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MAP: Return of night trains across Europe comes a step closer

The return of night trains across Europe came a step closer this week when four European governments - Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany - signed a cooperation pact and laid out a timetable for the return of services.

MAP: Return of night trains across Europe comes a step closer
Photo: AFP/SNCF

The four countries signed a cooperation pact on Tuesday to revive a Paris-Vienna service within a year.

The deal between Austria's OBB, France's SNCF, Germany's Deutsche Bahn and Switzerland's CFF, signed during a meeting of EU transport ministers, aims to have the service running by December 2021.

Tuesday's agreement was aimed at resolving problems that have held back relaunching night services and ensure better commercial cooperation.

While for some, night trains hark back to an earlier time, these officials see them as a key element for the future as Europe strives to reduce its carbon emissions.

“It is clear to me that night trains are the ecological alternative to short-haul flights and car journeys,” said Austrian Transport Minister Leonore Gewessler.

“It's great cooperation of which I am proud and a strong signal for the green transport demanded by many,” said Alain Krakovitch, General Director of French state rail operator SNCF.

Deutsche Bahn CEO Richard Lutz told POLITICO that it was “a huge economic challenge” to run night trains up until around 2015. “But in recent years, we’ve seen an increase in demand, particularly from young people,” he said.

Supporters believe night trains will offer a sustainable alternative to some late night and early morning flights. Those behind the plan claim the amount of CO2 produced per passenger is ten times less on a night train from Paris to Vienna than on a flight on the same route.

An Amsterdam-Cologne-Zurich service is also on track for December 2021 as well as a Zurich-Barcelona train in December 2024.

Austria's OBB has been working for several years to bring back night train services, which withered away as cheap air travel boomed in Europe.

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The firm hopes to see the number of international night trains grow from 19 to 26 within four years, with passenger numbers climbing from 1.8 to 3 million per year.

Much work still needs to be done and complications lie ahead before the services become operational.

Operators will have to build suitable carriages which will be expensive and harmonise many of technical specificities, particularly around safety which are different across the rail networks.

What's clear is that rail operators working together will be key.

“Cooperation, in favour of the development of night trains in France and in Europe, makes it possible to pool the strengths of all four partners,” read a joint press release.

But “public financial support will undoubtedly be essential to support the economic model of these night services”.

This financial support has not been laid out to date.

In June a separate plan was laid out for a European ultra-rapid train network that would see Berlin linked to Paris in just four hours.

The planned timetable is as follows:

December 2021

Zurich – Amsterdam

Paris – Vienna

December 2022

Zurich – Rome

December 2023

Berlin – Paris

Berlin – Brussels

December 2024

Zurich – Barcelona

Member comments

  1. As an overseas tourist coming to visit Europe this is wonderful news. It makes Europe so much more accessible. Travel by night and sleep on the trains and explore during the day. I did this many times in the UK and it was wonderful. Based on the route map I don’t see Portugal in the plans. That would be great to include Lisbon.

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TRAIN TRAVEL

E-cars and sleeper trains: How Germany’s new government will reform transport

Germany's new traffic light coalition has a fitting name - they have lofty ambitions for the transport sector. Now under the control of the Free Democrats, the transport ministry will focus on e-mobility, modernising the railways and bringing local public transport up to scratch.

A sign for an e-car charging station
A sign for a charging station in Wolfsburg. dpa | Swen Pförtner

Cars

Germany’s pride and joy is its automobile industry, which employs close to a million people. The next government has pledged to support this industry in transitioning to e-mobility while securing its place as a global export powerhouse.

The coalition agreement isn’t afraid to go into detail on what it expects to achieve. The Ampel parties want to see 15 million electric cars on the streets by the end of the decade. They’ve committed to an end to new combustion engines by 2035.

They also pledge “massive” support for charging infrastructure. Specifically the documents sets out an “expansion of the charging point infrastructure with the goal of one million publicly accessible charging points by 2030, with a focus on fast-charging infrastructure.”

In terms of old fashioned asphalt, the coalition says it will “focus on the maintenance and rehabilitation of federal roads, with a particular emphasis on engineering structures.”

Maintenance of autobahns and bridges will receive a bigger share of the federal budget in the coming years, they say.

There will also be no general speed limit imposed on German motorways.

Some good news for teenagers: they also want to lower the legal driving age to 16, with driving at that age possible under supervision. The intention is to “train young people in the dangers of road traffic at an early stage.”

Public transport

The coalition wants to “invest significantly more in rail than in road transport” and will establish sleeper train services that will connect German to destinations in other EU countries. Between the largest cities, trains are to run every half hour in future, and transfer times are to be significantly shortened.

They also commit to having 75 percent of the rail network run on electricity by the end of the decade. 

There is a vague commitment to “supporting innovative rail technologies” while more money will also be given to local governments to “improve the attractiveness and capacity of local public transport with the aim of significantly increasing passenger numbers.” 

To bring local transport up to standard, new quality criteria will be drawn up for connections in urban and rural areas, while the federal government will dole out more money to plug gaps in regional transport budgets. 

Regional train in Schleswig-Holstein
A regional train travels through Friedrichstadt in Schleswig-Holstein. The traffic light coalition wants to lift standards on regional transport with major investment and national quality criteria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Molter

The next pledge comes under the category of ‘boring but important’: all rail services from track repair, to station maintenance to trains will be rolled up into one company. The various state-owned companies that make up Deutsche Bahn have been leaking money at an alarming rate in recent years, making an overhaul all but inevitable.

There is a general commitment to app-based booking and car sharing. They also want to support digital booking across transport companies, while also “funding digital mobility services, innovative mobility solutions and car sharing.”

Aviation

The focus here is on decarbonizing the aviation sector. There is a pledge to “ramp-up” support for of synthetic fuels that enable climate-neutral flying. They also promise to lobby the European Union to ensure that airline tickets cannot be sold at a rock-bottom prices.

Bikes

The Green party’s manifesto pledge to subsidize cargo bikes has not made it into the agreement.

Instead there is a commitment to “implementing and updating the National Cycling Plan” and to work on “modernization of the bike path network, and promote municipal cycling infrastructure.”

The minister

Volker Wissing arrives at negotiations in Belrin on November 11th. Photo: DPA/ Kay Nietfeld

The ministry is going to be led by Free Democrat general Secretary Volker Wissing, who ran the transport ministry in Rhineland-Palatinate until 2018.

Wissing is fairly new on the national scene and something of an unknown quantity. A man of growing influence in his party, he led the early ‘traffic light’ negotiations for his party.

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The Free Democrats were staunch opponents of a speed limit on the autobahns. They traditionally have the reputation of being a party of men who drive fast cars.

Due to their advocacy of economic liberalism, the FDP are likely to be hesitant about imposing too many government targets on the car industry.

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