Original publication: May 2017
Authors: Steer Davies Gleave: Gordon Bird, Jim Collins, Niccolò Da Settimo, Dick Dunmore, Simon Ellis, Mohammad Khan, Michelle Kwok, Tom Leach, Alberto Preti, Davide Ranghetti, Christoph Vollath
Politecnico di Milano for Steer Davies Gleave: Paolo Beria, Antonio Laurino, Dario Nistri

Short link to this post: http://bit.ly/2F32RRV
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Passenger night trains in Europe: the end of the line?

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For this research study on passenger night trains we have used the following definition: “A passenger night train is any train consisting partly or wholly of rolling stock dedicated to, or reconfigured for, overnight travel”.

Our approach focused on timetable analysis, desk research and case studies on night trains in Europe and elsewhere, and interviews with night train operators and their funders.

The operation of night trains

An “idealised” night train might run non-stop from after 22:00 to before 08:00 and allow passengers to sleep for 8 hours or more, but this is rare. Many night trains run for up to 16 hours in the time between the end of one working day and the beginning of the next. Some continue for several days, alternating between “night” and “day” modes. Many passengers on these night trains therefore travel only by day.

Night trains are normally slower than the equivalent day trains, either to provide sufficient time for sleep, to allow for splitting and joining to serve multiple destinations, or to fit around freight trains or network congestion. Access to infrastructure can be difficult at city centre stations, particularly in the morning peak period. Some night trains have been withdrawn due to lack of infrastructure capacity, but stakeholders generally reported that they are reliable and punctual. Longer journey times, and trains which only run on some days, mean less productive rolling stock and staff.

Night trains usually include several types of accommodation such as “day” seating, reclining seats, couchettes, and sleeping compartments without or with en-suite facilities. Provision for Persons with Reduced Mobility (PRM) is common. As on long-haul aircraft, better accommodation requires progressively more space per passenger.

The provision of night train services

Time-series data on measures such as train-kilometres or passenger-kilometres are not available specifically for night trains, but we found examples of service withdrawals completed since 1980 and service withdrawals planned for 2017 and beyond. Domestic night trains now operate in only 11 EU Member States, whether as part of a national Public Service Obligation (PSO), a PSO specific to night trains, or commercially. International night trains currently serve or pass through 18 Member States, three of which are only connected by night trains to Russia.

Night trains which are operated on a clearly-commercial basis appear to be restricted to:

  • a corridor including SJ’s Stockholm to Malmo service in Sweden; and
  • the large area of central Europe covered by Austria’s ÖBB Nightjet network radiating from Vienna to Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy and Switzerland.

Flights between Vienna and many of the cities served by these night trains are infrequent or inconvenient and, in Austria, domestic competition from coach operators is tightly regulated. This may improve the commercial viability of night trains in Austria.

The current viability of night trains

Night trains have higher costs per passenger space than day trains:

  • rolling stock is more complex, built in smaller volumes and carries fewer passengers per vehicle;
  • staff are typically required to work overnight and away from home; and
  • additional services such as shunting, bed-making and laundry are needed.

Night trains are large, with 200 passenger spaces or more, compared with competing small aircraft or coaches, which can be used to offer many more services with the same total capacity.

Even where financial information for night trains is available, their viability may be difficult to assess and may require management judgement. If night trains are withdrawn, some of their ticket revenue may be retained, because passengers would change to day trains, and some of their costs may still be incurred, because some parts of the service might have to be provided under a PSO. The underlying infrastructure cost may be no more than €2 per train-kilometre, but many infrastructure managers apply “mark-ups” which can form a significant part of operating costs. Apparent costs also depend on the accounting treatment of rolling stock: services which appear viable with fully-depreciated rolling stock may not be affordable with new stock built to current standards.

Where subsidies specific to night trains can be identified, the apparent subsidy per passenger ranges from €20 in Sweden to €100 per passenger for trains recently withdrawn in France.

The future challenges to night trains

The use of night trains for business travel appears to be in decline, although the best accommodation with the highest fares on some trains appears to be sold out first. The use of night trains is dominated by leisure travel, a growing proportion of which may be by passengers visiting friends and relatives, for whom the night train may offer no savings in hotel costs. Changing social norms, and rising expectations, mean that passengers are less willing to sleep with strangers, or without direct access to a toilet or an opportunity to shower or bath. Night trains also face growing competition from other modes.

European high-speed lines have been built to provide faster and more frequent day trains, which may take demand away from night trains. However, they have rarely been used to allow night trains to connect more remote points, as has occurred in China and India (please see Annex M on case studies outside Europe). We examined a proposal for a “Very Long Distance Night Train” (VLDNT) operating up to 2,000 kilometres on high-speed lines, but it is not clear who in Europe would be willing to build or fund a fleet of as few as two high-speed night trains to enter an untested market. Half of all rail travel between Member States is via the Channel Tunnel between France and the United Kingdom, the Oresund bridge between Denmark and Sweden, or the Perpignan-Figueres link between France and Spain, all of which have opened since 1990, and none of which are used by night trains.

Airline liberalisation has led to the growth of low-cost airlines within Europe. They may not focus on dense business markets, but have led to a fall in real fares, and extensive yield management, and provide many more connections than can be offered by night trains. They not only compete with night trains but also connect points that night trains do not.

International coach services were liberalised in 2011, and since 2013 three large Member States (Germany, Italy and France) have liberalised their domestic services. Many coach operators provide overnight services, and most night train services in Germany and France have since been withdrawn. Overnight coach fares often undercut even the cheapest seats on night trains.

Many night train networks may now be too small for there to be market awareness of them (“visibility”) except to regular and local passengers. Several operate with fewer than 100 vehicles of several types and increasing age. The EU-wide average annual requirement for new stock may be only two trains, varying between four track gauges and many vehicle types. Manufacturers may charge high prices for such small orders of replacement vehicles.

The sector’s scope to respond

The EU plays only a limited role in relation to night trains: setting the overall regulatory framework, including for rail infrastructure charges, and investing in infrastructure.

The Member States could require infrastructure managers to reduce infrastructure charges, or could subsidise night trains in recognition of their benefits, as occurs in (at least) Austria, Sweden, the United Kingdom and France. However, parliamentary debates in 1983 (in the United Kingdom) and 2016 (in Germany) rejected the idea that any long-distance services should be subsidised.

The operators of night trains generally appear to manage them well. Cross-border operations, and changes of locomotives and crew, are long-established. The past practice of allocating blocks of tickets to each railway for sale through stations is declining. Best practice appears to be:

  • to offer a range of accommodation and the opportunity to pay more for exclusive use of a compartment;
  • to use yield management to maximise revenue from the capacity available; and
  • to sell through a single (multilingual) website.

However, some operators appear to offer only a small range of accommodation at fixed low fares, probably to meet an inflexible national PSO.

The Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) core network corridors may be of some help to night trains, where they provide additional capacity, but major new international links appear not to have attracted night train services, and high-speed lines appear to have contributed to their decline.

Private sector companies act as subcontractors to night train operators, operate some luxury night train services, and provide a range of information, reservation and travel websites. However, unlike the airline industry, the night train sector has not developed either a standardised set of products or a standard tool for describing and selling them. It may be increasingly difficult to persuade the private sector to sell or to market a declining range of night train services.

We conclude that night trains may continue to decline as rolling stock needs replacing, new high-speed rail infrastructure improves the competitiveness of day trains, and if more coach services are liberalised. The replacement of night train services by coaches may mean passenger inconvenience and staff redeployment, but the overall effect on employment is unclear.

The case for subsidising night trains

There is no clear case that night trains are less environmentally damaging than other rail or road transport. Night trains appear to have higher direct CO2 emissions per passenger-kilometre than coaches and day trains. Even if all trains were powered wholly by renewable energy, night train rolling stock would still have more embedded CO2 per passenger space than day train rolling stock.

There is no clear evidence of unfair competition between modes, given the difficulty of defining whether any individual passenger has been subsidised.


Neither the European Commission nor many of the Member States see preservation of night trains as a specific objective. However, a number of measures could be considered:

  • Monitoring of night trains could be improved, possibly through the existing Rail Market Monitoring Survey (RMMS).
  • Directive 2012/34/EU could be modified to specify that night trains be considered as a market segment, and to ensure that their viability is not undermined by excessive mark-ups to infrastructure charges.
  • Subsidy could be provided without specifying the exact timetable, which in practice may need to be adjusted to meet passenger requirements. Subsidy could take the form of a compensation for providing a minimum total annual capacity, a compensation per passenger, or a percentage of the revenue earned from passengers.

On balance, while night train services have declined, they still contribute to the mobility needs of European citizens. The suggested measures may help sustain their retention in future, although it seems unlikely that the night train sector will grow beyond a small niche.

Link to the full study: http://bit.ly/601-977

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