When we started the Trains for Europe in mid-2021, our demand was that the European Union organises the procurement of a fleet of new night trains.

Now – 8 months on – it is time to take stock of what has(n’t) happened in the interim.

We started with the assumption that there were probably three ways to organise the procurement of new trains – what we called the full service ownership leasing model, the state rolling stock pool model, and the manufacturer owns and maintains the trains model – you can read more about these models here.

In December 2021 the European Commission released its “Action plan to boost long distance and cross-border passenger rail” that – to all intents and purposes – restricts what can be done at EU level right now to just the full service ownership leasing model. The Action Plan (more about its contents here) acknowledges there has been a problem with the funding of night train rolling stock, and proposes to fill that gap with loans from the European Investment Bank – via its Green Rail Investment Platform. The report that accompanied the Action Plan acknowledged that between 170 and 250 couchette and sleeping cars would be necessary to operate the theoretical night time routes the report had sketched out.

So it essentially amounts to this: the funding is there for your rolling stock acquisitions, so go ahead!

But that is where it gets a bit complicated.

Who exactly could go ahead and place an order for new night trains?

Here we get a kind of chicken and egg problem. The full service ownership leasing model assumes that leasing companies – the likes of Railpool, Beacon, Akiem etc. – would acquire the trains, and then lease them to operators. But are those leasing companies going to take the risk to make an order without a good idea as to who could operate the trains? No, likely not. And particularly not if the order were for a low number of carriages that would make the unit price high. An order has to be large scale – in the region of 200 carriages – to make the unit price adequately low.

What about governments who might be interested in solving the problem? Or incumbent, or private, operators?

The table below assesses the likelihood of each to want to expand cross border night time services, and the picture is not an optimistic one.

Some states – notably France, but also Sweden, Italy and Norway – are solving the absence of night trains nationally, rather than with a Europe-wide view. The governments of Sweden, Denmark and Belgium are hung up on Public Service Obligation contracts, but their focus on that without any attention to the rolling stock problem, is not a solution. And most governments – including Germany – seem to have no coherent plan at all.

On the operator side ÖBB is the big player, and it has SBB (seriously) and NS, SNCB, SNCF and DB (paying a little more than lip service) under its wing. And we know ÖBB cannot solve all of Europe’s night train woes on its own! Among incumbent operators only a handful of medium size ones – ČD, MÁV, ŽSSK, possibly PKP, SJ, SŽ – might each have use for a couple of dozen carriages, and could be corralled into some sort of consortium, but cannot really do anything on their own. Among the private operators it is even worse – only Regiojet has the the intention and anything close to the scale necessary to be able to mount a night train expansion.

We have the scene set for someone to be able to make a move, but probably no operator or leasing company ready to make a leap, and no national government ready to Europeanise their efforts. This is a really messy bind.

Country National government Incumbent operator Private operator(s)
Austria Government is working with ÖBB to deliver new night train services. State backing for ÖBB on national routes allows international night train expansion. Political support for long distance rail is rock solid, and relationship between government and incumbent railway is good, and action has already been taken – and it is almost all with cross-border relevance. ÖBB has ordered 33 7 carriage NightJet trains from Siemens (231 carriages), and is turning 22 seating cars into multi function couchettes – 253 new carriages total. But ÖBB sees opportunities to the east, so would not necessarily be opposed to acquiring even more stock – if the collaborations and terms were right. Westbahn is the only Austrian private long distance operator – its focus is on daytime services. Has shown no interest in night trains.
Belgium Green transport minister Georges Gilkinet talks about improving night trains, and has committed a very small budget to making Brussels a night train hub. Has also – together with Swedish and Danish governments – demanded that PSOs for night trains be made easier. No complete plan as to how to improve the offer to/from Belgium in place though. SNCB has no interest in purchasing its own night train carriages, and instead provides motive power for ÖBB NightJets from Aachen. Ongoing rumours it wants to buy new locomotives for international passenger routes, but nothing agreed. European Sleeper is a Belgian/Dutch company – see Netherlands below.
Bulgaria Focus of government in recent years has been to improve national rail routes. Infrastructure problems, and then COVID, have led to almost all international routes being suspended. Position of new government in place since December 2021 unknown. BDZ has an ageing fleet of night train carriages, and some are still deployed on national routes. Until the future of international routes is known there is no incentive to purchase more. None
Croatia Minimal investment in national infrastructure upgrades, and limited investments in new daytime rolling stock. Nothing known about position on night trains. HŽPP has an under-utilised fleet of couchette and sleeping cars – these are deployed year round on routes to Split and Zürich, and seasonally to München. It could deploy its stock more effectively, so has little incentive to acquire any new stock. None
Czechia Czechia has been making steady infrastructure and rolling stock improvements for the past decade, with both national and international connections steadily being improved. Relations with neighbouring countries generally good in this regard. No specific plans for night train expansion though. The focus of ČD is on improving what runs at the moment. Couchette and sleeping cars are being renovated, and focus is on improving the quality of already-existing routes, in partnership with ÖBB, MÁV, PKP etc. Would not want to make a large order of new stock, but could join a consortium with other railways. Regiojet is the private operator that has made the biggest success of night train operation – between CZ and SK, and summertimes all the way to Split. Is in partnership with European Sleeper. But it only owns couchette cars (no sleeping cars), so urgently needs more stock – could it make an order for new carriages? Jury is out. It has applied for paths to run more night trains, but it is not clear how it could do that without more stock.

Leo Express is the other Czech private operator, but its focus is daytime services with new trains.

Denmark Has been banking on the Swedes solving the absence of night trains through Denmark problem for them. Have – together with Belgium and Sweden – been open to PSOs for night trains. Have no coherent plan for night trains. Focus of DSB has been a series of long-overdue national upgrades. None of the fleet of Vectron locomotives delivered so far can run into Sweden, although that is due to be fixed with a later batch. Has no intention of purchasing night train rolling stock. None
Estonia All the focus is on Rail Baltica. Go Rail operated night trains to Moscow, but these have been suspended due to COVID. No intention of doing anything in addition. None
Finland Focus on national routes – with good reason. VR has steadily been improving its national night trains, and international services to Russia run with RZD stock. Broad gauge, and larger loading gauge, make the situation unique – Finland will go its own way here. None
France The French Government has major plans for new night trains – 300 carriages, 30 locomotives, 2 workshops – but to run these predominantly on national routes (our summary here). More detail on the plans is expected end of February. The plans do not necessarily preclude international expansion, but the focus is very much national at first. Assumption that the stock will be administered in a sort of state-owned leasing company. SNCF, under pressure from the French government, has renovated a few dozen of its old Corail couchette carriages (enough to keep 4 routes in France running), but SNCF’s own commitment to night trains is seriously limited. It is doing the very minimum – providing a locomotive – for ÖBB’s Wien-Paris NightJet. Nothing new expected from the company directly. The Paris-based startup Midnight Trains has a nice website. But the concept – run de luxe bespoke trains on technically complicated routes for low ticket prices – looks to be a really long shot. I am sure they would like to order new trains, but would anyone believe their business model?

Railcoop has the French national market as its focus.

Germany There is a commitment to night trains in the coalition agreement of the government that took office in December 2021, but since then we have heard nothing. The transport minister Wissing and state secretary responsible for railways Theurer have not said anything on the subject. Since DB sold its remaining night train stock to ÖBB in 2016 and left the night train business, the company has shown no intention of entering the business again. It provides locomotives for some NightJet trains through Germany. There have been rumours in rail-nerd circles that DB might be open to reconsidering, but nothing substantive. Night trains do not fit the business model of Flixtrain, so they will not enter this market.

RDC is more leasing company than operator, even though it does run the Alpen-Sylt night train together with Bahntouristikexpress. UrlaubsExpress is similar. None are in a position to expand.

Greece Focus is on Athens-Thessaloniki route, and improving that. International passenger routes (1 to North Macedonia, 2 to Bulgaria) both suspended. Infrastructure on cross border routes is poor. TrainOSE used to run a Athens-Thessaloniki night train (with seating carriages) but even that doesn’t run currently. No intention to purchase any new stock. None
Hungary Government sees international rail – especially to countries where there are Hungarian speakers, or fellow autocratic leaders in power – as a priority. But focus is on infrastructure improvements in particular. No known commitment to night trains. MÁV has made some small improvements to its night trains – it has acquired some second hand couchette and sleeping cars, and has renovated some of its 1990s night train stock. It has started a summer service to Split. It would possibly be open to joining a consortium to purchase new stock, not least as its own Szolnok works (where its new daytime carriages were built) could possibly build night train carriages too. None
Italy The Italian Government intends to order 70 new night train carriages for services to southern Italy (although how that fleet would be managed is unknown). The situation at Italy’s borders largely depends on the operators on the other side of the border – there is no commitment to international long distance passenger rail from the government. The international focus of Trenitalia is on high speed services – on its own to Paris, and in partnership in Spain. Thello, that it had run in partnership with Transdev, but then ran alone, has stopped its night trains and daytime classic trains to France. No intention to improve matters as far as we can tell. The main private operator Italo has a focus on national daytime trains. It has no intention of running night trains.
Latvia All the focus is on Rail Baltica. AS Pasažieru vilciens struggles to run routes within Latvia. It has some locomotives that used to operate services via Lithuania and Belarus to Ukraine, but no international plans. None
Lithuania All the focus is on Rail Baltica. Cannot even get regional trains to Poland and Latvia working. LTG Link has some locomotives for Kaliningrad transit trains, and some passenger carriages, but all broad gauge. Seems to have no intention of acquiring any new standard gauge stock for passenger trains on the standard gauge line to Poland. None
Netherlands The Dutch state has managed to get 2 new night trains connections running – from Amsterdam to Wien and Zürich, but how they managed it has been open to some controversy. The position of the government is similar to that in Denmark and Belgium – to allow others to operate in the country rather than solving the issue directly. NS provides locomotives (that are anyway leased) for NightJet trains from Netherlands and into Germany, but has shown no intention of doing any more than that. A third night train route – Brussels-Amsterdam-Berlin-Praha – is scheduled to run from summer 2022 onwards, operated by Belgian-Dutch firm European Sleeper, with Regiojet providing the rolling stock. Even getting this far has been a Sisyphean task – and the train will run only 3 times a week initially. Opportunities for expansion look limited.
Poland Poland’s national railways are somewhat incoherent, with responsibilities split between PKP InterCity and the regions. Plans to use Invest EU money for new rolling stock for daytime trains are known, but there is no plan from the government for anything for night trains. Relations between PKP and DB, ÖBB and ČD are not bad – with most international long distance passenger traffic through Bohumín and Frankfurt (Oder). Some of PKP’s couchette cars for national routes are in a sorry state. They could be open to making a small order of night train stock (in a consortium with others), not least as 3 Polish manufacturers could supply it. None
Portugal Focus on national routes, and improvement of infrastructure via Evora towards Spain. CP has the strategy of acquiring older carriages from Spain and renovating those, and taking older electric locomotives from storage and restoring them. Would need broad gauge or multi-gauge night train stock – chances it could order anything new are extremely low. None
Romania Focus on investment in infrastructure – but much of this is for the main Arad-Sighisoara-Brasov-Bucuresti axis, that is the one used by night trains to/from Hungary. CFR runs a lot of night trains within Romania, and also to neighbouring Hungary. Night trains to Bulgaria and Turkey have ceased in recent years. Has enough rolling stock for its purposes, but probably has little incentive to acquire any more. Astra Trans Carpatic runs night trains on the Arad-Bucuresti via Timisoara route, and uses new Astra Vagoane Călători rolling stock. There have been ideas of international expansion, but nothing concrete.
Slovakia Rail development has been more patchy than in neighbouring countries, and cross border services have relied more on neighbours providing through services. ŽSSK has shown some commitment to improving international night trains, providing the stock for a new seasonal service via Wien to Split. It is not in a situation to make a major expansion, but could be interested in a couple of dozen new night train carriages – perhaps in collaboration with others. Yosaria Trains has acquired some ex-CityNightLine and has some vague plans to deploy these on Humenné-Bratislava services within Slovakia. How serious those plans are is unknown.
Slovenia Focus has been on rolling stock and track renewal for national routes, and a reliance on ÖBB to provide daytime international services (also through to Croatia). No known commitment to night trains. has provided motive power for night trains on its territory, but carriages have been provided by neighbouring railways. With the prospect, medium term, of routes to south eastern Europe being stepped up, it might be open to the purchase of a small number of carriages. None
Spain Funding of night trains has become a bit of a political football, especially after the night train lines cancelled due to COVID (esp the 2 to Portugal) are unlikely to be revived. But at least there is a live discussion. The problem however seems to be that the government has no coherent strategy. As in a bunch of other countries, Renfe seems to have little or no interest in night trains, instead wanting to focus on high speed daytime services. It still theoretically has the Talgo sets that used to run to Portugal, and perhaps other Talgo sets available – but it will not run them, but no one else seems to be able to get them either. The rivals to Renfe on national routes are themselves backed by incumbents from elsewhere. OUIGO is SNCF, and Iryo is backed by Trenitalia. Neither owner has an interest in night trains.
Sweden The problem is not a lack of willingness to act. The problem is how to act, and if thinking beyond Sweden is possible. Trafikverket only managed to find an operator for 1 of the 2 international night train lines it wanted to run (Stockholm-Hamburg will run, Malmö-Bruxelles will not). Sweden’s government sees the lack of PSOs for night trains – especially through Germany – as the main issue. Meanwhile there are discussions about acquiring new stock for night trains to the north of Sweden – but whether Swedish or European loading gauge is unknown, as is the timeframe. SJ will run the Stockholm-Hamburg night train from later this year, but itself has no clear plan. It lacks 200km/h multi-system electric locomotives to run to Denmark, and all its stock is only compatible to run in Sweden and Norway. It could be open to acquiring stock, or alternatively Trafikverket might solve the problem in Sweden instead. Transdev is looking to sell its open-access operator in Sweden, Snälltåget, that has been operating night trains in Sweden, and to Berlin for some years (the Berlin service was stepped up last year). Until the new owner is known the prospects for any developments are slim.

MTR Express has a focus on daytime trains in Sweden, and has shown no interest in night train routes.

Non-EU
Norway State rolling stock entity Norske tog has plans to procure new long distance trains – these are to be able to be used either day or night, and are intended for national routes and also a Oslo-København service. How that would work, given the loading gauge requirements in Denmark, is unknown. But there are prospects for some incremental improvements here. Ex-NSB company Vy will not procure anything on its own – it will use the Norske tog stock. Swedish state operator SJ has won tenders in Norway, but likewise is not going to order new stock out of the Norske tog framework. The same can be said for Go Ahead that also operates trains in Norway.
Switzerland Rail is mostly still an integrated, state-owned enterprise in Switzerland (it works differently to the rest of the EU, and Norway). Swiss government efforts have focused on opening up new night train routes in collaboration with ÖBB, although there is a big question mark over the state’s financing of night trains. ÖBB notionally collaborates with a lot of railways in the operation of their NightJets, but it is only with SBB that there is a real and genuine collaboration – with the first NightJets that do not run in Austria instead starting and ending in Switzerland. SBB will not order its own night train stock, but will instead rely on ÖBB’s procurement. Either new NightJets will run to/from Switzerland, or stock from other routes will be cascaded to routes to/from Zürich. None

Among EU countries, Cyprus and Malta have no railways. Ireland’s railway is not connected to any other in the EU, and the island of Ireland is too small for night trains. Luxembourg’s rail infrastructure is too small to support night trains. The UK is not included in this analysis as running night trains through the Channel Tunnel is too operationally complex, and national night trains there are not our concern. No non-EU countries in South East Europe currently have railway networks developed enough for cross border services.

 

Photos used in this post

Asian Development Bank
General Photos: Kazakhstan
June 26, 2015
License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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