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The Last Train Ferry to Denmark

© Jonathan Wilcox (European Traction website) Main Text below, © Stuart Smith Former UK Train Ferry Routes, © Tom Chaffin, footnote

From the October 2020 Newsletter

There are only three remaining passenger train ferries in Europe: one between mainland Italy and the island of Sicily; one from Sassnitz (Germany) to Trelleborg in Sweden; and one from Puttgarden (Germany) to Rødby in Denmark.

The idea of putting a whole train on board a ferry to cross an expanse of water is one largely confined to the past – at least in Europe. This is predominantly due to the creation of numerous fixed links, such as the Channel Tunnel between the United Kingdom and France, or the Øresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden. Additionally, the proliferation of low-cost air travel making the rail routes themselves redundant in a number of cases.

Even the three survivors are under threat.  That between Villa San Giovanni in Italy and Messina on the island of Sicily is mooted to be getting a bridge replacement (although this is very much an on/off affair – most recently being declared “off” for the time being); that between Sassnitz and Trelleborg is an overnight, (summer-only operation) which has been suggested for closure on a number of occasions; and that across the Fehmarnbelt between Rødby and Puttgarden is being replaced by a fixed link for which the construction contracts have already been signed.

The proposed fixed link across the Fehmarnbelt will take the form of an 18 kilometre long immersed tunnel encompassing a four lane motorway and a double track railway, and will be the world’s longest immersed tunnel upon completion. It will take 7 minutes to cross from one side of the Fehmarnbelt to the other by rail, and 10 minutes by road. Whichever way you look at it, a significant saving on the current 45 minute crossing time by ferry for either mode of transport. In addition, it will be far less susceptible to weather-related disruption. The shortened travel time from Hamburg to København is expected to drastically increase traffic between the two major cities.

It’s fairly clear that the pros of the fixed link far outweigh the cons, which are largely sentimental. However, the good news if you’ve yet to visit, is that the construction work has only just started, and is expected to take around 8½ years. However, the rail route between Neustadt and Puttgarden will close in 2022 until the tunnel is completed, so it is to be assumed that the train ferry will cease at that time too. Puttgarden station will not reopen open completion of the works.

All trains are formed of Danish class MF “rubber ring” DMUs, and are designated as ‘Eurocity’ premium services between Hamburg and København. Happily, however, it is possible to travel between København and Rødby (at least for the time being) with Danish Class ME diesel locos, and from Puttgarden (or Fehmarn-Burg on the German side of the water) to Hamburg at weekends in the summer with Class 218 “Rabbit” diesel-hydraulics.

I last took a journey on this train ferry in Summer 2007, travelling from Denmark to Germany, and I found it very interesting. As befitting the nature of Denmark, the journey from København to the port at Rødby is one of numerous islands linked by bridges. After travelling via Roskilde, Ringsted and Næstved to Vordingborg (all on Sjælland), the train crosses first to Masnedø, then to Falster, and finally to Lolland on whose coast Rødby is situated.

It must be said that the scenery along the route is not necessarily fantastic – although I thought that the views of the water from the bridges – in particular the Storstrøm Bridge – were memorable. Lolland is also known by the nickname “Pancake Island” as a reflection of its flatness, and the railway is as good a way as any to appreciate this facet of its geography!  It is therefore something of a surprise to finally reach Rødby Færge station, with its pylons and floodlights reaching higher into the sky than even the turbines of the surrounding wind farms.

The ferry connection between Rødby and Puttgarden commenced operation on 14th May 1963 – completing a direct link between København and Hamburg. This was dubbed the “Vogelfluglinie”, or “bird flight line”, as it roughly follows a common migratory route used by birds. The route briefly took on international significance in late 2015 during the EU-wide refugee crisis. Large numbers of illegal immigrants, predominantly from Iraq and Syria, were trying to reach Sweden which was displaying a more welcoming attitude to them than most EU countries. As a result, the Rødby to Puttgarden ferry (and associated railways and motorways) ended up being closed on police orders. Reports described “chaotic scenes” where well over a thousand refugees disembarked from ferries arriving at Rødby, some “disappearing” to try an evade capture by the police, with others attempting to walk up the E47 motorway in the vague direction of Sweden.

On my journey, both ports painted a sad picture of emptiness and desolation, and had certainly not only seen better days, but had been constructed with the intention of handling much higher volumes of rail traffic than now pass through; indeed, international railfreight via this route has long since ceased. Rows and rows of overgrown and rusty sidings lay empty in and around the terminal as we edged our way towards the ferry. Saying that, it is clear that the dearth of rail traffic must be more than compensated by the proliferation of lorries and cars, as the intensive ferry shuttle service is clearly supported by something!

The ferries themselves are operated by Scandlines and can carry both cars and trains. Ferries depart each port at broadly 30-minute intervals, 24 hours a day – however only three in each direction convey trains. There are four train ferries in the fleet, all dating from 1997 – two under the Danish flag (Prins Richard and Prinsesse Benedikte), and two under the German flag (Schleswig-Holstein and Deutschland).

It’s slightly unnerving to be on a full size train just feet away from lorries and cars, not least for it to cross from land onto a vessel! The train slowly drew to a stand on the ship’s single railway track within the car deck, and passengers were instructed to disembark and make their way up to the passenger area, mingling with the motorists who had just parked their own vehicles.

The crossing itself was admittedly something of an anti-climax. The ferry has all the amenities you would expect from a modern short-distance passenger type – shops and restaurants etc, and the 45 minute journey passed quickly and without incident. Before long, an announcement was made for train passengers to make their way back to the train, and after docking, the engines were restarted and the train slowly emerged from the darkness of the ferry’s car deck, back onto terra firma and into Puttgarden railway station

Puttgarden was broadly similar to Rødby, in that it featured relatively nondescript 1963-vintage architecture simultaneously being heavily used and being slowly reclaimed by nature, depending on whether you looked at the road or rail parts of the terminal. With a harsh wind blowing straight off the Baltic, seagull droppings everywhere (I have never seen so much in one place!), rust and foliage everywhere, it was not a place to remain in for long.

Indeed, it’s kind of the point of Puttgarden that nobody ever does stay there for long. The port complex, as distinct from the tiny village of Puttgarden (some distance to the West), exists solely to transship people, goods and their vehicles from land to sea, and from sea to land, as efficiently as possible. When the Fehmarnbelt fixed link is finally commissioned, it will likely disappear from the map, its purpose negated.

You can’t help but feel that although it will undoubtedly be a step forward when the tape is cut on the Fehmarnbelt tunnel, it will be sad to see the end of something which has been a thriving, (now almost unique), and which has quietly gone about its business for well over half a century.

If you haven’t yet experienced the train ferry from Germany to Denmark, I would recommend building it into your travel plans before that final day arrives.

Editorial Note:

In December 2019, three years earlier than planned, the Rødby to Puttgarden train ferry ceased operation (regular ferry services still operate though). Eurocity trains, now re-classified as Intercity between Hamburg and København are routed via Flensburg, Odense and the ‘Great Belt Fixed Link’. Additionally, as the trains are no longer limited by capacity onboard the ferry, longer trains can be operated too. Once the Fehmarnbelt is completed, trains will revert to their original route, albeit via the new link, rather than the traditional ferry at Puttgarden.

Former UK Train Ferry Routes:

Both of these routes were utilised for transporting materials to the war front.

The last ‘Night Ferry’ passenger train ran via this route on 31st October 1980.


The Institution used the Rødby to Puttgarden train ferry on the Institution’s visit to Sweden in 1996 on the overnight train from København to Brussels. One slightly amusing incident was seeing one member in her dressing gown and pyjamas walking round the boat in the middle of the night!  When going to bed on the sleeper carriage from København the previous evening,she was not expecting to go on a ferry during the journey - but when woken up by the train going on to the boat, decided to get-up to investigate!