BERLIN — Expectations for a post-pandemic European night train revival are high, but turning Brussels into a sleeper hub is easier said than done.
On Tuesday, European Sleeper, a startup launched by two train enthusiasts and private Czech railway RegioJet, announced plans for a new night train service linking Brussels with Prague via Antwerp, Amsterdam and Berlin to start in a year.
The project looks to capitalize on an uptick in demand for climate-friendly travel and EU efforts to shift passengers from polluting short-haul flights to comparatively clean trains.
But getting this new rail connection on track means raising money — and finding carriages.
“I’m absolutely not sure this is going to work … but that’s not a reason not to do it,” said Elmer van Buuren, one of the two entrepreneurs behind European Sleeper.
The company is aiming to raise €400,000 to cover the costs of operation and has already set about getting scheduling slots with each of the four national track managers. According to van Buuren, having RegioJet on board — which will offer wagons, service and ticket distribution support — is helping attract attention.
The problem is finding carriages that are up to scratch for business travelers, said van Buuren. After years of underinvestment, Europe is running out of even rusty old sleepers — and it can take years to upgrade those that are available.
Austria’s ÖBB, which runs most of Europe’s sleeper trains, has commissioned Siemens to build a new fleet that will be deployed in 2022, initially on routes running to Italy rather than on its Vienna-Brussels link.
Van Buuren called on the European Commission — which designated 2021 its European Year of Rail — to create a marketplace to help private companies source unused trains from dominant state railways and lend more financial support to projects like his.
“The market is there and the time is right,” said Mark Smith, who runs the Man in Seat 61, a train travel website. “The cost side remains a challenge, along with the array of railway bureaucracy that European Sleeper must overcome.”
ÖBB is also looking at adding its own Brussels-Berlin service, while startup Moonlight Express on Tuesday proposed a separate direct link running through the Belgian city of Liège to Germany.