Crossing borders: Tracks without a train.

I’m on my way to the IETF meeting in Paris, and it’s close enough to take the train. Timing means that I won’t use the direct TGV from Luxembourg to Paris today, and so the trajectory I’m taking — a regional train to Nancy, and then onward by TGV…

I’m on my way to the IETF meeting in Paris, and it’s close enough to take the train. Timing means that I won’t use the direct TGV from Luxembourg to Paris today, and so the trajectory I’m taking — a regional train to Nancy, and then onward by TGV –, carries some strong reminders of Germany’s and France’s long and painful history with each other, and that history’s traces in the region where the two countries touch.

I live in the Mosel valley, on the Luxembourg side of the river. In walking distance, a bridge across, and a somewhat decrepit train station on the German side. The railway that follows the Moselle is today a minor regional affair, but was originally built as a Prussian / German military investment: Purpose-built to transport troops and heavy guns from Berlin to Thionville, and onward to Metz; often tunneling through the Moselle’s tightly wound vineyards to not make those heavy trains brake. When it was built, that railway line had the world’s longest rail tunnel, and the infrastructure is still impressively over-engineered for today’s use.

The tracks are still there all along the Mosel, and along that route, Thionville train station still shows some of its belligerent past, in the form of bunkered-up artillery casemates right next to the station (and a matching fortress across the river) — as does the gorgeous city of Metz, with one of the larger surviving fortresses of the region. And even as the train makes it further into France, through towns too small for a stop and therefore nameless to this traveller, there are castles and fortresses to be seen, witnesses of wars gone by.

Also along these tracks: The remains of the steel mills that once contributed to making Lorraine a strategically important bone of contention between Germany and France — now either owned by Arcelor Mittal, torn down, or turned into repurposed heritage structures.

It would have seemed natural for me, then, to have jumped on a regional train to take me to Metz or Nancy along these direct tracks, and onward to Paris from there. But alas, that train doesn’t run: To this date, the German railway system stops at Perl, and the French one stops a kilometer or two upstream at Apach. Between them, Sierck-les-Bains, an old seat of the Dukes of Lorraine, features the ruins of their castle torn down by war in the early 1700s. Across the Moselle in Luxembourg lies the small village of Schengen, with its peaceful vineyards. The Schengen agreement was signed on a ship on the river right where Germany, Luxembourg, and France meet each other.

That one or two kilometer piece of train tracks between Perl and Apach is crossed by two local passenger trains in each direction every Saturday, and by the occasional freight train between France and Germany. To this date, there is no direct train connection between the neighboring cities of Trier, Thionville and Metz, and German train passengers have to travel through Luxembourg to make it into Lorraine — and back into the Moselle valley. Even today, the train routing strangely exaggerates the distance between Trier and Thionville.

Along this trip, it is tangible how the European unity, the Schengen agreement, and globalized trade more generally have helped to bring peace to this region that was ravaged by war for centuries, and changed owners far too often, and far too violently. But it is also tangible how the traces of past wars, past borders, and artificially built-up distance between nations still exist — for example in that direct railway track without a direct train.