Sleeper Service: Let’s Follow Europe’s Lead

Written by Albert L. Papp Jr.
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ÖBB Nightjet sleeper car.

“[A]nd a little child shall lead them.” Many of you will recall that this is a Biblical quote from Isaiah read at Christian Sunday Advent services last month just prior to Christmas. And this made me think of the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (now Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” and recently nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize) and which, per chance, occurred at the same time I received an e-mail from a fellow rail advocate who expressed his rabid climate denial, using such words as “I haven’t drank the climate change Kool Aid.”

Added to that, two British railway magazines arrived that specifically mentioned Thunberg in multiple articles. The sum total of these inputs gave me serious pause to reflect on how many Americans are still oblivious to climate change—highlighting the Trump Administration’s “head-in-the-sand” approach. Despite this, the world scientific community has made its point crystal clear: Climate change is real. That’s why there was a worldwide climate summit that led to the Paris Agreement, adopted by consensus on Dec. 12, 2015—and from which Trump has withdrawn.

A very brief word about this young advocate that gained her worldwide attention: In August 2019, she solo-sailed a 60-foot racing yacht powered by photo-voltaic solar panels and turbine powered propellers across the Atlantic from Plymouth, England to New York in 15 days. Thunberg made her “carbon-neutral” trip to attend a United Nations Climate Action Summit.

Where am I going with this, and how do climate-change considerations affect passenger rail transportation? In North America, not very much, as you might suspect. But in Europe, overnight passenger rail travel is being rejuvenated, and orders for new high-speed and regional rail rolling stock have greatly accelerated. Let’s take a look at what several European nations have under way in the rail sector.

For those of you who are not weather aficionados, suffice it to say that Europe had a record heat wave this past summer, with temperatures soaring to more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit in many countries.

ÖBB pilot project to paint rails white to lower their temperature in extreme heat.

Austria was no exception, and it will specify air conditioning for all new car orders used in southern Europe and begin the process to retrofit all other cars and locomotives. During installation of continuous welded rail, the track welding machine operator will adjust welding procedures such that there will be no increased rail compression at high temperatures, leading to less track kinking in very hot weather. A pilot project was started to paint rails white in order to lower temperatures absorbed by the rails in full sunlight. This is also practiced in Italy and Germany.

Greta Thunberg

Contrary to what’s happening on the North American continent, rail operators in Austria, the U.K. and Sweden have actually expanded, or are in the process of expanding, their sleeper train routes, this in stark contrast to those largely abandoned services between 2014 and 2017 by the Germans, French and Spanish. What’s driving this seemingly unsupported initiative, you may rightly ask? It’s climate change, and Thunberg, among others, is leading the charge by posting photos of herself riding trains. In Sweden, her activism has now inspired “flight shaming,” one result of which is that the Swedish government has authorized the national transport authority to re-introduce overnight international trains to other European nations, and funded this with a  $4.2 million initial outlay. Today, the only overnight international service is the seasonal, open-access, privately operated Malmo, Sweden to Berlin train using a train ferry, although there are still domestic Swedish overnighters.

The real story is the comeback of northern European overnight sleeper trains, which have slowly vanished as a combination of high-speed day trains, discount airlines and budget hotels proliferated. Up until 1971, Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL) operated Europe’s sleepers and, in a move not dissimilar to that which happened to the Pullman Car Company in December 1968, handed over its operations to a pooled consortium of national train operators under the brand of Trans-Europe-Night (TEN). The EuroNight branding was formalized in 1993, and the Germans, Austrians and Swiss collaborated, forming DACH Hotelzug during this time to purchase 10 double-deck sleepers, with the brand renamed in 1995 as CityNightLine.

Four years later, German Rail (DB) bought out all the stock of the Austrians and Swiss (with Austria’s ÖBB taking ownership of the 10 sleeping cars) and then quit the overnight business completely in 2016. ÖBB bucked the trend, and began immediate service in mid-December 2016 by taking over DB sleeper trains that had just been announced for abandonment (literally attaching the ÖBB decal on the DB sleepers), re-branding its services as “Nightjet.

ÖBB CEO Andreas Mattha

Today, the service operates with the ex-DACH sleepers, 42 relatively new ex-DB Comfortline sleepers (dating from 2003- 2005), 74 Couchettes (typical 4 beds to a room, no toilet facilities) and 63 coaches (189 total) on 17 routes of its own and in partnership with the Croatians on three, the Hungarians and Poles on two each, and the Czechs and Slovaks one each respectively. These Comfortline cars have 12 rooms with a maximum of 36 occupants, and four of these “deluxe” rooms are equipped with a shower and a private toilet annex. These services hauled 1.6 million riders in 2018 and, according to ÖBB CEO Andreas Mattha, ridership rose 10% in 2019.

So successful have these overnight services become that in July 2018, ÖBB announced it was ordering 13 new sets of seven-car trains comprising two sleeping cars, three couchettes and two coaches at a cost of $220 million for delivery in 2021 and 2022. The sleepers will have showers and toilets in standard and deluxe rooms with “mini-suites” in the couchettes.

The economics of ÖBB ’s remarkable revival seem to reinforce the railway’s initiative. While sleeping car riders accounted for only 4% of ÖBB passengers, they contributed 17% to the bottom line. CEO Mattha explains, “We are convinced of the success of Nightjet. That’s why we continue to invest and have already ordered 13 new Nightjet sets of the latest generation.” So Vienna is now the sleeping car train crossroads of central Europe, situated as it is between Eastern and Western Europe—Italy, the Adriatic countries and the mountains of Switzerland.

Why have the Austrians succeeded where the Germans and French did not? One word: management. ÖBB adopted its overnighters to 21st century realities. ÖBB Press Service Chief Bernard Rieder puts it this way: “We can produce it at a relatively low price. Our concept is to form long trainsets with two or three groups of cars by destination; one train for two destinations on a common route. So we create a lot of connections at lower cost. Of course, it is the most profitable routes that were chosen.”

To control the entire product, fleet maintenance is performed only in Vienna. Kurt Bauer, ÖBB’s long-distance transport manager, who was largely responsible for securing the best of the former DB’s sleepers, claims that he is not nostalgic but rather “… a hard-line economist … The failure of the Germans is an opportunity for us.”

Nightjet coach, from a presentation by ÖBB’s Kurt Bauer.

Why did the Germans fail? One source identifies accounting procedures whereby DB sleeping car passengers on trains operating on the Neubau and Ausbau high-speed lines were counted as “intercity” passengers. That led to inaccurate financial reporting for the overnight business sector. Emphasis on DB’s ICE and high-speed domestic route network was another factor, driven as it was by the deregulation of long-distance buses in 2013.

Another ÖBB spokesperson notes, “With the routes we are now providing, we can reduce our production costs and at the same time, with our market knowledge, support the product in terms of advertising and sales.”

While my theme is focused on the rail revolution driven by climate change, Rieder is quick to explain, “The ecological argument is important, but doesn’t cut it alone. Competition is still focused on convenience, quality and price.” ÖBB is also offering a “Motorrail” service (automobiles on flatcars between eight selected stations in Germany and Austria).

Is there any downside to this audacious initiative? International Railway Journal Editor-in-Chief David Briginshaw states that the re-introduction of night trains in Europe is still new and “a mixed picture” because to date, France, Germany and Spain have not partnered with ÖBB as have Croatia, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

French rail activist Paul Dauboin (“Yes to the Night Train”) was a regular user of his nation’s overnighters before SNCF terminated them in 2016 (same year as the Germans), and explains that poor service quality and lack of investment led to their demise. As happened here in the U.S., “It was a vicious circle,” he says, because little or no investment led to reduced service quality, reliability and convenience. That, in turn, led to less ridership, culminating in accelerating losses resulting in even less investment in the sleeping car trains. Here, we called it the “transit death spiral.”

IRJ’s Briginshaw added that SNCF made a big mistake when it withdrew more upscale sleepers, leaving only the six-to-a-room couchettes, which appealed mainly to budget-minded travelers and backpackers. Today, even in Europe, travelers expect a more gracious accommodation. That’s one of the truths upon which ÖBB has capitalized.

Caledonian sleeper accessible bedroom.

Let’s briefly turn to the U.K., which never had many overnight sleeping car trains because of its small geographical size. Placed into service on April 28, 2019, the Caledonian trains are used on the “Lowlander” routes between London Euston Terminal and the twin destinations of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Spanish carbuilder CAF built 75 cars as a replacement for the existing trainsets: 40 sleepers, 14 ADA sleepers, 11 coaches (2-1 seating) and 10 club diners. Offering five types of accommodations, other features include hotel-like keycard entry, WiFi and charging outlets. While the trains had some initial teething troubles, they are now running smoothly and have been expanded as of October 9, 2019 to serve the “Highlander” services between London Euston and Aberdeen and Inverness.

Caledonian coach.

The new sleepers have Interesting interiors for a single-level consist, which shows what can be done with a modern, up-to-date approach—quite a contrast to Amtrak’s “new” Viewliners, a mere rehash of the 1980s with showers only at the ends of cars and no WiFi (which partner Coco and I sorely missed, as did others onboard, during our recent October 2019 California Zephyr roundtrip on Superliners between Denver and Sacramento for the Rail Passengers Association Mid-Year Meeting).

Albert L. Papp Jr. has been involved with rail advocacy for more than 50 years, beginning with his testimony in Sacramento, Calif., opposing the discontinuance of the iconic California Zephyr. After he received his undergraduate B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from the Newark Institute of Technology and his M.S. degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he served four years (1966 to 1970) as an electronics officer in the U.S. Air Force, and was recalled in 1990 for Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Papp worked on Wall Street for 30 years as an equity and bond research analyst as well as an investment banker specializing in the energy and transportation fields with Moody’s Investors Service, Argus Research and Shearson Lehman Brothers. He is the immediate past Rail Passengers Association (RPA) Vice Chair of Legislative Policy & Strategy and remains a Council Member of that organization. He served several terms as President of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) and remains a Director. Papp co-authored RPA’s “Modern Passenger Trains: A National Necessity” white paper, and contributed to the group’s more recent publication, “Amtrak’s Route Accounting: Fatally Flawed & Misleading.” He lives in Maplewood, N.J., and is now retired.

Categories: Commuter/Regional, High Performance, Intercity, Passenger Tags: ,