Wednesday, 12 January 2022

The Amazing Race 33, Episode 2

London, England (U.K.) - Glasgow, Scotland (U.K.)


[Cross-border Passenger Rail Services (from New Action Plan: boosting long-distance and cross-border passenger rail, European Commission, 14 December 2021)]

This week’s episode of The Amazing Race 33 was filmed at the end of February 2020, just before the production was suspended and the cast and crew were sent home to wait out the Covid-19 pandemic for a year and a half before resuming.

With that in mind, I wouldn’t have been surprised if this episode had overtones of nostalgia for “the ghost of travel past”. But instead, it inadvertently highlighted an aspect of travel that the TV producers and cast members couldn’t have known would grow significantly during the pandemic, and that we can expect to play a greater role in future travel in both Europe and the USA: overnight long-distance trains.

Overnight trains generally, and sleeping cars in particular, have been in decline in most countries, India and to a lesser extent China being the most important holdout. As shown on the map above, the Caledonian Sleeper routes between London and Scotland, including the train the racers took to Glasgow, and one other route between London and Penzance (Cornwall), are the only overnight sleeping-car trains still operating or currently contemplated in the U.K. Many European national railways, including Deutsche Bahn (Germany), have discontinued all overnight trains and sleeping-car services.

A relatively pessimistic study of night trains commissioned by the Transportation Committee (TRAN) of the European Parliament in 2017 served mainly as a post-mortem of discontinued night trains and the factors that argued against restoration or expansion of night trains or sleeping cars:


[Research for European Parliament TRAN Committee - Passenger night trains in Europe: the end of the line? (May 2017)]

But time hasn’t stopped during the pandemic, and not all of the changes have been for the worse. In some cases, infrastructure projects have moved forward more quickly during the pandemic while travel was down and transportation facilities, or portions thereof, could be taken out of service for renovations, with less impact on travellers or ongoing operations, because their full capacity wasn’t needed.

As recent debates in Congress should make clear, transportation and infrastructure are political and not purely business issues.

In Europe, as I’ve observed in Strasbourg during previous discussions in the European Parliament, integration of passenger rail systems, from reservations and ticketing to rolling stock and operating procedures, to support seamless through international train travel, has been a goal for at least a decade. That pre-existing agenda for improved pan-European passenger rail transport received a huge boost with the increased Green vote in the 2019 elections for the European Parliament. Improved passenger rail service (along with better provisions for bicycling and bicycle/rail/ferry intermodal travel) is a key component of the European Green Deal, which is a particular priority for the Greens but which has consensus support from most other European political groupings as part of their climate change agenda.

Many travellers would rather take an overnight train, at least if they can sleep in a sufficiently comfortable bed en route, than spend all day on a train. (The same is generally true of air travel, with the same caveat of, “if they can sleep in a sufficiently comfortable bed en route”.) But if a journey takes only a few hours, there’s no need to pay for a bed and no reason to travel at night. So part of the growth in traffic on medium-distance European domestic high-speed rail lines has been at the expense of travel on slower night trains:


[Cross-border Passenger Rail Services (from New Action Plan: boosting long-distance and cross-border passenger rail, European Commission, 14 December 2021)]

For a while, only China had constructed high-speed rail lines long enough to want overnight trains. The trip from Shanghai to Urumchi, more than 4,000 km / 2,500 miles (described, with considerable artistic license, in Stuart Stevens’ Night Trainb to Turkistan) took me four days and three nights (84 hours) on the fastest direct train in 1989. Today it takes only 33 hours with a change in Lanzhou on high-speed trains. But while that’s a big improvement, it’s still a long enough trip for there to be continued demand for a through train with first-class sleeping cars between Shanghai and Urumchi, even though the sleeper runs a bit slower with a 39-hour journey time.

More recently in Europe, as high-speed rail systems that were created as national prestige projects on domestic routes have begun to be integrated into a transcontinental network, that network has extended beyond the distance that even the fastest train can comfortably cover in a day trip, reviving passenger demand for overnight trains on longer routes, especially for through international trains.

France, for example, where rail upgrades focused for decades on new high-speed lines for which no sleeping cars have been designed or procured, has recently revived night trains between Paris and the Mediterranean (Marseilles, Nice, etc.) and is expanding other domestic overnight sleeper services as well as overnight connections with other countries. The grand but long-abandoned station at Canfranc on the former main line between Paris and Madrid is being restored and converted into a hotel, while the French and Spanish governments have finally agreed to draw up joint plans to re-open the Somport Rail Tunnel — the most direct rail route between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe. Repairing the tunnel and its approaches would cost far less than drilling a new tunnel under the Pyrenees. And 50 years after a derailment damaged part of the line, the dispute over whether France or Spain should pay for the repairs seems finally to have been resolved by the European Union, rather than the individual countries, agreeing to bear much of the cost of the project in the name of European “integration”.

Funding is being made available by the European Union for acquisition by European national railways of new sleeping cars, as part of an EU action plan to boost long-distance and cross-border passenger rail announced in December 2021. And a new EU regulation on rail passengers’ rights adopted in April 2021 includes mandates for integration of reservations and ticketing to permit comparison shopping and sale of through tickets for rail travel across borders throughout the EU and for provision of adequate space for intermodal carriage of passengers’ bicycles (which as of now is subject to inconsistent and sometimes unwritten obstacles) on all new passenger railcars.

Meanwhile, in the USA, sleeping car occupancy on Amtrak trains has remained very high throughout the pandemic. Many travellers are willing to pay extra for a private compartment to avoid the perceived greater risk of infection in an open chair car. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act enacted in November 2021 contains significant funding for Amtrak, some of which is likely to go toward both new and refurbished Amtrak sleeping cars.

If you think that the pandemic has seen only reductions in transportation services, think again. Some mothballed Amtrak sleeping cars have already been taken out of storage and put back in service. Perhaps most notably, sleeping car service on Amtrak’s most important line, the Northeast Corridor, has resumed for the first time 2003 with the reintroduction in April 2021 of sleeping cars on the overnight trains in each direction between Boston and Washington, DC. Amtrak has also added bike hooks in the onboard luggage space on these and some other trains. This is intended as an improvement over carrying bikes as checked baggage (itself a relatively recent service on many trains — for years bicycles weren’t allowed at all on Amtrak trains on the Northeast Corridor. But the new bike hooks have an awkward design that requires removing the front wheel and leaves the dropouts at the end of the front fork banging against the metal wall of the car. I’d be interested in feedback from anyone who has used them.

On “The Amazing Race”, Cayla and Raquel, who work as flight attendants, noticed the similarity between their compartment on the Caledonian Sleeper and the berths in the crew rest area on a long-haul jetliner. That raises a pair of questions to which I don’t have ready answers: Why aren’t more airplanes configured with bunk beds or sleeping berths, as Zeppelins and some other airliners once were? And why aren’t airline-style business-class “pods” that convert from seats to flat beds at the push of a button ever used to reconfigure railroad chair cars as sleeping cars? These modular airline interior units are manufactured in relatively large numbers, and available as a commodity (although customizable to suit the branding and other desires of individuals airlines). At the very least, using airline pods seems like it might be a “quick and dirty” way to test the market for sleeper service on a new overnight rail route, without having to commission construction of a short (and therefore expensive) production run of bespoke sleeping cars.

Sleeper buses go both ways, so why can’t planes or trains? Some sleeper buses have airplane-style seats or “pods” (with varying degrees of recline, up to and including flat beds), while others have beds more like a Pullman berth or a Japanese “capsule” hotel. Overnight long-distance international buses (although mostly without beds) are currently much more common in Europe than overnight trains. But these private night buses are less widely known and, because they are marketed primarily to specific ethnic communities, substantially more difficult to find and reserve than night trains operated by national railways, especially if you don’t speak or read local languages.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 12 January 2022, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
Comments

Dear Edward,

I am following your newsletter about "The Amazing Race" with great interest, and I am amazed that the show is still active (although the first series is still considered the best…).

Anyway, please accept some comments concerning the night train situation in Europe.

There was indeed a low a few years ago, when SNCF [France] killed off all overnight trains, and DB [Germany] did the same (they were not allowed to be successful, and anything to make them so was done). What happened, however, was (and that's something I really miss in your comments) is that ÖBB [Austria] took over some rolling stock and expanded their own night train network, adding Zürich as a secondary base. This became such a success that they got serious, and ordered a whole number of new night trains, using the same platform as their RailJet trains, branding them NightJet. They are expanding the services. In fact, they started last December with a new daily Zürich - Amsterdam service, as well as Bruxelles - Wien. Further expansion plans include Zürich - Barcelona (using the high-speed line in Spain), as well as connections towards Italy. The new trains also have some new accommodations, comparable to the "Capsule Hotels" found in Japan.

Praising SNCF is a bit bold; their re-introduced night trains are couchette-only, therefore a bit half-baked. They are, however, planning to order new rolling stock shortly.

Renfe [Spain] is a disaster on its own, having retired all night-Talgos, and either sent them to scrap, or rebuilding them as day trains.

There are also several third-party operators introducing and planning new night rains (Snältoget [Sweden], for example).

There is one serious issue: a complete lack of suitable rolling stock. Even the second-hand market is completely dried out, and what might have a chance to be refurbished is in rather bad shape, so that it gets very expensive.

I would like to point out the campaign "Trains for Europe", a grassroot movement trying to get the EU more involved, in particular, with making it easier to procure rolling stock (https://trainsforeurope.eu/). The founder, Jon Worth, also has his own blog where he talks a lot about international rail travel, and European realities, when it comes to cross-border operation (https://jonworth.eu/).

There is now a lot going on with night trains in Europe.

Thanks again for your newsletter.

Best regards, and stay healthy!

Max Wyss
Wattwil, Switzerland

Posted by: Max Wyss, 16 January 2022, 18:53 ( 6:53 PM)

@MaxWyss - Thank you for your interesting and informative feedback.

I am familiar with the OBB trains, and have taken some of them myself. Perhaps I should have mentioned them. Unfortunately, Austria along cannot save Europe, at least in this regard!

France is significant (as is Germany) because of its central location controlling routes between many other countries: The only rail links between the rest of Europe and the British Isles or the Iberian Peninsula pass through France. And France is problematic because the lack in Paris of what in the USA would be called a "union station" (a common station serving rail lines from all directions, allowing transfers between lines without having to change stations) complicates running through trains that pass through Paris.

Best regards,

Edward Hasbrouck

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 16 January 2022, 18:58 ( 6:58 PM)

Update: Seats called "RailBeds" that convert to flat beds in the manner of business-class airline seats are in use in Australia on the "Spirit of Queensland" trains for the 24-hour journey between Brisbane and Cairns:

https://www.queenslandrailtravel.com.au/travelwithus/onboardexperiences/carriagelayout

https://www.queenslandrailtravel.com.au/Pages/Spirit-of-Queensland-Virtual-Tour.aspx

If you know of other trains using airline-style seat/beds like this, please share a comment.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 17 January 2022, 11:48 (11:48 AM)

Update: Seats that convert to flat beds like business-class airline seats are also used on some trains in Indonesia, including on both day and overnight trains on the 8-hour run between Jakarta and Surabaya. Here's one local travel blogger's review with photos of "Kelas Luxury" on this route:

https://catperku.com/review-argo-bromo-anggrek-luxury/

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 31 January 2022, 08:42 ( 8:42 AM)
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