Night trains, which helped a generation of young Europeans travel abroad (does anyone remember the Interrail pass?) may soon be no more than a memory.
Economic and environmental magazine Terra Eco notes several companies have recently decided to end their overnight services, including Elipsos, which decided last December to “cancel its route between France and Spain, then the one between Switzerland, Spain and Italy.” At the start of October, International Railway Journal reported that German operator Deutsche Bahn, one of the biggest operators of overnight trains, would also withdraw its nocturnal services to France, Switzerland and Denmark.
If competition with low-cost airlines, obsolete equipment, heavy management fees and operating complications all contribute to the closures, International Railway Journal also notes European rail legislation has liberalised the sector —
It seems ironic that while the European Commission ploughs billions of euros into developing cross-border rail infrastructure, international links are being quietly curtailed because there is no common vision for their continued operation. This flies in the face of EU policy on modal shift and carbon reduction, effectively forcing rail passengers onto short-haul flights.
If tapping into the trains’ “huge potential” for tourism would require a “common vision for their continued operation”, the journal also argues operators should consider a “more pragmatic approach”, offering for example “value-added services such as premium cabins, promotions, and easy booking”.
For the moment, notes Terra Eco, only Thello appears to be developing, having expanded annual passengers on its Paris-Milan-Venice route from 200,000 in 2010 to “at least” 340,000 estimated for 2014. However, economist Yves Crozet tells the magazine that “Thello’s night line between Paris and Venice is a particular service where romanticism is obliged,” and a sign that night trains are becoming a luxury niche market: “they belong to the past, like crossing the Atlantic by sea.”