WHEN people think of grand train journeys, night trains invariably come to mind. Think travelling across Russia on the Trans-Siberian railway, or of Agatha Christie’s murder-mystery Murder on the Orient Express. But only a few years ago, it appeared that the golden days of night trains in Europe were over.
The introduction and growth of high-speed rail across Europe, coupled with low-cost short-haul flights and the liberalisation of the low-cost long-distance bus market, very nearly put an end to European night train services.
However, a major shift in awareness of the environmental effects of how we travel has led to a turn-around in the fortunes of night trains.
After gradually shrinking its offer, German Rail (DB) decided in December 2015 to cease operating its network of night train services. This had a major effect on Austria in particular as the central European country’s mountainous terrain means it is difficult to construct high-speed lines, making it more reliant on overnight trains to cover long distances. The country also only has a few major population centres outside of the capital Vienna, meaning there are fewer large airports to attract the low-cost flights connecting other European cities.
DB’s announcement left Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) with a decision: either operate a reduced network without the connections to DB’s services, or embrace a new market. It chose the latter, and in December 2016 took over six overnight rail services under its Nightjet brand on top of the nine routes it already operated:
- Hamburg - Berlin - Freiburg - Basle – Zurich
- Innsbruck - Munich – Hamburg
- Innsbruck - Munich - Düsseldorf
- Munich - Salzburg - Villach – Venice
- Munich - Salzburg - Villach - Florence - Rome, and
- Munich - Salzburg - Villach - Verona - Milan.
DB supported ÖBB by providing connections via its IC and ICE trains.
DB wasn’t alone in reducing its night train presence, with other national operators across Europe taking similar steps. Out of the eight routes operated by French National Railways (SNCF) in 2015, only the Paris - Briançon and Paris - Rodez/Toulouse - La Tour-de-Carol services remain.
Spain similarly halted its overnight routes linking Barcelona with Zürich and Milan in December 2012 and Barcelona and Madrid with Paris a year later.
Before removing them completely, DB pre-empted the demise of the night train by reducing the level of service provided for passengers. This included replacing traditional night trains with standard ICEs, which only offered regular seats that couldn’t be lowered into a sleeping position.
A report produced by Steer for the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism (TRAN) in 2017, titled “Passenger night trains in Europe: the end of the line?,” found that “neither the European Commission nor many of the member states see preservation of night trains as a specific objective.” However, the report says that “on balance, while night train services have declined, they still contribute to the mobility needs of European citizens.”
The gaps left by the reduction of offers by state-owned operators presented an opportunity for smaller private operators to step in and provide their own, more limited night train services.
Among them was Transdev subsidiary Swedish private operator Snälltåget, which introduced a night train from Gothenburg via Stockholm to the Åre ski resort in 2007. “It’s our core business in some way,” says Snälltåget head of sales and marketing, Mr Marco Andersson.
Snälltåget launched an international Malmö - Berlin overnight train in 2012 in partnership with GVG after GVG announced it was withdrawing its Berlin Night Express service along the same route, operating via the Trelleborg - Sassnitz train ferry.
Like most night trains, the route was not overly profitable, Andersson says, and Snälltåget reconsidered the service after each season. “I think it was in some ways for historical or sentimental reasons that we kept going,” he says. “It became more or less a part of our brand that we operate the night trains, including the international night trains.”
The fortunes of night trains began to change around 2018 with the rise of the climate discussion and “flygskam,” a Swedish term for “flight shame.” This was led in part by the young Swedish environmental activist, Ms Greta Thunberg, who has campaigned for strong action on climate change. “We should say thank you very much to her because the demand for night trains and for the international night trains especially has been growing rapidly,” Andersson says.
Snälltåget announced plans in December 2019 to increase the frequency of the service from thrice weekly to daily in summer 2020 after seeing a sharp increase in demand. However, the service was instead suspended in June 2020 due to the introduction of Covid-19 restrictions in Germany, followed by the permanent suspension of the ferry service.
With the ferry route over the Baltic Sea no longer available, Snälltåg instead turned its focus to a route via Denmark, which it had already been investigating prior to the pandemic. It announced in June 2020 that it would be launching a new Stockholm - Malmö - Copenhagen - Hamburg - Berlin service.
Around the same time, the operator announced plans to introduce a seasonal Stockholm - Malmö - Zell am See night train between Sweden and the Austrian Alps, travelling via the Danish towns of Høje-Taastrup, Odense and Kolding for six weeks between February and March.
The German subsidiary of Railroad Development Corporation (RDC), United States, also announced the launch of a night train between northern Germany, Bavaria and Austria in June 2020. The service from Westerland/Sylt via Hamburg, Frankfurt/Main and Munich to Salzburg launched a month later, running twice a week until September.
Last month RDC Germany announced it was postponing the introduction of its summer 2021 service until July 15, due to coronavirus restrictions in Germany. The 2021 service is more complex than the Westerland - Salzburg service offered in 2020, with the train splitting south of Gemünden (Main) to also serve Konstanz on Lake Constance with intermediate stops between Frankfurt and Radolfzell.
Czech private operator RegioJet announced at the beginning of June 2020 that it planned to launch a summer overnight service between the Czech Republic and Rijeka on the Croatian coast on three nights a week from June 30 2020. The service proved so popular that RegioJet later announced it would increase the frequency to daily.
The agreement between ÖBB, SNCF, DB and SBB is an important step towards a European network. We need strong partners to work together and offer our customers the best service across Europe.Mr Andreas Matthä, ÖBB chairman
Following on from this success, RegioJet announced in February plans to reintroduce the overnight trains to Croatia this summer with a new timetable. The first train will depart from Prague on May 28 with added connections to Zagreb and Split.
The success of these operators, and the short timeframes under which they were able to launch, has given other private operators the impetus to also plan ambitious services.
On April 6, two separate private companies announced plans to introduce new night train services radiating from Brussels.
European Sleeper, a new company based in the Netherlands, announced it will introduce a night train from Brussels via Antwerp, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Berlin and Dresden to Prague in April 2022. The company, launched by entrepreneurs, Mr Chris Engelsman and Mr Elmer van Buuren, has partnered with RegioJet for its inaugural service, with the Czech operator set to provide the majority of the rolling stock. RegioJet will haul the service in Germany and the Czech Republic, while Belgian National Railways (SNCB) will haul the train in Belgium. An operator is yet to be selected for the Dutch portion of the route.
European Sleeper is already seeking to introduce additional trains to and from Belgium and the Netherlands, and plans to launch its second service by December 2022. The company eventually plans to invest in its own rolling stock and become an operator itself.
Also on April 6, Belgian company Moonlight Express announced plans to start a night train between Brussels, Liège and Berlin in April 2022, with a journey time of between 12 and 13 hours. The service is being launched by Belgian entrepreneurs, Mr Louis Lammertyn and Mr Louis De Jaeger, who say they want to “bring back the magic in responsible and pleasant travelling.”
The pair founded Moonlight Express a year ago, with a goal of creating “magical travel experiences with the night train.” Moonlight Express will be a service integrator, and will have its own staff onboard the train, while the company is in discussions with multiple partners to operate the services, De Jaeger says.
While explaining to IRJ how the company plans to expand its offer in future, De Jaeger cited RegioJet’s launch of the Czech Republic - Croatia service as an example of what is possible. De Jaeger, who is an agricultural consultant, and Lammertyn, who is a transport and renewable energy consultant, say they felt the existing modes of transport were not in line with their ecological commitment.
“The train offers a great alternative for people who want to travel with a clear conscience and above all it should not be boring,” De Jaeger says. “Instead of competing purely on speed or price for transport from A to B, we focus on affordable and quality travel time.”
People are also looking for viable alternatives to driving and flying when going on holiday or travelling long distances, van Buuren says, and there is only so far that you can comfortably travel by car in a day. “The train is then the only means of transport that you can enjoy travelling in,” he says. “That awareness is now getting to people. That is the exact moment to step into the market and implement our strategy.”
This was echoed by Andersson, who says families travelling together are becoming one of the most important target groups for night trains. “We can see that trend for the hiking trains and the ski trains, that it’s families taking the train, whereas they may have taken the plane or the car before,” he says. Once people had experienced the night train, they were also more likely to use it again in future, he adds.
This trend is evident in a study undertaken by Swedish infrastructure manager Trafikverket into night trains to the European continent. A survey launched as part of the study found clear interest among the general public in the night train concept from Sweden to Europe, with 21% saying they found the concept very attractive, while 41% said they found it quite attractive.
National operators and governments are recognising this trend, and reintroducing services following their hiatus.
In December 2020, ÖBB, DB, SNCF and Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) announced the signing of an agreement to launch new night train services in Europe, the first step in developing the Trans-Europe Express (TEE) 2.0 network proposed by the German presidency of the Council of the European Union.
“The agreement between ÖBB, SNCF, DB and SBB is an important step towards a European network,” says ÖBB chairman, Mr Andreas Matthä. “We need strong partners to work together and offer our customers the best service across Europe.”
The expanded partnership will launch four new services (see panel), which will connect 13 of Europe’s largest cities in the coming years.
New services to be introduced under TEE agreement
THE recreation of a Trans Europe Express (TEE) network by ÖBB, DB, SBB and SNCF promises a return to the night train networks of the past.
Four new routes connecting 13 European cities will be introduced under the agreement signed by the heads of the four railways in December:
- December 2021: Vienna - Munich - Paris and Zürich - Cologne – Amsterdam
- December 2023: Vienna/Berlin - Brussels/Paris
- December 2024: Zürich - Barcelona
The Zürich - Amsterdam and Zürich - Barcelona services were announced by ÖBB and SBB in September prior to the signing of the agreement, along with a Zürich - Rome service which ÖBB says will also start in December 2024.
The railways have strong political support for their plans, with Germany’s minister of transport, Mr Andreas Scheuer, Austria’s minister for climate action, Ms Leonore Gewessler, France’s minister delegate for transport, Mr Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, and the director of the Swiss Federal Office of Transport, Mr Peter Füglistaler, all voicing support for the initiative.
In February, Djebbari announced plans to restore the Paris - Nice overnight train service, which also serves Marseille and Toulon, on April 16. The service is running six days a week between Monday and Saturday, from Paris Austerlitz, via Marseille Blancarde, Toulon, Les Arcs Draguignan, Saint Raphaël Valescure, Cannes and Antibes, to Nice Ville.
Two more overnight services are planned to launch by the end of this year: Paris - Tarbes and Paris - Vienna, Austria. In an interview with the Paris Dimanche newspaper, Djebbari said his ambition was to see around 10 overnight services running on four main corridors by 2030: Bordeaux - Marseille, Dijon - Marseille, Tours - Lyon via Île-de-France and Paris - Toulouse.
The development of night trains has support from the European Union. The Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, published by the European Commission in December 2020, calls for a major shift in passengers to rail, including night trains.
Following on from the 2017 study, the European Commission has commissioned Steer to study the future of long-distance rail services, including cross-border high-speed and night trains. This will be followed by the publication of an action plan later this year, which will build on efforts to make key connections between cities faster through better-managed capacity, coordinated timetabling, pools for rolling stock and targeted infrastructure improvements to boost new train services including at night.
Behind this expansion is an ambitious goal to double the number of passengers on ÖBB Nightjet services by 2025, but this is not something that will be achieved by simply launching new trains. ÖBB is looking to provide a step-change in service quality with the introduction of a new fleet of Nightjet trains ordered from Siemens under a €1.5bn framework agreement signed in 2018. ÖBB initially ordered 13 night trains, before placing a second order for 20 trains in August 2020.
The seven-car trains offer 100 seats and 160 berths, and are fully equipped to accommodate passengers with limited mobility. The first coaches will enter service at the end of 2022 on routes from Austria to Germany and Italy. Each set consists of two seating coaches, three couchette coaches, and two sleeping cars.
A stand-out feature of the new fleet is the innovative mini-suites, which can be closed off similar to pod hotels seen in Japan to offer passengers a private compartment at a similar price to a couchette. Two adjacent capsules can also be connected to provide a private space for two passengers travelling together.
ÖBB has introduced the new features after identifying that the lack of privacy is one of the main perceived disadvantages of a night train journey, with passengers now less likely to be comfortable sharing a compartment with a group of strangers for a night than they might have been 10 years ago.
This is what drives the counterintuitive trend through which the more expensive, but more private, compartments usually sell out first on most trains. Passengers such as business travellers also recognise that travelling by night train eliminates the cost of a night in a hotel while still allowing them to make an early morning meeting, depending on the timetable.
With passengers expecting more when booking a couchette, operators are looking to improve on the traditional couchette to accommodate them. Snälltåget has begun using the same linen that it supplies for its sleeping compartments in its couchette coaches, and also purchased 600 new mattresses for a fleet of second hand former DB couchette coaches purchased in 2019.
“Of course, it won’t be the same as a sleeping car, but it’s somewhere between the traditional couchette coach and a sleeping car,” Andersson says. “It’s finding a solution between what people want and what they really want to pay for.”
This has become somewhat easier in recent years. “I would say for the last two or three years, the sensitivity of prices is not that high anymore,” Andersson adds. “People are prepared to pay at least as much as a plane ticket for a night train journey.”
There still appears to be a market for low-cost travel, however, with RegioJet setting a price of €22 for a one-way ticket in a seating coach, and €30 in a couchette coach for its overnight services from the Czech Republic to Croatia. All tickets include reservations, breakfast, and Wi-Fi. Additionally, a full four-person couchette compartment is available for the price of three couchette tickets.
The high cost of operating a night train service and the resulting paper-thin margins played a major factor in their decline. “You won’t get rich running night trains,” is a common refrain.
There are a number of factors that contribute to the higher costs related to operating a night train, including the requirement for specially built rolling stock which generally cannot be used for other day passenger services.
“The main problem is that you can’t use the coaches as much as you want - you can only use them once a day,” Andersson says. “And you can only use a compartment once during the journey, you can’t change the passengers because otherwise you would need some cleaning staff onboard.”
Bed linen must be washed and changed after each trip. Additional staff are needed throughout the night to assist passengers, and they need facilities to rest in during the journey and during the day before the return journey. Passengers usually expect some kind of breakfast in the morning, which must be prepared onboard or beforehand.
Services can also experience different levels of demand depending on the time of year, or during events and holidays. This can result in trains quickly selling out at some times of the year, and running nearly empty at other times. In order to manage this, operators are increasingly introducing “yield management” variable pricing structures, similar to those used by airlines, to set the prices of a compartment or couchette depending on demand.
A process optimised by ÖBB to reduce operating costs consists of “X” shaped networks. The service begins at two locations, such as Vienna and Innsbruck, and meets in the middle, at Nuremburg, before splitting to run to Hamburg and Amsterdam. This allows ÖBB to offer two destinations with each train, rather than operating a dedicated service to each location.
Other barriers that were present prior to the reduction in services in the mid-2010s remain.
A lack of suitable rolling stock is often quoted as one of the main reasons for the decline and limited uptake of cross-border night train services. ÖBB has been the most significant investor in purchasing new night trains, although smaller orders have been placed by operators for some new stock and the renovation of older sleeping cars.
For example, Snälltåget will use second hand DB coaches to operate its Stockholm - Malmö - Copenhagen - Hamburg - Berlin service. They are replacing the 30-year-old legacy rolling stock used to operate the service via the train ferry, which was designed for the Swedish loading gauge. That fleet was too wide for the European network, with special dispensation required to allow it to operate to Berlin, making it unsuitable for the route via Denmark.
Purchasing cross-border tickets for more than one operator has also been identified by the EC as an issue that requires investigation in the upcoming Steer report. Anecdotal evidence suggests the situation is worsening, and is a real threat to rail being able to compete with other modes. In particular, passengers wanting to travel in a sustainable manner are unable to find information on the different cross-border services or the train tickets they would like to buy, even for connections which seem straightforward.
“We think the best night trains can be set up by start-ups and new entrants.”Mr Elmer van Buuren of European Sleeper
Securing appropriate train paths is also difficult, especially when operating cross-border. International passenger trains are in general not prioritised by infrastructure managers during the capacity allocation process, which can lead to suboptimal timetables for cross-border passenger services, resulting in a less attractive offer. Overnight services can also be forced to compete with freight trains and infrastructure maintenance, a particular problem in France.
“The various capacity allocation regulations in different countries make it difficult for an international night train,” van Buuren says. “Each country gives its own interpretation and priorities to capacity allocation on its own network, and getting an attractive and commercially acceptable night train timetable is not easy.”
The sale of food and drink onboard is also more complicated when travelling cross-border. For example, VAT on a coffee sold while the train is in Sweden is 12%, but this rises to 25% once the train travels into Denmark, before dropping to 19% when the train reaches Germany. On top of this, the sale of alcohol also requires different permissions depending on which country the train is passing through.
The rise in the number of operators offering sleeper services is part of a wider debate in Europe on the role of and competition between incumbent national operators and private newcomers, who together are competing against other modes such as air and road.
Even pre-Covid-19, it was hard to find a precise figure on how many passengers were using night trains around Europe. The Passenger Night Trains in Europe report was unable to include a total number, but found that Italy’s Trenitalia Intercity Notte night train network was carrying around 2 million passengers per year at the time, while ÖBB’s Nightjet was planning to increase passenger numbers to a similar level.
The announcement of two private services connecting Brussels and Berlin in the same month, for example, raises the question of whether the market is big enough yet to support both, especially with ÖBB extending its Nightjet to the Belgian capital in January 2020, and connecting Brussels with Berlin in December 2023.
“We believe that the market is big enough to connect Belgium and Berlin with two night trains,” De Jaeger says. “The market is growing and more people want an alternative travel mode, so we believe it is possible. There are a lot of caveats, and it’s not like starting a bus company, it’s much more complicated than that. But we have this feeling that it’s the perfect timing to do this.”
In rail, where the possibility of connecting individual trains into a wider network is a major benefit, national operators such as ÖBB, DB and SNCF appear to have a major advantage over private operators looking to run a single service between two destinations. But the private operators entering the market are looking to turn this disadvantage on its head.
“We think the best night trains can be set up by start-ups and new entrants,” van Buuren says. “State railways can do a lot, but they have to divide their attention over the different forms of passenger rail transport. In contrast, we focus exclusively on the night trains niche. We think that’s an advantage.”
Adding extra night trains can also result in resistance from operators already running services. The Swedish government approved plans to launch overnight services on the Malmö - Brussels and Stockholm - Hamburg routes in July 2020, instructing national transport administrator Trafikverket to procure the services by August 1 2022. While the Malmö - Brussels service could help grow the night train market from Sweden to mainland Europe, the Stockholm - Hamburg service will run in direct competition with Snälltåget’s train.
“We will try to stop them from finalising this because we don’t think it’s a fair competition,” Andersson says. He adds that if the EU and national governments are interested in supporting and developing all types of cross-border services, there needs to be better cooperation around the regulations in different countries. In order to complete the paperwork and file for the correct permissions to operate the service, Snälltåget has had to hire consultants and spend around 200 hours discussing the application.
Other ways to support the introduction of night trains is a reduction in track-access fees and the removal of VAT on rail tickets, which is not currently paid on plane fares across Europe. When competing with air, a major consideration is the timing of the service around the available flights between destinations.
“Our preference is routes [with a journey time] of 12 to a maximum of 15 hours,” van Buuren says. “To be attractive as a night train, it must depart later than the last plane would go and arrive earlier than the passenger would take the first flight. We want to deploy our trains on the basis of these principles. We do think that for the leisure market the tolerance for travel times and arrival times is bigger than the business market.”
A return to the golden era of night trains in Europe is not going to be easy. But if operators are able to fully develop attractive services to meet the growing demands from passengers, while overcoming the major challenges they face, it could mark the start of a major new era in the post-pandemic world, and offer a major boon for the rail sector. Climate change will not be solved overnight, but moving from plane to train is widely understood to play an important role in reducing transport emissions, and night trains could contribute to this change.
Quintus Vosman contributed to this report.