Analysis of the decline and prospects of European night train traffic

Summary of the master thesis made by Mikael Thorsén.

Lunds universitet, LTH, Institutionen för Teknik och samhälle. Trafik och väg 2018. Thesis 309. Full report in Swedish here.

This report aims to provide a combined picture of the development in the night train sector, to explain the causes for the large withdrawals; analyze which niches/opportunities exist for night trains in the future and identify lessons learned and success factors for a functioning night train system in Europe. The report mainly relies on literature studies, but also on qualitative interviews with a prepared questionnaire. The respondents are employed by different operators, the Swedish Transport Administration and by a consulting company. For the analysis, the sources were processed through reading and compiling the different answers.

Today, night trains are in a strong decline in several parts of the world and very few possibilities remain for long-distance train journeys in western Europe by night. From an environmental perspective, this development is problematic since rail traffic is the environmentally most friendly option for long-distance journeys. Night trains also contribute to increased accessibility. One large change in rail traffic conditions is the step-by-step liberalization of the railway market since the beginning of the 21st century. This implies abolishing old national railway monopolies and introducing a common European regulatory framework.

From the 1990s and onwards, low-cost airlines became cheaper than train traffic. Nowadays, train traffic makes its outcome from the relatively exclusive high-speed services while the cheaper night trains are threatened by airlines. Especially from the early 21st century, many night train services have been discontinued, mostly in Western Europe.

The causes for withdrawals most supported among the references are: Competition with high-speed trains/faster day trains and (low-cost) airlines, high operating costs, policies which disfavor train traffic such as high infrastructure charges and VAT, the need for new rolling stock, difficulties to book tickets, technical incompatibility, lost network effects due to withdrawal of services and changed economical demands and conditions. Then comes, with somewhat less clarity among the references: Juridical barriers in terms of different regulatory frameworks, higher expectations among passengers, political and corporate unwillingness and limited capacity around large cities. Among the other factors which have been identified, overaged rolling stock, seasonal/irregular traffic and quality cuts have the strongest support. Also, unattractive arrival-/ departure times seem to be relatively common.

An example showing the opposite trend regarding night trains is to be found in Austria and its surroundings. The location of Austria, lack of high-speed trains as well as poor air connections, yield Austrian night trains still competitive. OEBB gains synergy effects through their operating strategy, receives state subsidizes and has a relatively secure market position through public service contracts.

Night trains are most important for irregular passengers (tourism, leisure and visits). Business travelers rarely use night trains even though exceptions exist, for example between Stockholm and Malmoe. Some important niches are to offer the possibility to arrive well rested early in the morning at distant destinations and save hotel nights, enable climate friendly journeys, also for persons afraid of flying or those who due to health reasons, are unable to fly. Thus, night trains play a quite small, but important, role today.

Without economical instruments, air traffic will probably continue to increase massively.

Long-distance high-speed night trains seem to be able to become competitive against airlines but require affordable ticket prices, which in turn requires decreased infrastructure charges, a general need in many other places in Europe. In a longer term, private car usage, and later also air travel, will likely decrease in favor of other, more climate friendly modes of transport. The future of night trains thus almost completely depends on which political decisions are made. When it comes to new systems such as maglev, the possibilities for longdistance journeys would likely not be affected negatively as has been the case where highspeed trains also are running since maglev day trains can run as far as conventional night trains. Instead, the limit for the longest possible night train distances would be considerably increased. Similarly, a Hyperloop system would yield similar effects, but on a much larger scale. This kind of infrastructure however, probably still lies some decade away.

Night trains are best suited for distances that can be traversed in one night. With the current infrastructure, this implies distances of 600 – 1500 km. The measures/success factors I’ve found most support for are ’integrated booking service’, ’increased comfort’, ’more modern multiple unit trains/high-speed night trains’ and ’lower price’. Then comes ’yield management’, ’focus on trunk lines’ and ’vehicles that can be used both during daytime and night time’. Least support (or most uncertainty) was shown for ’restaurant wagon’, ’increased service’, ’through wagons for increased areal covering’ and ‘more stops along the way’.

Many of the results are expected. The weak support for coach- and car traffic as causes for the withdrawals was however surprising. One interesting observance, also mentioned in the references, is that we have got accustomed to being able to travel everywhere within Europe in a few hours at a low price. Other observances are the disinterest of continuing operations of night train services that sometimes seems to have been the case, partially because night trains compete with the high-speed trains for partially the same passengers, and the scope of disadvantageous policies and competitive benefits for air traffic.

The method choice has mostly functioned well even if it sometimes was difficult to find reliable literature. The scientific literature about night train services generally seems to be relatively limited. Thus, I often had to rely on party submissions. Through triangulating against the results from the interview the reliability could be enhanced.

The conclusion is that night trains have lost large portions of their market share to, on one hand, low-cost airlines and, on the other hand, to high-speed trains and are disfavored by unfair policies and lacking cooperation between train operators and between national authorities.

Night trains are most important to irregular travelers with a need for early arrival and play an important role for enabling climate-friendly, long-distance journeys, also for those who cannot, or don’t want to fly. Both budget-journeys and increased comfort are possible alternatives for a successful night train traffic, but regardless which one of the alternatives is chosen, disadvantageous policies need to be changed and – in other countries – infrastructure fees be decreased for night trains to increase their market share significantly.