Earlier this month European Sleeper announced its first route – Brussels-Amsterdam-Berlin-Prague – and the news was gushing. Euronews covered the story, saying how it was driven by flight shame, TimeOut talked of a “a ton of cool new sleeper trains“, and Travel+Leisure talked about a “major upgrade” of night services.
Don’t get me wrong, European Sleeper is a great effort, bordering on the heroic – trying to get a 4 country new night train running is some feat. I wish Elmer van Buuren and the team running it all the very best, and as it connects my home (Berlin) with one of my workplaces (Brussels) I am going to be all too happy to use it.
The problem instead is another one.
The scale-up of night trains in Europe is not nearly ambitious enough.
The only established publicly owned rail firm serious about night trains is Austria’s ÖBB with the investments in its NightJet fleet – increasing its initial order of 13 new trains to 33. Within a couple of years ÖBB will run a bunch more night services, including stepping up services through Germany and Switzerland (more here). Including current stock ÖBB is going to have 50-60 night trains in its fleet.
Beyond that it’s pretty thin gruel regarding new services. SNCF, at the insentience of Macron’s government, is re-instating 2 night train routes – Paris-Nice and Paris-Hendaye. Snälltåget is expanding its seasonal night train from Sweden via Denmark to Germany. RegioJet has added a seasonal night train from Czechia to the Croatian coast, and RDC runs the new Alpen-Sylt night express. Moonlight Express is likewise trying to launch night services from Brussels onwards to Germany or Czechia. All of these operators are scrambling around trying to find second hand rolling stock for these services, much of it over 40 years old and with a maximum speed of just 160km/h.
Above all there is an almost complete absence of Europe’s big rail players – Deutsche Bahn, SNCF, Trenitalia, PKP – in this night train market. The most DB and SNCF are capable of is to let ÖBB run a few services on their tracks, and in SNCF’s case grudgingly budge when the French government demands some night trains.
If we set all of that against the backdrop of what rail firms are doing with their long distance daytime fleets it looks pretty miserable. Deutsche Bahn is in the middle of the delivery of 137 ICE-4 trains (to add to the current fleet of 240+ ICEs) and a further 30 more Velaro units will come later. SNCF has ordered 100 next generation TGVs from Alstom, Trenitalia has ordered 87 Frecciarossa 1000 trains.
That gets us then to the crux of the problem – the companies that have the will to expand their night train routes are lacking the means. ÖBB can stretch to 33 new trains, but the likes of Snälltåget or RegioJet have to make do with second hand stock, and that severely limits their ability to run night train services.
The companies that do have the means – SNCF, Deutsche Bahn or Trenitalia – are not interested in ordering new stock or running night trains as doing so would cannibalise their more lucrative daytime trains business. And the distance a night train covers means crossing a border in Europe is pretty much inevitable, and that means stepping on the toes of some other national champion on the other side of the border.
So what is the solution here?
There are potentially a few.
One solution would be to reduce track access charges for night trains, making them more lucrative to run (although whether this would tempt DB, SNCF or Trenitalia into this business is doubtful). An alternative would be for the EU to procure a fleet of night trains, and lease these to operators, thereby freeing the operators of up-front costs (although that one would be lobbied against hard by SNCF, DB etc). A further route would be to introduce a Public Service Obligation model for night trains in European rail, perhaps as part of a Europatakt, where a competitive tender system could be used to determine which firm would operate a route (although this one would be a major step away from the liberalisation approach pursued in the EU until now). Theoretically the EU could I suppose directly support the operation of services that are not profitable, at least initially, but this too would be a major departure from the politics pursued by the European Commission until now.
As I see it the debate that night trains are a good thing has been won in Europe now. The next question is how to scale their provision. And at the moment the players in the market who could massively scale up night services do not want to, while those who do have the will nevertheless lack the means.