The alternative to flying: night trains are booming – without a Deutsche Bahn

Status: June 8, 2022 08:14

Compared to airplanes, train travel is very climate-friendly – and at night is more in demand than ever. This makes foreign suppliers happy. Does Deutsche Bahn miss the trend?

At the end of 2016, the last Deutsche Bahn night train left the tracks. The railway claims that it was making losses of EUR 30 million a year thanks to the City Night Line. Part of the group’s offer, which was considered an unprofitable niche business, was withdrawn. The German night train network has disappeared, leaving a large gap.

Cooperation with foreign partners

The travel market has changed dramatically since then: five and a half years later, the night train business is booming as more and more people choose climate-friendly travel. In addition, the catching-up effects after two years under extreme constraints due to the koruna pandemic are high. Is Deutsche Bahn losing further development here, especially with regard to the climate goals in Germany, which are difficult to achieve anyway?

The spokeswoman for the railways replies unequivocally “no”. “We never got out of the night train business,” he replies “We have changed the business model and now offer sleeper cars and couchettes with our partner railways in Europe,” says the DB Group.

“The night train is not a niche product”

Then, in 2016, the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) bravely entered the gap and expanded their own night train offer with the Nightjet. They succeeded where Deutsche Bahn failed: operating sleeping cars in Germany for profit.

“The night train is not a niche product for ÖBB,” says traffic expert Philipp Kosok from Agora Verkehrswende. “They take this business very seriously, over the past few years they have gained a lot of experience in what passengers expect today and are now becoming the leading provider of night trains in Central Europe.”

Cooperation also with other neighbors

Deutsche Bahn sees a missed opportunity to become one of them from a different perspective. “We found that if everyone is driving the little night train, nothing is gaining ground in competition between trains and planes,” explains a spokeswoman.

This is why the railway is now expanding its night train cooperation with ÖBB, but also with the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), the French SNCF and the Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS). For example, in December last year, two new night train routes Vienna-Munich-Paris and Zurich-Cologne-Amsterdam were launched. Apparently, Deutsche Bahn also sees increasing demand and market potential here.

More and more private suppliers

Many private companies, especially foreign ones, have long recognized both. Since last year, the Swedish night train operator Snälltarget has been offering connections from Berlin to Stockholm via Copenhagen. The American company RDC is behind the Alpen-Sylt-Express with overnight trains from Sylt to Salzburg or Basel. And thanks to Urlaubsexpress, Germany’s largest charter train operator offers night train connections from Switzerland to the Baltic Sea, sometimes even by car.

The youngest night train operator in this country is GreenCityTrip from the Netherlands. Since May 25, the start-up has been operating one night train across Germany with 16 carriages and 700 sleeping places. After the successful operation in the Netherlands since October last year, the company is pleased with the first positive opinions on the dynamically developing German market.

“Everything has been going really well so far,” says Maarten Bastian, CEO and co-founder of GreenCityTrip So far, the seats are “around 95 to 96 percent occupied,” said Bastian. There is a clear emphasis on tourists who want to travel sustainably. For example, a sleeping car will take you from Cologne to Venice, from Dortmund to Prague, or from Bad Bentheim to Gothenburg.

Holidays begin at the platform

“For our guests, traveling by train is a different experience than by plane. As soon as they get on the train, their vacation begins, ”says Maarten Bastian. “You can relax and have a glass of wine.” Demand for the five-day GreenCityTrip travel offers, which include two nights on the train and two nights in the hotel, is “unusually high”, so the start-up is already planning to run more overnight trains in Germany. Bastian’s goals are three trains a week.

According to the young company, the young company has already achieved something else that Deutsche Bahn was unable to do. “We bring profits with our business,” emphasizes the president. And this, although the German market is difficult, because there are many construction sites and infrastructure projects in Germany that significantly complicate the operation of night trains.

Costly use of the rail network

Despite the growing number of night trains, Agora Verkehrswende’s expert Kosok also sees a great need for action here. The rail network is at capacity limits in many places, the pace of expansion is still too slow and the federal government’s budget is clearly too small. According to Kosok, “the high charges for using the rail network in Germany are a big problem” for operators of night trains. On the other hand, for passengers and changes in traffic, it is “not decisive” whether the night train is operated by Deutsche Bahn, ÖBB or another company, says Kosok.

According to Deutsche Bahn, night trains make only a small contribution to the mobility revolution. “If we want more people to move onto the tracks, we have to offer many high-speed connections a day,” explains a DB spokeswoman. Nevertheless, the European night train partnerships of Deutsche Bahn with ÖBB, SBB and SNCF are now being expanded. Because even without its own night trains, DB doesn’t want to completely sleep through the revival of night train travel in Germany.

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