After having been relegated by cheap flights and high-speed rail, night trains regain their popularity in Western Europe. A paradox in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, which encourages avoiding spending too much time with strangers indoors.
In recent years, the Austrian national company OBB has become the benchmark for night trains, even buying the activities that the German Deutsche Bahn wanted to get rid of, to form its network in central Europe.
Now he arrives in Brussels from Vienna and has just bought 20 new locomotives for 500 million euros (588 million dollars), with the aim of going further by the end of 2024.
“I could make my dream of going to Paris come true,” CEO Andreas Mattha recently told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.
“In the coming years, we want to put the accent on building the night train network,” Austrian Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler also told the Kleine Zeitung newspaper. “We want to reinforce that pioneering role,” he added, noting with pride that Vienna has more night trains than any other city in Europe.
Another model for this night transport is Sweden, the kingdom of the “flygskam”, the feeling of guilt about the disastrous effects of air transport on the environment.
The government has just unlocked 38 million euros ($ 45 million) to relaunch daily connections between Stockholm and Hamburg and Malmo and Brussels between now and the summer of 2022.
Stockholm wants to “be at the forefront,” and hopes that this investment will “create a school” in Europe.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron announced on July 14 that he was counting on “massively redeveloping” night trains, as well as rail freight and small lines. And the Minister of Transport, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, has already announced the rebirth of two lines “between now and 2022”, which connect Paris with Nice and Paris with Tarbes (south).
– Without the “night train of yesteryear” –
Night train travel was suppressed one after another in recent years in France, among other things, due to the development of the TGV high-speed network, lack of investment or comfort, and above all due to competition from airlines low-cost.
A 2015 report almost completely ends them by pointing out that each passenger cost taxpayers more than 100 euros.
But two lines survived, considered “indispensable due to the absence of a sufficient alternative offer for the affected territories”, linking Paris with points to the southeast and south. They cost 20 million euros (23 million dollars) a year to the State, to which 30 million euros are added to renew the trains.
But a little across Europe, the perception has changed with the search for ecological alternatives to the plane, in the midst of the climate emergency.
Often accused of sabotaging night trains, the French public company SNCF confirms the trend.
“I think there is a real expectation,” Christophe Fanichet, executive director of SNFC Voyageurs, who speaks mostly of a “carbon-conscious young population,” told AFP. But “you have to reinvent the market,” he says. “We can’t do the night train of yesteryear again!”
“The six compartments for sleeping with people we don’t know are no longer standardized,” explained Guillaume Pepy, then head of the SNCF, last year.
The Austrian OBB also highlights that, with the coronavirus, the demand for private compartments has increased this summer, especially for the Vienna-Zurich, Vienna-Hamburg and Munich-Rome routes.