From the doldrums of a few years ago – when Deutsche Bahn left the business of running night trains completely – this mode of transport is back. Or at least in terms of public attention it’s back.

Snälltåget has bold plans for Sweden to Germany services in 2021, and the Swedish government has its own ideas too. SBB is partnering with ÖBB and is looking towards 2024 for new routes from Zürich to Rome and Barcelona. In the shorter term, ÖBB plans to run to Amsterdam again by the end of this year, and the first training and trials are taking place already. Private Czech operator RegioJet has launched a 5-country night train from Prague to Rijeka. The French government has bunged SNCF a contract to rejuvenate Paris-Nice and Paris-Tarbes/Hendaye night services. RDC is running its Alpen-Sylt Night Express the length of Germany.

Things are of course not all fine and dandy – the future of the remaining few night services in Spain, and Spain to Portugal, are in question post-COVID, as is the future of the Paris-Venice Thello service.

Overall though, things look good.

But there is a problem.

Carriages for these services.

The only state owned railway that is really thinking about night trains is Austria’s ÖBB – and they are procuring 13 new sets of 7 carriages from Siemens that should be on the rails at the end of 2022. But that is enough for just 6 night train routes. Yes, ÖBB will no doubt also renovate old stock, but many of its couchette cars are over 40 years old. And needless to say, ÖBB cannot solve these night train problems on its own. [UPDATE 30.9.2020: ÖBB has now confirmed a further order of 20 more night train sets]

Beyond that the situation is complex.

The old Trenhotel carriages used for France-Spain services sit in ruins in sidings in Barcelona, and Spain has converted some night train stock into daytime stock. France has scrapped so many of its Corail old night train carriages that it needs to lease some from somewhere in order to restart its services, and SNCF even leased some Russian sleeping cars a few years back. Snälltåget bought some old DB couchette cars, while the Swedish government plans acknowledge a shortage of rolling stock might limit what is possible. Meanwhile some clever rail nerds have wondered how to convert old Deutsche Bahn EuroCity carriages into couchette cars

The European Commission has at least acknowledged the issue needs more attention – investigating what to do about the rolling stock problem is a central part of its tender for research about night trains – see Page 6 of this PDF.

Meanwhile none of the major railways in Europe – SNCF, Deutsche Bahn, Renfe or Trenitalia – looks like it is ready to step into this market in a complete and comprehensive way.

So if the EU wants to solve this conundrum, it needs to act.

It would be a bold departure from how the EU has behaved on railway issues in the past, but the EU itself should procure a massive fleet of night train carriages, capable of running at 200km/h (or perhaps even 230km/h). It’s an idea I first raised in this piece in the New Statesman. Operators – be they private firms like RegioJet or Flixtrain, or state operators like Deutsche Bahn or ÖBB – could then lease this stock for the period they needed it.

This would essentially be a Europeanisation of the procurement and leasing system used for the RRX trains in Nordrhein Westfalen in Germany (explained here). It would free operators of the long term commitment necessary to procure new stock, and hence allow the provision of night train services in Europe to be scaled quickly. There are a multitude of manufacturers – many of which have worked in consortiums before – that would be ready to bid for such a contract (Siemens, Alstom-Bombardier, Škoda, Stadler, Talgo, CAF, Astra Vagoane Călători to name just a few). Jobs in highly skilled manufacturing industry would also be guaranteed – a win all round.

Locomotives for these services are not such a complex conundrum – there are 200km/h variants of the Siemens Vectron and Bombardier TRAXX that could work these cross border services, and these can already be leased. Meanwhile incumbent rail companies in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy are not short of 200km/h locomotives that would fit the bill too.

So if the EU wanted to put its money where its mouth is on sustainable transport, and a commitment to improving cross border rail, this is one of the things it ought to do – and do as soon as possible.

7 Comments

  1. Nicolás Muttini

    Very interesting point. An additional advantage may be that operators can plan with full flexibility and certainty any international route, just like airlines, if the rolling stock is certified and provided ready to use by the EU. And may I add an extension of your idea: correct me if I am wrong but I have the feeling that auto-train stock is even harder to get, and developing an update of the existing german wagons for 160km/h could only be done by a large scale order (maybe a bit higher speed, sockets for EV and some theft and damage protection would be enough)

  2. Félix Weber

    It is a very good idea indeed yet I see a huge issue. The quality and design as physical products – room or seat design is something that should or can be an important determinant for competitive advantage.

    Having one “uniform” fleet of train carriages bears the risk of creating an efficient market that somehow misses demand – because customers expect something different than the European commission offers. Highly likely customers today expect different products than night carriages traditionally provided. Let’s just compare the layout of the future ÖBB Nightjets – or even the Sunrise Seto & Sunrise Izumo in Japan to traditional carriages used formerly by IC de nuits from SNCF and other former opeerators.

    The products offered to thee customer must be designed according to their demand, and the past shows that we don’t know yet the “best” design – and even if we would define it for today, tomorrow it will change again.

    Yet I fully agree on the idea of providing the technical means for providing these products, as “the wheels and the shell of a night train”. Everything going on inside (except for security measures) should be defined by the market.

    I see an option in providing the technical base, like providing standard UIC carriages for night service that operators can adapt to their customers requirements.

    • It’s perhaps a fair point, although we have one design scheme now – NightJet – and that would be a decent basis to start from.

      There would also be scope I think for the configuration of compartments according to need, if the design were right.

      The only major question I think would be if these would essentially be single or double deck cars – again here NightJet is going for single deck.

  3. Hi Jon,
    Really interesting idea. How about going one step further and setting up a Eurpoe-wide network based on PSO contracts? That way we’d be sure to get Europe-wide nightrain coverage and avoid a situation where you might have 2-3 operators competing on say (Paris-Berlin) and none on a less lucrative route? Just a thought.
    Tim

    • I think in terms of the politics of it, a European network of PSO Contracts would be even harder than this. I am not opposed to the idea, but I want to find the swiftest and easiest route to a decent outcome!

  4. I obviously agree with your article. The idea of leasing can also be extended to daytime trains for other alternative operators. It seems that Railpool, MRCE, Alpha Trains or Akiem are not willing to take such a risk. Quite simply, if you go outside the perimeter of “rail fans, slow travel and ecology”, I can see that a lot of people don’t understand why such effort is being made for night trains, a niche market, when there is more urgency for other trains. A lot of people will have to be convinced!

    • Hmmm, but – in passenger rail anyway – those leasing firms serve the market that already exists. And that is dominated by the big state players that do not want to run night trains, and niche private operators who would run them, but lack scale and capital. In other words, a market failure. And even *if* night trains is a niche market, the time is right for that niche.

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