The return of the night trains (neue-deutschland.de)

Thanks to Corona and the rail customers, it will soon be seen more frequently on the rails again: a night train in Vienna.

Photo: Simon Tartarotti / unsplash

While the corona pandemic, economic crisis and climate catastrophe cast dark shadows, the ailing Federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU) and the heads of Deutsche Bahn (DB) tried to get good news in the dark season. Shortly before Christmas, for example, they announced that the national railway companies of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France want to bring joint night trains across the continent back onto the track.

Specifically, direct connections between Vienna and Paris, Zurich and Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris and Zurich and Barcelona are to be set up step by step from this year. The aim is to connect as many as 13 European metropolises with one another via comfortable night trains by 2024. CSU man Scheuer is already raving about a “golden post-Corona era in European rail traffic” and also wants to revive the old Trans-Europa-Express (TEE) in the form of modern high-speed trains across the continent. Continuous train connections between Amsterdam and Rome, Paris and Warsaw or Berlin and Barcelona are also being considered. In this way, you can make »active climate protection and an effective contribution to CO2 reduction«, says Scheuer.

According to DB boss Richard Lutz, customers are increasingly interested in overnight trips. Especially in cross-border traffic, the night train can play out its potential “as an extremely green and stress-free alternative to plane and car”.

With the announcements, there are signs of a return to offers that worked for decades and were then canceled for reasons of cost. It was only in 2016 that the DB took all night and car train connections off the track – in coordination with the federal government and to the annoyance of many rail customers. Some of the offers were still operated by the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) and the US railway company RDC. Because a similar deforestation has occurred in countries like France over the years, many loyal train drivers switched to cars or planes. Low-cost airlines, which were booming thanks to lavish government subsidies and wage dumping, increasingly captured market shares.

The through train connections that Scheuer and Lutz have recently announced are the re-creation of a small part of the old transcontinental routes. A look at old course books of the Federal Railroad (West) and Reichsbahn (East) shows that in the second half of the 20th century continuous day and night trains from the FRG and the GDR rolled in all directions. There were transfer-free connections to southern Italy, to Portbou on the Costa Brava or through the Balkans to Athens and Istanbul.

However, with the policy of privatization and liberalization of the railways, which had been prescribed by the EU Commission since the 1990s, the decades of well-functioning cooperation between the old state railways was increasingly thwarted. Railway managers and governments saw competitors in the railway companies of other countries and started projects for commercial transport at the expense of other railways. High train path prices for the use of the routes also deterred. The laughing third party in this “intramodal” cut-throat competition between state, partially privatized or private railway companies was road and air transport.

The opportunities offered by new, time-saving high-speed rail lines for Europe-wide passenger and freight transport, for example in Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy and England, were only used to a limited extent. For years there has only been a single daily direct connection with the French TGV high-speed train from Germany to the French Mediterranean coast. Fast direct connections from Germany to Spain or through the Channel Tunnel to Great Britain that have long been technically possible are not in sight. In the 1990s, specific projects for night trains from Frankfurt (Main) to London and onward through coach connections to Wales and Scotland had come a long way, but they were never implemented. In return, air traffic experienced a boom – up to the corona crisis.

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