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The ecological tide favours the revival of the night train in Europe. Condemned to disappear by high speed and ‘low cost’ planes, rail transport at night is once again fashionable in Europe. Its advantage: it pollutes very little.

By ENRIC BONET, translated article from Spanish, published in Público.

Photo: Alex Halada / APF

It’s half past nine at night, the eve of an August holiday. Dozens of people gather in one of the corners of the Gare de Austerlitz. Once the arrival point in Paris of trains coming from Spain, this emblematic station is half deserted. Its travellers kill time waiting to take a means of transport often considered a fossil of modernity: the night train. With their final destination in Latour-de-Carol, a few kilometres from the Catalan Pyrenees, they will travel for eight, nine or ten hours. But they will do so in their sleep. A type of trip increasingly appreciated in France. Condemned to disappear for years, the night train is reborn in Europe.

“When I travel with the night train, I lose less time because I can leave work later. It’s also cheaper and pollutes less,” explains Claire Gsegner, 38, a civil servant who travels at night “at least three times a month” between Paris and Toulouse, where her partner lives. Why doesn’t she do it by plane? Or on a high-speed line? “The TGV (the equivalent of the AVE in France) is too expensive and I would never use the plane because it is very polluting,” she says.

An increasingly popular type of journey in France

“Two years ago I stopped travelling by plane for all those journeys within France and in neighbouring countries,” says Nicolas Bidenne, 24, who works on the rehabilitation of buildings. Also a user of the night train to Latour-de-Carol, this young man says that his concern about climate change “has had a big influence” on his decision to stop flying. In addition, he uses the night train because this line is the only one that directly connects Paris with the city of his parents, Rodez, a southern town of 23,000 inhabitants, which exemplifies the abandonment of medium-sized cities in favor of large metropolises, favored by the railway model of high speed.

Promoted by the association Oui au train de nuit! (Yes to the night train!), an Internet petition has already obtained more than 150,000 signatures in favour of reviving night trains in France. “They make it possible to connect a greater number of stations and sustain a stronger social bond by not abandoning the cities of the provinces,” defends Esteban B., 46, a Spaniard living in Paris who participates in this movement made up of users and environmental activists. According to these night train enthusiasts, “with these lines you can travel 1,000 kilometers in an hour, that is, the 30 minutes you need to fall asleep and the same amount of time to wake up.”

A very ecological means of transport

The main argument in favour of this transport is, however, its low level of carbon dioxide emissions. One kilometre traveled by plane is 45 times more CO2 particles than by train and the bus is 23 times more polluting than the railway line, according to the French Agency for Environment and Energy Control. An ecological advantage that did not prevent governments from abandoning night trains for decades in favour of low-cost planes.

The French government announced in 2016 the abolition of all night railway lines. Only two exceptions would remain: the Paris-Briançon to go to the Alps and the Paris-Latour-de-Carol in the Pyrenees. While in the 1970s night train passengers accounted for 16% of the total in France, this figure had fallen to 3% by 2016. The recurring argument of economic profitability had served to dismantle most lines. The mystique of the Orient Express or the Trans-Siberian seemed like a black-and-white film thing.

In Spain there are only the night lines from Madrid to Galicia and Lisbon, as well as Barcelona-Galicia. “There has been an evident willingness on the part of governments to abandon this type of transport”, laments Esteban B., who is a member of the Oui au train de nuit! collective with the hope that they will re-establish the night connection between Paris and Barcelona, which was abolished in 2013. For example, in France, reservations for night train tickets are available later than for day trains: “You can only buy them a month in advance”.

Germany was following the same path as its neighbours and at the beginning [wrong; at the end] of 2016 closed its night lines, having accumulated a deficit of EUR 31 million. A petition from 29,000 users calling for intervention by the German government would be kept in a drawer. “It was a pure commercial decision. Deutsche Bahn had decided to abandon this service”, recalls Andreas Schröder, European delegate of Pro Bahn, a German association for the defence of train users.

Austrian success

In October of the same year, however, the Austrian company ÖBB bought about fifty coaches and resumed service of the most profitable night lines in Germany. They modernized the interior of these trains and gave them a new name: “Nightjet”. Since then, everything has been going smoothly for this small company. It has 26 national and international night lines connecting Zurich to Hamburg, Vienna to Rome or Venice to Munich. 1.4 million passengers use the “Nightjet” every year.

The Austrian company ÖBB has 26 national and international night lines.

Although night trains represent a small niche market for this Austrian company, this segment is the fastest growing. “This year we expect a 10% growth in the number of passengers on night trips, while the rest will be 2% or 3%,” Bernhard Rieder, spokesman for ÖBB, told Público. This group has already ordered 13 new trains, which will start operating in 2022. Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and perhaps also Paris, could be some of its new destinations. “We’re studying it,” he admits.

“Other private companies are also betting on recovering new lines. For example, the German company Flixtrain wants to reintroduce the night train between Paris and Nice”, explains Poul Kattler, European spokesman for the Back on track collective, a supporter of night trains. More in the north, in Scotland, the company Caledonian Sleeper, subsidized by the Scottish government, has invested 170 million euros in these lines. In Eastern Europe, the night train is more than successful in the Czech Republic. There the operator Regiojet experienced a growth of 12% of passengers in 2018 and expect to exceed this year the five million passengers on the line that connects Prague with the Carpathian Mountains. And the Serbian company Srbija Voz recently decided to modernize its coaches.

Stop subsidizing air transport

After decades of neglect, governments are once again interested in these trains. The Swedish administration has unblocked 170 million to boost them. It also intends to promote an international network with other Scandinavian countries. In Switzerland, after the success of its Austrian neighbour, the executive also examines how to relaunch this transport, which had disappeared from this country fifteen years ago. The Swiss authorities are even “discussing the possibility of recovering a nocturnal route that connects this country with Barcelona,” explains Kattler. In France, the National Assembly is debating a new law on mobility that will incorporate an article that advocates “developing the supply of night trains because of the interest in responding to needs and reducing ecological impact. “

The Greta Thunberg generation is betting more and more on the night train”, says Rieder, who presumes that the Swedish teenager travelled in an ÖBB cabin when she travelled to the Davos summit in January. This media activist has contributed to the popularisation of the »flygskam«. That is to say, the shame of travelling by plane, a feeling increasingly present in Sweden where one in five inhabitants say they prefer to use the train instead of the plane because it pollutes less, according to a report published in March by the WWF.

Despite being one of the most polluting modes of transport, the air transport sector receives a great deal of support from the public authorities, especially with the tax exemption for kerosene. “The mean of transport that pollutes the most is the one that receives the most subsidies. It makes no sense,” says Esteban B.. “But if new taxes were introduced in air transport, this could help the railway sector,” says Kattler.

According to the spokesman for Back on track, this would reduce the price differences between train tickets and low-cost aircraft and would make night trains less expensive, one of their burdens.

The airline industry receives strong support from public authorities

“The plane is an enemy of the climate, which is excessively subsidized,” said in statements to the French magazine Politis Mathilde Panot, a member of “La France Insumise” (left-wing populists). Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party presented in June a bill in the French parliament to propose banning all air travel within France that can be made by train. Although this initiative has little chance of being approved, it opens the way to a new transport model, marked by the decrease in air transport. This would leave the night train free path to move forward.

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