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Nightjet : renaissance of night trains in Europe

About 100 million euros. That’s 17% of ÖBB Personenverkher’s turnover which are generated by night trains, which even make a profit. This is the argument often put forward by austrian incumbent ÖBB when he have to justify their night train policy. ‘We are convinced that two years after the resumption of night train traffic, we have made the right decision. So we have been able to extend the routes to Germany twice consecutively,’ reports ÖBB spokesman Bernhard Rieder. Let’s see this in details.

Nightjet is not a private company but manages its entire business, at the market price without any subsidies and without any public service obligations. Unlike France, there is in Austria no minister or chancellor involved in railway affairs or territories, the ÖBB themselves manage their main lines. Austrian night trains already had a good reputation before the new branding, at the time of Euronight. Nightjet is thus a registered trademark belonging to ÖBB Personenverkher, the passenger subsidiary of the ÖBB holding company. In 2005 began the day intercity service renamed Railjet. With the absence of high speed line, all is “Jet” in ÖBB and the Austrian public company offers a unified and clearly identifiable offer for day and night trains. The brand “ÖBB” seems to fade : today we travel in “Railjet” or “Nightjet”. Successful marketing operation …

When Europe no longer believes that…

In 2015, Deutsche Bahn decided to abandon its City Night Line, trains equipped with sleeper cars and couchettes cars. Representing barely 4% of traffic, with 90 million annual sales, the German group said to record a loss of 30 million euros. A controversy swelled later about the veracity of these figures: overnight passengers in the seats, on the Euronight trains, were counted as “intercity passengers”, which distorted calculations. The fact remains that the Deutsche Bahn policy opted for a strategic recast on its extensive ICE and Intercity network, which was strongly hampered by liberalization of long-distance buses in 2013. While Italy still maintains some domestics routes to Sicily, and operates to Paris with the Thello subsidiary, Switzerland seems not to be more interested: its Zurich-Dortmund / Amsterdam and Zurich-Rome routes had already dissapared. The Chur-Zurich-Brussels-Ostend, a “british route” abandonned in 2002, stay also in our memory. The prehistory…

Nightjet and his motorrail service available in 8 stations in Germany and Austria, here in Hamburg (photo Mediarail.be)

To rebuild services

‘Wisst ihr eigentlich, was ihr da tut? – Do you really know where you are going?’ That’s the question that Kurt Bauer, the ÖBB long-distance transport manager, heard 1000 times. This ambitious young director immediately stresses that he is not nostalgic of the night train: ‘I am a hard-line economist‘, he explained to Die Zeit in December 2017. ‘The failure of the Germans is an opportunity for us‘. How a ruinous business for Germans becomes suddenly profitable for the Austrians? ‘As a small railway, we also have to adopt unconventional methods,’ says Kurt Bauer soberly. When the littles that become big…

Facing the giant Deutsche Bahn, the small ÖBB puffed out their chest throughout Central and Alpine Europe, and play in the big leagues. As Vienna, Zurich, Venice or Budapest are away from Europe of high speed trains, like the intensive flows in France, Benelux and Germany, the night train automatically becomes an alternative in a vast region where there will probably never be a high speed network. Kurt Bauer explains that out of 34 million long distance passengers, 1.4 million are traveling by night train alone, but they provide 15 to 20% of turnover. ‘We can not just talk about a niche market with such financial results,’ says the economist.

The German fleet of night trains did not remain long unemployed after thestopping of service in 2016. Kurt Bauer get back the best cars of the German CityNightLines and integrated it into the fleet on services what was still called EuroNight. The entry of the Austrians into this market, however, was a rather hasty action. A test was performed on EN 471 Hamburg-Zurich, concerning service, catering, etc. Conclusive. But everything had to be put together in just a few months, which is the light speed comparing to railways decisions culture. It was necessary to develop a new dynamic brand, a stripping marketing strategy and many new ideas to satisfy customers of the 21st century. A challenge that requires people of experience.

The ÖBB invested € 40 million under its new ÖBB Nightjet brand by buying 15 German sleeper cars and 42 couchettes cars, which they added to their own fleet. A total of 74 couchettes cars, 52 sleeping cars and approximately 63 seats cars, represented 189 vehicles which were progressively repainted in the new Nightjet livery.

Cost control, the key of the success

They are the very foundations in business economics: cost control regardless of the service provided. Bernhard Rieder from the ÖBB press service explains why the Austrian Federal Railways can operate the night train very efficiently: ‘Why can we offer the Nightjet product? We work our Nightjet ‘at our expense’. Also because we can produce it at a relatively low price. Our concept is to form long trainsets with two or three groups of cars by destination. One train for two destinations on a common route. So we can create a lot of connections at lower cost. Of course, it is the most profitable routes that were chosen.

It’s hard to getting right numbers, but ÖBB says that 10 to 20% of the total cost of a night train, are the costs of infrastructure and station access. Unlike aviation, rail pays the energy tax, 19% VAT on rail tickets for international routes and is included in the famous CO2 emission trading right!

In addition, a lot of problems had to be solved, for example with the loading of auto on wagons in Hamburg, which caused too many delays and technical problems with some DDm wagons. To “control the entire product”, the fleet is only maintained in Vienna. Marketing departments work to maximize yield, which means that prices vary with demand, with higher prices in the summer and lower prices in the off-season.

Train services

Nightjet services started on the european rail schedules of mid-December 2016. The ÖBB had to take over the German night trains that had been selected. Some connections have never stopped unlike we have read in newspapers, such as between Hamburg, Berlin and Zurich. ‘On the evening of the takeover, we quickly glued our ÖBB sticker on the cars,’ explains Kurt Bauer, ‘and then we started right away.’ Other connections, such as those to and from Amsterdam, disappeared unfortunaly from the night network …

The ÖBB offer for each connection a minimum trainset of three cars with three ‘class’: sleeping car, couchettes car and seats car. ‘With the routes we are now providing, we can even reduce our production costs and at the same time, with our market knowledge, support the product in terms of advertising and sales,’ explaines Michael Braun. Nightjet can to respond to all customer segments, from the lowcost offer in seat (39 euros on a Hamburg-Vienna), to the single room with shower and breakfast included (189 euros for a Zurich-Berlin). The public company also wanted to score points by improving its breakfast service and transporting cars and motorcycles on 8 of the 15 routes, as well as low-cost prices on seats travel. Clearly successful, in the pure tradition of the excellence of ‘Mitteleuropa’..

Seats cars are those that composed the ÖBB Intercity before Railjet, derived from the VSE UIC Z model with its 6-seats per compartments:

A 6-seat compartment from a VSE car (photo wikipedia)

Couchettes cars offer compartments with six berths. It is possible to obtain a whole compartment from 4 berths, ideal for a family or a group:

A 6-couchettes compartment (photo wikipedia)

Sleeper cars come from the Comfortline model, a ‘Mitteleuropa’ model which has expanded in all Central European railway networks. We find compartments up to 3 beds, with private washbasin. 4 compartments out of 12 have in addition a shower and a privative WC, in so-called Deluxe category:

Comfortline sleeping car with its cabins up to 3 beds. By removing the partition wall, you can get a double cabin. 4 out of the 12 cabins have a shower and a private toilet (composition photos Mediarail.be/Nightjet)

In addition, toilets and an hot shower are available at the end of the corridor.

Ten double-decker sleeper cars make up the Zurich-Vienna and Zurich-Berlin Nightjets. These are the cars come from CNL at the time of cooperation – aborted quickly – between the Swiss, German and Austrian. Recovered by the DB, they are now in the colors of Nightjet. The highlight is of course its luxury upper cabins, with private shower and WC, a mini lounge and closet:

The famous double-decker sleeping car from the former CNL. One of the best accomodation is the superior luxury cabin, with private shower and toilet and a small lounge (photos Mediarail.be)

Other view from Deluxe cabin (photo Tycho via wikipedia)

Travelers in sleeper cars have access to the  height lounges from ÖBB in austrian stations, including that of Vienna Central Station. Once on board of Nightjet, travelers in sleeping car are entitled to a real hotel service as a ‘welcome bonus / good night’. First there is a bottle of Piccolo Più frizzante Corte delle Calli, ‘a sparkling, fresh white sparkling wine with fruity notes,’ says the ad. Then there is the little ‘goodies’ bag delicately placed on the tablet or on the bed already made according to the departure time, and containing slippers, bottle of water, fruit drink, Nightjet pen, … and a menu!

Goodies in sleeping-car : hotel service on board… (photos Mediarail.be)

It paid a lot of attention to the breakfast: the catering is expensive but it greatly appreciated. A gluten-free breakfast is also available upon prior reservation. Breakfast is included in the price for sleeper cabins. It consists of a menu of thirty choices in which you have to choose 6 preferences, which range from green tea, yoghurt to fruit and cereals, rolls and organic cheese from the mountains of Salzburg. The checked card is given the day before to the attendant with the ticket, and the next morning you receive your breakfast as asked … According to a former attendant of sleeping car, this system is a big step to make end to the ‘endless interview that took many hours‘ in the Euronight…

Breakfast in sleeping-cars (photos Mediarail.be/Nightjet)

Couchette passengers get a light breakfast with tea, coffee or hot chocolate included in the fare.

The staff

If Nightjet is a branding of a public company, that Newrest Wagons-Lits who officiates on board, with attendants wearing a uniform called curiously “sound-of-music”. The majority of the 350 people who officiated until 2016 at European Rail Service ( ERS), on the Deutsche Bahn trains, had the choice to go – or not – to Newrest Wagons-Lits Austria. The salary was lower and working conditions reviewed according to new Austrian legislation, in force since July 2017. According to sources, not always easy to find, the starting salary at ERS was around 2,400 euros (£2,074) for the crew (source Stern), against 1,900 euros (£1,642) at Newrest (source AMS). But it’s hard to confirm. The fact remains that the wage structure only works with the Austrian social insurance system, where there are no health insurance contributions and where, for low-paid workers, the pension corresponds to 90% the last net income salary.

Newrest bought Wagons Lits company in 2010 and have certification ISO 9001 and 14001. The company, which is responsible for equipping the trains, prepares, manages and stores all the necessary products for the smooth operation of the services on-board and for assuring passenger comfort. Thus, the teams offer rail operators a complete and coherent supply chain: purchase and inventory management; synchronised loading and unloading of products, containers and materials; and diagnostic and control services before departure.

In the Nightjets, Newrest deploys his ‘multi-skilled and mobile staff’, which includes:

  • The zugführer who carries out ticket inspection, ticket sales, train dispatch, as well as railway technical tasks (brake testing, maneuvering, train hitching, 15kV power-up, catering service, filling of forms, control and registration of the train crew, … etc.)
  • Housekeepers (who are mostly men …), are truly the ones who do the service in sleeping and couchettes cars. They are responsible for the preparation of the compartments, the internal cleaning of the trains, the breakfast service, the sale of food and drinks, the refitting of the beds and the securing of the cars and motorcycles where the car service exists, etc.

This staff is usually on a break from 11:00pm to 05:00am and accommodates in a couchettes car compartment that serves as a service room. As noticed by Mediarail.be, the whole staff comes to help in sleeping car for the breakfast service.

A network centered around Austria

Is it the comeback of the old Empire? Just a joke, but Vienna becomes indeed the center of the ‘Mitteleuropa railways‘, a major cross between the streams from Poland / Czech Republic / Hungary and the “Adriatic block” Croatia / Italy, without forgetting the Alpine Mountains and Switzerland. With these convergent flows, every evening at Vienna’s central station, the new Hauptbahnhof, we can see five Nightjet departures:

A sixth nightjet is added each friday during the summer at 20h23, as ARZ NJ 1237/1239 (Autoreisezug – motorrail) Vienna-Livorno. In Austria, two trainsets do not deserve Vienna :

Finally, the only pair that does not concern Austria is the NJ 470 Zurich-Berlin/Hamburg, one of the most profitable Nightjet. It is one of only two night trains still really active in Switzerland, even if another night train, the Thello Paris-Venice, crosses the Valais at 3am …

Nightjet has not abandoned its neighbors. A network of partners completes the anchorage of Mitteleuropa by driving sleeping cars to and from Warsaw, Budapest, Rijeka and even Zagreb. That’s the reason what Zurich, the only Nightjet city of Switzerland with Basel, gets many trainsets with direct cars to and from Zagreb, Graz, Vienna, Budapest and even Prague, this makes it possible to connect many destinations with one train.

Full list of Nightjets « year 2019 » and trainsets composition is available on this excellent czech website and schedule 2019 are also available here.

The multiple trainsets system is a long-standing practice of the railways. The ÖBB makes intensive use of it. Salzburg is one of the main spliting / regrouping stations, for example with the spliting / regrouping of the Munich-Italy / Croatia night trains with cars to and from Budapest. The Budapest-Munich or Vienna-Zurich cars stay two hours in station of Salzburg. But as it is night, everyone sleep… In Germany, the Zurich-Berlin / Hamburg Nightjet is unbundled in a ‘rangierbahnhof’, the marshalling yard of Hildelsheim, on the south of Hanover. All these relaxed schedules allow an easy catching in case of disturbance but also to avoid disembarking at 4am in passengers station without services…

In the Vienna – Zurich and Zurich – Berlin trains, Nightjet uses the famous 10 double-decker sleeping cars, which were delivered to City Night Line CNL AG in 1995 by SGP and Talbot. That’s in fact the same trainset which makes four trains on a 4-day ride, like this:

  • Vienna – Zurich
  • Zurich – Berlin
  • Berlin – Zurich
  • Zurich – Vienna

After that, at Vienna, the train returns to the workshop for maintenance.

Good results

Six months after it was launched in December 2016, nearly 600,000 tickets had already sold. Andreas Matthä, CEO of ÖBB, said in April 2017 that the night trains to Italy and Croatia had already booked very well for the summer of 2017 and “it was necessary to hurry” to get more tickets. Finally, the year 2017 ended with nearly 1.4 million passengers. In this first full year of operation, the ÖBB had increased the share of turnover generated by night trains from 17 to 20% and spoke of a profitable activity. In February 2017, Kurt Bauer, the long-distance transport manager of the ÖBB, told a German parliamentary session that it was possible to make money on night trains.

The connections between Munich and Vienna to Rome, but also the Zurich-Hamburg route are particularly successful,‘ reports Bernhard Rieder of the ÖBB press service. There are not numbers available for each links, ‘because of competition‘, but it is nevertheless known that the Zurich-Berlin train (coupled with Zurich-Hamburg) is the busiest: 200,000 travelers per year. This train is even full some end-of-year days … The year 2018 saw 1.6 million customers frequent blue trains of the Austrian company.

And now ?

Kurt Bauer likes anglicisms as ‘efficiency‘. He talks about ‘models‘ and drawings for the interior of a new-style sleeping car that the London design studio Priestmanngoode designed for ÖBB, where he like to show that Nightjet and ÖBB have ambition, with installation in 2016 of a mockup at the head office of the company in Vienna, even before the appearance of Nightjets. Prepare the future to face some criticism today. ‘The night train is neither the fastest nor the cheapest, but certainly the most sophisticated,‘ says Bauer. Constantly looking for an economic and objective business model, unlike some political groups that seek low prices on the train through the public service.

Mockup at the head office of the company in Vienna (photo ÖBB, facebook)

In August 2018, the ÖBB signed a global framework agreement with Siemens Mobility for more than 1.5 billion euros, and the first orders from the ÖBB concern 21 trains worth around 375 million euros, including 13 Nightjets sets. Are ÖBB working for industrial patriotism (involuntary) ? The fact is that the only Siemens factory producing Viaggio cars in Europe is located … in Graz. If we look 3D pictures, we see totally redesigned trains, such as these individual berths which responds to those who want travel alone at cheap price, and these beds placed longitudinally in the sleeping cars.

Sleeping car in 2022 (photo ÖBB, facebook)

Nightjet network changes from year to year. Since December 2018, a new trainset has been between Berlin and Vienna via … Poland and the Czech Republic (grouped with the train to Budapest and Przemyśl). By 2021, all vehicles destined for Italy will have to have additional fire extinguishing systems in the vehicles, which do not have the current Nightjets. By 2022, the first Siemens Mobility sets should be commissioned. With 100 vehicles, Nightjet covers 7 connections, which means many changes within the fleet, with a priority of new vehicles for Nightjet to Italy.

Future network? ‘It is’ talk about Copenhagen, but especially about Amsterdam, another major tourist destination in Europe. But Kurt Bauer wants first to ensure the business model of the current connections. No question of making a loss. The ÖBB have also declared that the projects to France were not among their priorities due to the delicate situation of the schedules, the Parisian stations and the SNCF Réseau dissuasive fees.

In Germany, the trains to Düsseldorf are full, which no longer allows to add a trainset to Amsterdam. The Dutch have several times asked to create a connection from the Netherlands. ‘It involves creating a new train with new trainsets,’ says Bauer, who recalls the high prices in Germany that also discourage the creation, for example, of a combined Denmark-Munich with a Denmark-Basel. ‘We also want the destination partner to be strong,’ he argues. Finally, on the pricing side, Bauer ironically recalls that not all networks have the same definition of the age of a child: 12, 14 or 16 years old? It depends on the social policy of each country…

 

Others videos :

Mediarail.be – NJ 294 Rome – Salzbourg

Mediarail.be – NJ 420 Innsbrück – Düsseldorf

 

References

2016 – VCO Magazin 2016-14 – Österreich braucht mehr Öffentlichen Verkehr

2016 – Mediarail.be – Couchettes du futur grâce aux ÖBB ?

2016 – Der schienenradler/Daniel Kortschak  – ÖBB-„nightjet“ – der Nachtzug der Zukunft

2016 – ÖBB  – Facebook page

2017 – Kununu.com – Newrest Wagons-Lits Austria GmbH Erfahrungsbericht

2017 – Die Zeit/Stefan Schirmer – « Wisst ihr eigentlich, was ihr da tut?

2017 – Joachim Holstein – Die Nachtzüge wieder auf die Schiene bringen

2017 – Eisenbahn blog – Warum der Nachtzug als Konkurrent zum Tagverkehr gesehen wird?

2018 – Travel News.ch – Die marke nightjet soll zum synonym für nachtreisen werden

2018 – Mediarail.be – Oui au train de nuit : les ÖBB signent pour 91 voitures…

2019 – Manager-magazin.de – Der neue Boom der Nachtzüge

2019 – Rail guide Europe – Nightjet: 17 Lines of Night Train Awesomeness

Photos : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Nightjet?uselang=de

 

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