Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
For long-distance travelers looking for low-emissions options, choices are shrinking as Europe's overnight trains fade away.
Could Europe’s night trains be on the way out? Maybe it’s pure nostalgia, but the thought makes my heart sink. The teenage trips I spent rattling around on Europe’s overnight trains (in the years before price falls made flying cheaper) were some of the most memorable times of my life. I used to love waking up in a couchette bunk and squeakily rubbing away the window mist to work out which new country the half-lit landscape outside belonged to. I even remember the math of the trains: leave London early in the morning and you could wake up in the Italian Alps just before Milan; taking another route, you could make it to Warsaw by late the next afternoon. Such trips might seem as archaic as a transatlantic zeppelin to a generation just born, but in late 20th century Europe their speed and convenience was evidence enough of progress to inspire tracks by electro-modernists Kraftwerk.
The death knell for night trains may have already been rung, however. Deutsche Bahn has announced that this December it will cut six of its 14 night services, and shorten two more. The changes will see night trains to Paris from Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich scrapped, but it’s not just services to and from Germany that will be affected. Deutsche Bahn is getting rid of services from Copenhagen to Prague, Zurich, and Amsterdam (via Cologne), while the Netherlands will also be frozen out by the two route shortenings. The Prague to Amsterdam service will now terminate at Cologne, while the Warsaw to Amsterdam service will make it no further than the German city of Oberhausen. This may only be the beginning of the end. Documents leaked to Germany’s Stuttgarter Zeitung suggest night routes will be scrapped altogether in 2016. Night trains aren’t the only air and road alternative to be abandoned. Deutsche Bahn is also giving up its motorail service, where passengers could spare themselves long distance drives by having their car shipped with them on the same train. For long distance travelers looking for low emissions alternatives, the choices are shrinking.
If Deutsche Bahn’s cuts seem brutal, they’re not happening in a vacuum. Italian company Thello dropped its Paris-Milan-Venice/Rome service last winter, around the same time that Spain’s Trenhotel stopped ferrying between Paris and Barcelona. Ukraine also stopped its night services three years ago. No-frills airlines and faster daytime services have created competition that is making these trains obsolete (or so the argument goes). Why would anyone spend a night rattling over the points when they can now arrive at their destination early enough to sleep in a bed that doesn’t move? As passengers gradually stop clinging to the backs of these steam-age dinosaurs, running night trains without a subsidy becomes impossible.
That’s the official script, at least. In fact, while night services are not necessarily the cheapest option, they have remained popular. According to calculations from Belgium’s Lowtech Magazine, the soon-to-be-scrapped Copenhagen to Amsterdam train carried an average of 506 passengers per day last year, more than enough to fill two of the airbuses typically used for European short-haul flights. According to figures quoted by Die Zeit, German night trains’ passenger numbers in the past decade have increased from just 60,000 to 1.5 million. This is a sector reviving, not dying.
It’s also not strictly true that high-speed rail is expanding at the expense of night trains. France’s TGV, long a global flagship for high-speed services, will be obliged to cut back its offerings in the near future, partly because users consider it too expensive. Last week, Le Figaro pronounced the network “out of breath”. On longer journeys, such as the 6-plus-hour Paris to Barcelona route, it can’t really compete with the speed of airlines, even if you take downtown-to-downtown travel into account. What could offer a more genuine alternative, however, would be a service where you leave Paris at night and wake up at your destination—something that is now no longer on offer.
The running costs argument is also murkier than it seems. Most of Europe’s cross-border rail services run on a subsidy of sorts, given that they use infrastructure that has been upgraded thanks to billions’ worth of investment from the European Union. If the high cost of building their tracks is taken into account, no high-speed train makes a profit. Night trains have failed to cash in on this funding bonanza not because there’s no demand for them, but because the privatization and deregulation of Europe’s rail companies has made running them too fiddly.
This is because nowadays Europe’s rail companies tend to see each other not as partners, but as competitors. They are, of course. No longer restrained by national borders, these companies compete internationally to run routes, which is why Dutch rail company Nederlandse Spoorwegen, to take just one example, runs services in Britain and Poland. This competition, plus the complexity created by replacing single national railway companies with many, has poured cold water on international co-operation. Italy’s Thello, for example, gave up its nighttime services because terrible communication between French, Swiss and Italian rail managers meant it was unable to secure train paths on 85 days of the year.
It’s significant that in areas where this isn’t an issue— such as Britain—night trains continue to thrive. This spring the U.K.’s Caledonian Sleeper service, running from London to towns across Scotland, announced a £100 million new investment (60 percent of it from Scotland’s government) for new trains with better, more hotel-like facilities. This too was a service once under threat: its passenger numbers revived when it was threatened with the axe and travelers were reminded of its existence.
There’s clearly an appetite out there for such services, and a possibility to provide them both for passengers looking for cheap travel and for people for whom the train itself is a destination. Europe’s night trains may never match the speed of flying, but as an attractive, lower-emissions alternative they shouldn’t be ditched simply because rail companies are forgetting how to coordinate and share.