From the opening of London’s new Eurostar terminal to the dramatic expansion of highspeed TGVs across France, 2007 was Europe’s year of the train. Even chaotic rail strikes, timed to spoil the party, failed to dampen the celebration. In a rare show of mutual euphoria, press and politicians tried to outdo each other in proclaiming a new rail era. Business media hailed fast trains as the solution to the stress, delays, and crumbling service faced by air travellers.
That explains, as one cover line shouted, “why trains are the new planes”. But amid all the coverage of the booming highspeed sector, a quieter rail revolution has been all but overlooked. To the surprise of many analysts, Deutsche Bahn, operator of one of the largest highspeed fleets in the world, is pouring new investment into the slowest thing on rails – the venerable overnight train. Reversing years of seeming indifference to its sleeper lines, the German rail giant has released an unprecedented timetable for 2008: new night trains are snaking all over Europe, stretching from Scandinavia to Italy, Prague and Amsterdam. In one stroke, sleeper service has had its biggest expansion in a decade, reaching 160 cities in nine countries.
Vitally, improvements in quantity are being matched in quality. Deutsche Bahn has united its confusing range of overnight companies under one brand – City Night Line – and revamped everything from ticketing and prices to uniforms and service. Its promise is that City Night Line will be similar to the fabulously successful InterCityExpress trains, better known as ICEs – one instantly recognisable premium brand, no matter which overnight train you board.
But all this for sleeper trains? If what springs to mind are folding beds, detective novels and gently rocking dining cars, the reality is a little different. While aerodynamic ICEs slice through Europe every day at 300 Wi-Fi-enabled km/h, City Night Line’s snub-nosed engines gently pull sleeping passengers through the night – at about the same speed as passengers’ parents once travelled.
What high-pressure business executive would choose to travel this way? And what high-tech rail giant would invest in it? One person to ask is Oliver Ueck, Deutsche Bahn’s director for the UK and Ireland – places, incidentally, where his employer owns neither trains nor track. Sitting in his London office, Ueck points out that this is irrelevant: Europe’s rail boom has changed the landscape, both literally and logistically. “Overnight trains make sense again. That’s why business people are trying our Berlin night service.” He ticks off the alternatives facing a Londoner with a morning meeting in the German capital – a situation with which Ueck is all too familiar.
Travel the night before your meeting and you lose half a night’s sleep. Travel the morning of your meeting and you lose half a day’s work. “With our overnight trains, you can have a productive day in London, eat dinner aboard the Eurostar and arrive in plenty of time to catch the night connection from Paris. Then you have the whole day in front of you when you wake in Berlin.”
A look at the map bears him out – not just between London, Paris and Berlin, but, increasingly, throughout Europe. By combining the new high-speed and overnight lines, travellers to the continent’s business centres now have the option to arrive more comfortably, and without burning through so much carbon – or caffeine. A manager touring her European offices could even visit four cities in two days by rail – a nightmare scenario by air. “It’s better for the environment,” says Ueck, “and more civilised. There’s no mad rush – trying to get to Heathrow by 05.00 is painful.” “But we’re used to that,” counters Eric Heymann, transport analyst for Deutsche Bank. “Of course it’s not comfortable to get up at 04.00 to fly, but it’s part of doing business. Overnight trains are for leisure travellers. For business travellers, I’m a bit sceptical. It will remain a niche market for the near future. You only have a few city pairs where this is a likely market.”
Which cities? That question elicits a pause. “Maybe my answer is a bit biased,” he concedes. “I live here in Frankfurt. We have a lot of options for morning flights to major cities in Europe. For some city pairs, night trains might be an interesting option... Maybe someone who lives in Hamburg or Lyon or Turin or Copenhagen would think differently about this.”
One such person is Heinrich Beckmann, a former Hamburg port executive who is now managing director of Deutsche Bahn’s overnight empire. Travelling around his newly expanded network, he’s a manager with a firm handshake and imposing directness. “In my view, having the three brands was a failure,” he states bluntly, to the discomfort of the press secretary sitting nearby. “Now we put all of our efforts into one.”
That new brand is City Night Line. At first glance, it may appear recycled rather than reborn. The name is a small variation on the title of one of Beckmann’s former overnight networks; the uniforms are just a tweak away from those of a different old line and the colour scheme comes straight from Deutsche Bahn’s brand guidelines. Beckmann’s response? Look closer. “We have adapted everything to the new brand, all the way to the menus in the restaurant car.”
He points out that the most important changes – the ones that make the biggest difference to a passenger’s experience – are the least visible. Changes in how compartments are booked have made many more of them available to business travellers. After streamlining the booking system, even travellers whose journey requires several trains will now need only one ticket – a service even airlines cannot compete with. And a full year is being devoted to training employees to deliver the new brand consistently.
But even if he succeeds at all of this, how can he compete with the budget airlines? “We aren’t the only choice for business travellers,” Beckmann readily admits. “Quite often, I combine flying with taking the railways. But when I take a night train to Zürich, I’m in my Swiss office at 08.30. When I take the plane, I’m in at 11.00. Sometimes the train is the better option.”
Last year, more than two million travellers agreed with him. It’s a small fraction of Deutsche Bahn’s total number of passengers, but one that was extremely profitable in 2007. Giving those over-night passengers better service, and giving daytime riders reason to join them, makes business sense and helps groom Deutsche Bahn for privatisation and for deregulated rail in Europe. “We fill a niche market,” Beckmann says readily, “but it’s an important one for the Deutsche Bahn family.” Perhaps the train giant and the analysts don’t have so much to argue about after all.
Ultimately, however, the fate of City Night Line will not be decided by analysts or administrators, but by passengers – leisure and business alike. For the vast majority of business travellers, the overnight option hasn’t been rejected – it has simply never been considered. If City Night Line can live up to its promises, perhaps that will change. As one train official points out, the iPod has convinced millions to take a second look at Apple’s computers. Deutsche Bahn is betting that the ease, efficiency and design of the ICE will remind business travellers that the same train company offers them the option of sleeping all the way to their next meeting. And probably arriving before the competition.
Monocle’s five-point plan for selling overnight rail service
01 It all starts at the station
Many of Europe’s main rail stations need work. For starters, if passengers will be arriving for midnight departures they need to feel safe. Moreover, there’s an opportunity to turn more stations into buzzy, secure, round-the-clock hubs for commerce and long haul connections.
02 Work on the design
We’re all for functional but a little warmth and cosiness would also go a long way to getting passengers to sample a night on the rails. Low lighting, teak veneers and high-quality fabrics would make rooms more inviting. The same materials might also be applied to public areas.
03 Work on the amenities
The real challenge is to seduce the customer who wants to save time but is also used to forking out for a junior suite at the Meurice in Paris. To get them onboard there needs to be linens from Fischbacher and toiletries from Agronatura.
04 Develop a better bathing experience
If train carriages can’t deliver the necessary pressure for an invigorating shower then an arrivals lounge concept should be developed so passengers get the best start to their day and the experience is not just as good as air travel but infinitely superior.
05 Engineer seamless alliances
While passengers might save time travelling through the night, in some instances they’ll also want to get home by air if they’ve gone the distance for a morning meeting. Will DB or Switzerland’s SBB one day become members of Star Alliance?