France causes problems for night trains to reach Barcelona

The big European cities see how their offer of night trains grows without stopping.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
30 March 2024 Saturday 11:23
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France causes problems for night trains to reach Barcelona

The big European cities see how their offer of night trains grows without stopping. This same week saw the entry into service of a new train in Prague that leaves Brussels late, passes through Amsterdam and other Dutch cities as the sun goes down and arrives in the Czech capital mid-morning stopping early in Berlin and Dresden, in eastern Germany. It's the latest in an ever-expanding map of night trains that cross Europe every day, an upward trend across the continent that Barcelona and the rest of Spain are staying out of for now.

Renfe's lack of interest in these services makes it very unlikely that they will return to cross the country from end to end, despite the fact that there is a great demand and the infrastructure is ready. The same is not true of international routes: the impediments of the French infrastructure administrator are torpedoing the projects of other European operators interested 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 from 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 several people in the railway sector that they are not planning the works properly because they close many lines every night and at the last minute they decide where they do maintenance and where they don't, which makes the long-term planning that a line of these characteristics requires is impossible", laments Elmer van Buuren, one of the two founders of European Sleeper. The discomfort with the problems they are encountering has reached such a point that they have communicated the situation to the French regulatory authority (ART), despite the fact that they are aware that it will be a long process.

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

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

The planned 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 passing through Paris. Yes, the Paris-Barcelona route is being proposed by another emerging company that goes 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 card of exclusivity with luxury compartments. At the moment, they plan to launch in 2025 on the Paris-Milan-Venice route and later to reach Spain, but everything is still very conditional and they recently announced that they were abandoning plans to cross the English Channel and connect France with the United Kingdom due to the technical difficulties involved.

Aside from these two cases of small private companies ready 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 this has been left in the fire of shavings. 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 routes Zurich-Amsterdam, Berlin-Paris and Berlin-Brussels, which appeared on the same plan as Barcelona. They have also done it with a new generation of trains that have been deployed for several months.

The new convoys have put an end to the compartments of four or six bunks with strangers to make way for capsules that provide travelers with complete privacy, an adaptation to the new demands of a type of transport reborn by new generations who are increasingly aware .

"We are always researching new destinations for the future and although Zurich-Barcelona would be an option, there is no date for the opening of this route", they insist from the Austrian company. Sources in the sector also point to the same problems that have been encountered with the infrastructure administrator in France, which does not understand rail liberalization in the same way as Adif.

It is a crossroads through which Renfe has also passed, which has had many difficulties with the neighboring country so that Spanish high-speed trains could cross the border to Marseille and Lyon. After many months they succeeded, but they are still waiting for the authorization to get to Paris. They wanted it to be for the Olympics, but they have already thrown in the towel and it will be later. Of course, with an AVE, no night trains.

Renfe plays everything at high speed and rules 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 it when it sold the trains, and thus gave the final coup de grace to the gradual withdrawal that has been taking place at the same time as the AVE network was extended.

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

In the same vein, its French counterpart, the SNCF, is more inclined to increase the three daily high-speed trains between the cities of Barcelona and Paris than to put a night train like the one it maintains daily between Latour-de -Carol (just across the border from Puigcerdà) 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 the moment there is no forecast regarding the replacement" of night trains. According to the Ministry of Transport, "the users of these services have at their disposal daytime trains, with more 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 create the map that can be seen on the left , which lists the different night train lines that could have sufficient demand from the Catalan capital. They are not inventing anything new, most of the proposed routes were already there in the past, connecting Barcelona with Galicia, Andalusia or Paris.