Back on track: declining night trains in Europe get suspended

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Paris (AFP)

It was one of the quintessential European travel experiences.

With passengers asleep by the clicking of wheels on the tracks, the network of night trains that crisscrossed the continent have inspired travelogues, thrillers and films.

But the cost of running them, coupled with the growth of high-speed daytime trains and the popularity of low-cost airlines, meant the era of the lit sleeper and wagon was quietly fading into the night. .

Key routes have been cut and the complex network of overnight routes across Europe has been reduced to a handful of services.

But growing awareness among passengers and governments of the carbon footprint of air travel – coupled with the airline industry’s contraction due to the coronavirus outbreak – means overnight trains could be in line for an unexpected renaissance .

Austria, France and Sweden are among the countries pushing for a return to overnight train travel which could still see more of us coming home for the night in a comfortable, lighted wagon.

French President Emmanuel Macron – who in recent years has reduced his domestic night services to just two routes – announced in July that the government would “rearrange” night trains as part of a campaign to cut emissions.

The Secretary of State for Transport, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, said night connections between Paris and the Mediterranean city of Nice, as well as with Tarbes in the Pyrenees, would be restored by 2022.

“I think there is real demand,” said Christophe Fanichet, general manager of the passenger subsidiary of SNCF SNCF Voyageurs.

He said there was in particular a “young population who are careful about carbon emissions” and are willing to take a little longer to travel.

– Austrian ‘pioneer’ –

Night trains have been cut one after another in France in recent years, which is hardly surprising in a country where high-speed TGV now carries passengers from Paris to Marseille in just over three hours.

Only two lines survive for lack of alternatives for passengers between Paris and Briançon in the Alps and Cerbère in the Pyrenees.

They cost the state 20 million euros ($ 24 million) to keep operating each year, plus 30 million to renovate trains.

Signs of an upturn in overnight travel are even more apparent elsewhere in Europe, notably Austria, where public rail operator OBB has paved the way for international services.

OBB has bought the old night trains from German operator Deutsche Bahn and is now planning to buy 20 new trains for 500 million euros.

It is now possible to board a train in Vienna and wake up in Brussels.

“In the coming years we want to focus on building the night train network,” Austrian Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler told the Kleine Zeitung newspaper.

“We want to strengthen this pioneering role,” she added, referring to the fact that Vienna is served by more night trains than any other city in Europe.

– ‘Reinvent the night train’ –

Another model for night trains is Sweden, the birthplace of the flygskam (shame of theft) concept advocated by teenage anti-global warming activist Greta Thunberg who doesn’t fly and goes to onboard conferences a lot. night trains.

The government plans to invest 400 million crowns (39 million euros, 46 billion dollars) to revive the daily connections between Stockholm and Hamburg and Malmö and Brussels by summer 2022.

It is too early to declare a night train revolution in Europe, as some operators are much more reluctant to bring them back.

Industry participants agree that there has to be a better solution than the standard European six-person bunk, which contains two sets of three bunk beds separated by a small space.

This is all the more important in the age of the coronavirus, where few passengers will want to spend the night in a confined space with potentially five complete strangers.

“We can’t just say we want night trains. We have to reinvent the night train, ”declared SNCF’s Fanichet.

“We cannot take the night train from yesterday,” he added.

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