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ALLRAIL, the association of independent passenger rail companies in Europe, believes that night trains can make a great comeback. For example: as an environmentally friendly alternative to late night and early morning flights. Three new initiatives in recent weeks have shown how privately owned operators are contributing to this in a significant way.
At the same time, we witness state-owned rail incumbents colluding to build up a EU-wide cartel, financed by directly awarded taxpayer money. Not only is this a very inefficient use of funds, but it will result in night train services being introduced according to the needs of the operators - and not to the needs of the passengers.
The EU Green Deal will not be achieved without structural modal shift to rail. But it is clear that such modal shift to rail will not be realised without a proper competitive framework that allows private investment and innovation to thrive. Full and transparent market opening is the most efficient way to achieve the comeback of night trains in Europe – not reverting to failed monopolies of the past.
Night trains must be an attractive alternative to driving and flying, especially in the recovery period after COVID-19. In recent weeks, there has been real momentum - with 3 examples of privately-funded operators making a big contribution to their comeback:
On June 16th 2020, Snälltåget announced that in 2021 it will operate its night trains between Sweden and Germany via Denmark for the first time. Furthermore, it plans to quadruple the number of night train departures compared to 2019.
Then, only 10 days later, Snälltåget also announced a new direct night train service between Sweden, Denmark and several ski resorts in Austria – to provide an alternative to air and private car travel for holidaymakers.
Meanwhile, RegioJet launched a new summer night train service linking 5 EU Member States – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia. The inaugural trip took place on June 30th 2020. Despite being formed of 12 coaches, demand has been so great that only last week it doubled the frequency of the trains. RegioJet also plans to start night trains between Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland later this year.
3.Alpine-Sylt Night Express:
Last weekend, the new “Alpine-Sylt Night Express” also began – operating between Sylt in North Germany and Salzburg in Austria. Originally planned to run for only two months, demand has been so high that it will now extend its offering until November 2020.
But there is a Big Risk to this success:
Unfortunately, political stakeholders are being told a different story: namely that night trains can only be operated with preferential subsidy to state-owned rail incumbents.
After all: this is already the case in Austria, where ÖBB Nightjet receives directly awarded subsidy for all services passing through Austrian territory - which is not available to other night train operators. The Dutch government also proposes a direct award to ÖBB.
Alas, with preferential access to taxpayer funds, it becomes a vicious circle: ÖBB is then the only operator able to afford new sleeper coaches, leading to even more direct awards.
Furthermore: incumbents seek to collude. In its recent night train report, Danish State Railways DSB admitted it has been in exclusive talks with ÖBB Nightjet. It says it has been talking with both the Swedish Transport Administration and the Danish transport ministry, proposing a taxpayer subsidised night train between Sweden, Denmark & Germany. Presumably DSB & ÖBB are lobbying for this to be directly awarded to them as well.
Ultimately, the DSB approach makes little sense because there will soon be a non-subsidised night train linking Sweden, Denmark & Germany – the one by Snälltåget. But if DSB & ÖBB Nightjet’s lobbying succeeds, then the competitive situation for other night train operators will get much worse - who will be able to compete against the taxpayer?
Europe must Avoid the Closure of the Night Train Market:
ALLRAIL Secretary General Nick Brooks warns: “if incumbents are allowed to collude and get directly awarded subsidy, then Europe faces a night train cartel, funded by the taxpayer. Politicians must be clear: the night train market will be effectively closed for a very long time. This would run contrary to the goals of the Single EU Rail Market - which is madness when a clear and efficient alternative model already exists”.
The success of the EU Green Deal depends on modal shift to rail. In turn, this will not be realised without a competitive framework that allows private investment and passenger-driven innovation to thrive. This applies to night trains as well.
It is understandable if governments might want to spend money on encouraging new night services. But they should do in a manner that is fair to all night train operators:
⮚Reduce track access charges, in line with new regulation proposal EU 2020/0127 (COD)
⮚Provide equal financing opportunities to purchase rolling stock (as the incumbents)
⮚Transparency: give passengers the right to book all night trains at all rail ticket vendors
Under these conditions, innovators like RegioJet & Snälltåget will grow in number, bringing better quality, lower prices & Securing The Comeback of Night Trains in Europe.
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