How the night train could be an asset for the railways

01/18/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling
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The Nighjets? A real trainhotel (photo Pascal Hartmann via license flickr)

(Version en français)

Sometimes a crisis can become an opportunity. This is what happened with the famous ocean liners, the passengers ships from the 1900s to the 1960s, which crossed the Atlantic with successive records. Evicted by aviation, this maritime sector could have completely disappeared, and yet not only was it able to survive, but it even grew strongly, thanks to completely changing its business model.

In the early 1960s, 95% of passenger traffic across the Atlantic was indeed by air. It was becoming clear that transatlantic liners belonged to the past. Was it necessary to stop everything? No ! According to some observers, the shift would have been marked by ABC’s The Love Boat TV series, which that really showed what was a « cruise ». Contrary to old transatlantic ships, cruise ships make a large route to no destination in particular, it’s just a matter of living a particular experience during one week or ten days! This caused a 180-degree turn in the way a passenger ship is designed and the emergence of a new tourism sector that did not exist before. In 1970s, the ship « Song of Norway » from Royal Caribbean was the first ship to be purpose built for cruising rather than for transportation across the Atlantic. A new industry was born…

The analogy with the night train is tempting. Mass travel has multiplied our journeys over the last forty years and have had the effect of « industrialising » long-distance rail transport. The best example was the arrival of high-speed rail, in 1981 in France, in 1990 in Germany, then rapidly in other countries, in Italy and Spain, but also in Belgium and the Netherlands. The night train has in fact been doubly faces competition: not only with the multiplication of destinations by plane, but also by its own sector, high speed trains!

In economic circles, it is often accepted that in order to survive, a company has to cut down its dead branches. The night train, considered expensive because it is too specific (it is a rolling hotel), has paid the price for this conception. It has to be said that most of the time, these night trains were run for a clientele with no real connection to the public service, which is the everyday train. As the shareholder of the former railway companies is the state, a large part of the 1980s and 1990s consisted of cutting back on what was no longer needed for public service.

As in the case of cruise ships, it was private entrepreneurs who took it upon themselves to recreate certain night trains as « rail cruises ». In 1977, old train sleeping-cars were sold off at a Sotherby’s auction in Monte Carlo and two of the cars were purchased by rail enthusiast and millionaire entrepreneur, James B. Sherwood. Over the next few years he spent many millions tracing and purchasing 35 of the original Orient-Express from CIWL vintage carriages from the 1920s and 1930s and restoring them to their former glory. In 1982 the legend of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express was reborn as the world famous train made its maiden journey from Calais to Venice. Today, the train is owned by french group LVMH, which bought out its former owner Belmond, a hospitality and leisure company that operates luxury hotels, train services and river cruises worldwide. This is one of the only examples of the revitalisation of a night train by a private company. Is this possible on all the old night trains in Europe?

In 2017, British writer Andrew Martin embarks on a series of nocturnal train adventures across Europe. He describes His couchette on an overnight train run by SNCF as “a pretty good simulacrum of a prison cell.” As for refreshments served on board, the average breakfast consists of « a plastic cup of instant coffee and a jam-filled croissant in a sealed wrapper uninspiringly labelled ‘7 Days’. » Andrew Martin could have written the same sentence in every country where night trains survived. He obviously confused a ‘couchettes‘ compartment with cabins with authentic beds and washbasin, some of which having even a shower. But the French Intercity no longer runs sleeping cars, unlike Thello on Paris-Venice and the trains relaunched by the Austrian railways in December 2016, where all of which have a sleeping car, whatever their destination. So sometimes you have to be wary of nostalgic writers…

But Andrew Martin’s sentence has the merit of putting his finger on an essential point: the night train is not – and has never been – mass transport, but a complementary transport, a niche market. So, it might as well pamper it and exploit it as a « cruise » from A to B, distinguishing it from the industrial mass transport represented by the TGV, the Frecciarossa or the Eurostar. A priori, this does not seem to be the priority of the historic railway companies, which are accountable to the State and are asked « not to escape into markets with no future ». The vision of the ministries is sometimes icy and often without relief… But not everyone sees it that way. For the Austrians, their Nightjets have set out to conquer Europe above all to spread the « ÖBB brand » that few people knew even three years ago. And spreading the « ÖBB » brand also means spreading Austrian know-how and quality of life. The Swiss seem to have completely missed out on this aspect, while Swiss quality and know-how are are a matter of course.

One of the reasons is that the « big » railways of Europe, the SNCF, the DB, the FS group, the Poles or the Swedes, remain strongly anchored in their national market where they dominate much better than in foreign lands. As for the « small » ones, they feel precisely… too small and little supported, to hope to make their mark abroad. Strange! In the freight sector, however, we see « small companies » expanding abroad, a European area needed to survive. It is the case of CFL Multimodal (Luxembourg), or Lineas, a Belgian rail freight operator. Impossible to repeat with night trains?

Night trains should be run like international point-to-point cruise ships, with a few stations in the evening for a few destinations in the morning. Its clientele is often made up of single travellers or groups of 2-3 people, which implies offering comfort for this type of clientele, which does not want to be mixed up « with other unknow travellers ». This is particularly a strong demand from the female clientele, and it is easy to understand why. Of course, we won’t find the luxury of cruise ships. However, Thello had a dining car and the Caledonian-Sleeper, between London and Scotland, has a bar car. Between 1972 and 1995, some Belgian night trains to the Mediterranean or to the Alps even had a dancing bar car, to set the mood on the holiday route. The modern version of the Train Bleu, between Paris and Nice in the 1980s, also had an old Pullmann lounge-bar car. The Talgos Trenhotel also had a bar car.

Creating a travel experience is precisely what intercontinental travellers expect, who want something different from a simple TGV that looks too much like Japanese Shinkansen or Chinese high-speed trains. One could even hope that these intercontinental travellers should make the trip only for the night train experience in Europe, as others do with the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The night train can therefore be an asset if we create a particular travel experience around it, and not only by defining it as an ecological tool designed to « replace the plane », which will not in any case have the support of everyone. Nor should it be a tool of constraint intended to fulfil the climatic obligations of the State, because in this case we can expect the minimalist night train, a nocturnal and impoverished version of the coach. On the contrary, it must be a first and desired choice as soon as you open an application on a smartphone. It must be « the train you’re looking for ». This requires a good dose of creativity and responsiveness, as well as a solid and sustainable business model. A happy night train customer is a customer who will back to other trains, on other occasions, with all the benefits for his operator… and his competitors. The ÖBB have well understood this. This is how we are actively involved in supporting rail as the transport of the future.

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