PAU NOY, 17.12.2020

Little by little Europe deflects its bow from unsustainable transport to the sustainable one. Where competitiveness was required before, we now hear about zero-emission transport. Priorities are changing and they are moving fast. It is clear that the COVID pandemic has opened the eyes of European rulers. It doesn’t deal that the virus has been the catalyst for that change, but that it has caused the change in priorities. We seek transport as close as possible to zero emissions and for this the railway is the best instrument. In fact, in Spain, all long-distance, regional and urban or suburban rail already have zero emissions because all companies are supplied with 100% renewable electricity. Virtually all of the Spanish passenger railway use electric traction. In Catalonia, everything is electric except the la Pobla de Segur line. It’s really a pity that its reform a few years ago was not used to electrify it.

With the pandemic we have discovered that we did not really need to travel as much, that it was surely a colossal mistake for regional governments to subsidize low-cost airline companies to bring flights to their territories, and that it is deeply unfair, and contrary to competition between transports, that flights are exempt from VAT and hydrocarbons taxes.

When I was young , I could travel all around Europe with night trains. The entire continent was full with railway lines where one could travel while sleeping. It was extremely practical. But the development of day high speed, the spread of low-cost flights and the proverbial myopia of the technocracies that manage European railway companies made possible that night train practically disappeared in western Europe. Deustche Bahn, the German railway flagged company, withdrew in 2016 all its night train services where people slept in beds or bunks, although night ICE trains continued to run with great success with passengers seated in cabotage traffic. France reduced them until only the two lines linking the south with Paris. Spain left them in a symbolic place, since until before of the pandemic it just maintained four services, between Barcelona and Galicia, between Madrid and Galicia, between Madrid and Lisbon (Greta Thunberg’s train !!) and between Hendaye and Lisbon. Now not any one of them runs because Renfe has taken advantage of the pandemic to temporarily suspend them. So much has been the decapitalization of Renfe in the chapter of night trains that years ago it stopped investing in this segment, despite the fact that the rolling stock used in 2019 already showed clear symptoms of obsolescence.

The Austrian bet

It seemed that all was lost when the Austrian-flagged railway company, ÖBB, Österreichische Bundesbahnen, decided to keep its bet on this product and already in 2016 it bought all the sleeper trains that Deustche Bahn did not want. And silently it began to weave the threads that today make up its European empire of night trains. Up to 18 different destinations on night trains to various European countries are managed by ÖBB every day. They thoroughly studied the customer’s needs and put together an attractive product at an attractive price, in front of the astonishment of the European railway technocracies, they started to have profits. In addition, it received the silent help from the Swiss SBB, because Switzerland is a too small country for having its own night trains. But this country is interested in the European night train network because it takes advantage of its territorial centrality to put on the map a mobility hub.

At a press conference on Tuesday, December 8, the French SNCF, the German DB, the Swiss SBB and the Austrian ÖBB presented a public agreement to develop the night train in Europe, but operated by ÖBB, with new links, up to 26 daily, as it’s shown in the following graph, which includes the service between Zurich and Barcelona, my city. What has made this change possible? Undoubtedly the agreement between Macron and Merkel to reduce transport emissions in Europe which has got to overcome the so far fierce opposition from their national railway companies. Politics prevails over technocracy. Excellent news.

What was actually done last Tuesday is an act of recognition of ÖBB’s leadership in the night train market in Western Europe and an implicit declaration of mea culpa by DB and SNCF.

The reasons for the return of night trains

Why, despite the progress of competition, high / medium-speed daytime rail services, low-cost air services, and the constant extension of the motorway network, is there still a great potential demand for night trains? Four are the reasons:

  1. The rail service saves between 70 and 90% of energy in relation to a flight; Furthermore, policies to combat climate change are at the centre of the European agenda;
  2. There are a certain number of users interested in a railway product that saves 2 hotel nights (round trip);
  3. The incomparable comfort that a train provides in relation to an air-plane;
  4. 16% of customers are afraid of flying or only do it if there is no other remedy.

And Renfe?

And where is placed Renfe in the context of the resurgence of the night railway? We do not know whether the Spanish company was not invited to the European railway summit or it was simply invited and declined to attend the meeting. But in any case the European message is clear and the progressive Spanish government should align itself with Macron and Merkel. If I were an advisor to Sánchez e Iglesias, president and vice of Spain, I would recommend them urging Renfe to do what follows:

  1. Recover the four existing Renfe night services before of the Covid pandemic.
  2. Design new night services in the Iberian Peninsula when distances and travel times justify it. Barcelona-Asturias, Barcelona-Extremadura-Lisbon and Barcelona-Granada.
  3. Join the very important purchase of night trains made by ÖBB .
  4. In cooperation with the Central European operators signatory to the declaration, implement night services such as Valencia-Barcelona-Italy, Madrid-Hendaye-Paris and Barcelona-Frankfurt. In addition, supporting the TEE 2.0 proposal presented by the German government to create a true rail network linking the European capitals. This proposal includes two daytime services, Amsterdam-Barcelona and Berlin-Barcelona.

Translated into English from its original: