What are the most popular international train routes?

The Øresund Bridge is definitely busy, but is it the world’s busiest international railway? Image: Richard Dennis/Wikimedia Commons.

The answer to this question is harder to find than you think. In most countries, international train traffic is an insignificantly tiny part of total rail traffic, and even where it is important it’s often mostly freight. No-one really cares about international passenger travel, and when they do publish data it can be really bad quality.

But CityMetric cares about international train travel, damn it, and after hours of poring over terribly formatted spreadsheets and reports, we’ve calculated what are (probably) the most popular international trains in the world.

The EU collects a lot of data about international rail travel, making it a good place for us to start. Unfortunately the data comes from each individual member state, and they sometimes contradict each other (Belgium and the UK disagree by nearly a million about how many people travelled between them in 2011) or just don’t bother filling it in (France haven’t updated their stats since about 2009).

Still, we can fill those holes in with old data and by assuming the same number of people cross the border both ways, and we can find the most used international journeys in the EU:

Click to expand.

The most popular by a long way appears to be the UK-France connection through the Channel Tunnel, which sees over 16 million passengers a year – not even counting the nearly 3 million more going between the UK and Belgium.

But… Only about half of that is Eurostar. It looks like the official data counts also counts people using Le Shuttle – the trains that run and back forth carrying motor vehicles under the Channel. If you’re sitting inside a car that’s inside a train, are you a train passenger or just a motorist? That’s a philosophical question we can’t answer, but if you want to exclude Le Shuttle, there were 10.3 million Eurostar passengers in 2017 and roughly 7.5 million of them were going to or from France, bumping it down to third place.

Next is another international sea link: Denmark-Sweden over the Øresund Bridge (made famous by Scandi noir detective series The Bridge). As well as long-distance trains, the bridge also has a busy commuter service between Copenhagen and the nearby Swedish city of Malmö. Running every 10 minutes each way at peak times, it must be the most frequent international rail service on the planet.

France-Belgium isn’t a single rail connection – instead, it’s a half a dozen or so lines ranging from high-speed TGV to tiny local services. In these statistics, the two are counted equally, so each passenger could be a diplomat zipping first class from Paris to Brussels, or it could be a worker in Kortrijk commuting to their job in Lille in the morning.

For Germany-Switzerland, most of those 6 million are definitely commuters. The Swiss city of Basel, the French city of Saint-Louis, and the German city of Lörrach all lie right next to each other and form an urban area called the “Trinational Eurodistrict”. These share a suburban train network that crosses the German-Swiss border three times and the French-Swiss border once. 25 million people use this Trinational S-Bahn every year, with about 10 million of those using the international sections. Not everyone on those sections will have crossed into Switzerland (some will just gone from one German or French station to another) but it will still be responsible for a big part of the total passenger count for Switzerland.

A commuter train from Basel, Switzerland to Zell, Germany. Not all international voyages are glamorous. Photo: Wladyslaw Sojka/Wikimedia Commons

Rounding out the top five is France-Luxembourg. With 4.3 million passengers a year, this pairing is twice as busy as France-Germany – how, when Luxembourg only has half a million residents total?

Yet again, commuters are to blame. Luxembourg is a very expensive place to live, but its capital city is only a few kilometres from the border. Why not get a house in French Thionville and take the train to work every day instead? If just 10,000 people did that, in a year they’d cross the border 5 million times.

This is the secret to racking up a really high passenger count. You don’t need that many people crossing the border as long as they do it every day. International train journeys aren’t always glamorous long-distance adventures – a lot of them are regular commutes. Compared to an Øresund train every 10 minutes or a Le Shuttle every 15 minutes, intercity trains that only run once every couple of hours have little impact on the total passenger count.

Passenger trains that cross borders are overwhelmingly a European thing – it’s only in the European Union that you get the combination of small countries, wealthy economies and open borders that makes international rail travel possible. There won’t be many non-EU routes that can compete.


France-Monaco is one. Like Luxembourg, Monaco is tiny and extremely expensive, so a lot of people commute in from France. Train travel in Monaco (not technically an EU member state) is kind of weird, since it only has one station (operated by the French SNCF). There were 7.2 million people using Monaco-Monte Carlo station in 2017, and every single one was an international passenger.

Not all of them will have been French travellers – there are regular trains to Italy and occasional trains all the way to Russia – but a bit of maths says there must still be well over 6 million people going between Monaco and France, putting it safely in fourth place.

Belarus-Russia might deserve a place on this graph. OSJD (the railway authority for Eastern Europe and Asia) has published data saying that 3.7 million passengers travelled by train internationally in Belarus in 2017, but annoyingly it didn’t release where they were going. Belarus borders five different countries, three of which are EU members.

We know from the EU data that about 500,000 passengers went between Belarus and Latvia, Lithuania or Poland, which leaves 3.2 million to split between Russia and Ukraine. Most of these probably went to Russia, but exactly how many is impossible to say. (Please get in touch if you know otherwise.)

Russia and Ukraine would also have made it easily a few years ago – 5.1 million took the train between them in 2013 – but passenger numbers have crashed in the wake of the occupation of Crimea.

This is all still inside Europe though. Are there any international train connections on the other continents that can compete?

South America has a broken-up rail network with very few border crossings. Africa has the remnants of a colonial network more focused on transporting minerals and fruit than people. Australia doesn’t have any borders to cross.

North America? Although freight trains run between the US and Mexico, the US-Canada border is the only one on the continent crossed by passenger services. The US counts every single person who crosses its borders and – assuming the same number of people also went the opposite way – that adds up to 0.57 million passengers crossing by train.

Except…

The busiest US/Canada railway border crossing was at Skagway which saw about 190,000 passengers. You’ve probably never heard of Skagway because it’s a tiny village in Alaska. But it’s also got a cruise ship port and a narrow gauge heritage railway that goes into Canada, which authorities consider a border crossing. Yes, a tiny tourist train in Alaska had more passengers than any main-line international service in North America. That’s pretty sad.

(In case you care: the busiest proper railway was the Seattle-Vancouver line, with about 180,000 passengers crossing the border.)

The busiest international railway line in North America. This photo was taken in 2018. This is not a joke. Photo: Explore1940/Wikimedia Commons

That leaves Asia. There are some very rail-heavy countries in Asia, but international trains are hard to find.

Japan and Taiwan are both islands, so they’re out. North and South Korea are divided by the DMZ. Political tensions mean there are very few services running from India to Bangladesh or Pakistan. China’s population is focused on its east coast, a long way from its borders, and it’s ringed by deserts, mountains and tundra. True, millions of people take the train between Mainland China and Hong Kong every year (a staggering 112 million in 2017), but that’s not a proper international border.

No, for a busy international railway there’s only one place to look: Singapore. Singapore demolished most of its international tracks a few years ago, but a small stub remains linking the island to the Malaysian city of Johor Bahru. A shuttle service runs back and forth over the causeway, and in 2018 it had 2.74 million passengers – as many as all trains between Czechia and Slovakia or Belgium and the Netherlands put together.

If we update our graph (making some fairly rough estimates about France-Monaco and Belarus-Russia passengers) then we get:

 

European railways in blue, Asian ones in red.

So there you have it. The busiest international railway connection is France-UK, unless it’s Denmark-Sweden or Hong Kong-Mainland China. They’re almost all in Europe – and definitely not in North America.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets lots of this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.