Two interesting pieces of information about transport and the climate transition crossed my timeline yesterday. This tweet from TUMI:

And this New York Times story entitled In Europe, It’s Planes vs. Trains. For Many Travelers, Rail Is the Way to Go.

The problem of course is that – despite the title of the New York Times piece – Europe’s railways are not really stepping up.

The return of night trains in France (and strong demand for them) and ÖBB’s expansion of night time routes are of course stressed in the piece, but all of SNCF’s expansion so far has been based on renovation of carriages built in the 1980s. Only ÖBB, with its order for 33 new 7 carriage night trains from Siemens, is really making any headway here. But even that – if you compare that with the 300 daytime ICEs Deutsche Bahn owns, or SNCF’s 400 daytime TGVs, is a drop in the ocean. Alberto Mazzola of CER is quoted in the NYT as well, talking about how states are now keener on rail investment than they were.

But as I see it the deficiencies remain major, and the discussion has to be not only about infrastructure but also about service.

Take the example of Spain. It has ploughed billions into the construction of one of the best national high speed networks in Europe, but its capital Madrid literally does not have a single direct train to any other EU country for most of the year (there is 1 – to Marseille – for a few summer months). The high speed line that connects the Spanish and French high speed networks between Figueras and Perpignan has 2 trains each way on it each day (rising to 4 each way each day in the summer months).

Infrastructure: excellent.

Service: horrid.

And this then brings us back to the trains themselves, and by extension the companies that run them, and maximising the use of the infrastructure we have already.

We know beyond reasonable doubt that there is a large untapped potential for further long distance night trains in Europe. The report accompanying the European Commission’s cross border rail action plan in December 2021 concluded there was enough market demand for between 170 and 300 new night train carriages in Europe, for routes over and above those already planned. You can, within reason, run night trains on existing infrastructure right now – investments in high speed lines are not necessary to make the majority of potential routes (think connections like Köln-Warszawa or Amsterdam-Marseille) work. What you instead need is more carriages – what I have repeatedly been advocating with my Trains for Europe campaign.

So who is stepping up and meeting this demand?

Austrian railways ÖBB is, somewhat. But their 33 new trains are not nearly enough to cover the whole of Europe. France might, after the elections this spring, finance some new trains, as might – to a more minor extent – Sweden, Italy and Norway (overview here). There are a few small private operators in this sector – Regiojet is the strongest of them, and there is also European Sleeper, Snälltåget and possibly Railcoop and Midnight Trains, but none of them look like they can scale either. But that is about it – all of that is not even close to enough to meet the demand we know exists, let alone beginning to think about changing passengers’ behaviour – that we also have to do due to the climate crisis.

And that brings me to a conversation I had last week with an old friend of mine who works in venture capital. “Who,” he asked me “is going to make an order for 100 trains to meet this demand?” he asked me. “100 trains?” I replied, thinking I had misheard him, thinking he meant 100 carriages, but no he meant 100 trains. Sure financing that would be doable he went on, and that’s the scale we should be aiming for. “Why is European Sleeper aiming so low?” he went on. But both he and I do not know who could possibly handle a scheme of that scale – given the railway companies that could (DB, SNCF, Renfe, Trenitalia) show zero willingness to do so, and the small private operators lack the ability to scale up.

Filling the column inches of the New York Times with nice words about railways is, I conclude, a lot easier than actually addressing the heart of this problem: the railway industry looks incapable of stepping up enough to solve this problem of the need for new international (night) trains that can run on existing infrastructure.

2 Comments

  1. Simon Smith

    Isn’t the issue that night trains often aren’t profitable, at least at the fares passengers are willing to pay, and so will only be viable where a government is willing to subsidise them (or a larger operator cross-subsidises them).

    European operators don’t usually publish revenue and costs by train but (whilst there are issues drawing wider conclusions from UK data) the UK publishes data by operator including for the London-Scotland sleeper service. This has typically generated fares sufficient to cover around half of its operating costs – it runs because it is funded by the Scottish Government.

    • I am so damned sodding tired of this argument. We *know* from ÖBB, and we *know* from studies like the European Commission’s one in December that they can be run profitably.

      And honestly what happens in the UK – I don’t care. The whole funding system of its railways is such a mess I don’t think there is much the rest of Europe can learn from it.

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