Swiss-Austrian alliance plans night-train boost by 2024

Plans are in motion to boost Swiss night-train connections to some of Europe's biggest cities. [Photo: Shutterstock]

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).

Growing demand for ‘slow travel’ and the romantic allure of sleeper trains have resulted in the resurgence of the night-train in Europe.

Austrian rail firm ÖBB is Europe’s number one night-train operator, boasting 19 services that extend across the continent from the Alpine republic, including a new route that links Vienna to Brussels.

ÖBB also teams up with operators in other countries to increase its network, including a close partnership with Swiss counterpart SBB, which includes six routes. Today, the alliance said it wants to boost that number to ten.

In December 2021, an overnight service between Zürich and Amsterdam via Basel, Frankfurt and Cologne will kick off the expansion. By 2023, existing links with Berlin and Hamburg should increase in frequency and capacity.

More significantly, by 2024, ÖBB-SBB want to launch direct connections with Barcelona and Rome, although negotiations are still ongoing with the French, Spanish and Italian authorities about track access and other technical matters.

“We are convinced of the success of the Nightjet. With SBB as a strong partner, we can continue to expand the network. We are investing in new trains, 13 Nightjet trains of the latest generation will be in use from the end of 2022,” said ÖBB CEO Andreas Matthä.

“This development is sustainable and the demand for environmentally friendly and resource-saving mobility will continue to grow,” said SBB counterpart Vincent Ducrot.

However, beyond the technical challenges of negotiating track access and timetabling, the sheer cost of the expansion means there is no guarantee that the ambitious rebirth of the night-train will go ahead unhindered.

Sleeper carriages are an expensive investment and ÖBB will launch the Amsterdam service in 2021 using rented rolling stock from a German company. New wagons are on order but will only be phased in gradually.

Financing could come from the Swiss government, whose new climate fund explicitly mentions cross-border train travel among its priority areas. ÖBB has made it clear that the expansion can only go ahead if that state support is granted.

The Swiss political system is a complex one so funding might be dependent on a referendum vote. Swiss night-train passenger numbers increased by 25% compared to 2019, so the chances are good that voters will support the initiative.

According to SBB’s findings, Swiss night-train travel is responsible for CO2 savings of around 50,000 tonnes per year, which is equivalent to taking 30,000 cars off the road.

The climate credentials of sleeper services are clear but their financial worth still needs to be tested.

Sweden's night train to Brussels to debut in 2022

The Swedish government announced on Thursday (23 July) night train routes that will link the cities of Stockholm and Malmö with Hamburg and Brussels, in the latest indication that sleeper services are on the cusp of a renaissance in Europe.

[Edited bt Zoran Radosavljevic]

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