The resurgence of night trains in Europe has sparked a debate on whether they could replace planes as a more sustainable and convenient mode of long-distance travel.
The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of Night Trains
Night trains have a long history, dating back to the first sleeper cars in the United States over 160 years ago. In Europe, the legendary Orient Express popularized the concept. However, the golden age of night trains was in the 1950s and 60s, when people sought long-distance travel options. Despite their popularity, night trains faced stiff competition from cars, high-speed trains, and planes, leading to their decline.
By 2015, German train operator Deutsche Bahn reported that only 1% of its long-distance passengers were on night trains, losing €32 million annually. However, recent years have seen a resurgence in interest, with Austria’s ÖBB leading the way.
Business Models: Planes vs. Trains
The business model for transportation is straightforward: pick people up at Point A and drop them off at Point B as quickly and cheaply as possible. Planes have the advantage of going directly from A to B with minimal infrastructure, making them cost-effective for long distances. High-speed trains, on the other hand, can pick up passengers at multiple stations, compensating for their expensive infrastructure.
Night trains face challenges in both speed and cost. They can’t service intermediate cities due to their nighttime schedule, making them similar to planes but less efficient. However, ÖBB has found success by offering a premium service, targeting different customer segments with seats, sleeping berths, and full-on cabins.
The Austrian Model: A Case Study
Austria’s ÖBB made a strategic bet on night trains by buying 42 remaining carriages from the Dutch and launching a new brand, Nightjet. Their three-tiered service model has proven successful, accounting for 17% of their profits in 2016 despite making up only 2% of their ticket sales. This model has been replicated by other operators like Transdev and Trenitalia, renewing interest in night trains.
Challenges and Opportunities
Despite the potential, scaling night trains is a logistical and bureaucratic nightmare due to the European Union’s patchwork of subsidy systems and tariffs. Each route has to be carefully calculated, and the service must also focus on hospitality, not just transportation.
New developments like the Lyon-Turin tunnel and the EU’s TEN-T Network could make night trains competitors to some of Europe’s busiest air routes. However, the industry faces challenges in scaling and must solve the business case puzzle for each route.
Conclusion: Hotels on Rails?
The resurgence of night trains shows that a service based on offering convenience and comfort can be a winning strategy. Perhaps it’s time to view them not just as a mode of transportation but as “hotels on rails.”
So, will night trains ever out-compete other methods of transportation, or are they destined to remain a niche? Only time will tell, but they certainly offer a sustainable and potentially profitable alternative for long-distance travel in Europe.
This article is based on the video “Will Night Trains Replace Planes?” by Into Europe. The video was uploaded on September 1, 2023, and has garnered over 115,000 views. You can watch the full video here.