All posts by Poul


We are pleased to notice that the Belgium Minister of Transport, Mr Gilkinet, has listened to Back-on-Track, Belgium laments and is taking the problem of subsidies to night trains seriously, after 20 years of phasing out international rail traffic.

We are aware that the announced budget is limited, only two million euros a year, that is less than €5,500 a day, seems very little to us. But is a point of departure.

We are looking forward to direct outcomes of this positive political statement that is very relevant, in spite of the failure to establish a night train from Malmö (Sweden) via Denmark to Cologne and Brussels.

According to the political comments to the failure the non-existing room for a Belgium PSO was a part of the problem.

>> Further reading (Back-on-Track, Flemish language)

>> Press reading (German language)

Time is ripe for new night train connections

Interview with Back-on-Track co-founder Joachim Holstein, first published in Rail Report Europe.

RRE: Why did you start campaigning to keep night trains?

Railway companies in various countries had been neglecting night trains, reducing their service to day trains which meant a fallback to 18th and 19th century travelling (when you had to stop for the night and stay in a hotel), and in many cases pushing their passengers to take a plane for long distance trips.

There was resistance by travellers, by environmental organisations and by some politicians – and, very important, by railway staff members.
Back then, we faced negative propaganda with the characterisation of night trains as »outdated«, their passengers as purely »nostalgic«, whereas airline and high speed train use was labelled as »modern«. We said – and keep saying – that night trains are a necessary element of a 24/7 railway transport system, especially when it comes to long distance and cross border connections. Night trains can cover distances of over 1,500 kms, even 2,000 kms without changing trains, and without losing a whole day.

RRE: What are the main reasons why night trains were being withdrawn?

The main reasons were political and economic pressure in favour of the airline industry and car/bus traffic, plus the hotel business. On one hand huge subsidies for airports, tax exemptions for air fuel, toll free bus traffic on German motorways, to name just a few.

Then you have the infrastructure business: huge profits for the tunnel boring industry and for construction companies who were interested in building tunnels, bridges, dams – no matter if the new tracks would be used by ten trains per hour or by five trains per day, like the tunnel between France and Spain. Politicians were eager to feed these companies with public money, but they were not eager to order new rolling stock or pay the staff who would work on night trains.

RRE: What are the key measures that must be taken to make night trains attractive and viable?

They must be easy to use, they must be visible, and they must be reliable. Let me explain this.

Until a few years or decades ago, you simply bought a ticket from A to B, and a supplement for a bed or a couchette. You could to this even at small railway stations with ticket offices! Now, the railway website tells you »no connection available« even if a night train exists, or you cannot book it as easily as a day train or a flight. Some trains have special prices which are not compatible with normal tickets. What we need are simple booking procedures, and this starts with clear visibility of night trains. German railway DB, for example, was infamous for literally hiding their night trains from their customers. When it comes to reliability, French SNCF had been a nightmare during many years because they simply cancelled some night trains for some days – and there was no alternative. Now, they are doing a relaunch, and performing better. But even with top quality companies, like Austrian ÖBB or Swiss SBB, there can be a situation when the night train does not show up due to technical reasons. With day trains, this is not a major problem – the next train will start in 30, 60 or maybe 120 minutes. But when the only night train between A and B cannot run, you have a huge problem – if you don’t have a backup solution with spare coaches available at major hubs. This is a common responsibility.

Night trains must offer a broad range of accommodation. Some travellers need single compartments with private shower, some need family or group compartments, and there should be something like a dining car, a bistro or a bar. You need space for handicapped passengers and for bicycles. Not to forget the motorail trains – there is a demand for loading your own car on a long distance train, and railway companies should see the owners of electric cars as an important group of clients: get their batteries charged during the train trip would mean that motorail trains would be kind of 1,500 km range extenders …

And one more thing: it should be emphasised that a private cabin (sleeper, family compartment of couchette, or these new single couchette pods of ÖBB night trains) is the safest space for a travel in the times of Covid-19, compared to day trains, aeroplanes or buses.

RRE: What has persuaded some of the state operators (such as OeBB and SNCF) to expand their night train network?

ÖBB did not have to be persuaded because they already were – they knew their figures! They made more than 15 per cent of their long distance earnings with night trains. And some of these trains ran in cooperation with DB: the trains from Vienna to Rome, Milan and Venice were connected to the trains from Munich to these Italien destinations. They needed the Munich parts of these trains to continue, so they took these former DB routes. And they were smart enough to buy all 42 modern sleeper cars of the 173 series, to modernise their own fleet and to run important services through Germany, like Zurich-Berlin/Hamburg and Innsbruck-Munich-Hamburg/Düsseldorf.

Their success, and the changes with the growing climate awareness of travellers, convinced them to order a three-digit figure of new night train cars. ÖBB were already on the way, and they are making this way broader and longer.

SNCF on the other hand, has made a double turnaround. Several years ago, they reduced their night train network and got rid of their sleeping cars. Night trains had a poor prestige at SNCF headquarters, although some of these trains were the only connection to Paris, or the only long distance trains in some regions – take the Pyrenees, or the Massif Central. What we now see, is a second turnaround: the renaissance of night train lines, and putting them high on the priority list.

One can say that their high speed network is finished, and now it is time to (re)develop connections where there are no high speed trains, there is a special policy feature where trains are handled as instruments to develop provincial regions. Then you have favourable political conditions: France does not have, like Germany, a transport ministry acting like a PR agency of the car industry, but their transport ministry is a department within the »Ministry of the Ecological Transition«. And a very important role can be attibruted to our allies of »Oui au train de nuit« (»Yes to the night train«) who have been campaigning very successfully on the national, regional and local levels.

RRE: What do think about about the new open access operators – such as Regiojet?

They play an important role by developing new connections and giving space to new ideas which might have been rejected by the »big players« of the state railways. They offer flexibility and serve markets that have been and still are neglected by some other companies.

And they prove that you can make money by running night trains – something which has been denied by others.

RRE: What about the further night trains being planned (for example, The European Sleeper?

The European Sleeper is a very interesting and promising project. The withdrawal of some state operators has left several holes gaping in Western and Central Europe. The Netherlands and Belgium have been without night trains for several years. The time is ripe for new connections that follow some traditional connections, like Amsterdam or Brussels to Berlin – and heading on to Dresden and Prague. They come with fresh ideas, they attract new customers – let us not forget that in some regions, minors and young adults haven’t known night trains as a common way of travelling in their lifetime! And they are one of the companies that have an open access operator – in their case: Regiojet – as a partner. Here you see something that might develop into an extended »pool of rolling stock and staff« for private companies: this reduces the risk for new companies as the do not have to buy rolling stock, but they cooperate and can develop their business.

RRE: What do you see as the priority measures and services to be introduced in the next five years?

One measure should be a decision on European level – at least the EU/Switzerland level – to buy common rolling stock with approval to run on the tracks of many countries, and to lease this rolling stock to interested operators. We had this with the UIC car pool several decades ago. This would save capital stock and operating costs for the operators.
Another priority measure would be an easy booking system: one platform, accessible from all other platforms, for night train and other international train bookings. The customer should only have to buy one ticket, even for a trip through six countries in four trains.

And with this easy ticketing, the passenger rights issue would have to be addressed so that a lost connection would not longer be an economic disaster for the traveller, but every operator should be obliged to take care of these customers, no matter who or what has caused the problem.

Talking about priorities for new services, some are on their way already: Scandinavia southbound with Stockholm-Berlin and Malmö-Brussels, and the return of some connections from Paris and from Switzerland. On some of these connections, today there is no reasonable train offer at all, take Switzerland-Barcelona for example.

Thus, connections like Berlin-Paris and Zurich-Rome are to be introduced in the next five years, but the focus should also be directed on the Iberian peninsula. Going to Spain or Portugal by train is a challenge, and the railway share of the cross border model split is ridiculous. Barcelona could be reached (again) by night trains from Milan, Zurich, Frankfurt, Paris, Brussels or even London; Madrid could be a destination at least from Paris, Lyon or Marseille; and then there should be a night train to Lisbon, of course.

Towards a Harmonized European Rail Pass

European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) conducted a good webinar on 16.9. Many issues of ticketing, barcodes, on-line data and so on came up. But contributions were not very clear about what was really so slow and reluctant in the rail society, that the goal could be a harmonized system so late as 2030.

Josef Doppelbauer, Executive Director of ERA hit the nail at the end of the meeting by saying: The ticketing is a very important issue for the users of the railways, for the attractiveness for the railways. Attractiveness is always related to simplicity. It should be about a multi-modal ticket, including the last mile (urban).

How far can voluntary cooperation go, and how far do we need regulation? Unfortunately in rail we are still very fragmented. To be honest with you, I am very disappointed that the panel today has more or less accepted the 10 years of scope. Since the green pass for Covid could be done in a few months, why the hell do we need 10 years to agree on a common format of ticketing. It simply takes too long to implement the most simple things. The things should be done much earlier than 2030.

>> See the webinar

Important issues and relevant suggestions

The European network to promote long-distance day- and night trains “Back-on-Track” met Thursday afternoon 2.9. to digest the presentation 1.9. All in all we are pleased with the process, and happy about the interactive approach during the presentation and feel confident that the many good comments during the presentation were also taken into account. In general we think the presentation handles the most important issues and gives relevant suggestions. See the slides from the Steer presentation.

Although, we took the opportunity to produce another couple of comments to the Steer/kcw presentation, and have send them to Steer/kcw like this:

Remarks to specific slides and recommendations

Slide: Potential for new cross-border rail services

We don’t think that 1,000 km is the right threshold for night trains, already now night trains operate to 1.500 km and with the use of HSL, night trains can go further, probably to 3,000 km in the future. Passengers will anyway want to travel longer in many cases, it is more accepted to use a direct train, instead of changing trains. We would also like to widen up the definition of night trains to include very long distance trains also equipped with sleeping facilities for the involved night-over section(s).

Slide: Potential night train routes based on airline seats

The comparison is good, but there is a risk that the number of lines (limited to space) is giving a wrong picture of the ambitions to replace a very large percentage of aviation in Europe by night trains (and day trains). We lost 200 connections. We fear the ambitions may be too low. In our opinion railways could remove 70% of the intra EU flights, of which a large percentage shall be replaced by night trains.

Slide: Operating costs drivers of rail, air and long-distance coaches

The slide is not very convincing and is giving a misleading and caricature picture of the cost structure. Just as an example with night trains the market will include the cost of a hotel room, which is spared during the travel. The slide does not contribute to the credibility of the report.

The mix of short term and long time measures is in our opinion good.

IC1: Passenger trains pay 5 times more track access charges than freight trains in Belgium, and 850 times more than passenger trains in Slovenia!

IC4: The present system of vertical separation with paid Track Access Charges is made to discourage rather than encourage maximum use of infrastructure assets (meaning the railway network), and the biggest victims are the trains with the lowest profit margins and the highest kilometers and those are the night trains. Infrastructure owners don’t care that tracks are left empty at night because they make loads of money with frequent, subsidised local trains and some high end high speed trains.

CA4: A corridor policy to give certain priorities to long-distance day- and night trains inspired from the rail freight sector is a very good idea.

Such a corridor policy for international trains should also include investments in classic railway lines (main lines). Both to serve as lines to some long-distance night trains, but also to provide feeder lines to the long-distance trains in general. That will furthermore provide better access to remote places in Europe.

RS2: Public funded leasing pool might put all risks to the public sector and leave no risk to the private sector. 

RS4: “Consider” is not a strong term, we wish it should be stronger.

PS1: The problems occuring during the establishment of a PSO on the Malmö-Brussels line is highlighting the problems with PSO’s.

We will argue for a sort of network under PSO regulation, so all capitals and the major cities in Europe are linked with both day- and night trains. An “United Railways of Europe” could work as the organisational structure to handle (not necessarily to run) such a network. The EU should carefully consider a geographical balance.

OP1: Regarding the phrase “level playing field” usually only economic/fiscal figures are included. We will argue for a comparison where real climate impact is included, which will favour very-low emission transport as trains much more than flying.

New OP2: The European policies of the last 15 years are not touched. We would recommend that the policies should be evaluated as soon as possible, since at least the figures of passengers and freight tonnage are not positive. Hereby the policy can hardly be expressed as a good success!

Conference: Study on long-distance cross-border passenger rail services

Under the European Green Deal, the European Commission has committed to making Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Later this year, the Commission will present an action plan to
boost long-distance and cross-border passenger rail services.

The Commission asked Steer, supported by KCW, to undertake a study on enabling the growth of long-distance cross-borderpassenger rail services including night trains.

Steer and KCW have engaged with numerous stakeholders (among others Back-on-Track) in creating a study to identify the obstacles which constrain the further development of these services whilst also proposing potential measures to remove them.

The purpose of this conference is to present the emerging results of that study, sharing the obstacles faced by long-distance crossborder passenger rail services and discussing potential measures and solutions to enable their future implementation.

Attendees of the conference should expect a series of short
presentations by the Steer and KCW study team with interactive
break-out discussion sessions followed by Q&A.

We valued your input to the study and are looking forward to
welcoming you to our conference, that will take place on-line on 1.9. 14.00 – 18.00 CEST.

>> See the Back-on-Track comments to the presentation

>> Pick up the brochure, STEER distributed 4.8. 2021

Save the night train Paris-Milan-Venice

Open letter to the French and Italian governments and to the EU

to save the night train Paris-Milan-Venice

letter sent to:
Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, French transport minister
Jean Castex, French Prime Minister
Enrico Giovannini, Italian minister of sustainable
infrastructure and mobility
Mario Draghi, Italian Prime Minister
Adina Vălean, European Transport Commissionner

Thello railway company has announced that its Paris-Milan-Venice night train, already suspended since spring 2020 due to the pandemic, will not resume service. While the French government communicates on the revival of night trains,we regret the lack of support for this essential connection and we call on the French and Italian governments and the European Union to act.
On May 20th, 2021, French Prime Minister Jean Castex inaugurated the returnof the Paris-Nice night train, vowing “that this reopening will lead to many others”.
One month later, Thello (a subsidiary of the Italian national railway company Trenitalia) announced the definitive end of its Paris-Milan-Venice night train. This line, which represented a real link between France and Italy, made it possible to travel without taking a plane and without spending entire days on the train (a Paris-Venice trip by day train takes more than 10 hours).

This night train was insufficiently supported by France. It suffered from a lack of visibility: since the end of joint management by SNCF and Trenitalia, it was no longer displayed on SNCF sales channels, which complicated the purchase of tickets and limited the possibilities of connections. At the ticket desk, no information was given about the existence of this train. The passenger was even told at the departure from Paris “there is no more train tonight, you have to wait until tomorrow”… while the night train was waiting on the platform. The traffic was very affected by the maintenance works, which are not coordinated between the French, Swiss and Italian networks, which often delayed the opening of sales.

Border controls were causing important delays
because they were carried out during a long stop in the middle of the night, instead of at the start or while driving, as on the high-speed trains.
And yet, this train was very popular both with families and groups who could travel in couchette compartments at affordable prices (starting at €29 per person), and with business travelers and wealthier tourists who could enjoy private cabins with showers. Far from being a niche market, this night train carried up to 300,000passen gers per year, with an occupancy rate over 85%.

At a time of climate emergency, and as the European Union has declared 2021 “European Year of Rail”, we cannot let this night train disappear in indifference, thus sending passengers back to the plane, which is the most polluting of all means of transportation. The mobilization of the French and Italian governments and the European Union is expected to restore this essential line as soon as possible. Thenatio nal company Trenitalia has announced that it will take over some of the daytime connections abandoned by Thello, and there is no reason the same could not be done for the night train, for example in cooperation between SNCF and Trenitalia. Action by the public authorities is also necessary to support the development of other routes from France, and not only from Paris.
Note that Paris-Milan-Venice is one of the corridors studied by the to develop night trains by 2030. The government’s report on the subject, published in May 2021, even envisages its doubling in two trains to optimize service to Milan and Turin.
The French start-up “Midnight Trains” has also announced a potential night train between Paris and Italy or Spain. However, this train would be a high-end one.
Moreover, it would not cover all needs, and it would not arrive before 2024, whereas the Paris-Venice night train, whose carriages are already available and offer levels of comfort accessible to all, could be put back on tracks right away.

Signed by:

  • French activist group « Oui au train de nuit » (Yes to the night train)
  • ASSOUTENTI-UTP, Italian national association of users of public services
  • European network « Back-on-Track »
  • Association « Back-on-Track Belgium »
  • Association « European Rail Campaign (UK) »

Press contact or to co-sign this letter:
+33 6 68 75 26 37

EU shall organise the procurement of a new fleet of night trains

The blogger Jon Worth has initiated a campaign, which Back-on-Track support.

This campaign is about how to scale up the provision of night trains in Europe.

The problem that we have identified is that the lack of available rolling stock – the trains themselves – is the main issue standing in the way of scaling up night trains, and we want to solve that problem. We want to propose practical and workable solutions. The case for more night trains is a strong one. In the future there are other problems to solve with railways in Europe, but night trains need a solution right now. There is also currently no viable alternative to the EU stepping in.

>> Go to the campaign site

RAILTECH Magazine: Night train comeback

Night trains are making a comeback in Europe, so what is a better time to publish a special magazine about this topic? The RailTech magazine on Night trains in Europe is now freely available.

Plans for a Trans Europ Express 2.0, further expansions of RegioJet and Snälltåget and the founding of several new night train start-ups show there is no doubt about a revival of sleeper trains. However, there are also still many obstacles in the way of a real open European market where night trains are a good alternative to flights for destinations all over Europe.

This RailTech magazine dives into what led to the revival of night trains and the challenges of an open-access operator as voiced by head of Snälltåget Carl Adam Holmberg. Read an interview with co-founder of start-up European Sleeper, about the plans of two Belgian entrepreneurs for a new night train and European Passengers’ Federation board member Arriën Kruyt’s case for lower track access charges for night trains.

>> Have a look at the whole magazine

The TEE 2.0 – great idea, implementation unknown

Since the first presentation in September 2020, there is a lot of talk about the “TEE 2.0” – a promised remake of the legendary “Trans Europ Express” train network. German transport minister Andreas Scheuer is trying to attach his name to the idea of a new European network of fast trains. But what can we really expect? The plan sounds great on the first glimpse: 31 new international high speed train lines connecting pretty much all European metropolises from Malaga to Stockholm, complemented with 12 new night train lines fulfilling the same purpose for overnight travel.

>> The concept can be found here

Illustration of night train lines from the concept report

And the trains are supposed to be perfectly integrated into the national timetables, building the backbone of a European synchronized timetable (“Europatakt”). That would indeed be a big step forward for European rail travel, which is right now just a shadow of what it used to be some decades ago – making flying across Europe the preferred way of travelling for most people nowadays. And it is long overdue that something is done about this situation in times of climate crisis and flight shame. The proposed network would be a good starting point for a new European rail network, which should on the long run be complemented with many more day and night trains in order to really interconnect Europe.

But as good as the concept looks like, the realization is still written in the stars. All that happened so far is the signing of a “letter of intent” by several countries. That is a first step, but it remains unclear, which trains are going to serve the proposed lines (most likely they have to be built first), who is going to run them and how they are going to be financed. Even worse, German railways (Deutsche Bahn), located in the middle of the continent and directly subordinated to minister Scheuer, is not planning to invest into new international trains, especially into night trains, themselves. Instead, they gave up their night train network less than five years ago in spite of huge protests by Back on Track and others, tearing a huge hole into the European network. That means that others – like Austrian railways (ÖBB) will have to run the trains even completely outside of their own country. They are planning to run at least some of the new night trains routes anyway – without the new TEE concept. Actually, “new” is not even the right term here, because routes like Paris – Berlin, Paris – Munich, Amsterdam – Zürich or Brussels – Warsaw were abandoned just a few years ago, often in spite of good booking numbers. In the same way, many of the proposed new day trains are reissues of the “TEE 1.0” trains, that connected Europe in the 1970s.

All that does not make any of the proposed trains wrong, but it sheds another light onto the supposedly revolutionary idea of the “TEE 2.0” network. And it seems that the focus of the proposed network is purely on the prestigious high-speed trains between the capitals while cold-shouldering direct connections between regions and smaller cities, which might be at least as important in order to build up a new European rail network that can serve as an attractive alternative to flying for most Europeans.

The European Union (EU) might be key for a real renaissance of European rail. First of all, they should set up a rolling stock company to provide the required trains – and to make sure that there is a fleet of high-quality trains fulfilling the requirements of long-distance travel. Secondly, the EU should be the platform to further develop a “TEE 2.0” network that really interconnects the whole continent. And the EU could even serve as the body to have the trains operated by the rail companies under public service obligations (PSO) – because many of those trains might not be cash cows at least at the beginning. And the EU should also set the base for a European ticketing system that would make it possible to buy one ticket to go from any place on the continent to any other – for a reasonable price and with full passenger rights in case something goes wrong. That would mean that the EU has to become a lot more active for a rail network than nowadays. But the last decades have clearly shown that it is not enough to set some technical standards, talk of a unified rail market and call a “European year of rail” in order to bring new trains onto the tracks. And what could be a better symbol for climate-friendly European unification than such a train network?

It is great that something is starting to move towards a better European rail network lately and that ideas for “TEE 2.0” and other international trains are discussed more widely. But it seems that there is still quite some work to do for Back on Track and other lobby groups in order to put it into practice.



This week in France, the return of the Paris-Nice night train was celebrated, and even the Prime Minister travelled onboard the 1st train, which attracted an incredible media coverage. He said that the ambition of the French governement was that this reopening should be the first of a long series…

“We are reopening this evening things that we had perhaps a little too quickly sacrificed”, launched Jean Castex (in the picture) while boarding the night train Paris-Nice, which left Thursday evening after more than three years of stop.

“This first night train is a strong symbol, which signifies the rebirth of this mode of transport that some considered obsolete”, launched the CEO of SNCF Jean-Pierre Farandou, before also getting on the train. The night train, “It is also the return of the ‘slow life’, we take our time and we find the taste for travel, it’s like a small cruise”, while “The health crisis has also accelerated climate awareness”, continued Jean-Pierre Farandou. “I wish with you, since this is the choice of the State and the decision of the government, that this necessary reopening calls for many others”, launched the Prime Minister, before settling in his cabin.

Passenger Eric Delasimone, a financial director travelling onboard, said he felt in the night train “a charm that you do not have in the TGV.”

“You settle in and sleep with the noise of the rails; and imagine the journey. It has a side that is poetic and very exotic.”

Travellers Nicolas Forien and Alice Billon, who are part of an association “Oui au train de nuit” (Yes to night trains), said they were delighted to be on the train but hoped in the future that trains would be better equipped.

“We are a little disappointed that the carriages have not been renovated,” said Billon.

>> See more about the event in news reports like this

French night train report finally here

The long-awaited report about the revival of night trains was also eventually published in its official version.

The report is very positive about the opportunities to redevelop night trains in France. Have a look at the four maps on pages 59 to 63, showing the projected network, with many national and international lines !The report says that 600 coaches would be needed, and that this night train network would attract 5,7 Million passengers per year ! It is a very good report, it repeats many of our arguments to defend night trains, and it agrees with most of our suggestions to improve night trains.

However, all this is only a report for the moment, and the investment is not yet decided (around 1.5 billion € would be needed to buy the rolling stock). The follow-up to this report will be debated by the Parliament later, so the battle is not yet won. But the governement seems quite optimistic, and we will push for the conclusions of this report to be implemented, as soon as possible…

>> Have a look at the report