Night trains get a green connection
Four countries want EU help to build out Europe's night train network.
BERLIN — Four big European rail companies are giving night trains a boost, helped by growing climate worries tied to the carbon footprint of short-haul flights.
The deal agreed by Germany, Austria, France and Switzerland on Tuesday will see Austria’s ÖBB, with help from Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, France’s SNCF and Switzerland’s SBB, launch a connection between Vienna and Paris from the end of next year, then link up Berlin with Paris and Brussels in 2023. Connections to Barcelona and Rome out of Zurich are also planned, said ÖBB CEO Andreas Matthä.
It’s something of a change of heart from Germany on night trains.
Just a few years ago, Europe’s biggest economy had given up on sleeper trains, handing its network to ÖBB citing falling demand. But the push to clean up transport is changing Berlin’s calculation.
“The aim is to be able to travel in a better way by train across Europe,” Germany’s Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer said.
Not so long ago, Europe’s network was being dismantled as national railways looked to pare costs. Even this year, state railway DB said it was happy to operate seated night services rather than reverse its call to end sleepers. Efforts by a group of European Parliament lawmakers based in Berlin to set up a night train to the EU capital to coincide with Germany’s EU presidency fell flat.
But the EU’s Green Deal, and ÖBB’s public relations success in running its Nightjet-branded network, changed the equation and prompted Scheuer in September to roll out a plan for a revised Trans-Europe Express network.
Deutsche Bahn CEO Richard Lutz told POLITICO that it was “a huge economic challenge” to run night trains up until around 2015. “But in recent years, we’ve seen an increase in demand, particularly from young people,” he said.
While night trains won’t immediately put much of a dent in cheap flights — Ryanair alone flew 152 million people last year — ÖBB’s Matthä said the target is to more than double passenger numbers to 3 million across 26 Nightjet routes later this decade.
Other countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden are also subsidizing new night train connections, while private operators like RegioJet and Snälltåget are running their own non-subsidized routes through Central Europe and between Sweden and Germany.
The rail companies also want EU cash and new policies to switch traffic from polluting flights.
“Night trains can only survive if we have the right framework measures,” said Matthä. That means reduced track access charges for overnight sleepers, he said, and efforts to make sure railways don’t face unfair competition from airlines.
The European Commission’s Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, out on Wednesday, aims to make it EU policy to shift traffic from flights to trains for distances under 1,000 kilometers, roughly the distance between Berlin and Paris.
“For us, more night trains are an important piece of the puzzle,” Austria’s Climate Minister Leonore Gewessler said.
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email email@example.com to request a complimentary trial.