Friday, January 31, 2020

The Return of the Night Train to Europe

My luck, I'd try the Deutsche Bahn service and trip over Greta® in the corridor on the way to breakfast, causing an international incident when all I wanted was an omelette.
From Wired, November 11, 2019:

Five years ago, sleeper trains were on the way out. Now they're seen as the future of short-haul travel between cities
Silent countryside and sleeping towns slip by in the dark outside the window, as the train thump-thumps its way over the tracks. Tucked into their bunk beds, tourists sleep off the bottles of beer from the dining car as business travellers run through their presentations one last time before drifting off into dreams of PowerPoint slides. As dawn light leaks through along the edge of the window blinds, the train rumbles into Stockholm, Amsterdam or Vienna, where passengers disembark in the centre of the city, perfectly refreshed and with a full day ahead of them.

Such is the promise and romance of sleeper trains, but five years ago that image was set to fade into the past, with night journeys a relic of a bygone era. In 2014, Deutsche Bahn ended its City Night Line routes that connected Paris to Berlin and the rest of Germany; in 2016, France dismantled its network of night trains inside and outside its borders; and in 2013, and Spain halted its Elipsos route between Paris and Barcelona and Madrid. And in Italy, sleeper train services were being reduced. At the time, much of the blame for bringing night services to the brink was pinned on competition from budget airlines offering faster connections at much lower prices, leaving struggling rail operators unable to make the economics work on seemingly niche services.

But such closures weren’t the end of sleeper trains. The past few years have seen a renaissance in overnight rail travel. Austria’s train operator ÖBB bought up Deutsche Bahn’s stock and took over the routes, making it the largest night-train operator in Europe — a smart move that’s seen ÖBB’s night train services more than double from 700,000 passengers annually to 1.5 million. Swiss operator SBB says night train traffic is up 25 per cent from the beginning of this year alone. And in the UK, GWR last year revealed renovations to the sleeper trains it runs to Cornwall, adding cocktail bars and surfboards, while the Caledonian Sleeper between London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen has been revamped with £150 million investment in new trains, that while not perfect – to say the least, initial journeys were hit by severe delays caused by engine troubles, with staff threatening to strike over “appalling conditions” including faulty toilets – have at least sparked a renewed interest in overnight rail travel.
Why the turnaround? One answer could be that guilt over the environmental impact of air travel is piling up – we now have the concept of “flight shame”, or as the Swedes put it, flygskam. Mark Smith, the train expert behind rail journey website The Man in Seat 61, says that back when he started in 2001, site visitors said they wanted to travel via train because they were afraid to fly or medically restricted from doing so, or just really liked trains. “Now what they say is two things, in one breath: they’re fed up with the experience of airports and flying, and they want to cut their carbon footprint,” he says. That shift has been happening for several years, he adds, but Greta Thunberg has really brought it to a head.
In response, German politicians are discussing ways to discourage short-haul flights via fuel taxes, while this summer French MPs proposed an idea to cut flights where trains could be used instead, and added a tax to all international air travel – despite cutting the very means, night trains, that would help them achieve those goals. While Swiss operator SBB says it’s unclear as yet how much of its growing business comes from sustainability considerations, customer surveys reveal such concerns are becoming increasingly important. “The train is the most climate-friendly and energy-efficient means of transport — besides your bicycle,” says company spokesman Oli Dischoe. “A train trip in Switzerland causes 27 times less CO2 emissions than a car trip on a comparable route.”
In terms of emissions, trains are more efficient than flying, but exactly how much more beneficial depends on the network infrastructure and fuel used. Countries that still use diesel — and that includes the UK’s sleeper trains — aren’t as good as electric trains, which are in wider use across Europe; that said, a diesel train journey still produces 84 per cent less carbon than an equivalent flight. But electric trains are only as good as the local energy mix. France has plenty of nuclear energy, while Dutch trains are entirely powered by wind energy. There are other factors to consider, such as how full a train is or the carbon emitted to build infrastructure, though of course that infrastructure is already in place, so making good use of it makes sense. 

“In a country like Sweden, where almost all electricity is green and nearly all rail tracks are electrified, resulting in its trains being virtually zero-carbon, making the switch towards train travel is a far more climate-friendly option,” says Tomer Shalit, CEO and co-founder of ClimateView, a carbon data analysis startup who has given up air travel for trains when getting around his homeland. His journey from Umeå, in Sweden’s north east, to the southern capital Stockholm takes nine hours. “The train departs at 21:00 and arrives at 06:00 in both directions,” he says. “I have an annual season ticket for the train and, based on the number of journeys that I’ve made during the year, I have already saved around 30 per cent in cost."
And that's the other reason behind the resurgence of night trains: they never should have been shut down in the first place. Back in 2015, Deutsche Bahn said it was shuttering the City Night Line routes because passenger numbers had fallen by a quarter, causing losses of millions of euros.
But only a few years on, ÖBB has helped shift to profit off the back of those same routes, says Smith. “They’ve made it work,” he says. “A shortage of passengers wasn’t the problem. Germany’s City Night Line trains were running full and passenger numbers were increasing. It was the economics, and the will to make those economics work.”....