MANY long-distance passenger trains outside Europe and Japan must by nature run overnight, with seating accommodation convertible to sleeper berths or bunks. In Europe, daytime inter-city trains predominate, with high speed services taking a steadily growing share of the business. This intense focus on high speed has left many of Europe’s overnight routes neglected, and of those that remain, most face an uncertain future.
Cheap air travel and road coaches have taken a huge slice of traffic that once moved by train, and with the possible exception of Germany’s InterCityNight Talgo trains, the railways have yet to mount a successful rescue bid. The CityNightLine trains launched in 1995 by a joint company owned originally by Swiss, German and Austrian railways are not noted for their success, partly because they failed to offer cheap couchette accommodation, and partly because the luxury compartments in the ingeniously designed double-deck coaches are too cramped for many passengers’ liking. It is perhaps instructive that when Austrian Federal Railways withdrew from the group last year, it added couchette cars to the formation of its ex-CityNightLine Zürich - Wien Wiener Walzer. The message is surely that overnight services must offer as broad an appeal as possible - for business travellers (luxury berths with shower), families (four-berth compartments), low-budget tourists and backpackers (couchettes and reclining seats).
The disastrous saga of the Channel Tunnel overnight trains, referred to by a reader on p570 and previously in these pages, is unique, with the railways’ ability to offer a range of flexible services boxed in by excessive government-imposed security rules that render absurd the requirement set by the same governments to run at a profit. To that must be added a choice of routes based on political needs rather than market demand, too early arrival times, inadequate service levels (no dining car for departures as early as 18.30) plus pricing levels (never published) which would be easily undercut by the competition. The best hope to retrieve something from the mess would be to run services from London to southern France, north and south Germany and Switzerland. For holiday traffic, the aim would have to be to offer a more attractive package than the airlines at a comparable price, but the railways would be attacking well-established and extremely competitive operators.
All this leaves aside the collective failure of European railways to market and sell its overnight trains effectively. With the ability to offer passengers at both budget and luxury level far higher comfort levels than air or road, the railways have failed spectacularly to exploit their own advantages. How else can one explain the arrival of 1800 road coaches a day carrying tourists to the stunningly beautiful city of Praha, while just three trains run overnight from western Europe?
We note that Netherlands Railways is negotiating with Danish State Railways to buy 25 seats cars which it wants to convert to couchettes for long-haul charters, but such is the tortuous machinery to obtain regular international paths that NS will find it hard to agree a weekly service to Praha for next summer’s timetable. Ring up and book a coach, and you could be travelling next week.
Although not geared specifically to night trains, the most encouraging sales effort we have seen recently is Austrian Federal Railways’ bid to win a slice of the huge market for group and individual travel by Japanese tourists. ÖBB visited 200 travel agencies in Japan, and arranged promotions with Japan Air Lines. Aggressive and clever marketing is essential in today’s ultra-competitive world. o