Thursday, 3 December 2015

Auf wiedersehen, sleeper trains

A leaked internal document reveals Deutsche Bahn may halt all sleeper train services in Germany at the end of next year.

If you like the idea of rolling across Europe in the relaxed comfort of your bed, it looks like you've got just one year left to do it - in Germany at least.

Deutsche Bahn, the German rail operator, has reportedly signalled that it may end all city night line trains in December 2016. No more overnight trains.

The news comes in a preparation document for a 16 December supervisory board meeting. According to the document, which has been obtained by German media, Deutsche Bahn is going to record a record loss of €1.3 billion euros this year, and is going to take drastic cost-cutting measures in response.

One of the measures proposed in the planning document is ending all night trains. The night trains are "economically unsustainable" because the earnings forecast for the coming years is "strongly negative", according to the document. Instead, Deutsche Bahn will run night buses and regular ICE trains - without sleeper cars.

I'm on a Deutsche Bahn train myself at the moment, travelling from Berlin to Paris (with a stopover in Brussels) to cover the COP21 climate summit. I'm told to expect intense security screening when I switch trains in Cologne to enter Belgium, and again in Brussels when I board a train to exit Belgium. Rail travel 'aint easy these days, and it seems to only be getting more difficult.

The move by DB to scrap the night trains is part of a trend happening Europe-wide. I've covered the 'disappearing night trains' issue for awhile now, for Deutsche Welle and for European Voice. In July I hosted a panel at the European Parliament looking into the reasons for the cancellation of Europe's night routes.

One obvious reason is the increase in high-speed train routes, which have replaced some night services. But most of the services being axed have not been replaced by any high-speed train service. For instance, there used to be a direct sleeper train from Berlin to Paris, but it was axed a few years ago. Now to get there by high-speed train I have to switch trains twice and travel for nine hours.

The bigger reason for the cancellations is competition with low-fares airlines, which receive government subsidies while rail does not. Not only do airlines benefit from tax-subsidised fuel, they have also benefitted from passed-on EU regional funding and state aid to small airports (it's been the wildly successful business model of Ryanair to pass on the savings from these subsidies to passengers).

Another reason is the difficulty in operating trains across borders. There are all sorts of hurdles that must be overcome by a company like Deutsche Bahn to run its trains in neighbouring countries like Belgium, Poland or Switzerland. They have to pay track access charges, can face difficulties with rolling stock and encounter security concerns. In the end they don't get the passenger numbers to justify the cost. Of course, the rail operators haven't made much of an effort to fill the seats by promoting cross-border services either.

However there are examples of night trains making good money. For instance Sweden's rail operator has been running a very successful night train between Stockholm and Malmo, and passenger numbers went way up after they introduced a tiered system with more reasonable prices and promoted the service.

I contacted Deutsche Bahn's press office but they said they do not comment on internal communications. It really amazes me how little information the rail operators will provide about their intentions to cut service. Witness Jon Worth's difficulty in getting a straight answer about the impending cancellation of the Brussels-Strasbourg train. 

For those of us who like to travel by rail, Europe's governments and rail operators sure aren't making it easy these days.

Top photo credit: Don O'Brien, Flickr

1 comment:

soumyaahuja said...

Beautiful train, I like travel in train because of its adventurous track so I book e ticket after IRCTC Register for my journey.