BarcelonaUntil just a few years ago, you could travel from Barcelona to Andalusia or Galicia on a night train. Or from Madrid to Lisbon. And a decade ago, Barcelona was connected by rail to major European cities such as Zurich, Milan and Paris, also at night. The night train service in Spain (which Renfe operated under the name Trenhotel) operated from 1991 and came to have several national and international lines, but from 2010, as investments grew and the deployment of the ‘high speed, the option of traveling at night was left aside. And not only in the State, but throughout Europe. Many lines were reduced, but Spain went one step further and the night train service came to disappear entirely in 2020 when, with the pandemic, Renfe decided to close the few lines that still remained. Since then, there have been no night trains in Catalonia or Spain, nor are there any plans to schedule new ones in the short or medium term, as confirmed by the operator.
But the climate emergency and the search for sustainability could reverse this trend and accelerate the return of this service. The French ban on short flights (when there is an alternative by train) and the rise of companies that are again proposing night routes in Europe have revived the debate on the suitability of night trains. In fact, the associations of railway users and in favor of sustainable mobility have already started a strong pressure campaign to demand that the Spanish government leave the elections on 23-J to include night trains in the strategy of sustainable mobility in the country. The goal: to steal passengers on the plane and reduce CO₂ emissions by 20% (going from 1,229 tons to 977).
A journey on a night train, wherever it is, lasts only an hour: half an hour to fall asleep and half an hour to wake up” ”
“Think about it: a journey on a night train, no matter where it is, lasts only an hour: the half hour it takes to fall asleep and the half hour to wake up”, reflects Pau Noy, industrial engineer and president of the Sustainable and Safe Mobility Foundation. Noy explains that the Aliança Ibérica del Ferrocarril – lobby of the railway sector made up of different platforms and associations – is already preparing a memorandum that will be sent to all political parties to recover night routes, both in the Iberian peninsula and towards Europe. “The train is the method of transport with the least emissions per passenger and kilometer and in the current context this is key”, agrees Adrià Ramírez, president of the association for the Promotion of Public Transport (PTP). There are also other benefits that make the night deal attractive. “You save a hotel night and go from city center to city center and, moreover, rested,” point out the two experts. “Strategically, the railway also makes us independent of oil and fossil fuels,” adds Noy.
But the Spanish operator maintains that the night routes “were the least profitable service of all” and made no sense. In 2019 alone, Renfe’s night service between Barcelona and Galicia lost 17 million euros, according to sources from the operator, who remember that this “commercial” service cannot receive public subsidies. It is for all this, they argue, that they were closed. At the moment, it is not in their plans to recover it and the other companies that operate in the State, such as Iryo and Ouigo, do not plan to do so either.
The mistake was made of thinking that with the high speed already many travel times were reduced, and that no one would want to make the long journey at night. France made the same mistake and is already correcting it”
On the other hand, the user associations assure that “the demand is there”, but that the operators, especially Renfe – before the liberalization – “did not know how to take advantage of it”. “The mistake was made of thinking that with high speed travel times would be reduced, and that no one would want to make the long journey at night. But there are multiple demands – argues Ramírez – and there are those who may prefer make the night trip to sleep. But they discouraged it, stopped it, and ended up canceling the service,” he adds. “France also made this same mistake, but now it is correcting it,” Ramírez said.
Demand and booming business
The truth is that France has already recovered some night lines and some entrepreneurs see a business hole on the rise. Several newly created companies are planning to launch new night tours in Europe. This is the case of European Sleeper, which just a few days ago launched a night train between Amsterdam, Brussels and Berlin (and already has Barcelona in its sights), or also Midnight Trains, which wants to launch a dozen night routes from next year. This company assures that “night service reservations are gradually increasing due to travelers’ desire to limit their carbon footprint and enjoy a more leisurely pace”.
“The trend is there, so is the demand and it will increase”, confirms the general secretary of the International Union of Public Transport (UITP), Mohamed Mezghani. Coinciding with a summit of this association of railway companies in Barcelona, this weekend, Mezghani assures the ARA that night trains respond to the same logic as limiting short flights: “Make a mobility system that emits less CO₂, be safer and also more inclusive.” “What we need, now, is to ensure that they also have a competitive price,” he points out.
The truth is that recovering these services is not easy, according to the entrepreneurs in the sector. There is a lack of trains – which are expensive and take two to three years to build – and it is also necessary to standardize international regulations and make a careful calculation of costs and benefits to ensure that the train can be a real competitor to the plane.
As long as this does not happen, the PTP and the Sustainable and Safe Mobility Foundation point out that the railway still has a lot of room for improvement in Spain to gain ground on the plane. In their latest study they claim that there are many long-distance journeys between European cities that could be shortened by an average of two hours with a simple reorganization of stops and services.
In this way, they point out that journeys such as Barcelona-Paris could be cut by two hours if the train were direct, without stops. They propose the same for the Brussels-Barcelona route (albeit with a change of train in Paris). For other routes that now exceed 9 hours, such as London-Barcelona, Zurich-Barcelona or Milan-Barcelona, they propose to reduce the number of intermediate stops. All of this would, they say, increase demand while waiting for the desired night trains to arrive.
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