This month the German train operator DB announced it is cutting many night train services including from Copenhagen to Prague, and from Paris to Berlin. I have been campaigning for a night train between Manchester and Paris.
Katie Mitchell wrote about these changes in The Guardian on 18 September 2014, and the “huge blow” this is to people like her who regularly use night trains. She has given up air travel in favour of trains, but still needs to get to her work in different European cities without extra days of travelling.
Her article attracted 328 comments, which I read to distill the essence of these changes to night trains. Of course, it is necessary to filter out a sadly large number of comments which are plain abusive and those just pumping oil. From the sensible comments the key factors at the moment seem to be:
1. The German government has recently allowed long-distance overnight buses to start operating, and there is a cut-price market here while rival companies try to build up their market share and drive out competitors.
2. The EU transport rules forbid any government from subsidising international train services, though governments can subsidise services that only run within their borders.
3. Governments can subsidise air travel by absorbing certain general costs such as security, air traffic control, fuel duty exemptions, and airport infrastructures.
4. The growth in night freight trains has begun to crowd out night passenger trains, including new rules where some long tunnels cannot be used by a mix of freight and passenger trains at the same time.
5. The growth of high-speed rail services between EU cities has made some previously overnight services viable during the day; however this change has not been synchronised with extending the ‘reach’ of overnight services to other cities further apart.
Number two, the EU prohibition of subsiding international train services, seems particularly harsh given the subsidies (investments) that are permitted for road and air travel. It rather feels like living in the USA early last century when the car companies tried to kill support for public transport or mass transit.
We need a more thoughtful, modern and effective EU rule for international rail.