A new ranking of train hubs looks beyond aesthetics to grade stations on accessibility, amenities, on-time performance and more.
German-speaking countries have the both best and worst railway stations in Europe.
Looking at the 50 busiest locations in Europe, the 2023 European Railway Station Index found that the main stations in Zurich, Vienna and Berlin offer the best conditions for travelers on the continent. Given the global reputation of Germany and its neighbors for rail excellence, those top places may come as no surprise. Further down the list, however, comes something more unexpected. Out of all 50 stations assessed, the bottom six are all in Germany.
Europe’s Best Major Stations
From the European Railways Station Index 2023https://www.bloomberg.com/toaster/v2/charts/a94105ceef33bd3d65c3fbfbd519a6fb.html?brand=citylab&webTheme=citylab&web=true&hideTitles=true
Source: Consumer Choice Center
The internet is awash with best and worst lists of dubious value, but this one is worth considering. The metrics that the European Railway Station Index uses to assess stations are thorough, encompassing opening hours, ticket options and waiting times to purchase, as well as a station’s connections and number of delayed services. It looks additionally at access for people with limited mobility, shops, lounges and food options, the quality of information offered and the accessibility to taxis and ride-hailing services, awarding points out of a maximum 123 for each. It’s worth noting the trends it highlights — that Europe’s best major stations are overwhelmingly north of the Alps, and that stations where longer-distance services are concentrated tend to offer far better conditions than those dominated by short-stretch commuters.
Europe’s Worst Major Stations
From the Europe Railway Station Index 2023https://www.bloomberg.com/toaster/v2/charts/df014105cbf9a454273a64d2ed49b983.html?brand=citylab&webTheme=citylab&web=true&hideTitles=true
Source: Consumer Choice Center
While many rail buffs love Europe’s stations for their steam-age aesthetics, the index suggests that good architecture does not always correspond with good service. Helsinki’s heart-stoppingly-grand central station comes 10th from bottom in the ranking. The worst station by far, the main station in Bremen, Germany, is a vaulted Victorian palace adorned with delightful 1950s murals.
Design may play a role if it leads to seamless service. Berlin’s cross-shaped central station, opened in 2006, is a pleasure to use partly because its design makes it so accessible, with platforms for long distance and suburban services stacked vertically. Sandwiching a layer of shops in between, this layout makes it possible to change from city to national rail and grab a takeaway coffee on the way within as little as five minutes on a good day.
Zurich’s main station has a similar layout. Terminal lines end under the station’s ground-level glass roof, emptying into a neo-baroque hall so grand it has hosted opera performances. Meanwhile, deep below are tunneled through-lines, accessed via a spacious mall that offers passengers all they need without trapping them, as airport shopping facilities too often do. With trains to 21 destinations across Greater Zurich, it’s also a hub where you can hop on a train to destinations as distant as Amsterdam or Budapest.
Elsewhere, the index’s findings will ring true to most regular users of Europe’s rail system. The UK’s highest entry — London Bridge, ranked 16th — is certainly one of Britain’s pleasantest after its 2018 redesign, while Birmingham New Street (Britain’s worst major station at rank 43) has an awfulness in urban legend that makes it the UK’s answer to New York City’s Penn Station. Looking at the lower performers overall reveals a clear trend: They are mainly sprawling commuter hubs more than international connectors, and thus have fewer services and arguably less attention paid to their design and function.
The index makes a possible misstep in this category, by awarding five extra points to stations with five or more international connections. This might favor cities like Zurich and Vienna, where international borders less than an hour away make more cross-border connections inevitable, while penalizing commuter stations (like the three Berlin hubs placed equally at number 46) for failing to provide services that their users don’t need.
Even this can’t account for the abysmal showing of Bremen’s main station. That’s likely down to its numerous delays, with 39% of all trains being late by at least five minutes — a situation perhaps exacerbated by many services starting somewhere else, and thus having more time to build up delays before they arrive at the platform.
That poor performance still points to an uncomfortable truth: Germany’s rail service is currently fraying at the seams, with plummeting levels of reliability even Americans might reject. So great is the network’s maintenance backlog — and so numerous the delays — that planning a tightly scheduled rail trip across the country can feel like an act of faith.