This has been the big buzz in recent months since the German transport minister presented his TEE 2.0 concept in autumn 2020, which includes night trains and a host of other things. It is an opportunity to remind millennials what the TEE concept once was, that night trains had nothing to do with it, and why it’s all changed since the 2000s.
It is funny to see the sudden excitement about a « European » concept of cross-border trains. Until now, the high-speed network built in the 1990s and 2000s was supposed to « build the new Europe ». In reality, it has been a vast money pump to serve a national cause, leaving large ‘gaps’ between the different networks. Europe? Not a priority for state-owned companies. Special mention should be made of Belgium, which is the only country to have built two lines without a border station, namely the HSL L1 line to Paris/Lille and the L4 line to Breda in the Netherlands. France also stands out with the access to the Channel Tunnel and the Perpignan-Figueras line. Germany and Italy have no new cross-border links to anyone. In each case, you have to go back down to the conventional network and pass a border station (Brennero, Modane, Forbach, Kehl,…).
A Class VT11 in Paris-Nord, ready to start to Belgium and Germany
What was the Trans-Europ-Express?
In 1957, seven railway networks in a peaceful Europe launched the « Trans-Europ Express » concept, the same year where the Treaty of Rome was signed. The aim was – already – to try to bring businessmen back to the train by offering them huge comfort. Originally, the main promoter of this luxury train network, the Dutchman Den Hollander, had already planned a unified rolling stock managed by a joint company, separate from the state companies, in 1954. Unfortunately an idea fifty years ahead of its time and rejected by the transport ministers of each country, who saw it as a threat to the national industry. Rail and politics…
The network was therefore launched, but each with its own trains. Make no mistake about it: these were not ‘citizen trains through a war-free Europe’, but pure first class trains with an extra charge. Why extra charge? Because at the time, the national fare system offered certain discounts even in first class. So you could get a veteran’s discount in France and Belgium, but not in Germany. The supplement was the same for everyone. The TEE, as it became known, was an important network which reached its peak in 1974, before an irreversible decline. There were never night trains in this network.
Old SNCF poster about night trains
The confusion with the night trains probably comes from the acronym « TEN » on the sleeping cars from 1972. This had nothing to do with the Trans-Europ-Express, it was a pooling of the sleeping cars of several European networks previously owned by the Compagnie des Wagons-lits. This historical company had financial problems and wanted to get rid of the technical assets by selling its cars, while keeping the service on board with its own staff. Pooling meant that, in theory, a German or Swiss sleeping car could be used on a Paris-Nice journey and an SNCF sleepin-car on a Milan-Munich journey. Couchettes-cars, on the other hand, were never pooled.
What happened in the 1980s and 1990s?
Not just the arrival of Margareth Thatcher as millennials are often told, but probably the end of a certain era of just throwing in subsidies without looking at what our railways were doing with them. But also a major change in long-distance transport, with motorways leading to Sicily or Andalusia and aviation accessible to all.
Eurocity : a german concept. EC Verona-Munich at Brennero station, april 2017 (photo Mediarail.be)
At the level of railways, the transport of passengers was – and still today -, essentially national. At the international level, there was a strong tradition of intercompany cooperation and associations and the deficit of an international train was drowned in the overall accounts of public enterprises. However, as public deficits had to be contained by each State, this arrangement was no longer tenable and international trains were asked to pay for access to the tracks of the neighbouring country. In addition, international passenger traffic represented – and still today – only a small fraction of the passenger traffic of all state operators, whose task is to concentrate on national traffic, which is an essential need of the population. This new legislative environment, which was built in the 1990s, has completely changed international train traffic. It had the effect of introducing commercial tariffs and making trains financially sustainable. This had the effect of eliminating some of international trains, especially as the aviation industry was also changing its business model with the emergence of low cost airlines.
The Trans-Europ-Express already disappeared
However, the Trans-Europ-Express had already disappeared in 1987, long before this new legislative environment. It was no longer profitable to run only first-class trains, and customers were no longer willing to pay so much for the train. The TEEs were replaced by the Eurocity concept, which was essentially a German idea and did not go down well in the Benelux countries and in France. Night trains seemed to be more resilient to changes in passenger habits. But when the Channel Tunnel was opened in June 1994, it became clear that the big night trains that ran from all over Europe to ports such as Calais, Ostend and Hoek van Holland would lose their British customers, who were heavy users of these trains. From that moment on, these trains declined over a period of ten years. In addition, France and Germany were heavily involved in a national high-speed network that had to be made as profitable as possible. That was the history. And now ?
How should it be subsidised?
The TEE 2.0 presented last year actually mixes day trains with night trains. The German minister’s concept also relies on subsidised services, « just like we subsidise roads ». But this argument reinforces a misconception. Subsidising a train means paying staff salaries, which is different from only to bear rail tolls. Moreover, it implies the obligation to establish a contract between public companies and to agree on who will pay what level of deficit. This requires the creation of companies such as Thalys or Eurostar or similar legal arrangements. It is also possible for a public company to start up on its own, as Trenitalia has done with Thello or the ÖBB with its Nightjets. All of this shows us that if TEE is a vintage fashionable subject, its implementation will not be vintage and will have to take into account current legislation. In the meantime, two Benelux entrepreneurs, one Belgian and one Dutch, will probably launch their night trains in 2022 without having to deal with the above. We wish them the best of luck…
RegioJet, one of the new entrants operating its own night trains, without subsidies
18/04/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling
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