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EU Commission urged to support Europe’s night train ‘renaissance’

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Ministers, members of the European Parliament, and industry representatives have urged the European Commission to launch a dedicated strategy to boost the use of night trains across the bloc, arguing that now is the time to get behind the low-carbon travel option.

In a letter addressed to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, and Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean, signatories dubbed the current upturn in night train popularity a “renaissance” and asked the Commission to put forward a European strategy for a comprehensive night train network.

“Night trains are experiencing a revival throughout Europe, driven by popular demand for a climate-friendly alternative travel option,” states the letter, adding that “seven out of ten Europeans” would opt for a night train if available.

“People are rediscovering night trains as a comfortable way of travelling throughout Europe, both for business trips and vacations,” the letter continues.

The European Commission has already sought to boost the use of train travel in Europe as a means to cut the bloc’s transport carbon footprint, declaring 2021 the “European Year of Rail” and setting a goal of doubling high-speed passenger traffic by 2030.

However, despite reports of rising enthusiasm for night trains, which sees travellers spend the night in sleeping cabins as they roll towards their destination, obstacles remain.

According to the letter sent on 14 November, there are several issues to be addressed before night trains reach their potential, such as the barriers faced by trains when crossing national borders.

Unlike when travelling by car, the technical standards applied in the rail sector may differ depending on the country. In practice, this means that trains must stop and adjust to different rules or infrastructure requirements, which can lead to lengthy delays.

The letter also criticised high track access charges, which rail companies must pay to infrastructure managers for the use of tracks. Higher track access charges tend to favour incumbent operators as they make it more difficult for new entrants to gain a position in the rail network.

There are also high financial risks surrounding investing in night train rolling stock, as purchasing train cabins is hugely expensive.

Other problems highlighted include poor timetable coordination between member states and the lack of comprehensive booking platforms for rail journeys.

While the European Commission originally planned to table legislation aimed at making it easier to book long-distance journeys across the bloc this year, this legislation has reportedly been shelved.

The so-called Multimodal digital mobility services (MDMS) initiative would have gathered rail, aviation and coach information in one platform, allowing consumers to book journeys using a range of companies and travel modes.

However, the MDMS faced a backlash from rail companies and airlines, who feared ceding control of booking data to third-party ticketing websites.

Solving the problems

To ensure that night trains become a common option for travellers, the letter outlined a list of steps the European Commission should include in its strategy.

These include providing extra funding to modernise rail infrastructure and improve border crossings.

This, the signatories wrote, could be drawn from the Connecting Europe Facility, an EU funding mechanism that aims to improve transport links between member states, and the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T), which seeks to enhance the bloc’s main transport arteries.

Track access charges should also be reduced for international trains, while investments into night trains could be de-risked by securing favourable loans from the European Investment Bank.

Fast and cost-effective approval of rolling stock would also help to boost the rollout of night trains.

Under EU law, train vehicles must be authorised for operation in the EU, ensuring they meet safety requirements.

Previously, this was carried out exclusively by national authorities. However, rules introduced in 2019 saw the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) take on the role of cross-border approvals, a move designed to make the process quicker.

To improve ticketing, the Commission should strive to ‘liberate’ the data to facilitate the booking of night trains across the European Railway system, the letter states.

Signatories also mentioned the need to strengthen passenger rights by allowing travellers to hop on the next available train regardless of rail operator.

Signatories from across the board 

From the national level, signatories of the letter include Austrian Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Georges Gilkinet, and Francois Bausch, Luxembourg’s minister for mobility.

The letter also received cross-party support from the European Parliament, with signatories from the centre-right EPP group, the centre-left S&D group, and the liberal Renew group. Greens MEPs made up the bulk of signatories.

Major industry actors, including rail company lobby group CER, the European Rail Supply Industry Association (UNIFE), and Allrail, a group supporting new rail market entrants, signed, as did Transport & Environment, a prominent green NGO.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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