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New study: Solo travelers could save up to 20% on the cost of night train tickets in Europe

A 0% VAT rate and reduced track access charges for night trains could help Europeans save on travel costs, whilst also cutting back on emissions. 

A solo traveler on a return trip from Amsterdam to Madrid could save up to €65 on their night train tickets, or 20% of the departing price. New modeling by environmental groups Transport & Environment (T&E) and Back on Track Europe has looked at possible reductions in night train fares and shows that two easy fixes to VAT and track access charges – the toll paid by rail operators to use the rail infrastructure – can have a significant impact on ticket prices. 

The study also looks at price reduction for families of four. For the routes Berlin to Naples or Brussels to Vienna, a family of four could save up to €167 and €139 respectively. On these two return routes, the emissions savings of taking a train over a plane would be 3 tonnes and 1.8 tonnes of CO2e for the whole family. Overall, the study examined seven cross border lines in Europe and showed that small changes to how night trains are taxed could lower ticket prices by 15% on average, for business, solo travelers and families.

Victor Thévenet, rail coordinator at T&E says: “Night trains are making a comeback, but so are their hefty price tags. The EU is promoting a golden age of night trains with supporting a postcard-perfect Amsterdam-Brussels-Barcelona sleeper, but is inactive to budge on reducing the cost. All the while the aviation sector continues to receive generous government subsidies. The EU has the tools at hand to make night train tickets more affordable to citizens.”

As more companies seek to reduce their corporate travel emissions, more affordable rail travel for business travelers will also be crucial. On the route Brussels to Stockholm, a business traveler would save up to €160, or 19% of the departing price, the study shows. 

Since 2020, several new night train connections have launched in Europe, partly responding to the growing urgency to shift to low-carbon transport modes. Rail travel has on average a 28 times less climate impact than air travel. But high cost is often putting off consumers. A poll conducted by Europe on Rail in 2021 shows that 70% of citizens are willing to choose a night train if the offer was “reasonable”. 

The cost structure of night trains is disadvantageous compared to budget airlines as it strongly depends on the distance traveled.  On long distances, trains must bear a heavy cost for using the rail infrastructure. For aviation, the bulk of costs lie in take off and landing, giving trains the advantage on shorter distances. 

To reverse this trend, night trains should benefit from a fairer taxation and reduced track access charges. As the EU plans to publish guidelines on rail travel costs by the end of the year, the study recommends that night trains in Europe benefit from 0% VAT rate and a reduction of track access charges. This is already the case in France, where night trains are defined as a market segment that due to its low profitability should be exempted from part of track access charges. 

To support the development of night trains, Member States could also totally exempt cross-border night trains from track access charges, T&E recommends. This is the case in Belgium where the federal government reimburses track access and energy charges for international rail operators. Developing night trains also helps maximize existing rail infrastructure use, which is usually closed or underutilized at night time, T&E says. 

Juri Maier, from Back on Track Germany, concludes: “The EU must take the lead in making night trains the most attractive option for citizens wanting to cross the continent. Two small taxation tweaks could have a major impact on the attractivity of rail travel in Europe. It’s a win-win for the climate and for citizens’ wallets.”