Air travel has lost much appeal since the golden age of flying in the Fifties and Sixties. Everyone has heard some horror story from an airport this summer.
Train travel, on the other hand, is gaining more and more popularity as a convenient form of transportation. In particular, high-speed trains have “door-to-door” travel times comparable to planes flying the same route. In some cases, train travel has become so popular that it cannibalized the plane route. The introduction of a high-speed train between Rome and Milan is cited as one of the (many) reasons behind the demise of the Italian flagship airline Alitalia. High-speed train operations are also economically attractive as new companies like NTV in Italy and Flix in Germany entered the market. Nevertheless, this type of train service can only operate on high-speed tracks, and it becomes less convenient compared to a plane as the distance increases.
One solution, which can make train travel competitive on longer routes, is also a reminiscence of the Fifties: night trains. The duration of the trip is irrelevant at night because passengers are sleeping. Night trains exist from Zurich to various European cities. The cost is higher than the plane, but train passengers can save on one night in a hotel. At the same time, the CO2 impact of traveling by train is 90% lower than traveling by plane.
After many years of decline and operators scrapping this kind of service, the demand for night trains has been increasing in the last years, both for environmental reasons and for the “door-to-door” service. Can operators meet this demand economically? The price of a night train ride depends on various costs: the cost of pulling the carriages, of specialized personnel, and the fact that a sleeper car can only be operated during the night: as a result, the initial investment needs a much more extended amortization period. This is the most striking difference compared to airlines, whose planes fly as much as possible.
To minimize the impact of the capital investment, night train operators refurbished carriages as old as 50 years, with antiquated suspensions and poor soundproofing. Only very environmentally conscious passengers are willing to spend the night on a loud and shaky train.
Fortunately, this is set to change, as one of the main sleeper train operators in Europe (ÖBB) will introduce new sleeping cars at the beginning of 2023.
Many European countries are embracing this greener way of traveling, and operators are announcing new routes. There are reasons to believe that the demand for sustainable travel will remain strong in the future. However, significant investments are needed in order to make night trains comfortable and economical. It is a big hurdle, but don’t stop believing.
We thank you for your continued support.