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THE END OF THE LINE – we don’t think so!

Proposals in relation to the TRAN report “Passengers night trains in Europe-the end of the line?”



A group of consultants have made a report about night trains on behalf of the European parliament committee on transport. It is called ”Passengers night trains in Europe – the end of the line.” Already the name indicates that it is a conventional report built on the current trends, which sooner or later will put an end to the night train era.

The study compiles a lot of data about the situation for night trains in Europe today, and even though some facts are wrong, it is an important piece of work. The main problem is that it lacks some of the most important information – and therefore it must be followed up with additional reports particularly about the following issues:

  • The environmental aspect comparing night trains and air travel
  • The cross border and European dimension of train travel
  • The dimension of a growing tourism market in Europe
  • The quality of travel with night trains compared to coaches.
  • The costs of international train travel.
  • The need for better booking opportunities.
  • Proposals for international PSO:s or other means of public support of these connections.

In the coming lines we will go deeper into these issues in relation to the report.

The environmental aspect comparing night trains and air travel

The most striking thing about this report is that it does not make a competent attempt on tackling the issue of climate change. Transport is one of the main contributors to climate change and especially growing air travel is a problem. Today there are no cost-effective solutions to make air traffic sustainable, not even in a 20 years perspective. To make the promises in the Paris agreement come true, European politicians must take measures to make more people take the train and reduce or at halt the increase in air and road traffic.

For long distance travel in Europe, trains are attractive alternatives when you can combine day and night trains. One example: When travelling from Copenhagen to Barcelona you could reach your destination next morning if you combine day and night trains. If you have to stay and sleep in hotels on the way, the travel will take up to 36 hours and be rather unpleasant.

In the report, night trains are mainly compared with day trains and coaches. Of course a night train cannot compete in energy use with a day train with many more seats. But for long distance travel passengers don’t want to sit in buses or wait in hotels. The alternative to the night train is the airplane that pollutes 20-60 times more (depending on stop-overs and how you count the climate impact of the air stream from the air planes).

The trains have to pay taxes that air carriers are exempted from. Airlines do not pay their share of VAT and energy taxes, and added to that they don’t pay their costs for climate. The attempts to integrate air traffic in the EU climate trading scheme has so far not been serious.

This means that airplanes have a subsidy that international trains don’t have and that the market is unfair. It is surprising that the study does not present this fact and does not propose ways to change it. Air travel taxes are discussed in many European countries today.

One way is of course to start taxing air travel with real climate taxes, on national and on EU level. While waiting for this it must be possible to compensate international trains for the unequal competition. The reference to some debate in the German parliament more than 20 years ago! (long before the climate consensus) is not a relevant argument in a report 2017.

The cross border and European dimension of train travel

The study discusses the night trains from a rather national perspective. This is problematic when it is paid for by the European parliament. One conclusion is that many countries can rely on day trains because the country is small enough to reach within a few hours. This is true – but Europe is bigger than each country by itself -and people want to travel all over the continent. Just because Denmark is small it doesn’t mean that the night train connection from Copenhagen to Prague, Basel and Amsterdam is not needed. This connection was closed down November 2014. This has made environmental friendly long distance travel from Norway, Sweden and Denmark to other European countries very difficult. The same goes for many other European connections.

A 12 hour rail journey Copenhagen – Brussels is not attractive to many in the daytime. But could it be made (as before) as 11 hours in the night train, a short change of train in Cologne and one hour high speed train to Brussels, it is much more attractive.

The EU-report does not see night trains as an integrated part of a railway network, but as competitors to day trains. The basic idea behind long distance night trains is, however:

  • Distances more than 700 km.
  • Good connections evening and morning to “feeder railway lines” – the last mile concept.
  • A real chance to sleep undisturbed for 7 or more hours.

Hereby a night train journey will only take one hour of your day: Half an hour to get asleep, half an hour to wake up with your morning coffee.

Night trains have been and can continue to be part of building European cooperation and contacts. Generations of young people got to know Europe by Interrail including night connections. The night train from Cologne via Berlin to Warsaw and Prague that was cancelled last December was a real European east-west connection with an all-European atmosphere. Just to mention an example.

It is strange and disappointing that the international train connections in Europe are in much worse condition than it was at the start of the first EU railway package. Now we have seen four packages and still it is harder than ever to book and travel by train between parts of Europe. The closing down of night trains is one important part of this decline.

In a climate friendly Europe where we have to reduce air travel, night trains are necessary. Without these trains, effective cross-border travel between all parts of Europe -also the remote – is much more difficult. The study is in line with today’s back-to-nationalism trend, something the European Union must do its utmost to overcome. The promotion and support of modern all European night trains would be a good way to combine climate responsibility with the opportunity for Europeans to travel and cooperate all over the continent.

The dimension of a growing tourism market in Europe

One aspect of the report is the negative understanding of who is travelling with night trains. It is highlighted that business travellers don’t use these trains a lot. The study is weak on this point and does not explain the good examples on this field. For example how the night train between Stockholm and Malmö was made commercial by special agreements with cities and businesses.

A study conducted in Sweden on passengers and their alternative travelling options from June-July 2015 is the sole data set used to show all about night train passengers. It is a very weak data set. However, in June 2013 Deutsche Bahn (DB) made a survey in the Copenhagen CNL-train. Without the night train 3/4 said they had to fly, and the remaining 1/4 would find other means or not travel. Numbers from the train tells us an average occupancy of 63%, and almost 100% in the tourist season. Expensive sleeping car accommodation sold better than the cheaper couchette car.

The EU study shortly concludes that night trains are used for leisure and tourism, and seems to consider this as a problem. The airline industry thrives with these new costumers. The truth is that the leisure and tourism industry is one of the fastest growing markets in Europe. Many tourists take the train and there is also a growing interest in train travel.

One recent study in Sweden tells about a growing number of global tourists that take the night train to north Sweden to experience snow, darkness, northern lights and midnight sun. The EU study tells about a decline in Swedish night train travels, but that is because the statistic run only to 2014. In 2015 and 2016 the number of international passengers grew and turned the numbers up, and this is one reason why the Swedish authorities in December 2016 decided to continue with two trains to northern Sweden every night.

The Tourism Association in Sweden reacted strongly when the night connection to Jämtland was reduced. More than 56 000 people signed a petition. This is one reason why the Swedish government recently decided to restart the daily night connections to Jämtland from 2018.

These examples are made possibly because we have access to data from the Swedish authority Trafikverket. Similar studies are necessary from other parts of Europe. Cooperation with the tourism industry is necessary and crucial in the continued work in the European parliament.

The quality of travel with night trains compared to coaches

As we already mentioned the study compares travel between trains and buses (coaches), and concludes that buses can be cheap, efficient and competitive. This is of course true especially when it comes to travels of 2-5 hours. But we don’t think this is a realistic alternative for long distance travel. To sit in a bus for 24 hours or more is not comfortable and will only be an alternative when there are no flights, no night trains or the trains are too expensive.

If a real portion of today’s air passengers shall be convinced to change their travel behavior a 24 hours bus rides is not a realistic approach. Modern night trains in combination with high speed day trains would be a much better alternative.

German Railroads (DB) has tried to run their day trains during night to compensate for the real night trains that stopped last year. This is of course a better alternative than airplanes and buses, but it does not compensate for trains with real beds. Rumors say that not so many passengers choose the night trains with seats only, and a further study should look into this.

One important part of night train travel is the possibility to walk to the restaurant to eat, drink and meet other travellers. This does not mean that every coach needs their own attendant as has been the case in most CNL trains and in other night trains. The study mentions that some night trains needed up to 20 employees, but in reality many night trains in Europe operate very well with only 4-5 employees. Self catering with beds and linen is easy to do. But friendly and service minded staff can make you feel so much welcome. Few included services as WiFi, water, breakfast and functioning toilets and showers are basic facilities in 2017.

The cost of international train travel

One reason that people abandon international trains are the high costs for travelling. Local and even national trains are often subsidized and have special fares (like BahnCard), which makes fares reasonable. But international trains do not have these subsidies and discounts. The price difference sometimes is ridiculous. In May 2017 it is four times more expensive to take the train Stockholm – Berlin than to take the flight. This is based on the cheapest tickets available.

Some reasons for the high costs is shown in the report. For example track access charges that sometimes are higher than the real costs, extra charges when operating in more than one country and charges to reach inner cities in the morning rush hour. The EU must find solutions for these things, some are underway, more can be done.

One important conclusion in the report is that the night train fleet is getting older and that it will be expensive to build new coaches, especially in a deregulated market where operators don’t have guarantees to continue the traffic until the investment costs are paid. One possibility is that the European Union invests in a fleet of modern night coaches that operators can rent during the time they run the traffic.

The need for better booking opportunities

It is today almost impossible to book international train tickets online. This is in sharp contrast to air tickets that can be purchased to any destination in a few minutes. Until recently Deutsche Bahn made it possible to book to many other countries, but after the closing down of the DB night trains this opportunity has eroded drastically.

There are many Europeans who would like to travel environmental friendly – but many don´t get a real opportunity to do so. The first step should be to make it easier to book long distance train tickets. If the European Union cannot build their own system now, there are many private companies that can do it, if only national train companies give them access. EU must put strong pressure on the national states to make this possible.

Important is also the dimension of the passenger’s rights. If one international train is late, it should be easy to connect to a later train in the next country without extra costs. If the whole journey is distorted there must be economic compensation, so that the passenger can change to another train, coach or airplane to reach his destination in time.

Summary of proposals:

We ask the European Union; both the commission and the parliament to investigate and find solutions concerning the following issues:

  • The environmental aspect comparing night trains and air travel and what level of rail traffic would be necessary to fulfill the Paris treaty.
  • The cross border and European dimension of train travel. What can be done to develop a Trans- European train network with day and night connections?
  • The night train possibilities in a growing tourism and leisure market in Europe must be investigated. Interaction with travel agencies and national tourist organisations is needed to develop the potential of growing rail tourism in Europe.
  • The quality of the travel experience with night trains compared with other means of transport must be recognized.
  • Air travel shall be imposed with a fair taxation scheme.
  • Investigate methods to support night trains; for example by EU investments in a modern fleet of night trains cars that operators can rent during their procurement years; and/or international PSO:s for a Trans-European rail network.
  • Improvement of booking opportunities. The EU and the member states must make it easy to book international train tickets.
  • The social, economic and environmental benefits which night trains can bring to a region, especially if it has no, or few, high speed trains.

Authors: Lars Igeland, Poul Kattler,

1 thought on “THE END OF THE LINE – we don’t think so!”

  1. Thank you for this great commentary. Hard to believe these issues, so obvious to anyone who travels on night trains, were ignored by the report.

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