Sleeper trains return to Europe amid climate crisis

Oon a sweltering Sunday evening in late July, Klaydy Buchsbaum boarded a Vienna-bound train at Paris’s Gare de l’Est, opened the door to compartment 412, threw her hat on the top bunk for her journey overnight and got down to the serious work of maneuvering her oversized lavender suitcase into place. “Flights were so expensive, and with all the chaos in flights right now, I didn’t want to get stuck in an airport somewhere. And I didn’t want my bag to get lost,” she said. With one last push, she tucked the juggernaut under her seat, “As my husband always says, I’m not the type of person who travels with just a little carry-on.”

Air travel chaos this summer has added another reason why a growing number of European travelers are opting for the rails. But a key factor – and the one behind a number of public and private initiatives to bring back the night trains—concerns about climate change. Train journeys can emit as little as a fifth of the greenhouse gases than flights, which is why rail companies, national governments and EU bodies cite reducing emissions as a reason to reinstate a network of night-to-mid-range rail lines distance that once connected the continent. Yet, despite all the demands and efforts, these initiatives still have a long way to go.

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Europe’s night train network began to erode in the 1990s. With the emergence of low-cost airlines like easyJet and Ryanair, demand for night trains evaporated. By 2019, Germany and Switzerland had both sold or closed their night services, and the total number of overnight passenger trains in Europe had fallen from around 1,200 a week in 2001. at about 450. The dismantling made it difficult for even the most determined passenger to book a transcontinental ticket; today, anyone hoping to travel by train from, say, Copenhagen to Barcelona would have to cobble together their own ticket by navigating a bewildering thicket of national timetables and websites, then changing trains between three and eight times during the trip. of two days.

A national company has started in recent years to take measures to revive night trains. Citing growing concern about climate change, Austria’s state-owned railway ÖBB bought some of the older international lines in 2016 and started rolling out overnight trips at the rate of about one a year. The Paris-Vienna Nightjet started operating in December 2021.

In 2019, these efforts received a major boost when flygskam – the Swedish word for “flight shame” – burst into public consciousness around the world, thanks to activist Greta Thunberg. And they swelled further this summer when widespread staff shortages led to a turbulent season of canceled flights and lost luggage. “Before corona, we were always full in the summer months and on the weekends and that was it,” says Bernhard Rieder, director of media relations for ÖBB. “This year, from Easter, we were full on all lines every day. We get a lot of complaints from people saying “we’re barely lucky enough to get a seat or a bed”.

Some start-ups pay attention to it. In 2019, growing criticism of carbon-emitting flights, coupled with the lack of convenient cross-border rail options, prompted businessmen Adrien Aumont and Romain Payet to found Midnight Trains. It’s a private company that, when operational, promises to connect 10 European cities from its hub in Paris with transportation that feels more like a hotel on rails than a traditional overnight train. “It’s a product that hasn’t been reinvented for 20 to 30 years,” says Payet. “So we started working together on how to reinvent the night train to make it the most sustainable and comfortable way to travel across Europe.”

A compartment of the Nightjet train which provides the Vienna / Innsbruck-Hamburg link, July 11, 2022.

Christian Charisius—Picture-Alliance/dpa/AP

When Midnight Trains launches its first line in 2024, there will be easy online booking and refunds, a dining car serving recipes designed by a Michelin-starred chef, and a range of accommodation, all private and equipped with real beds and sheets.

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There are complications for public and private night train initiatives. Prices are one: at the end of July, a one-way Paris-Vienna Nightjet for a sleeper berth for four or six people cost around 154 euros (exact costs vary by date and amenities), a little more than a plane tickets at that time. Part of the discrepancy is an inherent disadvantage of the European fare structure: plane tickets are exempt from VAT, but trains are not.

And of course, a train journey is significantly longer. Passengers boarding the Nightjet avoid the schlep to an airport and winding security lines. But the Paris-Vienna journey still lasts 14 hours compared to 2h30 by plane. Part of this is due to rail traffic which forces trains to sit idle – sometimes for up to 45 minutes – on the tracks. “People have the impression that the tracks are empty, but that’s not true,” says ÖBB’s Rieder. At night, the tracks are jammed with slow-moving freight trains, making competition fierce for a spot on the tracks.

Technical and legal reasons also explain the frequent delays. Motor car specifications still vary from country to country and therefore often have to be changed at border crossings due to different power supplies and safety regulations. Once the trains have stopped, authorities frequently take the opportunity to board and inspect passengers’ passports, even within the borderless Schengen area that covers some 26 European countries. “We’re trying to buy locomotives that will be interoperable between countries so we don’t have to stop at the border, but manufacturers say they won’t have them ready until 2026 or 27,” says Payet of Midnight Trains. . Meanwhile, the company is also working on a system that would allow passengers to upload identity documents before traveling, much like airlines do.

Many of these issues are addressed in the European Commission’s action plan which was approved at the end of 2021. It calls for the introduction of a Europe-wide ticketing system which would allow passengers to easily reconstruct journeys international markets, infrastructure investments that would remove the need for locomotive changes at the border and a review of VAT charges. But even the target adoption date of the end of this year for the digital reservation system has already been pushed back to the second half of 2023.

“It’s not easy,” says Adalbert Jahnz, European Commission spokesperson for transport. “We have 25 networks at European level, which is quite complex.” Jahnz says the EU has made progress in allocating €50 billion of its COVID-19 recovery funds to rail and passing legislation that creates EU-level certification for rail infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the EU’s target to cut carbon emissions by 55% by 2030 and reach the more ambitious goal of net zero by 2050 has been a boon for rail. During the pandemic, France and Austria paid rescue funds to their respective national airlines subject to the phasing out of domestic flights under three hours, and since then France has banned short flights outright. couriers if there are rail or bus alternatives. The energy crisis has also given a boost: this summer, Germany reduced all domestic train tickets to 9 euros for 3 months, while Spain made regional and suburban trains free between June and August .

Yet, from the rail companies’ point of view, huge obstacles remain to meeting Europeans’ demand for rail travel, and most important is the lack of carriages – what the rail industry calls ‘rolling stock’. – as the few remaining manufacturers grapple with increased demand. . “There are no new cars or even used cars available on the market,” says Rieder of ÖBB. “In 2018, we ordered 33 new complete trainsets. And they won’t be delivered until the middle of next year.

The shortage of rolling stock explains why Midnight Trains will not launch its first line, which Payet plans to link Paris with northern Italy, before the second half of 2024. “When you look at the manufacturing sector, all the big ones have backlogs for the next 10 years just for domestic companies,” says Payet. “And if you’re a small private company trying to enter [to the industry]they basically tell you, we are fully booked until 2028.”

The lack of new cars also explains why some amenities that could make night trains more appealing to travelers, such as WiFi and plenty of electrical outlets, are missing on the Nightjet. Most cars are now 25 or 30 years old.

But Buchsmann, who appreciated the simple breakfast that attendants bring to each passenger and loved having the chance to socialize over wine with the other women in her all-female compartment on board, says she would look forward to resuming the Paris-Vienna Nightjet. Still, she admits she didn’t sleep very well. “The beds were a little hard,” she says.

A few compartments from the Nightjet, Jean-Baptiste Fouvry also had a relatively sleepless trip. On his way to a professional conference in Vienna, the 32-year-old had opted for a seat instead of a berth, and spent the night up with five other people in a crowded compartment. As an environmentally conscious scientist at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris, he still had no regrets about his decision to travel by train. “If you care about climate change,” he says in reference to the trip, “it’s not horrible enough not to.”

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Mary I. Bruner