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EU aims to spur night train ‘love’

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The European Commission reckons it has found the right recipe to fix the big thing going wrong with night trains — a lack of actual trains.

As part of a new action plan on cross-border rail published Tuesday, the EU executive announced plans for a Green Rail Investment Platform that will make it easier for train companies to source loans from the Luxembourg-based European Investment Bank to finance new carriages and trains. It’s in line with the broader Fit for 55 legislative package aimed at cutting the bloc’s emissions by 55 percent by the end of the decade.

While Tuesday’s plan is aimed at boosting all forms of long-distance rail — deemed critical to meet the bloc’s climate targets and shift traffic away from polluting short-haul flights — sleeper trains are a big beneficiary.

“We have to love night trains, it’s nowadays the mantra,” said Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean while presenting the plan.

Rail operators are already moving — reversing a trend from a few years ago that saw 65 percent of overnight routes shuttered between 2001 and 2019 as people shifted to much cheaper and faster flights operated by discount carriers. That calculation is changing as climate change rises in importance and many countries look to kill off domestic short-haul flights.

France, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Norway, Switzerland and the Netherlands have all pledged some form of public investment to get night services back on track.

But the night train push is running into problems thanks to a lack of specialized sleeper carriages, incoherent national programs that don’t allow for smooth international integration, and spats over widely different levels of enthusiasm for the concept among countries and rail operators.

“The problem with night trains is that you can’t scale them up because nobody has any trains,” said Jon Worth, a blogger who runs the Trains for Europe campaign aimed at finding an EU solution for funding new rolling stock. “A load of countries in Europe are thinking about this problem, but thinking about it separately.”

The EIB has invested €8.7 billion in rolling stock over the last five years, and the new platform is aimed at helping railways secure loans with long repayment periods and EU guarantees.

France’s Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari wants to purchase up to 300 new night train carriages by 2030, while Italy is considering buying 70 for its national lines and Spain has similar plans. Looking north, Sweden and Norway are also in talks about new rolling stock for their cross-border services.

“If all of those countries do their own thing, you end up with a piecemeal patchwork solution which doesn’t suit Europe very well,” said Worth. He wants the Commission to corral countries to jointly purchase new trains, driving down the cost through scale and making sure they can run on various national networks.

Missing links

Austria’s ÖBB, Deutsche Bahn, France’s SNCF, Switzerland’s SBB and Dutch railway NS have a cooperation deal on basic measures to run sleeper trains — often using old carriages dating back decades — but that team-up doesn’t stretch to buying new trains. The cost of a new seven-carriage train with a locomotive is around €30 million, says Worth.

Coordination problems are also a drag on hopes for a European night train revival.

A plan to put on a direct sleeper from Malmö in Sweden to Brussels via Copenhagen and Hamburg failed because no rail operator offered to run it through Germany. Europe’s largest economy — one of the first to ditch night trains in the mid-2010s — is yet to commit to doing much more than allowing night trains put on by other state railways such as ÖBB to run across its network, complicating efforts to get new lines running south from Scandinavia, or west out of Central Europe.

“[Germany is] really a black island for night trains,” Denmark’s Transport Minister Benny Engelbrecht, who backs the idea of joint night train purchasing, told POLITICO. “That’s really a big barrier for night trains in Europe … We would also like to see the general rules and guidelines within the EU to promote night trains.”

In a letter seen by POLITICO, Engelbrecht, along with his counterparts from Sweden and Belgium, called on Vălean to “take leadership” and lift “troublesome hurdles for the establishment of new cross-border night-train services” on the Continent by rethinking public service obligation (PSO) rules that allow subsidies for connections.

“There are still too many technical, legal and economic obstacles to international night trains,” said Belgium’s Green Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet.

The Commission action plan calls for countries to reduce track access charges and to cut VAT on rail tickets and it also promises more clarity on PSO rules that will make it easier to subsidize new routes.

But getting people to drop the idea of flying across the Continent in a few hours for very little money and to take a train instead is going to be difficult — as Vălean admitted.

“I think more and more [night trains] become romantically attractive,” she said. “If they are to replace airlines, I’m not sure, let’s wait and see.”

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