DUTCH company European Sleeper plans to introduce an overnight train from Brussels to Prague via Antwerp, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Berlin and Dresden in April 2022 with a second night train to and from Belgium and the Netherlands earmarked for December 2022.

Moonlight Express, a Belgian company, also confirmed its plans to launch a night train between Brussels, Liège and Berlin in April 2022.

European Sleeper is partnering with Czech private operator RegioJet for its services and both it and Moonlight Express cite RegioJet’s success with its Prague - Rijeka, Croatia, train last summer as an example of what is possible. They both say it is the right time to enter the market.

“We have this feeling that it’s the perfect time to do this,” says Moonlight Express co-founder, Mr Louis de Jaeger.

As my colleague David Burroughs reveals in his detailed update on the current state of the European night train market, European Sleeper and Moonlight Express are not alone in their optimism.

With some of Europe’s largest state-owned railways working on plans to revive the Trans European Express (TEE) network, initially with four new overnight sleeper connections that will link 13 cities, the French government calling for the revival of eight overnight trains, Rail Development Corporation Germany running trains between northern Germany and the Alps, and Swedish operators SJ and Snälltaget set to introduce new services, there is real momentum.

There is growing pressure from the EU for night trains to play a key role in a future sustainable and carbon-neutral transport network.

Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) is the most important player. It hasn’t looked back since inheriting German Rail’s (DB) overnight network in 2015, now operating 19 of its own Nightjet services and eight in partnership with other operators, including six with Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), which it plans to increase to 10.

ÖBB also placed a €1.5bn framework order for 700 new sleeper coaches from Siemens in 2018. The first of 13 seven-car trains will enter service in 2022 and they are set to transform its offer.

However, ÖBB didn’t give too much away when asked about its targets for future passenger numbers and what percentage of the late night, early morning aviation market it thinks Nightjet could eventually account for. “At the moment night trains remain a niche for climate friendly travelling,” an ÖBB spokesman said.

There is though growing pressure from the European Union (EU) for night trains to play a key role in a future sustainable and carbon-neutral transport network.

The European Commission’s (EC) Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, announced in December, has set some ambitious targets for modal shift, many of which were discussed during a launch event for the European Year of Rail on March 29.

While no specific target for night travel has been issued just yet, boosting overnight rail travel is widely considered important to achieve this objective. In addition, moves by France and Germany to restrict domestic air travel in favour of rail also hints at a greater emphasis on overnight trains by member states.

The EC’s strategy states that an action plan to boost long-distance and cross-border passenger rail services, including night trains, is planned and this is now expected in the autumn. The EC says 15 pilot demonstrator routes for future cross-border connections are planned, which will potentially offer insight into how the lopsided cost of operating these services in competition with cheap airlines could be addressed. It should also look at how private operators can compete effectively with incumbents on subsidised routes.
Of course, all of this comes in the context of recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

While many people, including myself, are desperate to travel again, rail operators have some work to do to convince passengers that it is safe to travel.

As I found in my assessment of the current state of the British market, the car has been presented as a form of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the crisis and operators are mindful that we are heading towards a car-led recovery.

Britain’s upcoming reforms to national passenger operation is an opportunity for a reset in a market potentially changed forever. New ticketing models and the potential expansion of open-access where operators compete directly on profitable routes will increase the attractiveness of rail and boost ridership. With new freedoms to innovate, operators can revise their offers at will, as Renfe is doing in Spain.

It is no coincidence that this is happening as Renfe prepares to face competition in the Spanish market for the first time, beginning this month with the launch of the low-cost Ouigo service. ÖBB, European Sleeper and Moonlight Express are also set to go head-to-head on Brussels night trains, increasing capacity and choice while potentially reducing fares, which for ÖBB’s trains are relatively high compared with a flight even if a night’s hotel stay is taken into account.

While we might talk up green choices, most passengers will continue to make selections based on cost. Crucially, most prospective night train passengers want the ability to access a private berth, and if the EC is able to level the playing field, this type of service could become affordable to a lot more people.

The rewards for railways and the environment of this outcome are potentially great. Rather than using a night train once a year for a holiday, they could become the mode of choice for business travellers and others who regularly criss-cross the continent, an exciting prospect for all involved.