Why Europe abandoned its night trains

Credit: Alexia Barakou

Rail travel is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to get about. It has been described by EU Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean as a “game-changer” because it is “a truly sustainable form of passenger transport”. So, within any European rail policy, is there a role for night trains? The German government certainly thinks so. On a website dedicated to its presidency of the Council of the EU last year, it spoke of a “strong night train network” being “key to sustainable and environmentally friendly mobility”. But anyone planning to travel around Europe by night train today will struggle to find one.

A map from the early 90s shows how extensive the night rail network once was, with routes from Paris to Berlin, Warsaw to Budapest, Amsterdam to Prague, and Paris to Madrid. There were even plans for a ‘Nightstar’, an after-dark sister to the Eurostar that would take passengers through the then newly-opened (1994) channel tunnel from London to Madrid.

But then along came the budget airlines. Suddenly, travellers could fly all over Europe at bargain prices, thanks to a business model that relied on massively subsidised aviation fuel. At the same time — when rail companies separated the running of tracks from infrastructure oversight — a new cost appeared for running trains: track access charges. This hit night trains hard. Rail enthusiast Mark Smith, better known as the ‘Man in Seat 61’ explained to us that “sleeper trains were hit by a track access charge on the debit side of the balance sheet almost overnight and out of nowhere for using tracks that were there anyway — and it has been cited as a factor in certain night trains being discontinued”. 

Services were reduced. The Nightstar was packed up and sold to Canada before its wheels had even touched the track. And so began years of decline. In 2009, even as EU officials were boarding the Climate Express — the forerunner to 2021’s Connecting Europe Express — to attend COP15 in Copenhagen,  plans were underway to further cut back the night train network.  

In December 2012, the Spanish-French company Elipsos discontinued night trains between Barcelona and Zurich, and Barcelona and Milan. A year later, the French-Italian rail company ran a night train between Rome and Paris for the last time. And in 2014, Deutsche Bahn’s (DB) Paris-bound train left Berlin for its final journey. DB discontinued night train services altogether in 2016.CEO of DB, Fernverkehr AG Birgit Bohle justified the decision by citing the “forecast of the profitability of night train services” as “strongly negative”. DB sold its 42 sleeper and 15 couchette cars to Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB), which — with government help — keeps a night train service on the rails.

Three years on, in 2019, amidst growing concern about the impact of short-term flights on the environment, the EU Commission presented the European Green Deal and an action plan to make Europe climate neutral by 2050. An important component of this is the transport sector, which is responsible for a quarter of all the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. “Fewer flights and more trains,” said Vice Commission President Frans Timmermans. Suddenly, night trains were back on the agenda.

When it comes to replacing short-haul flights, the night train has a special role to play. “Most people don’t take a train that takes more than six hours,” says rail expert Jon Worth, who is running the Trains for Europe campaign to bring back the night train. But travellers might be more likely to take the train if they could sleep during the journey and get off refreshed in the morning. There is potential for night trains to help meet EU climate targets; short-haul flights alone are responsible for three per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the EU.

Deutsche Bahn is considering running night trains again, now that ÖBB has shown how it could be done. With the sleeper and couchette cars it bought from DB, it expanded its night train network to 19 connections across Europe, with routes between Budapest and Berlin, Paris and Vienna. How it’s managed to make a success where others have failed is not known as detailed inquiries about its business model go unanswered. If, as is suspected, it is benefiting from a high amount of state support, this would rule it out as a model for countries such as Germany where long-distance railways have to generate independent profits.

But this may well be what it takes. Swede Mikael Thorsén analysed what conditions would be needed for a rapid switch from air to night trains. His study’s conclusion said, “Without economic measures, air traffic will continue to increase massively. Political will and a new regulatory framework are therefore needed.”

When it comes to competing against the airlines, there is much criticism about the lack of a level playing field. This is something that affects all rail services, not just night trains. While rail companies have to pay track access charges, airlines do not have to pay taxes on kerosene. By not paying taxes, air transport is supported to the tune of €27 billion a year, according to an EU study. Christian Wolmar, journalist and transport specialist put this into perspective, referencing a recent flight from the UK to Italy that cost just over €50. “Railways can’t compete with that,” he says. “So they have to compete on the basis that they are a more environmentally sound experience. But there is a lot of pricing that is still insane in terms of creating anything like a level playing field.” 

And for night trains, it’s even tougher as they “have the most difficult economics of any train service”, as Mark Smith tells us. There is also a shortage of suitable rolling stock at affordable prices, which increases the risks for new entrants. “The costs of running a sleeper train are much higher, and revenue potential lower than any other train which makes their economics much more difficult,” explains Smith. 

Rail expert Jon Worth may have a solution. Through his ‘Trains for Europe’ campaign, he is calling for the EU to either buy night trains and lease them to smaller companies, or to create a financial framework that allows leasing companies to buy wagons to then lease on to rail companies. This would allow companies such as Regiojet in the Czech Republic or Snälltåget in Sweden (which lack the financial resources to buy expensive new carriages) to enter the market. “Because these are huge investments,” he explains. “The market is very uncertain. Nobody knows what the market will look like in five years’ time.”

There may be a solution to the lack of rolling stock, but that is not the only obstacle standing in the way of a night train revival. The head of the European Railway Agency (ERA), Josef Doppelbauer, says that there is still no Europe-wide approval for these wagons, which would allow them to be used anywhere in the EU; something that is necessary to allow them to be used flexibly. This also reduces the investment risk for individual rail companies. “If people want to go to the seaside in summer and to the mountains in winter, providers need to be able to shift traffic accordingly,” Doppelbauer says. “For that, they need rolling stock that can be used everywhere.”

At least Europe’s governments have no shortage of plans. Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron announced, “We will redevelop night trains.” Shortly afterward, German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU) unveiled the so-called Transeuropexpress 2.0 — a plan for a small, new European night train network with routes between Berlin and Paris as well as Zurich and Barcelona. 

Elsewhere, action is already being taken. Belgium wants to become a “hub for night trains” by investing millions. Switzerland has started to expand the night train network of the state railway, SBB, with the aim of creating 10 new routes. Last June, Sweden already launched the first of several planned night train services. Sleeping cars are now running again between Stockholm, Copenhagen and Berlin. 

But such connections are the exception, and maybe always will be. As expectations become higher and passengers are no longer happy with a shared toilet and washing facilities along a corridor, the economics get tougher. Christopher Irwin, board member of the European Passengers Federation says, “One’s got to be really quite careful not to fall into the argument that night trains are the answer to a modal shift — they’re not. They’re a lovely thing if you enjoy that sort of thing, but they’re a niche market.”