France is causing problems for night trains to reach Barcelona

Large European cities see their offer of night trains constantly growing.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
30 March 2024 Saturday 10:23
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France is causing problems for night trains to reach Barcelona

Large European cities see their offer of night trains constantly growing. This same week, the entry into service of a new train was celebrated in Prague, leaving Brussels at dusk, passing through Amsterdam and other Dutch cities at sunset and arriving at mid-morning in the Czech capital, making an early stop in Berlin. and in Dresden, eastern Germany. It is the latest development in an increasingly extensive map of night trains that cross Europe daily, an upward trend across the continent from which Barcelona and the rest of Spain remain on the sidelines for the moment.

Renfe's lack of interest in these services makes its return to cross the country from end to end unlikely, despite the fact that there is proven demand and the infrastructure is prepared for it. The same does not happen on international routes: the impediments of the French infrastructure manager are torpedoing the projects of other European operators with an interest in connecting the Catalan capital with the rest of Europe. This is the case of European Sleeper, a small Dutch cooperative that has put the train from Brussels to Prague into service and that has among its future plans to create a line that connects Amsterdam and Barcelona starting next year, as long as the French allow it.

"They are not offering us good options at the moment, we have the suspicion confirmed by various people in the railway sector that they are not planning the works correctly because they close many lines every night and at the last minute they decide where they do maintenance and where they don't, which It makes the long-term planning that a line of these characteristics requires impossible,” laments Elmer van Buuren, one of the two founders of European Sleeper. The discomfort over the problems they are encountering has reached such a point that they have transferred the situation to the French regulatory authority (ART), although they are aware that this will be a long process.

Van Buuren fears that the obstacles put in place by SNCF Reseau (the equivalent of Adif in France) will prevent the deployment of the route dreamed of by European Sleeper and calls on the Government and the Generalitat to get involved in the conflict: “We need political pressure so that the French are aware that they are not only causing problems for France itself, but also for neighboring regions and countries.”

The European Commission could also intervene to unblock the matter since this route was one of the ten cross-border rail connection projects chosen in 2022 among a large number of international proposals. European support did not entail financial aid but rather the commitment to help make it a reality in the form of a pilot project.

The proposed route will leave the Netherlands, stop in Brussels and go to Barcelona at night (and vice versa), with previous stops in the south of France and Girona, but ruling out its passage through Paris. The Paris-Barcelona route is being proposed by another emerging company that is behind European Sleeper since it has not yet put any train into circulation, although it also has the support of the European Commission. This is Midnight Trains, a private operator that wants to play the exclusivity card with luxury compartments. For now, they plan to launch in 2025 on the Paris-Milan-Venice route and later reach Spain, although everything is still very conditional and they recently announced that they were giving up their plans to cross the English Channel and connect France. with the United Kingdom due to the technical difficulties it entails.

Aside from these two cases of small private companies willing to revolutionize the complex railway sector, the Austrian public operator ÖBB also showed some time ago its intention to open a route between Zurich and Barcelona. He even put a date on it: December 2024. All of this has been a waste of time. Company sources assure La Vanguardia that “ÖBB does not have among its plans to open a night train line to Spain in the near future.”

Unlike the Dutch company, the Austrian operator refuses to indicate the reasons why Barcelona has fallen from a map that they published in 2020 with new lines for their service called Nightjet and of which the Zurich routes have been put into service. -Amsterdam, Berlin-Paris and Berlin-Brussels, which appeared in the same plan as Barcelona. They have also done it with a new generation of trains that have been deployed for a few months.

The new convoys have put an end to the compartments of four or six berths with strangers to give way to capsules that provide total privacy to travelers, an adaptation to the new demands of a type of transport reborn by increasingly new generations. conscious.

“We are always investigating new destinations for the future and although Zurich-Barcelona would be an option, there is no date for the opening of that route,” the Austrian company insists. Sector sources also point to the same problems that have been encountered with the infrastructure manager in France, which does not understand railway liberalization in the same way as Adif.

It is a via crucis that Renfe has also gone through, which has struggled with the neighboring country so that Spanish high-speed trains could cross the border to Marseille and Lyon. After many months they achieved it, but they are still waiting for authorization to be able to reach Paris. They wanted to do it for the Olympic Games but they have already thrown in the towel and it will be later. Of course, with an AVE, no night trains.

Renfe is betting everything on high speed and ruling out the recovery of the hotel trains that became very popular for traveling from end to end of the country for several decades. With the pandemic, the few that remained disappeared, such as the one that went from Barcelona to Galicia and the Lusitania from Madrid to Lisbon. Renfe made it clear that it was not betting on them when it sold the trains, thus giving the final touch to the gradual withdrawal that has been taking place while the AVE network was extended.

The president of the public company, Raül Blanco, puts on the table “the high operating deficit and low profitability” of night trains and, therefore, every time he is asked about this issue he defends that they would only be viable if functioned as a public service obligation (PSO), with its corresponding subsidy, which would allow them to start them without losing money.

Its French counterpart, the SNCF, maintains the same line, more willing to increase the three daily high-speed trains between Barcelona and Paris than to provide a night train like the one it maintains daily between Latour-de-Carol (just on the other Puigcerdà side of the border) and Paris, supported by the corresponding public subsidy.

The Spanish Government, for its part, responded a few weeks ago to a parliamentary question asked by Sumar that "at this time there is no forecast regarding the replacement" of night trains. For the Ministry of Transport, “users of these services have daytime trains at their disposal, with greater comfort and better travel times.”

This opinion is not shared by the association for the promotion of public transport (PTP), which analyzed in a report the demand for air routes between Barcelona and other Spanish and European cities to make the map that can be seen on the left, in which The different night train lines that could have sufficient demand from the Catalan capital are included. They do not invent anything new, most of the proposed routes existed in the past, connecting Barcelona with Galicia, Andalusia or Paris.