European Sleeper talks 2023 and beyond
European Sleeper is working to launch its first night train service to Prague in 2023. In the process it has to overcome a host of obstacles. But in seeing the enduring appeal of the night train with both policymakers and the general public, co-founder Elmer van Buuren gladly takes on the challenge that is running a night train service. Here is where things stand.
Van Buuren and his team have had to endure a lot in the past few months, as running a night train as a new market entrant is a slow and sometimes arduous process. European Sleeper at times had to settle for small steps forward. “Many things in the rail sector have long lead times. If you’re not already tackling processes for 2 to 3 years down the line, you’re behind the curve”, van Buuren says.
As published before here on RailTech.com, two of the main obstacles were – still are – obtaining suitable rolling stock and the financing thereof. While financiers have clearly defined requirements that you can work towards, they remain risk-adverse. The way the rail sector works means that startups such as European Sleeper often cannot give the right assurances. For example, there is an inherent insecurity in having to request train paths every year.
There has, however, been progress on other fronts. A working group has been established in the Netherlands that includes Dutch infrastructure manager ProRail and the ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. “This is a useful platform to bring up certain issues or to talk about the various requirements, so that there is a clear and shared understanding of the situation”, van Buuren mentions.
It will not make the financing of rolling more straightforward right away, but because European Sleeper now has a better understanding of how the system functions, it can paint a clearer picture of obstacles the company encounters.
When it comes to rolling stock, European Sleeper is now at a point where talks are ongoing for the lease of rolling stock. Van Buuren says these talks are progressing positively, but also notes that securing what seems like the last carriages on the continent remains a complex process.
In tandem, European Sleeper is considering to lease regular passenger carriages and converting those to sleeper cars. Finally, there are exploratory talks ongoing regarding the purchase of brand new rolling stock. According to Van Buuren, the existing sleeper rolling stock will be used as it is. The company will of course put its finishing touches, such as fresh carpets and bed linen, as well as its own level of service on board.
The fact that no solid starting date of the first European Sleeper service can be set is due to the fact that the company first needs to not only secure sufficient rolling stock, but also needs to set up maintenance activities. Put differently, the company needs to be able to run the entire operation, not just the night train itself. That is also part of the reason why the planned winter night train service to France, an endeavour in cooperation with travel agency Sunweb, had to be postponed as well.
‘Belgium support scheme welcome but permanent solution is needed’
This has far from discouraged the team at European Sleeper. “The whole concept of a night train is very much alive”, van Buuren notes, pointing to the enthusiasm on the part of the general public and policymakers. Case in point was the recent initiative on the part of Belgian Transport minister Georges Gilkinet when he proposed to subsidise companies aiming to run a night train in Belgium for their track access charges and energy costs.
European Sleeper, which has Brussels as its point of departure, is a beneficiary on paper. While Van Buuren welcomes the idea, he would rather see permanent changes to track access charges and improved capacity allocation rules. In short, the various obstacles before startups need to be removed.
The night train is also very much on the minds of European policymakers, which might also open the door to further opportunities for European Sleeper. In January, the European Commission will decide which companies will be selected to run pilot programmes for new international long-distance train connections. “We have proposed to run a train to Barcelona from the spring of 2025 onwards or alternatively operate a service to southern Europe in general”, van Buuren announces.
I will definitely be a passenger on the ES.
For the later future, after the initial period, could we consider some improvement?
I’d be the author of a research paper on this topic: new types of night trains, to build a real travelling hotel. The work includes interior design concepts, new on-board and off-board services, carriage layouts, a basic business plan to verify.
If you are interested, it is in the book ‘Hotel-Train’, isbn 978-88-31474-12-2.