It’s one of the most common questions I field from journalists: “would more private companies help with the state of the railways in Europe?” And rather than a yes or no, my answer is instead “I’m not sure“. That puts me in a strange position – I take no position on a question that has divided railway people for the past two decades at least.

This response is not because I have not thought about it, that I am lacking examples, or that I am somehow indecisive. It is that, having seen and experienced a lot of Europe’s railways, the empirical evidence is all over the place. I’ve seen well run state owned railways, and badly run ones. I have seen impeccable private companies, and dreadful ones. And I have seen better and worse ways to introduce competition into a railway system.

However there is one thing I am absolutely certain that we, as railway passengers, neither want nor need is a railway system that combines the worst of capitalism and the worst of statist monopoly thinking. But that, I fear, is precisely what we are ending up with.

Table of ÖBB Nightjet prices – click to enlarge. Source: @AndyBTravels on X

Take the news this morning that ticket prices for ÖBB’s Nightjet night trains are being hiked, reaching a hefty €1029,90 for a trip in a deluxe single cabin (see Andy Brabin on X/Twitter). Sebastian Wilken has more on Mastodon here.

And yes, ÖBB is Austria’s state owned railway company.

Are they entitled to up the prices this way, to the maximum the market will bear? Yes.

Is it ethically right that they do so? I’d argue, no it is not.

Let’s take a step back.

ÖBB has repeatedly argued that its night train routes are only viable with a public subsidy. Night train campaign groups like Back on Track have argued likewise. ÖBB has actively sought public subsidy, and has received support from the public purse in Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands and most recently France.

And then ÖBB gets away with setting prices this high.

Let’s pocket that subsidy (the behaviour of a state monopolist), and then see how much profit we can make on top (the behaviour of a capitalist).

You see what I mean about passengers getting the worst of both worlds.

Yes, this bung for ÖBB buys a nice picture for France’s transport minister Beaune, but is the money his government is sending ÖBB’s way good value? Would the Berlin-Paris and Wien-Paris night trains exist without it? Is the subsidy Netherlands is giving to ÖBB necessary to keep the Amsterdam-Zürich and Amsterdam-Wien running?

We of course do not know the answers to these questions, as there is no alternative operator that could step in to run any of these routes, because no-one other than ÖBB has any rolling stock to run these trains. No private rival has managed to buy any because… yes, you guessed it, the financial situation for the development of this market is deemed too fragile, and that is why companies like ÖBB have sought subsidies.

On and on and on it goes.

What, really, do we want here?

It ought to be either a system that is organised by political actors – national governments and the EU – to establish a framework for the public support of night trains, and the flip side of public subsidy would then also be tickets priced at rates low enough to be accessible for all. Or it needs to be a system where the provision of these routes is left to the market – where there is competition to drive down costs and drive up quality, but in order to foster such a market loans or financial guarantees might be needed initially to start the development of a pool of night train rolling stock.

And yes, this post is about night trains – because the news of the new Nightjet prices was the prompt to write the piece – but similar dynamics are at play on daytime routes like Bruxelles-Paris (ex-Thalys, now Eurostar). No doubt there will be people reading this who have some deeper ideological preference for public or private railways and hence cannot see my practical point of view, and sure, you’re entitled to those view.

But this messy position, with passengers stuck between an undeveloped market and the hangovers of state monopolies, ought to be criticised whatever your ideology.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you Jon for a very clear article, and talking of something in a way understable to all – mainly to customers using the railways, which is the way should be.
    Generally speaking would love to see public money spent in promoting railways across Europe, especially as the ETC has been talking and pushing for sustainable travel for few years now – but we know that politics and actual actions which is good for the public sometimes do not match, even when public money is used!

    Anyway this is a debate that should be opened wide everywhere, don’t you agree?

    Regards

  2. Thomas Galley

    Dear John! Thx for this analysis. I am a supporter of a mix of public and private companies, in a system where infrastructure belongs to an independent structure, so that there can be no collusion between them and a public operator. I was really shocked about the move by ÖBB that is making night travel completely unattractive for the largest number. While it is precisely the largest number that need to be convinced of the advantages of trains when it comes to topics such as climate or a more human approach to circulation than what we have seen in Europe since WW 2. I am afraid that people will fear for their ability to travel and discover the continent when they are trapped between these prohibitive ÖBB-prizes and upcoming restrictions on other means of transportation like cars or planes. We cannot allow this to happen as this would create unbearable tensions in our societies. And that is precisely why I support enlightened thinking like yours when it comes to the future of trains.

  3. I think your position is not uncoherent. We need to debate issues without necessarily always taking one side or the other, if that’s not the best option. I recently finished a master thesis about how opening high-speed rail markets in Europe might help incrasing the modal share of rail. I took the examples of Spain and Italy. There it seems that high-speed rail was able to gain *some* of airplane’s modal share, but for road users the same cannot always be said.
    However, my supervisor also suggested that I looked into the UK’s case were, from his point of view, privatisation has lead to a disastrous service being offered to customers.

    In any case, I’ve managed to switch from airplane to rail during 2.5 years now to travel through Europe. And I totally know how difficult it is. For example, there used to be a perfect train for me, Mulhouse – Freiburg (im Breisgau), which suddenly disappeared. Then, the AVE Barcelona – Lyon first disappeared, as SNCF broke with RENFE. Now RENFE is back again in the route. So you could do Barcelona – Freiburg going through… Paris! Wait what?! Then, if you look at SNCF prices they are like honestly like a bad joke. They are *so* expensive. Not to talk about Deutsche Bahn. German trains can be nicely looking but we know how punctual and reliable they are – if they are not cancelled. So I end up using Interrail because at least I can get a better use of my money. Although, if I’m from Spain as I am, I can’t of course buy seat reservations without going to the station in person: the very-typical-Spanish-state-owned-company Renfe is still in the 1970’s. I’m also left feeling like I’m reading a joke when I’m in a TGV and I read “sustainable transport with SNCF” and I’m like “at 200€ per trip?!”. SNCF did a very good job in taking down the quite-well-functioning Oui SNCF for SNCF-Connect, a super modern (and I guess expensive) app that didn’t work well from the first day. And then we see politicians on the media selling us that rail has to be part of the solution – wait why did you invest so much in road then?

    Okay – sorry for the rant, I still love traveling by train, but just to share that yes, passengers are left with the worst of both worlds… happy to see someone lobbying to get rail to a much better position than it is right now, thank you for your efforts and good luck with your projects! 🙂

    • A Railwayman

      I think your supervisor needs to pay more attention to what actually happens on Britain’s railway rather than just the media headlines if he thinks that it’s “privatisation [which] has lead to a disastrous service being offered to customers”.

      Britain’s railway has always – from pre-grouping days in the early 1900s through the “golden era” of the Big Four (GWR, LMS, LNER & SR) and nationalised British Rail(ways) to the privatisation era – been a curate’s egg: good in parts. Privatisation hasn’t changed that, it’s merely shifted things around a little.

      As a lifelong railwayman I have seen it from BR through various ‘privatised’ operators, and I have no rose-tinted glasses for any era. The level of service offered to the passengers has always varied from woeful to excellent depending on what element of service you are looking at, where in the country you are and at times depending on the competence or interest of the managers and staff involved.

      Just as anyone who has travelled in France or Germany knows that the level of service offered can vary from excellent to awful, so the same was and is true in the UK. Remember that the media and politicians – and, yes, academics too – have their own angles and will cherry-pick data and reports to support their position.

  4. Anonymous

    If you don’t set high prices, all tickets sell out immediately, so you can’t book a ticket. If you set high prices, the prices are too high, so you can’t afford to buy a ticket. What’s the difference?

    Competition comes with other problems too. Take the Stockholm-Gothenburg route for example. There are three companies, SJ, MTR and Flixtrain, but they will only show their own trains, so you have to look at there different websites and possibly book the outbound on one website and the return on a different website. There are alternative websites selling both SJ and MTR for a premium, but nothing showing all three companies. If there are disruptions, you are stuck with the original company, but if the disruption is very long, you may find the right to rebook yourself in the EU regulation useful.

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