DB will withdraw Basle/Amsterdam/Prague – Copenhagen and Hamburg/Berlin/Munich – Paris services in December, citing low revenues, lacklustre growth, and high overheads, with losses running into millions of Euros.
This exemplifies the broader challenge facing Europe's remaining overnight services, which are burdened with high fixed costs, requiring dedicated rolling stock and traincrew. In an environment dominated by fixed-formation multiple-unit operation, sleeper trains often need dedicated fleets of locomotives, which have few other uses to the operator, frequently resulting in poor utilisation of costly assets.
In many countries the average age of overnight rolling stock is also considerably higher than the conventional fleet, and renewal or major refurbishment will be a consideration for vehicle owners in the next few years. Night train operations need to be financially sustainable if a business case is to be made for such investments.
European policy on railways and liberalisation of the industry hasn't helped either. Thirty years ago national railways co-operated to run overnight services and they were able to cross-subsidise operations from more profitable parts of the business where necessary. Today with strict rules governing the separation of accounting between business activities cross-subsidy is supposedly a thing of the past and long-distance services either have to be profitable, or financed by governments through public service obligation contracts. If neither applies, the service is at risk.
Vertical separation means dealing with a different infrastructure manager in each country, and naturally domestic priorities come first. Overnight services are particularly vulnerable to engineering possessions, so cooperation between infrastructure managers is vital to ensure appropriate arrangements are made for re-routing trains. Last December open-access operator Thello withdrew its Paris – Rome service, which was launched in 2011 because it was unable to secure train paths on 85 days in 2014. This was partly due to the closure of the St Maurice tunnel in Switzerland for maintenance, but Thello also blamed "poor and insufficient cooperation" between Swiss, Italian and French infrastructure managers for the decision. Similarly the Barcelona – Zurich/Milan service was scrapped due to problems pathing the trains through France during periods of engineering works.
Furthermore, the former national railways increasingly view each other as competitors, a situation which is intensifying with the liberalisation of cross-border passenger services and the opening of domestic long-distance markets. These operators feel they can manage cross-border operations without the complex joint ventures and reciprocal working arrangements that sustained international operations in the past.
In this shifting landscape, overnight services seem to have been largely forgotten. It seems ironic that while the European Commission (EC) ploughs billions of euros into developing cross-border rail infrastructure, international links are being quietly curtailed because there is no common vision for their continued operation. This flies in the face of EU policy on modal shift and carbon reduction, effectively forcing rail passengers onto short-haul flights.
National governments and the EC need to decide what they want the future European night train network to look like and consider how they might work together to support it. A charter specifying minimum service standards for infrastructure managers, or a forum bringing together infrastructure managers, operators, and other stakeholders to seek solutions to common problems may help to achieve this. This has already been done successfully in the railfreight sector through international partnerships such as the Rhine-Alpine Corridor initiative.
For their part, operators need to be more aggressive in marketing services which offer distinct advantages over flying. Apart from the environmental advantages, many travellers appreciate being able to get on a train in the city centre and wake up in another city centre the next morning. Night trains have huge potential to tap into Europe's $US 500bn tourist industry, and offering value-added services such as premium cabins, promotions, and easy booking could help to boost load factors and make these operations more viable.
Ten years ago IRJ initiated a successful campaign to save Night Riviera services between London and southwest England. At the time the Department for Transport had no understanding of the cost structure of the service it was attempting to curtail, or the economic implications of withdrawal. Since then operator First Great Western has stepped up marketing of the service, load factors have improved and the train has been lengthened to cope with demand. Public funds were recently committed towards major refurbishment of the rolling stock.
Transformation is also coming to the Caledonian Sleeper, which links London with Edinburgh, Glasgow and northern Scotland. Under the new dedicated franchise, £100m will be invested in a new fleet of coaches, bringing en-suite berths, pod flatbeds, and a brasserie-style Club Car. There will also be a new website which will offer a broader range of fares, allow earlier booking, and enable passengers to manage their journeys online.
The slow death of overnight trains in Europe isn't inevitable, but it is a possibility unless a common vision can be found for their future and operators take a more pragmatic approach to filling every berth.