After years of letting overnight rail travel fade into oblivion, France and other European countries are rushing to reverse course. Doing so will be easier said than done, however.
BRUSSELS — With the summer season just about to kick off, France's prime minister, Jean Castex, celebrated the reopening this past May of the Paris-Nice night train, a route that has been closed since 2017, by making the trip himself. It was a "symbolic" journey to highlight the rapid realization of the government's recovery plan, which includes pumping 100 million euros back into the country's network of night trains.
Castex, a notorious lover of railways, did not fail to highlight the "environmental dimension" of night-time rail travel. The initiative comes as a proposed climate law is being debated in the National Assembly. And even though his return to Paris by plane took away some of the strength of the publicity stunt, it did not detract from the new fervor of travelers — and railroad companies — for night trains.
France isn't the only European country embracing the revival. In Berlin, Brussels and Vienna too, powerful voices are being raised in defense of a mode of transportation that is incomparably more sustainable than air travel.
The rebound follows a long period of neglect. In the early 1980s, France had up to 550 stations served by several dozen night routes. But the government, faced with costs deemed too high, stopped financing them. The national rail company SNCF closed connections one after the other, and by 2020, there were only two left: one between Paris and Briançon, the other between Paris and Latour-de-Carol/Cerbère.
Across the continent, only a handful of central European countries kept a network worthy of the name. Austria in particular stands out in this regard, with a network of lines that connect to a multitude of destinations: Prague, Warsaw, Hamburg, Rome and even Kiev.
"I try not to fly in Europe. I take the train or the bus to go everywhere"
To get a sense of Austria's persistent love for a mode of transport that was said to have no future, last October I boarded a Nightjet train operated by the ÖBB, the Austrian national railway company. At the time I had no idea of the long winter quarantine to come. Departure at 6:04 p.m. from Brussels-Midi station, arrival at 8:27 a.m. at Wien Hauptbahnhof (Vienna's central station), after stops in Liège, Aachen, Cologne, Nuremberg, Passau and Linz. Unbeknownst to any of us, this was the last chance weekend before the borders were closed due to a new outbreak of COVID-19.
Night had already fallen on the Belgian capital when I approached the platform, under a fine and persistent rain, truly Brussels-like. At the entrance of the carriage, a couple speaking Russian and Austrian to their children tried to settle down. A controller lead me to my cabin, one of the train's most luxurious, with a real bed with sheets and an individual bathroom. As a sanitary precaution, I had the place to myself, although it can theoretically accommodate two people.
The cabin was new and comfortable and the bathroom well equipped with towels and shampoo, even if the hot water didn't seem to work. The welcome pack included a bottle of water, a mini-bottle of sparkling wine, cookies, slippers and earplugs. The dinner, served hot on a tray, at a reasonable price (less than 10 euros) was surprisingly good. A steward brought a menu to choose the breakfast, which comes included in the ticket price. Passengers can order it before going to bed, specifying their wake-up time.
After dropping off my luggage, I went out again to chat with other passengers — on such a trip, everyone has time. In the next cabin, a young Belgian couple, Flemings who live in Brussels, were on their way to a family reunion. They offered two arguments in favor of the night train: price and ecology. "I try not to fly in Europe. I take the train or the bus to go everywhere," said the young man, who then recalled a rail journey of several days in South Africa, between Johannesburg and Cape Town.
A little further on, two young Flemish women, who live in Ghent and Bruges, explained that they'd taken the train "on a whim." One worked in Vienna as a volunteer. The plan was to spend the weekend there. "The night train was cheaper than the plane," they said. Next to them, an Austrian woman who works at the European Parliament explained that she'd already taken this line, launched in February 2019, several times. It's "particularly convenient," she said, especially compared to the daytime train, which requires several changes.
Breakfast on the ÖBB Nightjet — Photo: @denisevandenbeemt via Instagram
It is not only the younger generation who are in favor of the night train for ecological reasons. A retired couple from Luxembourg, who went to Aachen to visit their son in Vienna, said that she'd be too afraid of an accident if they took the car. As for flying, "it's morally indefensible," said her husband, who speaks German with a strong Luxembourg accent. "I've never set foot on a plane in my life."
In Sweden, people even have a word for the guilt one feels about traveling by air: "flygskam." A little further down the line, a 20-year-old college student wasn't afraid to spend the night alone in a seating compartment. The night train "fit the schedule and the price is good," she said. She has a phobia of air travel, which she only takes as a last resort, she explained. And it's true that it's "not bad for the environment," the young woman added.
Fares vary according to the comfort category, and according to the number of reservations: The cheapest seats cost at least 29 euros. In the compartments with extended seats, but a minimal level of comfort, the ticket starts at 50 or 60 euros, while the most comfortable bunks are around 80 to 90 euros — 140 euros to be alone. The most luxurious cabin exceeds 170 euros per night, or even much more, depending on the route.
The Austrian company intends to take advantage of the public's renewed interest in night trains. "For the past three years, we have seen a strong demand for night travel," says spokesman Bernhard Rieder. In 2019, the ÖBB welcomed 1.5 million passengers on its Nightjets. "In good years, we don't necessarily lose money on night trains," he adds. "2019 was a very good year."
It was in 2015 that the operator decided to invest heavily in night routes. At the time, the German railway company, Deutsche Bahn (DB), had decided to close its remaining lines. "Our network was connected to Deutsche Bahn's, so we had to decide what to do. We could either keep our small, not very well-connected network, or we could expand it," says Rieder. "We had a very intense discussion and the management finally decided to operate a large part of Deutsche Bahn's lines, not all of them but the ones that fit our network."
To meet European climate objectives, it is therefore essential to encourage low-carbon means of transport.
The ÖBB now operates 19 night train routes. The latest, Brussels-Vienna, opened in January 2020. Next stop: Paris-Vienna this December.
The number of announcements has increased recently. In addition to Paris-Vienna, Zurich-Amsterdam should open at the end of the year, followed by Zurich-Rome in 2022, Berlin-Paris and Berlin-Brussels in 2023 and Zurich-Barcelona in 2024.
France is eager to get on board the trend as well. The government has announced the opening of two new lines before 2022: Jean Castex's Paris-Nice and Paris-Tarbes. He wants to initiate a debate in Parliament on the reopening of dozens of lines, which would not necessarily pass through the capital. One would allow travel from Brittany to the Côte d'Azur; another could link Metz and Strasbourg to Nice, Bordeaux or Barcelona.
Still, there are obstacles to how far France can go with the revival. "Given the major work to be done on the network, it will be complicated to open many other lines until 2025," Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said in an interview with Le Parisien. Orders for new cars from Bombardier or Alstom could take years to complete — at a cost potentially exceeding 1 billion euros.
This investment is justified as part of the fight against climate change, night-train advocates insist. According to the European Environment Agency, transport accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union. And they are not decreasing, unlike those of electricity production and industry. To meet European climate objectives, it is therefore essential to encourage low-carbon means of transport.
Ademe has calculated that a passenger traveling in France in a TER over a distance of 900 km emits just under 5 kg of CO2. The same trip by plane emits about 207 kg (this last figure takes into account the "condensation trails' that form behind the planes and interact with other gases in the atmosphere). The carbon footprint of trains obviously varies depending on how electricity is produced in each country — nuclear in France; coal, gas and renewables in Germany. But the vast majority of rail journeys emit far less CO2 than the same journey by plane or car, according to the comparison site Ecopassenger.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex celebrates the reopening of the Paris-Nice night train — Photo: Panoramic/ZUMA
Night trains are particularly suitable for distances of 600 to 1,800 kilometers, i.e. for journeys between major European cities. "These trains are definitely not a niche," says Karima Delli, chairwoman of the European Parliament's Transport Committee. She pleads for a "real network of night trains' at the continental level.
For the moment, the European Commission is far from being so enthusiastic. It has already been trying for nearly 20 years to make rail networks inter-operable, with mixed results. Safety standards, for example, often differ from one country to another and represent an avoidable additional cost for companies.
To revive night trains, the public authorities must be involved, says Christophe Fanichet, who heads the SNCF's Passenger Division. Without subsidies, they are generally not profitable. Also, the number of passengers is limited, between 60 and 100 per train, rather than several hundred in daytime convoys, says Rieder, the ÖBB spokesman. And they require more staff, usually one employee per car — not counting breakfast or dinner costs.
To cope with these high costs, the Austrian operator has chosen to go upmarket. "In general, the compartment with bunks is filled very quickly," notes Rieder. But the company does not yet have enough cars of this type to meet the growing demand. This problem will soon be solved. In 2018, the ÖBB placed an order with Siemens for 13 new train sets. Total contract value: 1.5 billion euros. Delivery is scheduled for 2022.
The Austrian company wants to take advantage of this to modernize the image of its cars, with a new, more elegant design. Another new feature is the plan to launch tiny cabins, called "mini-suites."
"One of the strong demands of our customers is to have their own private space," explains Bernhard Rieder, the ÖBB spokesperson. These bunks, inspired by the capsule beds found in certain Japanese hotels, will meet this demand at a lower price than the classic cabins. But until it attracts more and wealthier customers, Rieder adds, the ÖBB's night train business is just about breaking — even in "very good years."