News Europe Spain, an island facing the resurgence of night trains in Europe

Spain, an island facing the resurgence of night trains in Europe

Night trains live a second youth in Europe. Ecological awareness, the impulse of the European Commission —and of several governments— and the liberalization of the sector have caused a resurgence of this means of transport, which until a few years ago seemed like a relic of the past and now launches routes around the continent, new companies and even economic bunk cabin designs with more privacy. Combining different rail routes while you sleep -and in several stages-, you can travel from the north of Norway to Bucharest or Istanbul and arrive in the south of France. But the Pyrenees become an insurmountable barrier: in 2020, with the pandemic, Spain withdrew its last four night trains and does not plan to reopen them or start others. Meanwhile, there are foreign companies studying routes to Barcelona from Zurich and Amsterdam for the next few years.

“The resurgence of night trains has come with the recent European rail liberalization, which allows state companies to operate services in other countries. We have seen it in Spain with the new high-speed operators, and in Europe it is also being seen with these services”, explains Adrian Fernandez, director of the state-owned Fundacion de Ferrocarriles Espanoles (FFE). “Who is leading the expansion is the Austrian Federal Railways [ÖBB, por sus siglas en aleman]who want to reach other markets thanks to being in a privileged geographical position, which allows them to reach most of the continent in one night”, he continues.

A cabin with several berths in an Austrian ÖBB train. Harald Eisenberger

According to an ÖBB spokesman, the Austrian public company already operates 30 night lines (called Nightjet) throughout Europe, with destinations such as Berlin, Amsterdam, Zurich and Rome. In addition, it collaborates with other companies to go further, to Stockholm, Zagreb and Warsaw, among other cities. “There is a tendency to make trips more sustainable, especially due to environmental concerns, and this means that the need for new night trains continues to grow. In addition to Austria, other countries have already announced their intention to further increase rail services at night,” the spokesman said. In fact, since 2020 ÖBB has redoubled its bet: it has launched three new lines and has extended another four. And he plans to continue to do so in the future.

Mini cabins with ÖBB beds that close, allowing greater privacy.
Mini cabins with ÖBB beds that close, allowing greater privacy.

Daniel Pi, from the Association for the Promotion of Public Transport (PTP), points out that the image that people travel stacked up in narrow berths in old wagons must be discarded: “Austrian railways are buying new, very modern trains that improve space and offer more comfort and a better user experience.” One of the novelties are inexpensive small bunk beds that close completely, allowing for greater privacy. Fernandez adds: “The product is evolving, and while the plane, which used to be elitist, becomes more and more uncomfortable, the train is committed to more comfort, more privacy and a better travel experience. There is a niche market for night trains”.

New companies in the sector

Another novelty are the private companies that intend to reactivate this market. The Belgian-Dutch company European Sleeper will launch a new line in May to link Brussels and Berlin (with stops in Antwerp, Rotterdam and Amsterdam) in about 11 hours per night. The trips have three modalities: luxury cabin (with two or three beds), cabin with six berths and reclining seats. To get an idea, the complete tour costs 79 euros per seat, 129 in a berth (in a six-bed cabin) and 169 in a two-bed cabin (239 if you want the full cabin).

Map with the ten transnational railway projects (day and night) supported by the European Commission.
Map with the ten transnational railway projects (day and night) supported by the European Commission.

The European Commission launched at the end of January its support for 10 transnational railway pilot projects, some of which are expected to be carried out at night. “The recognition of the Commission implies being able to count on its support to promote the project at a strategic, legal and administrative level, as well as at the level of coordination and communication between the countries and the actors involved, although in principle it does not imply economic support or financing” , says a spokesperson for Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat, which intends to establish a high-speed daytime route between Barcelona, ​​Montpelier and Toulouse.

Another of the initiatives selected by the European body is the future night line between Amsterdam and Barcelona, ​​operated precisely by European Sleeper. “It is highly desirable that there be night trains that arrive in Barcelona, ​​which can become a railway gateway to the entire Peninsula,” says Fernandez. “A tourist who arrives at the Sants station early can be at high speed at noon in many parts of Spain,” he continues.

Two women say goodbye on a platform at the Vienna Central Station before the departure of a night train.
Two women say goodbye on a platform at the Vienna Central Station before the departure of a night train.CLAUDIO ALVAREZ

Spain bets everything on the AVE

If it works throughout Europe, why not in Spain? According to Renfe, “night trains are commercial services, not public services, and therefore they must be profitable. In the last year in which they circulated, they registered losses of 25 million euros. Daniel Pi, from the PTP association, believes that this is a very small amount compared to the amount invested in high-speed infrastructure since it was launched in the early 1990s. According to Adif, to date there are 58,400 million euros, 1,553 million of them in 2022 and 2,600 more planned for 2023. “The result is that we have an excellent high-speed network, but a very bad conventional network. Night services would have to be subsidized,” Pi complains.

Fernandez, from the FFE, provides another key: “The night train has very high costs, especially for personnel: room waiters, mechanics, drivers… In addition, these personnel can only make one journey per day, while on AVE they could be up to three”. In his opinion, in order to be profitable, they must cover the greatest possible use of profiles: “Short traffic between intermediate cities can be done in cheap seats, while entire routes must offer both cabins with many berths at an economical price and in private cabins, masks”.

Breakfast included in some ÔBB night train tickets.
Breakfast included in some ÔBB night train tickets. Harald Eisenberger

Until 2020, the night services Barcelona-Galicia (with a fork in A Coruna and Vigo), Madrid-Galicia (also to Vigo and A Coruna), Madrid-Lisbon and Lisbon-Hendaya (the latter two, in collaboration with Comboios) operated in Spain. From Portugal). Before there were more, like the Barcelona-Granada, or the Barcelona-Zurich and Madrid-Paris hotel trains. In 2018, Renfe decided to transform most of the old convoys into conventional AVE trains. The arrival of cheap airline tickets had a lot to do with the disappearance of those international hotel trains, while national routes declined with the arrival of high speed. However, to travel from Barcelona to Galicia, only a daytime train is maintained, which takes more than 13 hours, or a nine and a half-hour AVE journey with a change in Madrid, both of which are not very competitive compared to a one-hour flight.

Pau Noy, spokesman for the Iberian Railway Alliance —which brings together some twenty entities from Spain and Portugal in defense of the train—, believes that this type of trip should be resumed: “How is it possible that in Europe there is a boiling of cross-border night trains and we are running out? Spain is a very large country, with an extension of 1,100 kilometers from end to end, they are ideal distances to travel at night”. In his opinion, it is an ideal means of transport that reduces emissions and allows for comfortable travel. Helena Fortea, from the NGO EcoUnion, believes that “night trains must be resumed to prevent all tourists from arriving by plane.”

The author points out that environmental awareness is behind the drive for these journeys in Europe —it is the medium that produces the least emissions—, “but it also allows you to enjoy the trip much more, because trains are a destination in themselves”. Noy sums it up like this: “Any night train journey lasts one hour, 30 minutes to fall asleep and 30 to wake up”. A dream that, for now, cannot be had in Spain.

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