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MAP: Return of night trains across Europe comes a step closer

The return of night trains across Europe came a step closer this week when four European governments - Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany - signed a cooperation pact and laid out a timetable for the return of services.

MAP: Return of night trains across Europe comes a step closer
Photo: AFP/SNCF

The four countries signed a cooperation pact on Tuesday to revive a Paris-Vienna service within a year.

The deal between Austria's OBB, France's SNCF, Germany's Deutsche Bahn and Switzerland's CFF, signed during a meeting of EU transport ministers, aims to have the service running by December 2021.

Tuesday's agreement was aimed at resolving problems that have held back relaunching night services and ensure better commercial cooperation.

While for some, night trains hark back to an earlier time, these officials see them as a key element for the future as Europe strives to reduce its carbon emissions.

“It is clear to me that night trains are the ecological alternative to short-haul flights and car journeys,” said Austrian Transport Minister Leonore Gewessler.

“It's great cooperation of which I am proud and a strong signal for the green transport demanded by many,” said Alain Krakovitch, General Director of French state rail operator SNCF.

Deutsche Bahn CEO Richard Lutz told POLITICO that it was “a huge economic challenge” to run night trains up until around 2015. “But in recent years, we’ve seen an increase in demand, particularly from young people,” he said.

Supporters believe night trains will offer a sustainable alternative to some late night and early morning flights. Those behind the plan claim the amount of CO2 produced per passenger is ten times less on a night train from Paris to Vienna than on a flight on the same route.

An Amsterdam-Cologne-Zurich service is also on track for December 2021 as well as a Zurich-Barcelona train in December 2024.

Austria's OBB has been working for several years to bring back night train services, which withered away as cheap air travel boomed in Europe.

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The firm hopes to see the number of international night trains grow from 19 to 26 within four years, with passenger numbers climbing from 1.8 to 3 million per year.

Much work still needs to be done and complications lie ahead before the services become operational.

Operators will have to build suitable carriages which will be expensive and harmonise many of technical specificities, particularly around safety which are different across the rail networks.

What's clear is that rail operators working together will be key.

“Cooperation, in favour of the development of night trains in France and in Europe, makes it possible to pool the strengths of all four partners,” read a joint press release.

But “public financial support will undoubtedly be essential to support the economic model of these night services”.

This financial support has not been laid out to date.

In June a separate plan was laid out for a European ultra-rapid train network that would see Berlin linked to Paris in just four hours.

The planned timetable is as follows:

December 2021

Zurich – Amsterdam

Paris – Vienna

December 2022

Zurich – Rome

December 2023

Berlin – Paris

Berlin – Brussels

December 2024

Zurich – Barcelona

Member comments

  1. As an overseas tourist coming to visit Europe this is wonderful news. It makes Europe so much more accessible. Travel by night and sleep on the trains and explore during the day. I did this many times in the UK and it was wonderful. Based on the route map I don’t see Portugal in the plans. That would be great to include Lisbon.

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TRAIN TRAVEL

Stockholm to Oslo train links ‘would save half a million plane journeys’

A faster train service between Stockholm and Oslo could save half a million journeys by plane, a joint study carried out by the Swedish Transport Agency and Norwegian Railway Directorate has found. 

Stockholm to Oslo train links 'would save half a million plane journeys'

A joint study between the Transport Agency and Norwegian Railway Directorate found that building the so called “Gränsbanen” or border railway, with new tracks linking either Lillestrøm or Ski in Norway with the Swedish town of Arvika, would cut more than an hour off the current 5 hour 13 minute journey between Stockholm and Oslo. 

As a result, the two agencies predict that more than half a million of those who fly between the two capitals every year would instead take the train, dramatically reducing carbon emissions. 

Despite this, the joint study found building the Gränsbanen alone would not provide sufficient benefits to balance out the cost — of between 20 and 45 billion Norwegian kroner (21-48bn Swedish kronor) for Lillestrøm-Arvika and 25 to 60 billion kroner (27-64bn SEK) for Ski-Arvika. 

“The cost-benefit ratio comes to -9.5bn Norwegian kroner,” Bente Bukholm, project leader for the study at the Norwegian Railway Directorate, told Sweden’s TT newswire. “But it’s pretty common that you end up with a negative cost-benefit ratio for society with big railway projects, because they are so expensive to build.

Jonas Karlsson, the chief executive of the local government-owned lobbying company Oslo-Stockholm 2.55, told The Local that the agencies themselves in their report pointed out that the elements that went into the cost-benefit ratio were far from representative, with only the Gränsbanen taken into account. 

Oslo-Stockholm 2.55 is joint-owned by three Swedish regions — Värmland, Västmanland and Örebro — and three city governments Karlstad, Västerås, and Örebro. It is pushing to bring the journey time to below three hours. 

“We have made a cost benefit analysis for the project which is positive,” Karlsson said. “The big difference is that we have looked into the benefits if you establish [a link] all the way between Stockholm and Oslo: if you make a double track on Värmlandsbanan and if you make Nobelbanan.” 

It would take building the Nobelbanan, a new track linking Örebro and Kristinehamn, to bring the journey down under three hours, something Karlsson reckons is reasonable, seeing as the two capitals are only just over 400km away from one another as the crow flies. 

They believe that such a link could replace a million air journeys a year, double as many as predicted in last week’s joint Swedish-Norwegian report. 

“The huge amount of travel that goes on between Stockholm and Oslo is mainly done by air,” he said. “Before Covid there were 22 flights a day in each direction. It was the 20th biggest air connection in the world if you look at the number of flights, and air connection had a market share of 88 percent.” 

He said that the distance was sufficiently short that there is no need for a high-speed rail link able to take trains at more than 250 km/h. Normal express trains would be able to do it in under three hours. 

He pointed that the total cost of about 65 billion kronor for all the new connections, while significant, was much less than the 325 billion kronor required for new high speed rail links proposed between Stockholm and Gothenburg and Malmö. 

Also, because it would use existing train lines, the Stockholm-Oslo link would also benefit the regions along the way and allow regional transport to be improved.

Despite the conclusion that the cost-benefit ratio was negative, Karlsson said that the joint report, as well as support from many prominent Moderate MPs, was “very positive”: 

“It said that they recommend that the governments in Sweden and Norway continue their investigation into this project, and get into traditional planning for for this, so I’m very happy for that,” he said. “I think there is a good opportunity right now.”

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