Don’t be distracted by ÖBB’s shiny night train to Brussels – the problems of EU-wide rail run far deeper
I’m glad to see you’re writing about trains! ÖBB running its first NightJet to Brussels seems to have got you into a particular frenzy. It’s amazing what a bit of red carpet at Gare du Midi, and Martin Selmayr on board, can do to generate a bit of interest, eh?
But you see that with all your “oooh look night trains are nice!” you’re right where the Austrian Railways, ÖBB, wants you. “Shiny train! It’s green!” Ooooh, gushing story.
Netherlands is subsidising the reintroduction of night trains, and ÖBB – with its twice weekly service to Brussels with an awful timetable (arriving 10.55am) – is making a similar political pitch to the EU. We are the good guys, subsidise things like this.
At least ÖBB has an international view. But competition in rail, perhaps not that.
The basic thing you have to remember about most railway firms is this: the total number of passengers travelling by rail in Europe is not of concern to them.
Yes, you read that right. They do not care about the total numbers of people travelling by rail.
The focus is instead on maintaining their share in a national market. We want to keep our passengers on our trains. And anyone else trespassing on our patch is a danger to us.
Have you ever wondered why there as many DB InterCity trains (7 a day) in Germany to Norddeich Mole (population 1837, yes fewer than 2000 people live there) as there are daily DB ICEs (also 7) to Brussels (a pretty important capital)? Or why SNCF created its low cost brand OUIGO – a completely owned subsidiary, it’s like a Ryanair train, if it gets cancelled you cannot take a regular TGV. But yeah it’s still “service public” and any rivals can be kept out of the French market. Both of these cases are because maintaining national position is more important than actually increasing the numbers of passengers on trains.
There would be another way to solve the lack of night trains in Europe problem than getting governments to subsidise services, as ÖBB would like. It would be to solve the track access charges (the fee each train pays per kilometre) problem – making it cheaper to run trains at night when anyway the networks are emptier. But if you are, say, SNCF Infra, do you you want the Austrians running trains on your lines? No. Because were customers to get a taste for it, the next time they might choose to take a ÖBB train from Strasbourg to Paris rather than a SNCF one. Or – shock of shocks – perhaps a private rival like Flixtrain or Leo Express might see a market the state operators have vacated, and seek to fill that void. Letting someone else in means letting everyone in.
Oh and what about back in Austria? WESTbahn is a rival to ÖBB on the Wien – Linz – Salzburg route… oh, and that firm is 26% owned by French state operator SNCF.
Or in other words precisely what would benefit ÖBB in Netherlands or in France to run there, is exactly the thing they fear back in their own national market.
So there is the rub.
That is why booking trains cross-border is a pain (as my recent BE-FR and BE-NL cases have shown). That’s why passenger rights in the absence of through tickets has not been solved in the EU. That’s why there is still no reliable and complete database of all trains running in the EU.
Solving each of those things would help maximise the numbers of people taking the train. But all of those things would likewise endanger the national position of rail companies like SNCF or ÖBB, or NS, SNCB or Deutsche Bahn.
And he who lobbies hardest wins the argument, and what better way to do that than put on a nice shiny night train from Vienna to Brussels and have Karima Delli (chair of the EP Transport Committee), Martin Selmayr (formerly Juncker’s chief of staff, now head of the Commission Rep in Vienna), Michel Reimon (Austrian Green MEP) and Othmar Karas (Austrian ÖVP MEP) on board?
And don’t worry, SNCF, Deutsche Bahn, NS or SNCB, we’re the good guys, a state railway from Austria, so if the EU can provide us a nice little subsidy, and politicians can get their shiny night train (even one every day of the week), everyone is happy, right? Well, probably not. Because the real deficiency – that no operator really has a strong incentive to improve rail’s market share overall – remains unchanged.Jon