While the night train rattles steadily over the rails, I slip away into the realm of dreams. Bavaria, Austria, the Alps, everything passes by. The next morning I am woken up by a gentle knock on the compartment door and a friendly “Dobro jutro” – passport control at the Slovenian-Croatian border. The conductor then serves thick, black coffee in paper cups. At nine o’clock in the morning I’ve reached my first destination and I’m standing in the Croatian metropolis of Zagreb at the main train station. Travel time just under 15 hours, at least six of them sleeping. However, I had to travel the Berlin-Munich route by ICE. In the European night train network, Croatia can only be reached from Germany from Munich, in a through coach, for a variety of reasons.
From the end of the DB night train to cooperation
We jump back to the year 2016, at that time the Deutsche Bahn (DB) and its night train division went City Night Line separate ways. The nine-year relationship fell victim to the argument of economic viability. According to DB, the City Night Line made losses of more than 30 million euros a year.
According to a DB spokeswoman, the night train business is complex and expensive, from the set to maintenance and the special works and to the specially trained employees. However, one has not completely exited the night train business. DB now operates the night train network in cooperation with European partners, but without its own wagons.
ÖBB shows how it’s done
The Austrian Federal Railway (ÖBB) shows that the night train business does not have to be a niche market, but can run. In 2016, the railway company in the neighboring country took over parts of the DB night train line. The number of passengers has increased every year since then. Exception – of course – 2020, the Corona pandemic year. The ÖBB is also familiar with the challenges of night traffic. Spokesman Bernhard Rieder puts it this way: “It is clear that you cannot get rich with the night train business per se. The costs of ‘hotel operations’ and travel in one product are significantly higher than the cost structure of day connections by train.”
The Austrians cannot complain about the lack of bookings, the trains are fully booked until autumn, according to the ÖBB spokesman. The goal: three million travelers in the long term. There are currently 33 completely new trains in production.
Trend or mobility turnaround?
ÖBB figures show that more and more people want to use the night train. But can one now speak of a trend, a boom or the beginning of a real turnaround in mobility? I ask mobility expert Bernhard Knierim. Increasing demand, the expansion of the night train network and a halt to the discontinuation of relevant night train routes – he sees all of this as a trend. “But that’s still far too little for a boom or even the start of a real turnaround in mobility,” says Knierim. “For that we would first need a real European network that can be used on all routes and no longer has such large gaps.”
The expansion of the night train network
The ÖBB, Deutsche Bahn, the French SNCF and the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) are working together to close these gaps. At the end of 2020, they announced their intention to expand the European night train network. Since then, more and more major cities in Europe can be reached from Germany. 13 further connections are planned, such as Berlin, Brussels and Paris from the end of 2023.
Train enthusiasts like Matthias Gastel, transport policy spokesman for the Greens, quickly get enthusiastic about a European night train network with up to 2000 kilometers of rails. “That’s an amazing distance, at which one speaks of a medium-haul flight.” His vision: A route network that makes intra-European flights largely superfluous. Until then, however, the infrastructure must be expanded and digitalization used more optimally. And, of course, the competitive imbalance must be reduced. According to Gastel, flying is simply too cheap.
Low-cost airlines instead of trains were the norm for a long time. Generous subsidies have made it possible
Travel in an environmentally friendly way
Traveling by night train is more climate-friendly than traveling the same route by plane. On the night train from Munich to Zagreb, the climate argument comes up again and again in conversations. But for Ismail from Amsterdam, it’s also this other type of travel: “I always feel like I’m going on a journey through time.” And somehow the years of flying with the low-cost providers seem to have caused travelers to be more annoyed than the promised ease and freedom of flying. “For me, traveling by train is more relaxed. You have to be there two hours earlier at the airport, then something doesn’t work. Then you need forever to get your luggage. And of course there are the emissions,” says transport planner Johannes from Weimar.
Competition with air transport?
Why, I wonder, have we indulged in this styleless, climate-damaging travel in dingy, plastic-clad planes that feel more like a bus than a plane a la Concorde for so long? The answer to this question may be found in the political decisions of the past decades.
From the early 1990s, the EU decided on tax breaks for air traffic. Low-cost airlines suddenly became available everywhere. The elimination of the kerosene tax and the waiver of VAT on international flights are the biggest factors. With the boom in low-cost airlines, there was hardly any investment on the rails, and as a result the image also got worse and worse, according to mobility expert Knierim. Decades of preference for air travel have gradually relieved the night train of its function. Bernhard Rieger from ÖBB also sees this as the reason why so many European railways have left the night train market segment.
A plea for the night train
On my nightly drive to Zagreb I crossed three national borders. I spoke to people from six nations. In Munich I fortified myself with roast pork and dumplings and woke up with a view of the Slovenian foothills of the Alps – night trains are a wonderful way of travelling. It lets you feel the distance in a slow, stylish and relaxed way. On top of that, it is more climate-friendly than traveling through the air. I won’t be getting on a plane for a trip within Europe anytime soon.