Europe’s rail renaissance hoping to leave red tape behind
Climate concerns and more overnight travel have boosted passenger numbers but standardising railway systems is still tricky
Julie Dawson in Berlin boarding the Nightjet sleeper train to Vienna. Photograph: Derek Scally
At Berlin’s vast central station passengers are hurrying to board trains to Hanover, Düsseldorf and beyond. Just before 7pm, a train with unusual livery glides onto platform 11: the Nightjet sleeper train to Vienna.
Getting aboard is Julie Dawson, a US native living in the Austrian capital. She came to Berlin two days previously on the day train, a journey of over seven hours; she’s now returning home on the sleeper. At €180 return she’s happy with the price for the 1,400km round trip.
“For me it’s an environmental issue, but logistically it also makes the most sense,” she says. “On the way here I got full day’s work done. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d been flying, and battling to and from airports.”
The working mother of two criss-crosses Europe on trains, seeing them as the most green and child-friendly option: allowing toddlers to go for a wander, play, have a meal and go to the toilet without stress or constant breaks.
Inside the sleeper cabin that will carry her through the night she’s delighted to discover a pair of slippers and a small bottle of sparkling white wine. Her cabin partner arrives, they fall into conversation and the train glides off into the night.
Even before the Iron Curtain fell 30 years ago, the forerunner of the current European Union began work on integration of European travel. Under Ireland’s Peter Sutherland as competition commission, work began to lift air travel restrictions and allow new operators enter the market alongside national carriers.
The new space was soon filled by budget airlines like Ryanair, opening up the once divided continent. But times are changing, and European rail is undergoing a renaissance.
For Mark Smith, a train buff and blogger better known as “The Man in Seat 61”, the climate debate has been a datalyst in a shift back to the rails that was already under way. The realisation that reducing air travel – in particular short-hop flights – is the single most effective way to reduce one’s carbon footprint has collided with a growing dread of clogged airports. But Europe’s rail renaissance has a long way to go.
“Air travel is really easy to book but a nightmare to do, trains are difficult to book and easy to do,” he said. “European train companies live in silos and tend to focus on their own patch. They might work with their immediate neighbours but that’s about it.”
The reality of European rail is a national patchwork of differing histories, technical standards and mentalities. Efforts to standardise signalling and other technical issues across Europe are moving ahead, but slowly.
Meanwhile EU efforts to liberalise the European rail market have so far yielded mixed results.
Open connection data and integrated ticketing – key demands of rail passenger groups – are still not a pan-EU reality due to technical incompatibility and, in some cases, old monopolist mentalities.
Meanwhile some national operators with effective lobbies in Brussels oppose proposals to boost passenger rights for rail connections missed because of operator delays. Yet without the right to travel on a later train without penalty, train expert Mark Smith says European rail will struggle to move beyond its current fragmented state.
For Nick Brooks, head of the Allrail lobby group representing a dozen private rail operators in Europe, old monopoly mentalities are a major hindrance to a Ryanair of European rail. The high cost of buying track access from national operators deters would-be market entrants, he says, if they aren’t scared off already by the high cost of market entry. You can’t lease trains like planes, he says, requiring deep-pocketed operators for long-distance rail competition to succeed.
But it has in Italy, he says, where a new private operator with shiny new trains boosted frequency on major lines and drove down average ticket prices. The result: more rail passengers and growing profits for both Italo and the state rail incumbent.
Brooks is heartened by the growing interest in rail travel, but frustrated by the gap between EU competitiveness rules and the reality.
“The EU is very robust if it’s investigating Silicon Valley, private companies on a different continent,” he said. “But it’s another story when they are investigating state-owned companies in their own backyard. Then all sorts of political sensitivities come into play to the detriment of price and service quality.”
One of the most surprising features of the rail renaissance is the return of sleeper trains. Four years ago it seemed the final whistle had sounded when Deutsche Bahn (DB) retired its loss-making night train fleet that had criss-crossed Europe.
One of its partners, Austrian rail operator ÖBB, faced a choice: cancel the eight lines it operated with DB or do something radical to stay on the rails. It chose the latter and took over many DB routes. Its leap of faith is already paying off thanks to Greta Thunberg and the “flight shame” debate.
“When management said ‘we believe in the future of the night train’ it wasn’t at all clear the hype that would develop subsequently,” said Bernhard Rieder, ÖBB spokesman. “What was clear then was that night trains only had a future if we invested.”
The Austrian state-owned rail operator has new sleeper trains being built for delivery by 2022. For now its interim refresh of DB’s old and tired sleeper stock, combined with attractive ticket prices, has yielded results.
Passenger numbers between Vienna and Zürich were up a fifth in 2019 year-on-year, and Berlin-Zürich is up 10 per cent. Sleeper compartments from Berlin to Vienna are regularly booked out, showing demand outstrips supply.
From May the service between the Austrian and German capitals, currently running through Poland, will be supplemented by extra trains via Prague and Dresden.
Last week in Brussels saw the arrival of the first night train from Vienna with much fanfare. In partnership with Dutch rail (NS), Amsterdam will follow next autumn.
Other connections ÖBB is considering: a night train from Zürich to Barcelona, a sleeper between Berlin-Brussels or up to Scandinavia. That dovetails with plans floated by Swedish rail for overnight sleeper trains from Malmö to Cologne.
While DB’s night train service drowned in red ink, ÖBB says its Nightjet service currently breaks even. Yet this is only possible because of a state subsidy for running the rail services within Austria. Without public money it doubts that European night trains can survive – and thrive – as an attractive and environmentally-friendly transport alternative to cars and air travel.
Many new routes in Europe’s rail renaissance merely restore connections cancelled in previous decades, but ÖBB says a massive mentality shift is as necessary as investment across the continent if rail is to reach its full potential.
“It’s sad that many European national rail operators still think in very national terms, even more so than, say, 20 years ago,” said Rieder. “We need greater European co-operation to make a night train system work.”
Deutsche Bahn has no plans to get back into the sleeper train business but still sees itself as part of a paradigm shift across the continent. After years of treading water, with little investment, things have changed at DB. A private joint-stock company, wholly owned by the German state, it has just announced a €84 billion infrastructure investment programme.
Another overhaul last month saw a cut on train ticket VAT and other price reductions, and and even higher frequency between major cities. A new Berlin-Munich high-speed line has cut the travel time to under four hours, and has been a runaway success with passengers.
DB’s medium-term aim: to use a delivery of new high-speed ICE trains, currently arriving every few weeks from the factory, to increase the frequency between major European cities to 30 minutes. Instead of checking timetables, passengers can just show up and catch the next train.
DB employees say they sense a palpable momentum in the company as management – and the company’s politician owners – realise the potential of DB as a green transport option at the heart of Europe.
“After many years of prioritising auto mobility in Europe, we won’t have a golden age of rail overnight. It’s a long journey with many building sites,” said a DB spokesman. “But we’re seeing a new wave of younger people who are very political joining Deutsche Bahn now, who really want to change things and do something good here.”
At 7am on Friday, Julie Dawson got in touch from Vienna to say she had a great trip. She sat up talking with her cabin partner and they parted company with a hug heading into a busy day of meetings.
But does she think the revival of European rail travel, in particular sleeper trains, is a long-term trend in Europe or just a flash in the pan?
“We spent the last 20 years thinking everything could get faster and cheaper,” she says. “Now we’re realising we’re in trouble because everything’s become too fast and too cheap. The train is part of the answer to that.”
The daddy of European rail is Deutsche Bahn (DB) based in Berlin. It operates long-distance highspeed ICE trains, as well as regional and suburban rail in many German city. A public company, its shares are 100 per cent owned by the German federal government.
At 33,000km, Germany has the world’s seventh longest rail network, and carried 2.58 billion passengers in 2018, with a turnover that year of €44.5 billion. It is also a major player in European rail cargo.
DB’s recently expanded European timetable offers direct services from Germany to 150 cities. It runs ICE high-speed trains to Paris, Brussels, Vienna and Basel/Zürich, and also owns Arriva, operational in 14 European countries including the rail services Chiltern, CrossCountry, London Overground, Grand Central, and Northern.
France’s SNCF is also a major player and introduced its TGV high-speed trains in 1981, which now carry over 100 million passengers annually on a dedicated 1,800km network, part of a total rail network of 32,000 km owned and operated by the state-owned company.
As well as a 55 per cent stake in Eurostar, SNCF holds 70 per cent of the Thalys high-speed train company connecting Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels and Cologne. Its Keolis subsidiary runs the UK services Thameslink, Southern, Great Northern and the Gatwick Express.
The firm is a joint venture between Go-Ahead group and French company Keolis. Starting in December, SNCF’s Ouigo subsidiary will operate daily services in Spain between Madrid and Barcelona, Valencia, Seville and Malaga.
Austrian state rail company ÖBB is enjoying a PR bounce through its embrace of rail services. The holding company has subsidiaries in passenger and freight transport, as well as a travel agency, advertising companies and more. It owns and operates Austria’s 9,740km rail network, right up into the Alps, transporting around 466 million people annually. Its growing Nightjet service connects Europe with services running north from Vienna to Berlin and Hamburg and as far south as Zagreb.
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Buying tickets: www.bahn.de by Deutsche Bahn, offering one of Europe’s most extensive rail connections databases in eight languages, or Raileurope.co.uk, owned by SNCF.