Most rail companies are abandoning overnight routes — but they could be money makers
Key long-distance overnight rail routes connecting Amsterdam, Zürich, Prague and Warsaw with German cities will disappear, killed off by Deutsche Bahn (DB) when the annual European timetable change takes place on December 11.
France’s SNCF is shuttering most of its domestic moonlight hours services this year too, adding to years of closures and downgrades of long-distance services from Europe’s big operators.
But while big rail shuts down night trains, citing high costs, regulatory difficulties and falling popularity, Austria’s national rail company ÖBB sees an opportunity.
ÖBB is poised to keep a set of DB’s overnight north-south axis services through to Germany, Switzerland and Italy on track from December 11, picking up many of the lines marked for elimination.
Rail industry sources point to a key difference between the big beasts of European rail, which don’t see international services as a priority, and other companies willing to fill the niche — a belief that properly run night trains can make money.
Only 5 percent of all rail journeys are international, said Libor Lochman, executive director at rail lobby association CER. And so companies like DB and SNCF instead focus on domestic commuters, regional service provision and national intercity routes, which make up the bigger share of its business.
ÖBB is by its nature a different animal, running a rail network in a landlocked country with plenty of existing international connections to its eight neighbors. Night trains already account for 17 percent of its long-distance passenger service revenue, and the competition is throwing in the towel.
The Austrian gambit
ÖBB’s supervisory board approved a night train expansion earlier this year, and the company promises to put tickets on sale for its new trains in mid-October, once it secures old rolling stock from DB and firms up the timetable.
In addition to running new night trains through Vienna and Innsbruck, ÖBB will likely also take over Berlin- and Hamburg-bound services from Zürich.
“The demand for night trains clearly exists,” said Simon Maarfield, a rail expert based in Berlin. “But framework conditions and service quality both need to be improved to ensure more routes don’t disappear and customers are not lost to other modes.”
ÖBB plans to formally announce its night train plans at an early October press conference in Berlin. But the Austrians still face the same financial challenges faced by other rail operators.
Track access charges are a costly burden.
“If you compare, 100 percent of the railway system is tolled compared to 1 percent of the road network,” said Michael Cramer, a German Green MEP and chair of the European Parliament’s Transport and Tourism Committee. “And, therefore, road is made artificially very, very, very cheap. And rail is made very, very expensive artificially by politicians.”
There are also technology problems. Not a single locomotive currently operating across Europe’s rail network is equipped to deal with every signaling system used on the EU’s 10,000 kilometers of track, Cramer said.
The fourth railway package of market opening measures that might better integrate a fragmented continental rail system only needs approval from the European Parliament later this year to enter into force. But its key reforms won’t filter through to operations until 2019, rail sources said.
There are other problems for night trains. The slightest delay can mean services lose their slot to run, and clashes with maintenance schedules can leave them stuck on the tracks. This summer’s seasonal night service from Berlin to Malmö in Sweden was curtailed by two weeks in August due to track work by the German network operator.
Trial by night
As ÖBB takes the plunge in trying to revive a large chunk of European night trains, the company also has to decide how to pitch its new offering.
It faces the challenge of how to persuade environmentally concerned passengers, and those who for health reasons can’t tolerate air travel, that they can still find a route across the Continent by rail. Service interruptions in recent years have had the effect of “rolling out the red carpet for airlines,” said Cramer.
Aging infrastructure is a turn-off too. Many of the cars still rattling through the night across Europe are decades old, making for uncomfortable berths. ÖBB presented new futuristic sleeping car designs at an installation in Vienna earlier this year and is looking into buying new rolling stock.
“The problem is that 40 years ago they built the night trains and then made money from them. Now they say they don’t have the money to make any new trains,” said Cramer.
However, any effort to cut costs hits at core arguments for rail travel — comfort and convenience. In trying to stay competitive against air and road travel, some train operators are now aping discount air services.
Although it isn’t a night-time service, France’s Ouigo is taking the Ryanair approach to the rails. It sells cut-price tickets for intercity travel within France but to save on costs it charges for baggage and stops only at suburban stations.
Thalys also has its own low-cost operator called IZY, which shuttles passengers between Brussels and Paris at off-peak times. To save on track access charges the company switches its trains on and off the more expensive high-speed line running parallel to the slow lane. IZY even offers bookers a choice of seat design from folding to extra-large at an extra cost.
Train stations are also looking more like airports these days, as fears over terrorism at major transport hubs adds layers of security checks that put an additional burden on a system that has traditionally been walk-through.
“Rail works as an open system,” said Lochman. “If you lose this feature, you lose the customers.”
But ÖBB may be on to something — there are still people who prefer rolling across Europe at night to flying.
The 6:42 p.m. departure from Berlin to Budapest is one of the few overnight services that is not under threat on December 11. The Hungarian-operated service leaves the German capital each night, running southeast to Dresden along the Elbe River valley, through Prague, Brno and Bratislava before pulling in to the Hungarian capital shortly after 8:30 a.m.
Stefan Roch, a German researcher at one of Budapest’s universities, and his wife Réka are regulars.
“If we took the plane it would be much quicker, but the train is far more efficient for us,” said Roch. “You can read, you can work, and you can sleep. In the plane you just lose the time.”