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Why we did not co-sign the “Urgent Demand for a European Night Train Strategy”

On 12 november an open letter on the topic of night trains was published, addressed to Commission President Von der Leyen, Executive Vice-President Šefčovič and Commissioner Valean and signed by the mobility ministers Georges Gilkinet (Belgium), Leonore Gewessler (Austria) and Francois Bausch (Luxembourg). Moreover, MEP Karima Delli (France), chair of the TRAN Committee, together with other MEPs from four different political groups and some other major players in the European political landscape signed the letter. Back-on-Track decided not to co-sign despite it raising some very good points. 

We particularly welcome the fact that the open letter confirms the night trains’ possible role to lower carbon emissions by providing a comfortable alternative to flying on destinations of up to 1,500 kilometres, and possibly even more. We fully agree in emphasising the importance of solving the problem of ticketing by implementing the possibility for hopping on the next available train (HOTNAT) in case of missed connection regardless of the operator, and by exchanging data. 

However, the letter concludes with the words: “With these measures, we can reintroduce night trains in our Union.” We find this statement unfortunate as it gives the impression that the measures mentioned above are somewhat sufficient. Regrettably, this is not the case.

Following our recent research on the impact of measures such as a reduction of track access charges and VAT, we have found that this could indeed significantly contribute to lower prices by an average 15% for existing night trains and even more on longer routes. A common European rolling stock pool could also help reduce operational costs (although to a much lesser extent than reducing track access charges). But we could also see that all these cost reductions taken together – even when temporarily reducing track access charges to zero – would not be sufficient to match air transport on price.

It would probably be enough to make commercial night trains significantly more attractive when linking destinations in densely populated high-income regions (the so-called “blue banana” region, stretching from Belgium via the Ruhr and Rhine to northern Italy), perhaps also connecting these areas to a few tourist destinations. 

However, this is not what we would understand by “reintroducing night trains” (as a ubiquitous mode of transport), nor is the “blue banana” our entire Union. As far as we know, in order to “reintroduce night trains in our Union”, one would either have to make air travel significantly more expensive or recognise that night trains cannot run without public funding. The Amsterdam-Vienna route must be financed with public funds, the celebrated return of the Paris-Berlin night train was only possible with subsidies from the French government, and the planned Zurich-Barcelona route can only be resumed once the Swiss Federal Council decides to finance night trains. All of these trains connect densely populated areas with high-income regions where enough people can afford to pay significantly more to travel by night train in order to promote sustainable transport. Operators of these lines could possibly manage without subsidies if all these measures were implemented. But these trains will not take all EU citizens from Lisbon to Tallinn.

You only need to look at our night train map to understand that subsidies for cross-border night trains are rare for good reason. The current EU regulation on railway subsidies (whether they are granted directly or through public service obligations) lacks clarity in regulating cross-border subsidies and in defining responsibility for meeting these needs at EU level.

Without a regulation of cross-border public service obligations, other well-intentioned measures such as track upgrades could even lead to a decline in night train services in countries where they are currently subsidised as an alternative to slow day trains. 

For this reason, we discussed the matter and concluded that we should not sign. The promise made could not be kept. We would like to invite all signatories to discuss these issues with us.

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