Train spotting

  • Written by  Benjamin Hennig
  • Published in Mapping
Train spotting Benjamin Hennig
23 Apr
Benjamin Hennig maps Europe's public train networks

Passenger transport in Europe is largely dominated by cars. In the past decade, cars kept a consistent share of around 83 per cent of the modal split within the European Union, followed by buses and coaches (around nine per cent in most recent statistics) and trains (between seven and eight per cent). The modal split describes these modes of transport as ‘transport kilometres travelled by all inland passengers’. In the debate about sustainable development, this is an important measure to monitor the environmental and social impacts of the specific modes of transport.

Cars are generating the most emissions and pollution per passenger kilometre and also have significantly higher accident rates. Mass transit and public transport, including buses and coaches as well as trains, are therefore regarded as the more sustainable alternatives and have regained importance in urban and regional planning.

Buses rely on the same transport infrastructure as cars, while trains require railway tracks in order to maintain or improve the existing transport capabilities. Recent trends showing a slow but steady revival of passenger transport by train in Europe therefore have to be seen in the context of its existing transport infrastructure. New railway infrastructure is costly and requires time-consuming planning procedures.

A look at the railway infrastructure in Europe (beyond the EU) shows that across the continent there are approximately 250,000km of tracks, just slightly lower than the length of tracks in the USA, where train travel plays a subordinate role in passenger transport but serves mostly freight transport.

railway mapImage: Benjamin Hennig

This month’s cartogram shows the share of railway infrastructure in Europe in the form of a so-called ‘rectangular cartogram’. Early forms of this perhaps most classic form of cartogram can be found in the 19th century and have been regular features in school atlases for decades. Their construction is a lot less complex than other cartogram types, although complexities remain with the geographical arrangement of the rectangles, and how each entity is connected to the others. With only four sides, geographic accuracy is hard to preserve. In this map, each country is represented by a rectangle whose area represents the total amount of railway tracks it has. In addition, all countries that have more than 1,000km of track length are labelled, and the countries are shaded by the relative importance of railway travel in the passenger modal split of that country.

The cartogram shows the important role of train transport in parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Here the network is considerably stronger than the motorway network, a legacy of a strong focus on non-individual means of transport until the 1990s, although they are partly in need of major re-investments. The smaller train networks in Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark stand out. The modal split of train travel in these (equally relatively small) countries is significantly above the European average. The relative importance of the train is much lower in the Baltic states as well as across the Balkan countries. Southern European countries also show a relatively poor network compared to their area.

The future of train transport in Europe remains challenging. While there is an overall revival of railway travel, the differences in the quality and structure of the networks vary. This matters even more in inter-continental travel routes between countries in pan-continental transport corridors. A fully functioning trans-European rail network will be key to a more sustainable transport system across the continent.

Benjamin Hennig (@geoviews) is Associate Professor in Geography at the University of Iceland and Honorary Research Associate in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. He is involved in the Worldmapper project and is author of

This was published in the April 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today


Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...


NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...


The spatial distribution of healthcare workers globally tells us a…


After an ‘unprecedented’ surge northwards into New Jersey, New York…


The historic end of civil war in Colombia has had…


Where in America can the country's various hate groups be…


The southern US state is sinking twice as fast as…


An increase in visitors is putting severe strain on Iceland’s…


Air pollution campaigners hold a disco roadblock, but can it…


Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality…


HSBC has requested a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil investigation…


Benjamin Hennig explores visions of a world made bright by humanity


The EU has asked the European court to authorise an…


Was last year’s El Niño a practice run for future…


Far from being separate threats, scientists have found links between…


Is the official height of Mount Everest accurate?


Where in the world is the highest density of languages?…


The next stage in autonomous vehicles is hoping to transform…


Geographical’s resident data cartographer presents a true picture of the…


What impact could an unprecedented incident of ‘river piracy’ have…


Norway is to undercut a mountainous peninsula to create the…


Benjmain Hennig explores global mortality with maps