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.


 

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.