Why Brussels still doesn't have more night trains
In early 2020, the night train from Brussels to Vienna was put on the rails. It was supposed to be the start of more international night trains from the Belgian capital. Two years later, that ambition seems further away than ever, reports Bruzz.
The only city that can currently be reached by night train from Brussels is Vienna, a journey that has to be booked months in advance. The night train remains very popular: after its reintroduction in 2020, the number of trips had to be increased due to its success.
Two start-ups planning a connection to Berlin and Prague announced their intention to realise this under the brand name European Sleeper, while the Belgian start-up Ostende Vienne Orient Experience (OVOE) proposed train paths to Salzburg, Innsbruck and Milan. Plans for a train between Brussels and Malmö, Sweden, were also announced.
In reality, not much remained of the enthusiastic proposals. No operator was willing to bear the cost of the connection between Brussels and Malmö, while night trains to Berlin and Prague were postponed for the second time. OVOE also cancelled night trains this summer.
The NGO Back on Track Belgium campaigns for a European network of night trains with Brussels as the central hub. They explain why the promised international night trains have been delayed. "The underlying problem - the poor economic climate for night trains - has still not changed," says Alexander Gomme, spokesman for the NGO.
Night train plan
"The European Year of Rail has mainly turned out to be a communication stunt," said Gomme. "The Commission had announced a night train plan, but it turned out to be an empty box. Between 2000 and 2019, night train traffic grew by barely 1%, while people started travelling much more. The number of night trains has fallen by two-thirds, and their average length has decreased."
A major obstacle to creating more night train connections is that start-ups face a lack of suitable coaches, as no sleeping cars have been produced in Europe since the 2000s, says Gomme. "Small series of sleeping cars - with better beds - have been made, but mainly on behalf of national railway companies."
European Sleeper was forced to postpone its night trains for that reason, said co-founder Chris Engelsman. "We are now negotiating with rental companies. They still exist, but they are scarce. Buying your own night trains is a good investment, but there are four to five years between purchase and delivery."
Austrian railway company ÖBB ordered 33 new trains in Vienna. “But a night train costs something in the order of 25 million euro. Those are huge costs for a start-up,” said Smilde.
European Sleeper, therefore, released shares for the second time, after last time’s shares were sold out in 15 minutes. With this money, they will prepare the file to convince the European Investment Bank to lend them the money needed to invest in carriages, Engelsman explained. But that process will take time, and so will the preparation of realising the train. “Placing a train in Europe is a maze of bureaucracy and regulations, and that takes a lot of time,” said Engelsman.
Another issue is the high cost per kilometre for trains in Belgium, according to Gomme of Back on Track. That price is 8,70 euro, although the exact cost depends, for example, on the time and the number of stations that are visited. In comparison: in Eastern Europe, trains pay less than 1 euro.
Gomme also expects the ÖBB will not make much profit from the successful connection between Vienna and Brussels, saying it is likely “symbolically important” for the Austrians to establish a connection with the EU capital.
The high cost for trains to drive in Belgium is one of the reasons why the night train to Malmö wasn’t realised, Gomme says. As Belgium was between governments at the time the tender was launched, it was unable to issue a subsidy. But there is quite a bit of political will on the part of Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet to stimulate the night train, according to Gomme
However, cheaper train path fees alone are not the solution, he says. He points out the unfair competition with airlines, which do not have to pay VAT or kerosene tax, and the lack of a common ticketing system. “It will not be possible without substantial subsidies.”
Kees Smilde agrees: “The government should provide a start-up subsidy. There is a huge market in the direction of France alone.”
On a more positive note, the charter trains to the French ski areas and the Côte d’Azur are set to arrive in 2023 and 2024.
© BELGA PHOTO BENOIT DOPPAGNE - Illustration picture shows the arrival of the first ride of the Nightjet night train from Vienna, Austria to Brussels, Monday 20 January 2020.