No more Interrailing in Britain? How sad and insular we have become | Alan Bradshaw

The withdrawal of the UK’s train operators from Interrail is a sad setback for young and old alike. Since 1972 Interrail has facilitated travel adventures – at a relatively low cost – across Europe, from Galway to Gdańsk. The departure of Britain’s Rail Delivery Group from the system, while a no-deal Brexit looms, marks another depressing moment in the shrivelling of our relations with the outside world.

While you can still buy Interrail passes for travel in the rest of Europe, they will no longer be valid in Britain. As rail tickets to ports and St Pancras International are usually exorbitantly expensive, this significantly increases the cost of Interrailing and will dissuade many from doing so, while reducing the number of European rail visitors to Britain.

But most of all this is a sad regression. Interrailing has been a rite of passage for generations, allowing first adventures in travel and independence. I went Interrailing in 1999, visiting 15 cities, and had a ball. For the first time, I tried new food and joined a pan-European community traversing the continent in friendly cheer. Arriving in central stations with backpacks, trying to navigate with maps, locating hostels and obtaining currencies was absorbing and exciting. Best of all was the camaraderie in hostels, comparing experiences with fellow travellers from other countries and going out together to explore the nightlife. I loved it.

Last summer, with middle-age descending, I discovered that there are grades of Interrail tickets available for all ages, so a friend and I went again, buying passes for £276 each. Taking the train from Leicester and sailing from Dover, we had no plan and arrived in Amiens, simply because there was a train about to leave Calais headed there. Looking out the window, we realised that we were in the Somme, while we chatted to beaming young people about France’s World Cup victory. Eventually we took a winding route to Serbia, through Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. The Alps were spectacular and the conversations enriching. Leaving the European Union and passing through the border checks, we arrived in Belgrade, where we saw the shelled buildings that had been attacked by Nato, ate cevapi and drank delicious Serbian wine.

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Unlike previous eras, freedom of movement across Europe is today mostly seamless and the euro simplifies so much. Smartphones (without roaming charges!) make maps unnecessary and booking accommodation infinitely easier. The return from Munich to Leicester in almost a single trip was wonderful – until the final leg from the Gare du Nord in Paris to Britain. Leaving the Schengen visa-free travel area meant facing separate French and British border gates and the drawn-out process of producing passports and facing repeated checks. The thought that this is not even enough for some people – that voters want to expand border control – was a depressing conclusion to our travels. It was time to return to little Britain.

And now, a year on, the UK withdraws from Interrail. It is a commercial decision, not caused by Brexit, and yet the correlation with Brexit is striking. Another simple right, once taken for granted, is being eroded. While European travellers can buy a BritRail pass instead, which allows cheaper travel here, it is possible that the added layer of bureaucracy and cost means that many will simply go elsewhere and the flow of Interrail passengers through Britain – and on to Ireland – will greatly decrease. The unconsidered collateral damage for Britain’s neighbours is noteworthy.

Those of us who have enjoyed the opportunity to travel must campaign against the decision. We cannot continue to pull the ladder up and deny young people the pleasures and opportunities many of us previously enjoyed, nor should we let them be denied to ourselves. The Rail Delivery Group’s withdrawal points to a growing insularity that is pervading multiple aspects of the country, while the spectre of constant rail fare increases in Britain puts us at odds with our European counterparts. Interrailing is a lovely opportunity to be part of a larger continental network and family: how miserable and unacceptable it would be if this was to be lost.

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Alan Bradshaw is professor of marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Advertising Revolution: The Story of a Song From Beatles Hit to Nike Jingle


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