Night trains to make comeback on European network

Intercity rail links seen as rival to airlines

For some it was a legendary rail network, for others a classic Kraftwerk song. Some 25 years after it was mothballed, the Trans-Europe Express (TEE) is making a comeback.

On Tuesday leading European rail companies signed a letter of intent for the TEE 2.0, a night train network to operated jointly by them across the continent.

By 2023 the new TEE network will have 26 routes available for night train services, including Amsterdam, Hamburg, Berlin, Paris, Zürich, Milan, Venice and Barcelona.

The original Trans-Europe Express service was launched in 1957 and, at its peak in the 1970s connected over 130 cities using a network of 45 trains. It was shut down in 1995, hobbled by a lack of investment and competition from budget airlines.


Tuesday’s announcement is a nod to a growth in rail travel – in particular night trains – spearheaded by Austria’s state rail company ÖBB.

Four years ago it bought up what remained of Europe’s night train network and a massive investment programme in its Nightjet brand has seen exponential growth in passengers tired of traffic jams and stressful air travel. It already has 1.6 million passengers using the night service, a figure it hopes the TEE co-operation can double in three years.

“This is a special day and shows we made the right decision in 2016,” said ÖBB chief executive Andreas Matthä. “Nightjet is now a European brand for night trains…many young people and families in particular are fans of our night trains.”

Rolling stock

Austria's federal transport minister Leonora Gewessler said the Vienna government was determined to be at the heart of the renaissance of European rail travel. ÖBB is spending €500 million on new rolling stock, with the first 13 trains due to come into service in the coming months, as well as €17.5 million in addition infrastructure.

“The ÖBB success story shows that this can work, and we will continue to pursue this politically,” said Ms Gewessler.

Crucial to the success of the new TEE network is the participation of German rail giant Deutsche Bahn (DB). After years of neglect and low investment it retired its tired night service trains, claiming there was no demand. Now that ÖBB has proven otherwise, DB chief executive Richard Lutz has come around to the idea.

While many details have yet to be agreed, the pandemic struggles of the airline industry mean that for German federal transport minister Andreas Scheuer the time is right for the Trans-Europe Express.

"A train that starts at 9am in Paris," he said, "could be in Cologne at 12.15, in Berlin at 4.45pm and at 10.15pm in Warsaw. "

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin