By: Balazs KISS

In 2019, MAV-START, the passenger transport subsidiary of the Hungarian state railway company (MAV), decided to modernise its night train services, offering a range of destinations and onboard catering. Established as a renewed directorate focusing on providing these services, “Utasellato” is trailblazing with its unique offering and a wide variety of destinations. 

In the face of fierce competition from low-cost airlines, coach services, and lacking new investment, night train services were in decline in much of Europe for the past two decades. But today, many on both the national and international level grasp the importance of rail as a green option, it accounts for as little as 0.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector. Developing a competitive network of night train services accords with European and national green ambitions.

A Revitalised Service

The revitalisation of night train services in Hungary is a timely move. But Utasellato is by far not a new concept, as its history dates back to the socialist era. After the fall of communism in 1989, the night train network shrank in the 2000s and 2010s, but was not abolished. The company management’s decision in 2019 for revitalisation has demonstrated a willingness to reinforce these services with internal capacities, as part of MAV-START’s core offering. Peter Soha, head of Utasellato Service Department, says increasing the competitiveness of rail in general was among the main reasons behind the decision.

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The modernisation was vital. Besides low-cost airlines, coach services and private rail operators have entered the market and lured many passengers away. The Covid-19 pandemic made matters worse, and no new night train service has yet been launched. But at the time of writing, services related to all Utasellato’s sleeping and couchette cars had been renewed, and all pre-Covid night trains were operational. 

This renaissance in services had two main elements. First, the modernisation of 15 couchette and sleeping cars in EuroNight trains to Western Europe (with destinations such as Munich, Zurich and Berlin). Another 22 used carriages were bought, and now run to non-Western European destinations or are seasonal trains. Second, the service has become more strategically planned and adjusted to passenger needs. Utasellato aims to create a “travel package” for customers, with services such as a welcome gift or breakfast included in the ticket price. Trains to Split, Croatia and Brasov, Romania have also had restaurant cars offering a selection of hot and cold dishes. On-board catering is part of the night train package wherever possible, and improves the passenger experience.

Passengers want Quality

It is hard to put a fair and competitive price tag on night trains. High fixed costs and technological-infrastructural endowments make it hard to compete in both price and speed. But comfort, Soha says, is increasingly the motivator for passengers to choose the service. Ensuring value for money is key, and a desire for quality travel (which at times includes green considerations) is clearly on the rise. 

Talking strictly about competitiveness is tricky, but we can identify some factors that influence it. For example, night trains to Zurich, Switzerland and Split, Croatia are highly popular. Neither of these destinations can be reached cheaply by air; they are far enough for a car trip to be exhausting; and no high-speed rail alternatives exist to make a day trip by train more appealing. On the positive side, there is the renewed service package itself. Well-calibrated departure times allow enough time for sleep, which can substitute for a night or even two nights at a hotel, increasing the value to the customer. 

Challenges Behind Modernising Night Trains

For Utasellato, the main challenge is to keep pace with the prospective European “rail renaissance.” To do this, it must extend its network of night trains, either alone or in joint ventures. Investing in new rolling stock is inevitable. The accompanying human resources will be another cost: employees must be well paid to provide a quality service. 

In the bigger picture, competition between mass transport modes should become fairer, especially given the difference in their environmental footprints. Rail has a huge disadvantage (due to high infrastructure costs and track-access charges) compared to, say, long-distance coaches. A modal shift towards rail is a clear European priority, given the ambitions described in the European Green Deal. Night trains should be an obvious part of this shift. But rail operators will need financial incentives: European policymakers can help by subsidising investment in new or modernised rolling stock and by pushing for reduced track charges across Europe.