Europe’s night trains are under threat – and campaigners are moving to defend them

The last train from Paris to Port Bou, Spain, 2016. Image: Getty.

As CityMetric readers, you’ll already know that sleeper trains are one of the best ways to travel, whether you want an efficient, environmentally-friendly overnight journey from A to B, or an epic travel adventure involving wine, food and views.

But this most civilised mode of transport is, alas, under threat. Deutsche Bahn stopped running night trains in late 2016 (although Austrian Railways took over several routes), the last Paris-Nice night train ran in December and various services across Europe are under review.

Those who like to lie down and snooze to their destination are not going to lie down and take it any more, however. April saw a week of demonstrations, seminars and campaigning to defend and expand overnight train services. From singing in Malmö Central Station to letters to the Swiss transport minister, Europe’s night train fans aren’t giving up without a fight.

“We tried to keep away from the sad stories,” said Poul Kattler, one of the organisers at Back On Track, a European coalition to support cross-border rail. “I think what is especially important is we are still able... in the very special case to keep up spirits across countries.”

The 19 events across Europe underline the benefits of existing night train services, as well as calling for the reinstatement of iconic routes like Paris-Madrid and Vienna-Prague-Berlin. From Spain to Sweden, there were demonstrations of love for cross-border night trains across Europe. Kudos in particular to the brave souls who took their sleeping bags and lay down on platforms in Vienna, Prague and Berlin to express their displeasure at the lack of an overnight connection.

Indeed, there’s so little joined-up cross-border thinking right now that there isn’t even an official map of all European night train services. Luckily -- and because there’s nothing better than a map – Back On Track support Per Eric Rosén has made one, and it’s a beauty:

 

You can see the whole thing here.

One thing that’s worth noting about the protests is that night train fans’ motivations are as diverse as their dress sense. There’s an efficiency angle, because if you travel overnight you don’t need a hotel and you can travel while you sleep. For some people, like your correspondent, it’s all about the comfort – there’s nothing like a glass of fizz and dinner in the dining car before heading off to bed.

Poul Kattler, meanwhile, is a fan for environmental reasons. “If we’re going to be serious about climate change footprints, the night train is a good answer to that,” he said. “If you take three aeroplanes and put the passengers on one night train, it’s a starting point.”

Like the moonlight flashing on rails as the Orient Express (the EuroNight one, not the VSOE) emerges from a tunnel, there are glimmers of hope. The Caledonian Sleeper, which links London to Scotland is getting fancy new carriages later this year, including double beds and a Club Car which promises to take passengers “on a culinary tour of Scotland” – who doesn’t want to drink single malts on a train?

And ÖBB Austrian railways, which took over 16 routes from DB linking Austria, Germany, Italy and Switzerland had 1.4m night train passengers last year, and “expects a slight increase in 2018,” according to Kurt Bauer, head of long-distance services at ÖBB. “We’re very pleased to have entered into the night train market,” he said in an interview with Swiss Railways. “We made a good name for ourselves in the last year, and want to make Nightjet a synonym for night trains in the future.” Even more excitingly, they plan shiny new trains from 2020.

Kattler is a fan of Swedish new-entrant operator Snälltåget’s "Berlin Night Express", which links Malmö and the German capital. The journey also offers a crazy travel experience where they put the train on a ferry across the Baltic Sea, from Trelleborg to Sassnitz. The crossing takes for hours and you can hop off the train and visit restaurants and shop on the ferry.

 

What does the future hold for night trains? It’s far from clear, but in the meantime, Kattler and his fellow activist visited Brussels in late April to meet the European Commission and parliamentarians to build on their week of action and discuss the future of rail. And for the rest of us, the Man in Seat 61 has a guide to booking pretty much every night train, ever. Goodnight, and happy travelling.


 

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.