Travel journalists have waxed lyrical about OEBB’s new Nightjets, so why aren’t other rail operators launching rival nighttime services?

We can expect OEBB’s new generation of Nightjets to be a complete departure from the Austrian rail operator’s current fleet.

According to Mark Smith of enthusiasts’ website, “These sleepers are a complete departure from 100 years of the classic European sleeper layout. They make great use of the [available] space.”

OEBB has ordered no fewer than 33 new Nightjet trains, at a cost of €700 million, from manufacturer Siemens. The first ones will enter service next year with the entire fleet operating from 2025. With a design speed of 230 kms an hour they are no slouch.

Each train consists of seven carriages comprising seating, couchettes, conventional sleepers (all with en suite shower and toilet) and the new Mini Cabins. The latter are the first such sleeping spaces to be seen anywhere in Europe (including the UK).

It would suggest Siemens has emulated airline practice by making great use of space for these Mini Cabins or, one could say “pods”.

Affordable option

The Mini Cabins have been designed for solo travellers and will be attractively priced making them more affordable than conventional, more spacious, sleeper cabins. Each Mini Cabin offers privacy and lockable doors with a locker which could hold a cabin-size bag. Wifi and power points will be provided.

Sleeper compartments come with one or two berths. Couchette compartments accommodate a maximum of four persons compared to a denser six berths seen around mainland Europe.

These new night trains will initially be deployed between Munich, Vienna and Venice, Florence and Rome. Main routes from Vienna to destinations in Northern Europe will follow.

Andreas Mattha, chief executive of OEBB, says, “The night train has become the epitome of sustainable travel, and our Nightjet is a synonym for night trains in Europe.

“The interior of the next generation of Nightjets will offer guests a new travel experience.”

Mainstream media gushes over the new nighttime trains. The Guardian says they “aim to draw passengers away from planes”. In truth, however, all night trains face a problem. The costs of operation are high and, compared to daytime trains, they carry relatively few passengers.

These new Nightjets carry up to 254 passengers. Compare that to a daytime double-deck TGV, which can take several times more travellers.

Then night trains incur infrastructure costs and night engineering works often interfere with scheduling. Staff-passenger ratio is high. Servicing expenses are costly. Night trains lie all day in a depot while staff prepare the train almost ‘hotel style’.

Readers might wonder how other operators fare with decent rolling stock? In truth they do not. OEBB has a monopoly in this regard.

All aboard the night train?

That new generation of entrepreneurs who promised a night train revolution haven’t succeeded so far for various reasons. Two of the main explanations are complexity and certification.

Look at OEEB’s Vienna-Berlin Nightjet. By air it’s a simple hop. But Nightjet must traverse five different nations: Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and Germany. Newcomers failed to appreciate that new trains cannot be built overnight. For example, OEBB’s new Nightjets were ordered from Siemens in 2018 but will not enter service until 2023.

So the best the newcomers can offer (I refer to the few that have actually started international service) is couchette stock. Even a national rail operator such as SJ (Swedish Rail) lacks clout.

SJ connects Sweden and Norway, and is the gateway to Scandinavia’s capitals. It was said to be planning to launch a ‘luxury’ night train linking Hamburg with Stockholm. Media (not Business Traveller, I hasten to add) were very enthusiastic about SJ’s plans. “Swedish service joins glorious resurgence of sleeper travel,” The Guardian reported.

In reality this service launched with two couchette cars (hardly making it suitable for corporate travellers). Why? Because this train must run through Denmark and the authorities there have not approved the sleeper cars for use on Danish tracks.

At time of writing the issue remains unresolved.