Saving night trains services? Yes, we can
Analysis of - Signalling technician and railways observer
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Leave Amsterdam in the evening and wake up in de morning at Florence. An experience experienced by tens of millions of people, with this magic to leave a scenery and to find suddenly another in early morning, so different. That was the magic of the night train and we can see that in this video. Today, many dark shadows seem cast on its future. Whats happens?

A decline
Let it be said at once : night train services are a niche market intended for few consumers, contrary with the high-rate services of Inter City trains. This is more highly sensitive to the economic volatility and societal changes.  This is confirmed by figures showing low take up of some night services, but not all. As reported The Guardian in 2014, a spokesperson from Die Bahn said its night-train customers had fallen by 25% over the past five years, while its three least profitable sleeper lines had turned a loss of €12m.

The Caledonian Sleeper linking London to Scotland. Here at station of Edimburg Waverley (photo Norm via flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Italy, which has in recent years reduced the number of domestic sleepers connecting the north to the south of the country, was facing a reduction in night-train services, both in terms of the public resources earmarked for their running and because of the gradual decrease in their use, which has suffered a big decline connected to the arrival of low-cost flights, competition from coaches and the launch of the high-speed network.

The disappointing results of the activity of night trains make the German company would not consider renewing the couchettes cars and sleeping cars, leaving only the rolling stock for the best connections and to meet summer peak only, including Autozug the south of Europe.

And also the Motorail
Motorail is a night train on which you can take your own car on a specialized wagon, as shown picture below. Services were developed since years 60 when the motorway network was not so significant to the south of Europe. Benelux countries and Germany developed many motorail services toward St Raphaël, Narbonne, Bordeaux, Livorno, Villach,…Since then, the motorway network has developed strongly, that today, by combining with higher progress of automotive technology, to make 1000 kilometers by car is not an “adventure” than 40 years ago. This niche market is more little than the market of night train. For the germans Autozug, the results show that in 1999, nearly half a million customers had used the service. In 2013, they were no more than 200,000, a decrease of more than half. It is hard to believe that this microscopic traffic by Motorail can balance tens of millions of cars which cross every year the Alps by the Gotthard or Brenner Pass in Austria or on the A7 toward the South of France. The passenger vehicle traffic on motorways grows up continually and many people don't want to change their holidays patterns. EETC, the dutch motorail company, asks 2.000€ (2.257$ or 1.500 £) for a car and four people between Holland and Tuscany. It's not available to everyone...

EETC, a dutch motorail company which links Holland to Tuscany, but not France (photo

The causes of the problem
They are of several kinds. Firstly by the organization of an international railway. Twenty years ago national railways co-operated to run overnight services and they were able to cross-subsidies operations from more profitable parts of the business where necessary. There are not real infrastructure tolls as there are today, only cross-arrangements which nobody knew the exact cost ! The complex joint ventures and reciprocal working arrangements that sustained international operations in the past, based on an annual schedule. Running night trains without a subsidy was simply impossible.

In addition, there are very few block trains because the market is too small. It was necessary to integrated 3-4 night cars into the last express of the day and to uncouple the "international part" at the border, and integrated them to another express train of the neighboring railway. Sometimes not. Indeed, in the neighbor, there aren't express trains during the night, so that the too short night train continues his travel for 5 o'clock in the morning where it can integrated the first express train of the day. In some case, during the night, trains are uncoupled and coupled to form a train with more length. This forces to maintain the personnel of manoeuvre during the night, sometimes only for one train...

The rolling stock
He is very aged, and his marketing too. We find firstly the sleeping-cars invented by the belgian Nagelmackers in 1880. The most cars today were build in 70s and the most modern sleeping-cars in 90s, in Germany, Finland Russia. This comfortable cars offer only ten cabins with only 1 to 3 beds (and not "berths"). Capacity : the most modern car class MU (Modèle Universel) have 12 cabins of three beds, so for only 36 travellers maximum. French SNCF produce in 70s a sleeping-car called "T2", with 18 superposed cabins of two beds, also for 36 travellers. We can compare with a classic car second class with 88 seats...To democratize a market considered too luxurious, the germans and french have introduced new ideas, in the 1960s : the "couchettes-car". This car can embark 60 travellers in 10 cabins with 6 berths. The ratio by axle-wheel becomes better than a sleeping-car of 36 travellers...

The three class avaible, from left to right : sleeping-car, couchettes car, coach car (photos of the CNL website)

All of this models today still exist. Only the germans have reinvented the concept in the 1990s, by creation of "City Night Line" (picture below), which linked most german's cities with Zwitserland and Austria, but not others countries in Europe. The highlight of the company is his fantastic double-deck sleeping-car where some cabins have a shower. However, couchettes-cars are picked from the old existing rolling-stock without new concept. To democratize much more the service, it was introduced in Italy, France and on the CNL services many coach-cars with reclining seats. A package of measures designed to drive a higher load factor and to form the trains with more length. These programs have however a limited success.

Double-deck sleeping-car class WLABm171 on the 1259  « Sirius » Zürich-Berlin at Basle, 4 june 2014 (photo Nik Morris via flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The nonsense marketing
For those who remember, the night trains services was riddled by many surcharges which depend the category of cabin that you choose, your age or your social status. it is an amazing exercise for the brain to buy cheap train tickets in Europe, find good connections and organize your trip, it is far more challenging than with flying. Basically everything is intended to make international trips expensive and difficult in Europe. 

Indeed, the main principle was an addition of national fares : each people category has his fares and depends on whether you are alone, a family, a group, if you are only two or three people... If you want stay alone and you want take a single or a double beds cabin, you must take a first class ticket ! But even in first class, you don't pay the same price whether you are a young, an "adult" or an elderly. The big joke was that if your are a "family" in one country (with reduction fares), you become "nothing" in the neighbour country because you are not resident ! Fortunately, some marketing ideas were invented, such as the Interrail ticket, Eurodomino (now disappeared). But even with that, a surcharge for couchette or bed remains an obligation, making travel so expensive. In addition, flat-rate pricing may be one of the most important factors for encouraging access to railways but was not applicable on some product such as Talgo or the best night train services. CNL has changed this practice and proposes today only flat-rate pricing. A reduction - but not a free access - is possible in some case, such as with the Interrail ticket.

Old rolling stock (except CNL)  which are burdened with high fixed costs, requiring dedicated traincrew. little niche market, too short trains, higher costs for operations than for a classic Inter City, higher cost by axle-wheel (36 people on a sleeping-car), low revenues, a lacklustre growth, all this makes this business particularly vulnerable and makes many losses. As reported The Guardian, German rail services cite declining passenger numbers, caused by the rise of low-budget airlines, as the main reason for phasing out services.

The romantic vision
Many fans still respond of these questions with a romantic vision of the train. Railways are still the most environmentally sustainable and comfortable way of getting around Europe. You cannot expect people to spend a day on a train – you can expect them to spend a night. For long distance travelers looking for low emissions alternatives, the night train is the best choice. Really ? So why more and more people choose the busses which have many carbon emissions, for the same traject ? Because all of these perfect social-ecological arguments do not appear as soon as you talk about prices. A student told in the Babel Cafe : « I like using the train; it's an easier way to travel, but it takes a long time to get to destination. I prefer to have more days at destination and less time travelling there. Cheap flights are bad for the environment, but for reaching places fast, meeting friends, getting to know new places, working in another country, and so on, they are good ».

Many people would like that railways is the answer for the low-carbon transport, but they are facing tremendous costs. In fact, that's all the question of the ecology which being asked : which price to save the planet ? Maybe reduce carbon emissions by less travel ? The main question today is whether people would be willing to pay for the social cost of night train, and for railways. A question which is widely avoided when we read many comments or blog about the night trains services...

A Thello in Rome to Paris, an abandonned connection while the Paris-Venise route has remained (photo Darkroom Daze via flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Which rebirth ?
Operators must take a more pragmatic approach and need to be more aggressive in marketing services which offer distinct advantages over flying or busses. And it can work. The U.K.’s Caledonian Sleeper service, running from London to towns across Scotland, announced last year a £100 million new investment (60 percent of it from Scotland’s government) for new trains with better, more hotel-like facilities. Another good example is Thello, the subsidiary of the french Transdev and from the italian Trenitalia. This company has back on track a night service between Venice, Milan and Paris. The rolling stock is classic (couchette-car and sleeping-cars class MU) but Thello has introduced also the flat-rate pricing which depending of the class  and the date of the reservation.

We cannot forget to mention the longest line travelled by a train in Europe : the weekly Moscow-Nice, introduced in 2010 by the russian railways company  RZD. This unlikely connection has really matured and in 2014, 45.000 people have travelled over this 3200 kilometers route ! The 52 hours of the travel show that nothing is impossible. Marc Svetchine, director of the great Russian railway projects says in the newspaper Metro : “It is true that today, the line is used by the vast majority of Russians because they have still a tradition of long journeys by train, not the French”.

The 13118 Nice-Moscow near Leoben, in Austria, july 2012 (par unci_narynin via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 - click on picture to enlarge)

Go from Copenhagen to Milan by train is not a right, but only an opportunity. If the public service today can not answer to societal changes (bus, carpooling, low-cost life...), it is by lack of commitment. Of course, the market will not have all the answers, but the answer will also not come from the politicians because they have no talent in management and railway technical matters. In addition, the strategic importance the railways once had for many states, no longer exists. Many politicians no longer believe too much in the railways because the reform of the rules of the game to adapt them to the new social reality is an infuriatingly slow task. Traditional railways must also joining the cut of heavy management fees . The simple fact of driving actually costs money, and that survival depends on their ability to sell other services.

So it's more toward a niche customers that the marketing needs to move. The high costs of such services certainly ask that they are covered by an ad-hoc pricing. It's a bit what the cruise lines, where they abandoned the transatlantic routes in favor of highly profitable touristics loops. So we can imagine Paris-Rome many trains or Cologne-Budapest, not every day as required by the public service, but 2 or 3 times a week. By targeting tourists willing to pay for this kind of train. Europe could thus be criss crossed by many tourist trains several times a week, and every day from June to September. The destinations should depend of the seasons : Italy and Alps during winter, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe during summer, golden cities (Prague, Vienna, Nice, Barcelona, Venice,...) during spring and autumn. Why not ? We can also imagine a weekly cheap "retro couchette train", linking Amsterdam to Istanbul or Athens and many other destinations (Sicily, Romania, Norway…) to remind the old times of the 70's. The Belgian railway still holds a modern "disco-car" class SR3 and many couchettes-cars used only few nights per year (pilgrimage, without disco of course…). 

We also need to have a widely support of travel agencies on which we give every guarantee about the quality and about mastering costs.  All countries are implementing structural reforms and putting their public finances into order. That means that tomorrow, we will no longer make railway like yesterday. We therefore need to appoint qualified entrepreneurs, and not state officers without competencies. Everything is ready. By abandoning the old principles, by renewing the marketing and the public, we can say only one thing: yes, we can...