Brussels-Vienna night train returns as Europe eyes flying alternatives

Night trains have returned to the tracks between Brussels and Vienna amid growing interest in alternatives to flying.

The Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) Nightjet from Vienna pulled into Brussels Midi station exactly on schedule at 10.55 local time on a grey, foggy morning in the Belgian capital. It is the first ÖBB night train between the two cities since 2003, as Austria’s state-railway revives its overnight network.

The revival of the Vienna to Brussels route comes after authorities in Sweden – the spiritual home of the “flight-shame” movement – announced they were also considering the launch of night trains between Malmö and other European cities.

The ÖBB, which claims the title of Europe’s largest operator of night trains, said travelling between Vienna and Brussels by train emits 10 times less CO2 than the same journey by air.

Travelling on the inaugural train, which left Vienna at 8.38pm local time, were MEPs and senior European Union officials, who arrived to a red carpet and a band playing rock music.

Karima Delli, a French Green MEP, who chairs the European parliament’s transport and tourism committee, said she had spent a wonderful night on the train. “It’s extraordinary to be able to travel across central Europe and arrive in Belgium in just a dream.”

Night trains, she said, are efficient, practical and truly clean, but needed to be accessible for everyone to become a substitute to planes, for journeys between 600 and 1,800 kilometres. “Now we are faced with a choice and every member state, every politician needs to take their responsibilities.”

The Vienna to Brussels route runs twice a week (Sundays and Wednesdays), making a late-night stop at Linz. Passengers can travel in the other direction on Mondays and Thursdays, with connections to Munich and Innsbruck.

The starting price for an upright seat, one-way is €29.90 (£25.50), although places in four or six-berth “couchette” cars with bunk beds, cost considerably more.

Among the travelling dignitaries, and carrying a European flag, was Martin Selmayr, who was the EU executive’s most powerful civil servant, until he moved to Vienna this year to lead the European commission office in the city.

Austria’s state railway has been expanding its night train services, as other operators have been cutting back, finding them unprofitable. The Austrian company bought and renovated 42 sleeper trains from Deutsche Bahn in 2016, after Germany’s state operator ended its night services in 2016.

The ÖBB now runs 27 night trains, alone or with partners, serving cities in Germany, Italy and Switzerland. It plans to have a Vienna to Amsterdam route by the end of the year.

The Vienna-Brussels night train is co-run with Belgian’s state railway SNCB, which provides the locomotive and drivers on the Belgian section of the route.

Sophie Dutordoir, chief executive of Belgium’s national railway SNCB, said night trains were a superb tradition, which stopped in 2003 for economic reasons. She recalled the Ostend-Vienna Express that connected those two cities between 1984 and 1993.

Addressing EU officials and MEPs she said was glad railways were part of the EU’s green deal, a sweeping plan to transform Europe’s economy to meet the climate emergency.

But, she said, trains still had “difficulty measuring up” to air travel on price, adding that: “Financial support will be necessary as it was for high-speed lines.”

Last week Swedish transport authorities proposed a Malmö-Cologne service, which could be up and running in 2022 or 2023. The Swedish Transport Administration also said it saw “good opportunities” for a route between Stockholm and Hamburg, although further study of competition on the route was needed. Other destinations being considered are Brussels, Basel, Berlin and Frankfurt.

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