The Future of Night Trains: at the Back on Track EU Conference in Hamburg

By Edward | Night Trains

Oct 31
Bogie change at Ukrainian border
This lovely image with the Polish night train at Kraków station is courtesy and © of my friend Martin Pavlík.

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Sup, Night Trains?

The Future of Night Trains was the main topic at the recent Back-On-Track EU conference in Hamburg. Back-On-Track.EU hosted it together with a group called Prellbock Altona, who are running a successful campaign to prevent Hamburg-Altona station from being demolished and relocated into the sticks at Hamburg-Diebsteich.

I've known Joachim Holstein, the organiser, since our nights at CityNightLine, Deutsche Bahn's night train service..

Neither of us have come to terms with our CityNightLine trains being closed down. I started this blog, Joachim started his NGO, Back-On-Track.EU for propagating night trains. Joachim fought like a lion to stop DB closing down CityNightLine. 

  • He dragged the managers in front of parliament multiple times
  • He uncovered the fudged statistics DB was using to make the CityNightLine look like a basket case
  • all to no avail.
Altona old station

This building was Altona's first main station in the 19th century. What better place to have a conference about trains?

Me as spontaneous interpreter

Joachim asked me if I'd like to tag along and perhaps do the odd translation. I ended up interpreting the three hour panel discussion in English and German from start to finish.

This year's Back-On-Track.EU conference featured a cool panel with

  • Patrik Nylander from the Swedish Ministry of Transport, 
  • Karima Delli, French Green MEP and president of the Commission on Transport and Tourism at the European Parliament (whose train from Paris was a staggering four. hours. late.)
  • Nick Brooks, Secretary General of ALLRAIL, the alliance of Rail New Entrants
  • Bernhard Knierim, representing the German grassroots organisation Bahn für Alle (Rail for all)
  • Carl Süß from #FridaysForFuture
  • Sven Pöllauer, ÖBB official, representing the biggest night train operator in Europe
The panellists were there to discuss from their various viewpoints what is to be done about night trains and how to get them back on track. 

All in all it is 14 videos. I include here Joachim's introduction in English. The panel discussion is in the first six videos.

And here, for shameless self-promotion purposes, is the part where I come in.

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Sorry, Ed, I can't watch three hours of videos!?!

Of course you can't.

Here's the gist of the panel discussion:

  • Patrik Nylander, the Swedish civil servant, spoke about the Swedish government's efforts to promote the future of night trains from Sweden to the continent. There are studies and commissions working on the most feasible model

    • should the Swedish government simply buy trains and pay someone to run them?
    • should they tender?
    • There are many regulatory and technical hurdles that complicate the running of international night trains. Example: Swedish trains are bigger and wider than continental European or indeed British trains.
    • How should modern night trains even be configured to accommodate today's tastes?
  • Sven Pöllauer, the Austrian Railways representative, thanked Back-On-Track for its support and spoke about ÖBB's ongoing commitment to the future of night trains and impending plans

    • ÖBB is spending €200m on new Nightjet stock with all mod cons
    • From January 2020, there will be a twice-weekly Nightjet service from Vienna to Brussels and back
    • From January 2021, there will be a Nightjet from Vienna to Amsterdam
    • You don't get rich running night trains, but if you do it well, you can run it as a sustainable business. Nightjets are regularly booked out.
  • Nick Brooks, the Secretary General of ALLRAIL, the new rail entrants' lobbyist spoke about how open access and competition can help revitalise night trains

    • If governments (like the Swedish) want night trains, they should definitely put them out to tender as the service will be cheaper and better.
    • There has to be competition among rail companies so that trains per se will become more competitive against planes and cars
    • Access to rolling stock would make it easier for new operators to start up night train services.
  • Bernhard Knierim, the Bahn für Alle man, spoke at length about the continued disadvantages trains face vs. planes and cars.

    • There is still no tax on flight fuel, but trains are taxed for their electricity and diesel
    • cars and coaches pay no toll on German motorways, yet trains have to pay track access charges
    • Booking train travel across Europe is not for the faint-of-heart. You need to know what you are doing
    • It must be possible to book all trains on one neutral platform. 
  • Carl Süß, the 16 year-old #FridaysForFuture youth, spoke for quite a while and made some valid points about night trains, astounding in their simplicity:

    • Its got to be easier to book trains. It should be as easy to book a train as it is to book a plane
    • trains have got to be cheaper
    • they have got to get better: the loos have to work and they have to run on time.
  • Karima Delli, the MEP, couldn't say anything about the Future of Night Trains as she was still trapped inside an ICE somewhere between Hanover and Hamburg. A tree had come down on her line. The blame for this can be put squarely at DB's feet for neglecting vegetation. 

Every time there is a major storm in Germany the German rail network grinds to a halt because trees along the lines have been ignored for too long and come down on the lines.

So, how does the future of night trains look?

Here is my understanding of what we can agree on:

The political climate is changing

Thanks to Greta Thunberg and #flygskam, a new urgency has been injected into trains vs. planes.

  • Sweden is already taking real steps to foster night trains. 
  • Everyone knows we are going to have to go more by train and less by plane.
  • For very long distances, the night train would be perfect.

So the next few years are going to be exciting.

National hurdles must come down

In the European Union, and in Europe beyond the EU, it is insane that every national carrier is working away on its own. Indeed, some of them have spent the last two decades sabotaging each other.

  • Track access has to come down and be harmonised across the EU
  • Approval, regulations and standards have to be unified. At the moment any given train has to conform to the regulations of every country it passes through.
My thoughts on this: We already had (and indeed still have) unified standards. Any RIC carriage can roam across the RIC railways. Nightjets use RIC carriages and FlixTrain is also concentrating all efforts on RIC carriages. It is just that in the market dominated by SNCF and DB, very-high-speed trains have been the flavour of the month. Locomotive-hauled RIC carriages have been unfashionable, in spite of their top speed of 200km/h.

Booking must become easier

  • There has to be a unified booking engine that can sell you one ticket from one end of Europe to the other, irrespective of which operator's train you are on
My thoughts: This also used to exist. In a world with only national carriers it worked. Now there are lots more operators offering super-cheap promo deals. There will never be "the one" booking engine for all operators. The sooner we accept that and move on, the better. There are already quite powerful booking engines (Trainline, Omio, Loco2) that have astounding reach. But they can't access all operators and their edgier promo deals.

By the way, this blog is all about travelling Europe by train and getting the best tickets. Consider subscribing. It is absolutely free and will make you a smarter rail traveller.

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The Nightjet is expanding

Austrian Railways are the most exciting thing in night trains right now:

  • They've got new night trains in the pipeline
  • from January 2020 they will be running twice-weekly between Vienna and Brussels
  • From January 2021 Amsterdam will be attached to the Nightjet network

More of my Thoughts: Private vs. Public

Flixtrain Nightjet

Flixtrain waiting at Cologne depot next to Nightjet

I used to be firmly in the national railways camp. Private was the devil.

Now I'm much more "whatever works". I want people to have attractive trains, and lots of them.

National carriers Deutsche Bahn and SNCF between them have destroyed a once vast night train network. While it is true that deregulated air travel has damaged international rail travel, DB and SNCF went out of their way to take down international night trains.

On the other hand Austrian national carrier ÖBB is running night trains at a European level, and doing it well. Russian Railways currently run the only night trains between Paris and Berlin and Berlin and Warsaw.

Russian Railways @RuRailways run the only direct train between Paris and Berlin and Warsaw. Makes yer think.

Click to Tweet
Astra Trans Carpatic Review

The yellow-green livery of Astra Trans Carpatic

Meanwhile, private companies RegioJet in Czechia and Slovakia, and Astra Trans Carpatic in Romania have launched competitive and exciting night train services in their countries. TransKlassServis has interesting propositions in Russia.

I would also watch FlixTrain: They have ambitious plans to roll out FlixTrains across Europe, using tried-and-tested RIC carriages. I believe that FlixTrain is going to make the likes of DB and SNCF look very silly very soon.

Now what?

For further reading, have a look at my Nightjet and Astra Trans Carpatic posts. Or subscribe to my blog for the password to my e-guide library and my sporadic emails about train travel in Europe.

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About the Author

After crisscrossing Europe for 6 years as a train conductor, I guide intrepid travellers roaming Europe by rail.

  • Mark says:

    Great article, thanks

  • Steve Stark says:

    The Austrians (and Czechs and some other eastern railways) have not gone all in on the specialized high-speed EMU trend. All of OeBB’s long haul trains use the same “Taurus” locos including their RailJets. These are very high speed capable locos with top speeds of 300+ km/h and the OeBB operates trains up to 230 kph with specialized carriages. I’m sure having a large stable of locos has helped the NightJet business.

    I’d also add that Trenitalia deserves an honorable mention as they’ve been running their own domestic and international (Well, Thello) sleeper services.

    • Edward says:

      You are right, having locos is crucial. The Copenhagen City Night Line train was cancelled because the Danish didn’t want to maintain the engines to pull it. It also explains SNCF’s hatred of night trains. And yes, Trenitalia deserves an honorable mention. I went on an InterCityNotte this year, from Bologna to Lecce. And I loved it.

      Thank you for reading.

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