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Time is ripe for new night train connections

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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Back then, we faced negative propaganda with the characterisation of night trains as »outdated«, their passengers as purely »nostalgic«, whereas airline and high speed train use was labelled as »modern«.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RRE: What are the main reasons why night trains were being withdrawn?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.

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