From the start of this Trains for Europe campaign I have argued that the absence of enough couchette cars and sleeping cars is the main constraint on the expansion of night train services. You cannot run more trains unless you literally have more carriages.
I do not deny there are other problems as well (paths, track access charges, public service obligations etc.) but the first domino to fall before we can begin to seriously scale up overnight routes is for someone (other than ÖBB) to make an order of some new carriages. Solving the issues this way around – trains first, rest follows – also makes sense as it would be at least 3 and more like 5 years before any new carriages could be on the tracks.
Yet in the 18 months I have been working on this topic, scant little has happened – of course with the exception of ÖBB who scaled up their order for new Nightjet trains last year. SJ’s Stockholm-Hamburg service – cobbled together with old leased carriages has had a nightmare debut, and even getting it started meant another night service – Alpen-Sylt – had to be prematurely terminated. European Sleeper is unable to now give a launch date for its Brussels-Amsterdam-Berlin-Prague service. SNCF is finishing off the renovation of 112 couchette carriages that date from the 1980s, but neither SNCF nor the French government has any solid plans for anything more. An order of least 70 and perhaps as many as 370 carriages could be placed in Italy (although nothing has yet been signed), and at the recent OUAT event in Paris, Midnight Trains also stated its intention to order some new trains – although there are no details on its website. But any sort of renaissance of night trains is in danger of falling flat.
So what is to be done about this?
While I admire what ÖBB is doing with Nightjet, we cannot rely on ÖBB to solve all of Europe’s night train problems. As Kurt Bauer of ÖBB readily says, ÖBB is an Austrian company – its base is in Austria. All its Nightjet sets return to Austria for cleaning and maintenance after a maximum of 4 nights. ÖBB is not going to run an Amsterdam-Marseille or a Köln-Warszawa service, and nor should we expect it to do so.
So if ÖBB can’t fix this, and other railway operators are not stepping up, could the European Union step in? That was my initial campaign demand – that the European Union could organise the procurement of a fleet of night trains, and lease these at a low enough cost to operators. But when the European Commission brought out its action plan for international rail at the end of 2021, organising procurement of night trains was too radical to include. The most notable step in the plan was the launch of the EIB’s Green Rail Investment Platform – that would provide loans with favourable terms to finance up to half of the cost of acquisition of rolling stock.
So, if more favourable financial conditions are there, who then could step up?
Here too I had a few ideas. A consortium of small operators making an order could possibly be the solution to the scale and standardisation issue that besets smaller players, and that consortium could then make use of EIB’s loans. But although I have had a lot of conversations with different players in the industry in Europe, I currently see no willingness by any player to form such a consortium. I also wondered if the EU cannot step up to organise procurement, then could Germany possibly do so? There would be ways, but look who the transport minister in Germany is.
So what else is there?
Start a private company, or take over and scale one that already exists.
And don’t worry, I have not lost my head – I am not about to start this myself. Take this article as more of a kind of framework that someone who could start such an enterprise could work with.
Two private companies already mentioned in this piece – European Sleeper and Midnight Trains – have tried to make headway in the night train market, and they each have their own concept of what they want to do. But neither of them actually has any night train carriages just now, so they are not the focus of this post.
Let’s instead focus on two other small companies, and think about how they work and what they have – namely Snälltåget and RDC.
Snälltåget is currently owned by the French Transdev group, but Transdev is looking to sell the company as a going concern. For years Snälltåget has been running open access daytime and nighttime trains in Sweden, and open access seasonal services to Berlin and ski trains to the Alps. However when Trafikverket launched its tender 3 years ago for Stockholm-Hamburg and Malmö-Brussels overnight services, Snälltåget did not bid, preferring to stick to its open access model. Notably Snälltåget owns 10 200km/h Bcvmz couchette carriages that are OKed for at least Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Austria, 7 Bc-t 160km/h couchettes that can run in Sweden and Germany, and 17 elderly 160km/h BC2 couchettes that can run in Sweden and Norway. It also owns 16 rebuilt Bmpz 200km/h seating carriages that can run in at least Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. At the moment it has no known future expansion plans.
RDC Asset GmbH – the German arm of the American Railroad Development Corporation – has taken a different approach. It deploys its fleet of rather elderly couchettes and sleeping cars according to need, and is very flexible in this regard. It has leased only carriages to ÖBB and SBB for the Zürich-Amsterdam Nightjet services (more info about that service here), provides both carriages and staff for SJ’s Stockholm-Hamburg night train, and it provided carriages, staff and was the operator (together with BTE) of the Alpen-Sylt Nachtexpress. RDC Asset GmbH is very much a going concern, but it faces a different problem to Snälltåget – namely that its stock is stretched so very thin that it has hit reliability problems. RDC owns 33 200km/h Bvcmz couchettes (21 x 248.5, 12 x 248.1/3), 4 200km/h disabled accessible Bvcmbz couchettes, 4 70-90 MUn 200km/h sleeping cars, and 5 160km/h WLAB 7171/AB 33 sleeping cars. It additionally owns 6 Bomz/Bomdz 200km/h seating cars, and 17 Bimz/Bimdz 200km/h seating cars.
With that in mind there would be some opportunities for scaling up these operations – either to merge the companies, or to scale one or other of them – probably Snälltåget as that is for sale, and RDC is not as far as I know.
A merged RDC-Snälltåget would have a fleet of about 80 night train carriages (the majority couchettes) that would be more flexibly deployable than either firm can do on its own now.
An alternative would be for someone else (a rail freight leasing company perhaps?) to take over Snälltåget, but to then operate it more in the way RDC has been run – not with a narrow commitment to open access, but with a flexible approach akin to RDC’s – sometimes offering carriages, sometimes carriages and staff, and sometimes carriages, staff and operations.
Such an operator would be able to present itself not as a threat to incumbent public operators, but as a complement to them – in the same way RDC has been partner of SJ in Sweden, but SJ-RDC have needed to rely on a private freight operator (Hector Rail) rather than DSB for motive power through Denmark.
Both RDC and Snälltåget have experience with the renovation of old rolling stock, so a first opportunity to scale would be to examine further where additional stock could be acquired short term (Greece or Romania perhaps, or the ex-SNCB carriages parked up in Czechia?) and refreshed. More radically either could draw on the experience of Flixtrain that was successful with major rebuilds of daytime carriages without having to put them through a new approvals process – with a load of daytime stock up for sale from DB there could be opportunities there.
Then with a proven operational model and existing operational experience the company could proceed to make an order for new carriages (with EIB backing?) – that would also then complement its operations with existing stock – so order modern but standard 200km/h carriages (not faster fixed sets akin to the new Nightjets), and start with sleeping cars (with mini compartment pods as well?) before moving on to couchettes and finally seating cars.
Such an operation would be in stark contrast to European Sleeper or Midnight Trains that are trying to provide night trains of a certain type, and aim to run them from and to certain places. A flexible, scaled Snälltåget would take a different view – night trains would be run where they are operationally possible according to the rolling stock available, and where partnerships, financial support and motive power are most readily available. Even bidding for publicly-supported PSO contracts should not be out of the question. The aim would simply be to run more night trains, not to determine in advance what these trains would be like, nor from the outset set precisely where they would run.
So is it viable? I don’t know. This is all just an idea at the moment. Do tell me in the comments (or privately by email!) if this makes any sense!
I personally know 3 employees of RDC, and 2 employees of Snälltåget. I checked with one of the Snälltåget employees whether Snälltåget was still for sale and the answer was yes, and that was included in this post. Nothing else in this post comes from any conversations I have had with any of these 5 people over the years – it is all based on publicly available information, and all the inferences drawn are mine and mine alone – and hence I take responsibility for the entire content of this post!
Photo used in this post
UEX 13434 Snälltåget “Ski Express” // Salzburg – Malmö
February 26, 2022
License: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)