EU celebrates as night train returns to Brussels

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Passengers board the first night train heading to Brussels before its departure on January 19, 2020 after the inauguration of the new night-train connexion from Vienna to Brussels. (Photo by ALEX HALADA/AFP via Getty Images)

Night trains are back in Brussels — much to the delight of the EU’s green-minded officials.

Austrian state railway ÖBB brought the first scheduled sleeper service for at least a decade into Brussels-Midi station, with a crew of Green politicians and the EU’s chief diplomat in Austria, Martin Selmayr, on board.

The new link looks set to ride a wave of climate anxiety by pushing comparatively green rail transport over dirtier aviation links. But for now, it will have a hard time competing with air travel.

The link will run twice a week, leaving from Vienna on Sunday and Wednesday and starting the journey back from Brussels on Mondays and Thursdays. It arrives into the EU capital at almost 11 am, too late for same-day arrival business travellers, and will be suspended in July and August.

“It revives a superb tradition; that of the night train that’s linked up [Belgium and Austria] for almost a century,” said Sophie Dutordoir, CEO of Belgian railway company SNCB, referring to the Ostend-Vienna express that ran from 1894 to 1993, before being morphed into the “Donauwalzer” connection that was discontinued in 2003.

Despite the drawbacks, politicians are pushing it as an example of how a shift to rail can fit with the EU’s climate commitments.

But new lines are heavily dependent on public cash support: Both the Netherlands and Sweden are putting aside money to subsidise future overnight rail routes, including a new ÖBB sleeper between Vienna and Amsterdam starting in December.

“If we’re serious about the Green Deal, we need to see much, much more people and cargo moving by rail, otherwise transport will not become sustainable,” said Elisabeth Werner, director of land transport at the European Commission.

Back on track?

The bloc’s formerly dense network of night-rail services has for now been reduced to a loose collection of routes. In 2016 Germany’s Deutsche Bahn scrapped its overnight network, which ÖBB partially saved under its Nightjet brand. Meanwhile, France’s SNCF made deep cuts, and Hungary’s state rail operator MÁV said in 2017 it would dramatically reduce international rail services.

Part of the problem is that Europe’s railways aren’t set up for cross-border travel. Unlike in the airline industry, ticketing platforms are largely national with no single outlet able to make bookings across all EU countries. There’s also been little investment in new sleeper trains, a problem that holds back ÖBB from opening new routes although new carriages are now on order.

Dutordoir said operators face a myriad of traffic rules to run night services, and the needed permits and rolling stock come at a very high cost. “In order to get that going, we need incentives from the member states or the European Union,” she said.

“The solutions are there, we just have to multiply them”

French Green MEP Karima Delli, who traveled on the first service into Brussels, said the new Vienna-Brussels link should serve as a signal to other operators such as SNCF or Germany’s Deutsche Bahn to follow suit. “The solutions are there, we just have to multiply them.”

But neither company has publicly committed to sleepers, and a major problem remains the business case for services.

François Bellot, Belgium’s transport minister, said it would be “premature” to discuss a Belgian initiative to develop night trains of its own.

“Night trains have disappeared due to a lack of clients,” he said. But a combination of Green Deal zeal and flight shaming may hopefully change that.

Source: Politico