at once, but I wanted to have control over connection times, and especially spend nights in those countries). Since they were all quite different experiences, I took some notes…

If you don’t have the time to read this long description (no worries, I understand), here is a summary:

  • the train experience in itself was mostly pleasant, and it helped that in most cases they were not really busy - otherwise the lack of racks for large suitcases would lead to big luggages blocking corridors and doors;
  • no matter the country, long-distance trains will likely arrive 20 minutes late;
  • the fastest train (the French TGV) was also the least expensive per km; Italian Trenitalia’s was the most expensive, and I’m not sure that having to cross the Alps is a good excuse;
  • for a tech-savvy user (e.g. someone wishing to use PayPal for payments, and preferring storing tickets in Apple Wallet rather than in an email), the Trenitalia website might offer the best experience;
  • the Swiss Railways website was for me the least user-friendly; I like to think this is due to Switzerland not being subject to EU regulations, but I haven’t investigated enough to prove it.

Finally, as I mentioned, CO2 consumption was not my primary reason for travelling by train. But it’s nice to know that, despite travelling almost double the kilometres than a flight would have required (a combined total of around 1380 km vs around 700 km), the estimated CO2 consumption (per person) was about 1/8th:

Here are the details of my adventure…

Bruxelles - Lyon : SNCB/NMBS

Geographical distance (as the crow flies): 570 km (actual distance travelled: 750 km)

Booking experience: ⭐️⭐️⭐️½

For an international trip, the SNCB (Société nationale des chemins de fer belges), also known as NMBS (Nationale Maatschappij der Belgische Spoorwegen) redirects the user from the already language-neutral external link website to the even more neutral external link .

The train from Bruxelles-Midi to Lyon Part-Dieu is a TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, that is, a high-speed train) that promises to cover the distance between the two cities in 3 hours and 43 minutes.
But, like most high-speed trains from Belgium to France, it has also to go through Lille, and then it takes the opportunity to serve Paris’ Charles De Gaulle airport, and drop off some tourists in Marne La Vallée (a.k.a. Disneyland Paris). Finally, the actual distance covered is around 750 km.

The ticket price (standard Second Class fare) was € 139 (so, € 0.24 per theoretical km, or € 0.18 per actual km, and € 0.62 per minute). The buyer can choose whether to get an aisle or window seat, and seats are pre-assigned. The website accepts PayPal payment, and it provides the ticket immediately via e-mail (as a PNG QR-code). The ticket can, of course, be downloaded as PDF, or displayed on the phone (through the SNCB International app: no Apple Wallet integration).

Passenger rights: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This fare allows for full reimbursement up to 30 minutes after the train departure, and 25% reimbursement in case of a delay at arrival of more than 30 minutes.

Travelling experience (SNCF): ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Since the train was actually a French TGV, this applies to SNCF (the Société nationale des chemins de fer français instead).

A day before travelling, the railway company sent an email informing, a day in advance, of a foreseen 5 to 10-minute delay. EU regulations, I believe.

The actual trip was quite ok; the train was full, but carriages had two spots where to leave large luggage (at the end and in the middle), and there was a power point available for each couple of seats. Also, two toilets per carriage help to avoid queues.

On the negative side, the train left Brussels a few minutes late (as predicted), but it arrived in Lyon more than 20 minutes late, with little information given to the passengers.

The sky above the Fourviére hill in Lyon, with the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière on the right
The sky above the Fourviére hill in Lyon, with the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière on the right

Lyon - Genève : SNCF

Geographical distance (as the crow flies): 110 km (actual distance travelled: 180 km)

Booking experience: ⭐️⭐️⭐️½

For some reason, the ‘réserver’ button on the website external link of the Société nationale des chemins de fer français sends the user to the SNCF Voyageurs external link site, which in turn requires clicking on a ‘Réserver vos billet’ button to finally land on the SNCF Connect external link webpage.

Here I could finally book a Regional train from Lyon Part-Dieu to Genève (or, more precisely, Genève Cornavin: this made me check three times that I wouldn’t arrive and leave from different stations) that cost 33.40 (second class).
The two cities are 110 km away as the crow flies, but to get there by land the train needs to travel around the Jura Mountain Range external link to Wikipedia , so the distance grows to 180 km.
It takes this train 2 hours and 28 minutes to get to its destination, with five intermediate stops. This means € 0.30 per theoretical km, € 0.18 per actual km, € 0.22 per minute.
There is no possibility of booking a seat (which is normal for Regional trains).

No PayPal available. The confirmation e-mail includes only the ticket reference: for the actual ticket one needs to go back to the website or download the SNCF Connect app. From there, it can also be exported to Apple Wallet.

Passenger rights: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The ticket is refundable up to the day before the trip starts, and it can be used, for the chosen day, on any other train that covers the same route.

Travelling experience: ⭐️⭐️⭐️½

The Lyon Part-Dieu train station is currently under refurbishment, so it doesn’t have a proper entrance… it just feels like entering or exiting a hangar.

I was a bit worried about not having a seat reservation, but the train turned out to be almost empty, so there was plenty of space for my luggage too.

The train was reasonably clean, so I have no complaint about the actual experience.

The trip started and ended at the scheduled time. One of the stops lasted around 20 minutes, I guess for technical reasons and the need to cross the border; since Switzerland is not in the Schengen area, passport control also occurred, but at the same time as ticket inspection).

Lac Léman/Lake Geneva with its signature water jet
Lac Léman/Lake Geneva with its signature water jet

Genève - Bern: SBB/CFF/FFS

Geographical distance (as the crow flies): 130 km (actual distance travelled: 170 km)

Booking experience: ⭐️⭐️

Despite the multiple names, the Swiss Railways (Schweizerische Bundesbahnen, aka Chemins de fer fédéraux suisses, aka Ferrovie Federali Svizzere) site doesn’t require jumping around different URLs: everything happens on external link .

For travelling from Genève to Bern, the SBB search engine proposed a ‘Point-to-point’ ticket (valid for any train on the selected date between the chosen stations), or a cheaper ‘Supersaver’ one (only valid for a specific connection). The latter promised a price starting from 17.30 Swiss Francs (around €17.80). Here they call it a billet dégriffé (a term for a discounted ticket that I never heard before, maybe it’s Swiss French, or maybe it’s just not Belgian French).
Since I didn’t plan to spend the night in Genève, I thought of getting the Point-to-point one (around €9 more expensive), in order to decide on the day whether to stay for a couple of hours instead of moving on to Bern straight away.
But, after entering my name, birth date and e-mail address, the twist: it turns out that the advertised price only applies for holders of a yearly subscription with SBB. Otherwise, prices are doubled.
Finally, I decided that I didn’t want spend almost €20 for the luxury of deciding what train to jump on, so I bought the dégriffé ticket for CHF 34.60 (€ 35.60).

The distance between Genève and Bern is 130 km, which becomes 170 km by train because Lac Leman external link to Wikipedia is in the way. The ride lasts 2 hour and 2 minutes trip, with six intermediate stops, second class.
This translates to € 0.27 per theoretical km, € 0.20 per actual km, € 0.29 per minute,

No booked seat. No PayPal payment allowed. The confirmation e-mail includes a QR code to be used in case of ticket inspection. No app to store the ticket, no Apple Wallet.

Actually: I find out now that there is an app, but it wasn’t mentioned as an option to show the ticket in the confirmation email, so I didn’t see it.

Passenger rights: ⭐️⭐️

If you change your mind or can’t travel, tough luck: you are not entitled to a reimbursement and you can’t exchange the ticket. Unless you were logged in to the website when you bought it, in which case you can cancel the trip within 30 minutes of your purchase.
Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in the EU anymore.

Travelling experience: ⭐️⭐️⭐️½

Another station-related note: as soon as I got off the Regional SNCF train and entered the Genève station, I was overcome by an incredibly strong smell of cheese fondue, of which I couldn’t identify the source; it sounds incredibly cliché (and maybe even offensive) as a welcome to Switzerland, but there it was.

Being on time allowed me anyway to take a short walk around the centre of Genève after leaving my luggage in a super-expensive automated locker (€ 9 for an hour of storage).

The SBB train left Genève 10 minutes late but it arrived on time at the destination. It had double-decker coaches, where for some reason luggage racks were only available at the top level.

Once again, the ride was pleasant enough. Bonus points for the view of the green grass fields and of the amazing mountains in the distance.

A view of the Alps from Bern, and the Bernisches Historisches Museum
A view of the Alps from Bern, and the Bernisches Historisches Museum

Bern - Milano : Trenitalia

Geographical distance (as the crow flies): 210 km (actual distance travelled: 280 km)

Booking experience: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The last leg of this trip was a Trenitalia external link direct connection from the capital of Switzerland to the chief town of the Lombardy region, in Northern Italy (apparently I was lucky to find this option because a direct train doesn’t seem to be available today).

A search on the main website, for long-distance routes, silently redirects to the web domain devoted to high-speed connections ( external link , because ‘freccia’ - Italian for ‘bolt’ - is the current commercial name for high-speed trains). There the user can buy a ticket through PayPal, receive an email with the pdf of the full ticket ready to be printed, and, after installing the Trenitalia app on the phone, add it to Apple Wallet. Not too bad for dear old Trenitalia. One can even choose your seat provided that they spot or (remember looking for) the dedicated button at the bottom of the page before proceeding to pay. My 3-hour-and-6-minute trip cost € 82 - for a so-called ‘standard’ ticket that allows some reimbursement in case of issues. This leg cost € 0.38 per theoretical km, € 0.29 per actual km, € 0.44 per minute. The average speed is just 90 km/h. Dashing through the Alps is not so easy.

Passenger rights: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Having chosen the ‘standard’ tariff, I would have had the possibility to change the date of travel or to get partial reimbursement in case of cancellation. For all fares, a delay of at least an hour would have granted a refund of 25% of the ticket cost.

Travelling experience: ⭐️⭐️⭐️½

My train left Bern on time, continued being on time for the Swiss leg of its route, and then in a very bad cliché gained 20 minutes of delay as soon as it crossed the border, due to a very long stop at the Domodossola station. In fairness, I saw some policepersons walking through the carriages, so there may have been a specific reason for that delay.

Unfortunately very little communication was given to the travellers about the delay, leaving people having a very short connection time hanging until the last minute.

The train was reasonably clean, but I’m always amazed at how these long-distance Italian trains don’t have enough luggage racks: just one at the end of the coach, as if long trips weren’t correlated with travelling with bigger suitcases.