Austria, France, Germany and Switzerland agreed to boost night-trains on their rail networks on Tuesday (8 December), with a host of new services connecting cities across Europe due to launch at the end of 2021.
Transport ministers and rail firms confirmed at a special press conference that Vienna-Munich-Paris and Zurich-Cologne-Amsterdam services will launch in December 2021, in the first stage of what Germany has dubbed “Trans-Europ Express 2.0”.
In 2022, Zurich will be linked with Rome and in 2023, Berlin, Brussels and Paris will get sleeper services. Barcelona will join the network via Zurich in 2024. The routes had previously been suggested but today’s announcement confirms that planning is moving ahead.
Austrian Railways (ÖBB), which already runs the lion’s share of the current night-train services, will operate the new lines, in conjunction with its French, German and Swiss counterparts.
Germany’s transport minister, Andreas Scheuer, said: “We are now launching this Trans-Europ Express because we are convinced we will see a decade of the rail.” He added that timetable changes have been agreed to improve intercity links.
A number of routes already exist, most notably a Brussels-Vienna service that ran for the first time in January. However, the COVID pandemic has cut passenger demand and trains have been suspended until at least the end of January.
Austrian climate minister Leonore Gewessler said that “the night train is one of the most environmentally friendly and comfortable means of transport. It has to become the transport means of choice.”
She added that Austria is at the forefront of the sleeper service renaissance but warned that there is plenty of political work left to do before hurdles can be overcome and a true single European rail area can be set up.
Swiss railways, which is keen to collaborate with its Austrian neighbours, said that “we are happy to contribute along with our colleagues in developing this new night train network so we can get people off planes and onto trains. We can make 30,000 cars redundant this way.”
The Swiss added during the announcement that in order to build a night-train network, a number of cities will have to become hubs, where feeder trains link other cities to the sleeper services.
According to the route map released by the four railway companies, these hubs are likely to be Brussels, Vienna and Zurich, as well as Berlin if more services are eventually added. Links with Scandinavia are likely to take off once new infrastructure is ready.
ÖBB boss Andreas Matthä warned though that the night-train aspirations will only be realised if fair competition is guaranteed between rail companies and other transport options like aviation, and if track access charges are consistently applied across Europe.
French rail operator SNCF is likely to relaunch its Paris-Nice service later in 2021.
Back-on-Track, a campaign group advocating for more night-trains, said in a statement that the network expansion is an excellent idea but warned that regions of Europe like the Iberian peninsula, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe should not be isolated from future plans.
Next year is on track to be the ‘European Year of Rail’ after EU negotiators agreed to 12 months of events geared towards trains, backed by an €8 million budget. 2021 will also be the first full year the Fourth Railway Package will be in full effect.
According to a draft of the Commission’s Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy – due to be published on Wednesday (9 December) – the EU executive wants to see high-speed rail use double by 2030 and triple by 2050.
The United Kingdom will be linked to the network at Brussels and Paris by the cross-Channel Eurostar service – should it survive a period of immense uncertainty triggered by the pandemic and Brexit – as trains need to be specially designed to run through the undersea tunnel.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]