On Thursday March 24th I was in Brussels for the first time in two years, attending the conference organised by Back-on-Track Belgium on the theme “Night Trains – Back to the Future?!” A hundred of us filled the room and others listened in by video link, for presentations and discussion on Brussels as a night train hub,  private initiatives, the economics of night trains and issues of ticketing and passenger rights.

Displayed around the room were the winning and shortlisted posters promoting night trains – the result of a competition organised by Back-on-Track Belgium in 2021  which had attracted nearly 90 entrants.

We were welcomed by Georges Gilkinet, Belgian Federal Minister of Mobility,  who expressed confidence that his country would “resume its place as a pioneer of international services.”

Back-on-Track Belgium had produced two reports on the potential for Brussels to become an international hub, situated as it was where an east-west corridor from London to Frankfurt crossed a north-south corridor from Amsterdam to Paris. They had identified five possible routes linking Belgium and the Netherlands to Nice/Barcelona, Venice, Vienna, Berlin and Malmo.

Other speakers focussed on the recent extension of the French night train network to Tarbes and Lourdes (a “great victory” for the region of Occitanie) and the potential for night trains between major cities to cut the numbers of short-haul flights.

A representative of “Visit Brussels” spoke of the need to revive the tourism sector in a sustainable way. 50% of pre-pandemic visitors to the city were coming on business and 50% on leisure trips and, taking day excursions into account, 40% came by train.

A Belgian MP stressed that the airline sector would have to change in the future and it had suffered more than the rail industry over the past two years.

A speaker from Portugal pointed out that his country had suffered a loss of international train services since joining the EU and one key factor in this trend was the policy in Spain to develop a high-speed standard-gauge network and concentrate on domestic daytime rather than international traffic. The Sud Express had traditionally been a natural route between Lisbon and Paris. He suggested that the decline in rail travel to and from Portugal were political rather than technical.

The view was put forward that some national operators, especially if they had invested in new high-speed passenger lines, regarded night trains as unwelcome competition. I made the point that for long-distance travel night trains needed to be integrated with the daytime network, such as for a journey between London and Vienna.

A session on private initiatives was told about plans by The European Sleeper, VSOE and Railcoop. It was suggested that an exclusive night train operator could be more focussed on customer needs than a state operator balancing several different priorities; but the point was also made again that night services should be connected to the daytime network.

Night trains serving lightly populated regions, or important for “national cohesion”, may need to run under a Public Service Obligation, but in more heavily populated areas there was room for competition between operators.

The discussion on of the economic challenges ranged over rolling stock – and whether there should be a pool – a level playing field for new entrants and the role of the European Investment Bank. The need for open data was also considered, as was the key role of infrastructure managers in the production of timetables that met passenger needs. 

 It was pointed out that rising oil and petrol costs provided the rail industry with real marketing opportunities. Member States should formulate a common energy strategy and make more progress towards a fully harmonised EU rail network.  

The achievements of OeBB in becoming the largest night train operator in western Europe were considered, but they needed to build a business case for financing new rolling stock and might need to upgrade existing coaches until new ones became available in 2027.

Issues to be addressed included the competition between freight and  passenger operators for paths at night and the staffing costs of overnight services. It was also pointed out that night trains were allowed on certain stretches of high speed line but for technical reasons could not be used on others.

The role of specialist train caterers, especially on longer journeys, was explained, with changing customer expectations – for example, more fresh local produce. The provision of information for passengers during their journey  was also an expectation.

On ticketing and information it was essential  that prospective passengers knew of the existence of the night train option. The Man in Seat 61 was widely known and respected but not everyone was also aware of the existence of the European Rail Timetable – available on paper and on line.

Incumbents should also sell new entrants’ services and customers needed to be aware of well-known sales channels which they could trust. It was intended that by 2025 there would be seamless ticketing.  There were mixed views on whether customers should provide personal details when buying a ticket – but this was certainly an advantage if the ticket was being booked months in advance.

The ability to catch the next train if a connection could not be held was considered to be a key passenger right.

 The conference concluded with a video message from Karima Delli MEP who stressed EU support for night trains and green investment.

The members of Back-on-Track Belgium are congratulated on organising an excellent  event.

Trevor Garrod  (European Rail Campaign UK)


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