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Trains between capital cities

While aimlessly browsing through YouTube this evening (as you do), I happened upon a video about the Eurostar, which came off to an intriguing start:

There are a few places on earth where it's quicker to travel by train than it is to go by plane, and this is one of them: this is the Eurostar.

— George Maier on YouTube

That got me wondering: How many capital–capital trips are there where taking the train is faster than flying?

To find out, I used one of my favourite websites, rome2rio, which gives you sensible route suggestions and travel time estimates for most locations around the world, including travel to and from the airport.

As far as I can see, there are 16 such routes around the world.

From To Δt/min Comment
Sofia Skopje 540 No direct flight
Belgrade Priština 343 No direct flight
Ljubljana Zagreb 154 No direct flight
Brussels Luxemburg 149 No direct flight
Brussels London 102
Paris London 99
Brussels Paris 88
Amsterdam Brussels 66
Amsterdam Paris 54
Paris Luxemburg 48
Athens Skopje 44 No direct flight
Bratislava Budapest 41
Tallinn Helsinki 40 Ferry!
Vienna Budapest 34
Vilnius Minsk 27
Bratislava Vienna No flight, obviously

As expected, all of these are in Europe. Nowhere else has the same combination of outstanding infrastructure and density of capital cities.

One trip may be missing from this list: there is a ferry between Kinshasa and Brazzaville across the Congo river, but I have no idea how this compares to the stupidly short flight when taking into account all the overhead. Neither Google nor rome2rio are much help here.

Let's get the obvious ones out of the way first: If you're going from London, Amsterdam or Luxemburg to Paris or Brussels, you'll want to take the train. The same naturally goes for any trip between your pick of Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava.

Between Tallinn and Helsinki, the high-speed ferry has a bit of an edge over the plane.

This list is particularly conspicuous through the near-absence of the Balkans the Baltic sisters. The distance between Sarajevo and Belgrade is significantly shorter than that between Brussels and Paris, but a train is nowhere to be found. While there are trains from Riga to Tallinn and Vilnius, and the distance is about the same as Paris–Brussels, this meandering Soviet inheritance has no way to keep up with the shiny TGV, Thalys and Eurostar trains racing around France and its neighbours.

I for one can't wait to see Rail Baltica hit the rails.

While I was pretty much expecting these regions to do so poorly, I'm rather disappointed in the mediocre rail links from Prague to Bratislava, Vienna and Berlin.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Europe is the connection from Athens to Skopje: given the frosty relations between Macedonia and Greece and the mountainous terrain, the fact that it takes eight hours to get from Athens to Skopje over land makes sense; however, the closest place you can fly to directly is Thessaloniki, which, overall, keeps the train surprisingly competitive.

The rest of the world

There are a few other places in Europe which are ‘near misses’, where flying only just beats taking the train or bus; chief among them Paris–Berne (35 minutes faster) and Tbilisi–Yerevan (52 min). The closest pair I could find outside of Europe, apart from perhaps the aforementioned capitals of the Congos, is Buonos Aires and its neighbour Montevideo: the four-hour ferry ride will get you to your destination some two hours later than if you'd flown.

West Africa has plenty of countries with closish capitals. The bus between Lomé (Togo) and Accra (Ghana) makes good time with only a two-and-a-half hour sacrifice with respect to flying. Between Porto Novo (Benin) and Lagos, catching a car or microbus of some sort might not be much slower than flying, but I have no idea how easy that is, and I'm only counting ‘proper’ timetabled public transport here. That's unfair to most of the world, but anything else is practically impossible to estimate the travel time for, so I'm rolling with it.

In the Caribbean, the ferry between Roseau (Dominica) and Castries (St Lucia) make a strong showing considering that, well, it's a boat. I happen to know that if you're going from Roseau to Fort-de-France in Martinique or Pointe-à-Pitre in Guadeloupe, that same ferry beats flying easily, but those are departmental, and not national capitals, so they don't count.

Some other pairs of capitals outside of Europe that are close in distance, but not as well-connected, are Abu Dhabi–Muscat (7½ hour bus), Port-au-Prince–Santo Domingo (6½ hour bus), and Kuala Lumpur–Singapore (8½ hour train, 6 hour bus).

In(coherent) conclusion: High-speed trains are great. More should be built. Especially Rail Baltica. And direct connections from London to Amsterdam and Frankfurt (Brexit be damned…).