New dawn for night trains
After falling out of fashion in early 2000 due to reducing offer and demand, overnight trains have been making a comeback in the last few years.
Often seen as a comfortable way to travel, sleeper trains have also a much smaller impact on climate than planes. Austrian ÖBB has even proven this sector could be profitable after their Deutsche Bahn night train activity takeover.
Back in the day, it used to be common to holiday by train. From Brussels, people could reach the south of France, the Alps and even Italy, all while enjoying a night’s sleep.
But since 2000, there are no night trains departing from Belgium any more. The French SNCF only operates two lines and the German Deutsche Bahn has sold its overnight network to Austrian ÖBB.
Ask the French or German railway companies and both will say that night trains aren’t profitable any more. Which is why their activity has been reduced. Yet, pro-rail associations reject that argument.
“The SNCF says that passenger numbers dropped by 25% between 2011 and 2015. But we see that, in the same period, a huge amount of night train lines were cancelled. Lines that were maintained still recorded good numbers”, explains Clément Jouve from the French collective ‘Yes to night trains’.
“It’s true that overnight train activity is constraining. It requires tracks available at night when most operators use that time for maintenance. There’s also a hotel service in addition to the rail service.
You need well-trained and multilingual employees. Operating costs are significant. Either we believe in it and invest, or we don’t and give up”, declares Roberto Rinaudo, CEO of Thello, Rail Company operating the Paris to Venice overnight line.
Thello seems to believe in the sector’s profitability. It has invested a total of 15 million euro in its overnight service since 2011. Since 2018, its fleet is undergoing a complete renovation. “The conditions for a profitable service and a good prospect of growth are there”, adds the CEO.
“We have done many studies and they have shown us that there are great market opportunities for night trains. The customer requires a completely different experience compared to other means of transport. In our case, we link two cities that are among the most important from a tourist point of view”, explains Roberto Rinaudo.
The greener side of train travel might also attract more passengers. Those deciding to ditch the plane – as the Flygskam supporters – and choosing trains can give themselves a pat on the back for polluting less.
A French study – country where electricity is majorly nuclear – estimated the TGV emissions at 3,4 g/km of CO2 per passenger. Overnight trains’ emissions were evaluated at 10,2 g/km, buses’ at 20,6 g/km and planes’ at… 145 grams.
According to the pro-train association, most passengers travelling up to 750 km will choose the TGV. Overnight trains come into their own for trips longer than 1.000 km.
Yet, more than 20% of CO2 emissions from air transport are emanating from flights shorter than 1.500 km. “I think now is the best time to launch the debate, just as climate consciousness develops and people are looking for credible alternatives”, adds Arnaud Wieclawski, founder of EU collective ‘Back on Track’.
For ÖBB, the overnight train gamble has paid off. Back in 2016, the Austrian company took over the German Deutsche Bahn’s overnight activity for 40 million euro. “Before, we had eight lines. Now, we have 18 that we’re operating ourselves, and 25 with our partners. Size is important in this business”, explains Bernhard Rieder, ÖBB spokesperson.
According to him, the overnight train is a profitable industry with chances of growth. “We have 1,4 million passengers on our sleeper trains. It’s slightly increasing every year. I can tell you that even if our turnover isn’t huge, we’re not losing money on this activity”, adds the spokesperson.