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.