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Passenger night trains in Europe, the end of the line?

23 May 2017

Passenger night trains carrying sleeping cars or couchette stock have been operated across Europe for over a century. Some railways continue to provide them as part of their long-distance services, or by agreement with neighbouring railways. Others have cut them back, because they are not profitable or not supported by a social, economic or environmental case.

The European Parliament appointed us to investigate the financial and environmental aspects of the night train sector, and to analyse whether night trains are a viable option in the long-term. With limited data available, our work focused on studies prepared to inform recent decisions to close, change, continue or expand night train services.

We found that night trains typically offered slower journeys and have higher costs than equivalent day trains. Despite offering a wide range of accommodation, ranging from a “day” seat to a private bed with shower and WC, night trains rarely earn sufficient additional revenue to cover these costs. We noted that across Europe, and in Japan, new high-speed lines mean that many journeys they had originally served were now too brief to provide a night’s sleep.

Uniquely in Europe, Austria’s ÖBB has plans to expand its Nightjet services. These appeared to benefit from factors which might not exist elsewhere in Europe: no 300 km/h high-speed lines; limited flights between Vienna and their main destinations; and strict control of competing coaches, which in some countries have been liberalised and now offer day and overnight services at low fares.

We concluded that night trains still contribute to the mobility needs of European citizens, and suggested three measures to ensure that they were not disadvantaged:

  • better monitoring of night trains as a market segment; 
  • ensuring that their viability was not undermined by excessive mark-ups to rail infrastructure charges; and 
  • more flexible means of subsidy, to enable operators to adapt to the needs of the market.

You can read the final report of the study here.

Dick Dunmore, Associate at Steer Davies Gleave, presented the report at the European Parliament TRAN Committee meeting in Brussels on 20 June 2017. You can watch the video here.

Tags: Rail

About the author

Dick Dunmore's picture
Dick Dunmore
Dick has worked in a number of areas including the structure of the rail industry, regulation of rail access and rail fares, appraisal of rail infrastructure, rolling stock and services, business planning and competitor analysis of airports, airport rail links and ferries, and contracting in the bus industry.

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