A Night Train Through Europe’s Heart Has a Lot Riding On It

The success or failure of a new, no-frills service from Brussels to Berlin could set a precedent for future startup routes.

(Bloomberg) — Brussels Midi isn’t the most seductive of Europe’s railway stations. The modern hub in the Belgian capital lacks the gothic 19th century splendor of St. Pancras in London and Centraal Station in Amsterdam, or the marble shrine to Roman heritage in Milan.

It’s here, though, where passengers are boarding a new night service from the nexus of the European Union to the capital of its most powerful economy, Berlin. And there’s a lot more riding on the three-times-a-week return route than just the tourists, backpackers and pensioners.

Glamorous, it’s not. Brussels-Berlin is the first operation of European Sleeper, and compared with other new inter-city connections, it’s doing it on the cheap. The Belgian-Dutch company started in 2021 by raising €500,000 ($536,000) from 350 small investors, mainly railway enthusiasts, before securing another €2 million last year to lease decades-old rolling stock, the carriages needed to run the service. It could, though, have an outsized influence on rail travel. 

There are more than a dozen night routes being planned by various companies that are scheduled to get going by 2030. They include Amsterdam to Barcelona and Paris to Porto. But the concern is that the failure of one of the early movers might make others think again, and with that undermine the EU’s effort to reduce carbon emissions.

“Definitely, this will set the tone for the other projects still to be launched,” said Romain Payet, co-founder of Midnight Trains, a French start-up aiming to introduce services from Paris to Venice by 2025. “Their launch will be a great milestone for the industry.”

The EU aims to double its high-speed rail network by 2030 and wants journeys under 500 kilometers (310 miles) to be carbon neutral. To put that into context, in 2019 — the year before the pandemic grounded aircraft — one in four European flights was below that threshold, according to ING Research. 

The European Commission announced earlier this year that it would support 10 pilot rail projects to boost cross border connectivity and lower the barrier of entry for new services. European Sleeper and Midnight Trains were both selected.

The Brussels to Berlin train is 10 times cleaner than flying the same route, based on emissions calculations from  Back on Track, a group set up to promote night train travel in Europe. That, of course, is if people use it.

On the map, linking the two capitals might seem aimed at business travelers who can sleep and wake up in one or the other. But Chris Engelsman, one of two founders of European Sleeper, said the new service is more a case of connecting cities where they see demand.  

The route has been running for two weeks and each train can accommodate a total of 400 passengers. The debut journey from Berlin to Brussels on May 25 was 75% full and the next train was 90% full, Engelsman said. Over the past week, the trains have been running at around 40% to 50% of capacity. 

“We need to sell more tickets, but for the start, it’s a very good start,” he said. Engelsman said he’s “nervous” about the precedent his company could set. But the next step is to lengthen the journey by 350 kilometers to the German city of Dresden and down to Prague, as well as the route from Amsterdam to Barcelona already in the works. Orders for more coaches are planned, he said.

The train leaves Brussels Midi at 7:22 p.m. and travels almost 900 kilometers through Antwerp, Rotterdam and Amsterdam during the evening before crossing into Germany overnight and arriving in Berlin at 6:48 a.m., using various stations in June and then the main Hauptbahnhof after then. The return leaves Berlin at 10:56 p.m. and gets to Brussels at 9:27 a.m.

The first thing a passenger notices is the age of the rolling stock, carriages dating back to the 1950s and 1960s that were refurbished at some point years ago and used for charter trips. European Sleeper leases the sleeper coaches from Train Rental International. 

At Brussels Midi on May 26, groups of friends, elderly couples and passengers with bikes boarded the train with curiosity. Quickly, they settled in, lying in their beds and reading, some sitting around and playing cards with a few beers, and planning their cycling routes for when they arrive.

The early conviviality was no bad thing given many on board would be sharing rooms with up to five other passengers in the cabins of couchettes. 

A bunk, space for luggage and a toilet in the hallway were the amenities offered to the budget travelers who were paying as little as €79 one way for their bed on wheels. Private rooms in the deluxe sleeper rooms are also available, starting at €179 for a single passenger. The slightly fancier room had a small sink and more space. 

The rapid growth of budget airlines since the 1990s dealt a blow to night trains and the new service perhaps reflects the enthusiasm of its founders more than the wider push to get Europeans onto trains and out of the air. Their few millions effectively raised from crowdfunding compares with the billions being spent by countries including France, Germany and Austria on revamping the continent’s aging railway network.

In August 2021, the Austrian Federal Railways, which operates night trains across Austria, Germany and Italy, ordered 33 new sleeper trains from Siemens AG, totaling about €700 million. These won’t enter service until later this year, almost three years after the orders were made and the entire fleet won’t be operating until 2025.

The liberalization of the EU’s rail system has allowed private companies to compete with national operators. That’s also paved the way for sleeper train startups. But it’s expensive. 

The cost of such things as using the tracks and staffing means each European Sleeper needs to make “tens of thousands” of euros from every train it runs to break even, according to Engelsman. It’s supposed to be profitable and is on its way to getting there, he said. 

The biggest hurdle getting trains in the first place. Rolling stock is rare and ordering new kit is expensive and takes many years. European Sleeper has reduced costs by renting, rather than buying.

Midnight Trains, which was supposed to start next year, is facing delays launching its first Paris to Venice service after opting to get brand new trains fitted with Japanese hotel-style pods. It’s also in the process of raising an additional €25 million from infrastructure funds.  

“I only celebrate when the ink is dry, because you need millions of euros to build up such a business before you even generate a single euro in revenue,” said Markus Fröhlich, managing director of rail financing firm Apex Rail, which is helping secure funding.

Key to the success of routes is also the catchment area. For Brussels to Berlin via Amsterdam, a traveler can get from Paris in 1 hour, 20 mins or London in 2 hours, 20 minutes to connect to the night train, and likewise head onto Prague or Warsaw from Berlin on the other side.

The May 26 train from Brussels approached Berlin slightly ahead of schedule the following day. After being woken up by the sunlight and the clanging of carriages, passengers tucked into a light breakfast of some spreads, crackers, a croissant and some fruit juice.  

Demand for services will be there, for city breaks, visiting family and even among businesses looking to reduce their carbon footprint, according to Mark Smith, founder of t ravel website Seat 61. The challenge, as ever, is financing, and being able to get hold of more modern trains down the line, he said. 

“There was a time not so long ago — within my lifetime — when it was normal to travel by sleeper, or overnight ferry, it was routine,” he said. Then came the budget airlines. “Sleeper trains are, by their nature, the most difficult type of train to run successfully in a commercial sense.”


–With assistance from Hayley Warren and Diederik Baazil.

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