Jon Worth, political consultant: “The big rail companies don’t want a European rail network”

Excerpts from an interview:

You want to bring night trains back onto Europe’s tracks. How likely are you to succeed in something that the European railway companies are failing at?

The major national rail operators have no interest in solving the problem. Deutsche Bahn could order a new night train fleet tomorrow, but they don’t want to. The reason is that, for Deutsche Bahn, national lines are more profitable than international connections. This is also true for other railway companies like SNCF, Trenitalia or Renfe. In contrast, small companies are trying to find new solutions for long-distance transport. But providers like Regiojet in the Czech Republic, European Sleeper in the Netherlands or Snälltåget in Sweden have hardly any financial means to order a night train fleet. That’s where I want to help.

What are you going to do?

The demand for night trains is immense. But even the second-hand market for sleeping and couchette cars is almost completely sold out. At the moment, wagons from the early 80s are being offered at enormous prices, and they only run slowly. With my campaign, “Trains for Europe”, I aim to solve this problem. I am trying to work out strategies on how the EU could eliminate the night train bottleneck. Roughly speaking, I see two possibilities for this: The EU buys trains itself and leases them to the companies or the EU creates a financial framework so that leasing companies can buy trains. 

If you compare the night train network of the 70s with today, it becomes clear how many connections have been cancelled. How did this happen?

This can be explained particularly well with an example — the route between Paris and Barcelona. For a long time, the almost 1,000 kilometres between the two cities were too long for a normal long-distance train, so an overnight train was used. But then the Spanish and French governments decided to build a new high-speed line on which French TGV high-speed trains can run all the way to Barcelona. In the meantime, a high-speed train runs between the two cities instead of the night train. But it will never achieve a particularly high market share. The route is simply too long and the tickets too expensive. Part of the reason is that the high-speed train operator, SNCF, wants the line between Paris and Barcelona to be hugely profitable in order to subsidise other national routes. If there was a train at night and during the day, rail’s market share would be higher on this route, but SNCF would make less money because the cost of running night trains would be higher. In other words, SNCF discontinued the service for business reasons alone.

Why doesn’t any other company offer a night train service?

Companies like Flixtrain from Germany or Regiojet from the Czech Republic do not have the necessary trains. The locomotive that can run on lines across most of Europe – the Siemens Vectron – is not approved for France. And there’s another problem: The companies would have to pay enormously high fees to run their trains into French stations. In Paris, night train journeys usually end at Austerlitz station. A stop there costs the operator €920 euros, while a stop at Berlin’s main station costs €50. Any operator other than SNCF cannot afford this economically. 

SNCF also has to pay these high fees.

It does, but it can spread these costs between all the trains it runs to all Paris terminals. It does not make sense when allocating capacity that the stations that are already almost full – Gare du Nord or Gare de Lyon – are the cheapest ones for an operator to access.

Deutsche Bahn also cited a lack of profitability as the reason for its exit from the night train business. Can’t money be made with sleeping and couchette cars?

The general conditions were different when Deutsche Bahn discontinued its night train service in 2016. At that time, the fees that a rail company had to pay to use the infrastructure in Belgium and France were very high. In recent years, track prices have fallen. The Austrian Federal Railway, ÖBB, shows that a night train service can also function economically. The reason for this is that ÖBB’s night train service is better and more reliable than that of Deutsche Bahn‘s. I used to travel with DB night trains for a while and it was terrible. Today, Deutsche Bahn could easily run its own service. But I understand why it doesn’t. Because a night train service would somewhat reduce the profit that Deutsche Bahn makes on long distance services during the day.

Should the night train business be based on profit or the common good? 

I am not sure a state or the EU ought to – right now anyway – stipulate which night train routes make sense. It is better to set up a framework in which night trains can run profitably, and operators work out which routes make sense for passengers. Once that has happened, if there are some further routes that are considered somehow of extra social use then we should consider a public service subsidy model for those.

The situation is similar in Germany for regional transport, which is co-financed by the state. Deutsche Bahn is caught between two models.

We have the worst of both worlds in Germany and also in France. It is not possible to run a railway company with maximum efficiency and profitability and at the same time serve the people. 

Deutsche Bahn and SNCF are also said to be colluding to avoid competition.

There is a non-aggression pact between the major European railway groups. This includes SNCF and Deutsche Bahn. For example, SNCF owns several TGV trains that could easily be used on the route between Frankfurt am Main and Berlin. But this is exactly what the French railway group does not do, because it wants to avoid Deutsche Bahn offering ICE trains on routes within France. 

But elsewhere, there has already been a battle between rail companies. There are only two rail links between France and Italy. One of them is operated by SNCF and connects Paris and Milan. The route was a disaster — the journey time was too long and the connections miserable. The Italian authorities never issued the French TGV train with approval for the Italian high-speed line. Moreover, the French train was not allowed to stop at Milan’s main station, instead it had to call at the smaller Porta Garibaldi station. In return, the Italians ordered trains that could also run in France. It took the French authorities years to approve the trains. But it worked out. So the Italian rail company started offering trains from Italy to Paris. The French were not going to put up with that. They decided to enter the national Italian market. They wanted revenge.

Now a new concept, the Transeuropexpress 2.0, is supposed to do the trick. The German Council Presidency presented it last year. Is such a network of European connections the solution?

No. The German government’s plans make neither operational nor economic sense. Roughly speaking, the two, four and six rule applies to trains. If a train’s travel time is two hours, it competes with cars. If the train’s travel time is four hours, it competes with cars and planes. If the journey time is six hours or more, hardly any travellers still use the train. The fact that German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer is now proposing to run trains from Paris to Warsaw with the Transeuropexpress 2.0 is bullshit. And for another reason, too. If such a TEE train arrives an hour late in the morning between Paris and Brussels, waiting passengers will have to wait in Poznan even though they only want to go to Warsaw. 

The solution would be a dense network in which individual connections are coordinated with each other. This is now being introduced in Germany. The “Deutschlandtakt” leads to long rail connections being cancelled. In the future, no train will run through from Berlin to Stuttgart. Passengers will then have to change trains in Mannheim. If that doesn’t work out, however, the next train will already leave half an hour later.

The German government’s TEE plan is the opposite. It makes no sense.