Europe’s fledgling night-train revival feels virus bite

Austrian railways announced a month-long hiatus. [Photo: ÖBB]

Night train services across Europe will be put on hiatus in November, Austria’s railway company announced on Wednesday (28 October), as soaring coronavirus case numbers make cross-border routes untenable for the time being.

ÖBB – the main provider of sleeper trains in Europe – said that its services between Austria, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland would go on at least a month-long break between 8 November and 2 December.

The firm said in a statement that it has “the full understanding of all local and national measures that are being taken to contain the corona pandemic, but we must react appropriately to this fact in view of high travel barriers.”

ÖBB added that “in time for the holidays at the beginning of December, however, we will again bring all passengers who will be travelling with our Nightjets to their destination safely and relaxed.”

Trains are meant to be a low-risk transport option in terms of contracting coronavirus, if safety protocols like mask-wearing and regular cleaning are fulfilled. German firm Deutsche Bahn recently said there is “little or no evidence” infection occurs when precautions are followed.

But different quarantine measures between countries and the expense of buying sleeper compartment tickets for private rather than shared use, make night-trains an unappealing option in the current climate.

The suspension is a further blow to the transport industry, particularly companies that provide international services, which have struggled due to reduced passenger numbers caused by lockdown and quarantine measures.

Austria’s rail firm is the standout provider of sleeper train routes in Europe and has plans to extend its network substantially this decade, linking up with cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona and Rome all by 2024.

According to ÖBB’s website, tickets are still available for the Amsterdam-Innsbruck and Vienna train, departing 13 December.

The first Nightjet train rolled into Brussels Midi station at the beginning of this year, in what was the first sleeper service to hit Belgian rail since the early 2000s. Extra trains have been planned to start in December but it is unclear how ÖBB’s announcement affects that plan.

Swiss-Austrian alliance plans night-train boost by 2024

New night-train services linking Switzerland with Amsterdam, Barcelona and Rome are going to roll out by 2024, a Swiss-Austrian rail operator alliance announced on Tuesday (15 September).

Corona railroads

ÖBB is not the only firm affected by the worsening health situation, sparked by a second wave of the virus. 

Cross-Channel firm Eurostar ran its first direct route from Amsterdam to London on Monday (26 October), following the installation of passport controls in the Dutch capital and at Rotterdam station, but the train ran mostly empty.

France’s SNCF recently announced the suspension of five scheduled high-speed TGV lines between Paris and Lille, which is considered a major commuter route and a quick access point between northern France and the capital.

Eurostar’s Amsterdam odyssey kicks off to little fanfare

Cross-Channel rail operator Eurostar operated its first direct service between Amsterdam and London on Monday (26 October), nearly a year later than originally scheduled. However, due to the worsening health crisis, the train ran nearly empty between the two capitals.

The train firm said that lower demand for travel meant the services are for the time-being not financially viable and that once the situation improves, the TGVs will be restored. 

European Parliament transport committee chair Karima Delli (Greens) said that it was an “unacceptable blow to the region and its inhabitants” in a letter addressed to SNCF President Jean-Pierre Farandou.

Demand may plummet further this week as French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to announce a tightening of virus measures or even a full lockdown to combat record numbers of infections and help the struggling healthcare system.

Railway companies and enthusiasts will hope for a better 2021, when the EU wants to celebrate the ‘Year of Rail’ and boost the sector’s standing.

Commission wants to declare 2021 the 'year of rail'

The European Commission said on Wednesday (4 March) that train travel should be given special attention in 2021 as part of the EU executive’s Green Deal environmental agenda, suggesting that next year should be the ‘European Year of Rail’.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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