Renfe does not rule out the return of night trains despite having shown many times its lack of interest in recovering them in recent years. The last train hotels circulated on Spanish tracks in 2020 and were withdrawn from circulation when the coronavirus health crisis was declared. The company then alleged health reasons in its decision, although the economic factor also weighed on it: “They were eliminated due to their low profitability,” confessed the president of the operator, Raül Blanco, this past Monday in a colloquium held in Madrid.
But the greater prevalence of ecological factors in the European Union’s mobility and transport policies could change this situation. Plans such as the European ‘Green Deal’ or the ‘Fit for 55’ that try to bring the EU to climate neutrality have become allies of the development of continental railways, and this ‘green wave’ —together with the controversy of the short-haul flights—has revived the public and political debate on whether to return these night trains, which until a few years ago ran daily throughout Europe, to the tracks.
They depend on public subsidies
“If they want to recover, it is necessary to introduce elements of public service, because they are not profitable services for Renfe or for other operators,” justified the manager. Blanco called for, if Brussels agrees to the return of night trains, to classify them as ‘public service obligation’ (OSP), the legal figure that allows these services to be subsidized with public funds.
If approved by Brussels, this subsidy could come from the Community Treasury and not from the Spanish State, which up to now has not made any move to recover these services. This formula is the one used today by Cercanías and conventional Media Distancia trains in Spain, but also by many air routes such as those linking Barcelona and Madrid with Badajoz, connections between the peninsula and the islands or the maritime routes to Ceuta and Melilla. .
“If you want to recover routes like Barcelona-Paris, or reach cities like Zurich or Milan, I think they are services that can reach you, but they have to have that public service component. Someone will have to cover that low profitability, since they don’t It is not a problem of operations or of technological capacity”, stated the president of Renfe.
The European Sleeper Experiment
In December 2020, the directors of the four large central European public operators (the German Deutsche Bahn, the French SNCF, the Austrian railways ÖBB and the Swiss SBB) ace. One of them involved establishing a connection between Barcelona and Zurich (Switzerland) through the common Nightjet brand.
Of this pact, to this day, no news is known. But there is an operator that has proposed to break with this dogma, almost consolidated among the managers of the different European railways. This is European Sleeper, a Belgian and Dutch cooperative that began operating night trains between Brussels, Amsterdam and Berlin at the end of May. The entire journey lasts approximately ten and a half hours, and they claim to have already sold more than 10,000 tickets. By 2024 they hope to extend this route to Dresden (Germany) and Prague (Czech Republic).
His plans are not limited to countries with a long tradition in this type of night-time travel. Union as one of the ten pilot projects that would receive institutional support for its consolidation. This new connection would arrive in the spring of 2025 and would have stops in Rotterdam, Antwerp, Brussels, Lille, Avignon, Montpellier, Perpignan, Figueras and Girona.
After attracting 2.5 million euros from more than 1,700 private investors in its first two investment rounds, European Sleeper will launch a third round in the coming days to buy its own sleeping cars. They did so after locating several problems in access to rolling stock and hoping that the support of the European institutions would allow them to access more financing.
The European institutions debate its implementation
Recently, the European Parliament witnessed a debate on the need to increase the financing of collective transport policies, especially with regard to this type of service. On May 5, the Budgetary Control Commission published, at the request of the Transport Commission, a report where it was recommended to the different countries that they increase the availability of international night trains “to offer sustainable transport alternatives”. Previously, after the publication of the Spanish Railway Plan 2021-2026, the European Commission had invited the Spanish administration “to reflect” on its implementation “in its own railway planes”.