Two minutes ahead of schedule, at 10.53AM on Monday (20 January), a special train rolled into Brussels’ Gare du Midi railway station to the tunes of a live band and next to a platform covered with a red carpet.
It was an unusual welcome for a passenger train in 2020, but the Austrian and Belgian railway operations wanted to make a point about the launch of a new night train connecting Vienna and Brussels, operated by Austria’s ÖBB.
The message was that amid all the talk of a green economic revolution it was time for the revival of Europe’s night trains.
The first night train between the two cities since 2013 took 14 hours and carried precious cargo: several MEPs and the European Commission’s former top civil servant, Martin Selmayr, who is now the EU’s ambassador to Austria.
“I have never slept so long in my life,” the German eurocrat, who was famous for his punishing work schedule, joked to EUobserver after getting off the train with an EU flag.
“It’s a start,” he added on the Nightjet, noting that the waiting time between the German and Belgian border – where the locomotive was changed – took a bit long.
Tenth of emissions
Greening the economy has been the flagship policy for the EU commission under president Ursula von der Leyen, even though the commission chief herself recently faced flak for taking a flight to London instead of the two-hour train ride to get there.
ÖBB – which runs 27 night trains across Europe and plans to launch a new one to Amsterdam in December – said that travelling between Vienna and Brussels by train emitted 10 times less CO2 than the same journey by air.
The service will run on Sundays and Wednesdays, with the return leg on Mondays and Thursdays.
Seated tickets were meant to start at €29.90, but EUobserver could only find tickets for at least €120 for April.
The Nightjet will not run in July or August.
And prices of train tickets were still far higher than those of low-cost airline alternatives.
“We had a very good ride. It is amazing that you go to sleep in one member state and wake up in another,” French MEP Karima Delli told EUobserver after disembarking.
The Green deputy, who is chair of the European Parliament’s transport committee, said there should be more legislation on low cost airlines.
“It is not acceptable that the price of flight tickets are lower than those of train ones when the impact on climate change is worse,” she said.
“We have to open the debate about kerosene tax. We need mobility to be accessible for all,” she added, referring to airline fuel tax breaks.
“It is not that trains are too expensive, but that airplane tickets are too cheap,” said Thomas Waitz, an Austrian Green politician.
Aviation fuel, or kerosene, is exempt from levies around the world, and many EU countries exclude airplane tickets from VAT or apply a zero VAT rate in case of international aviation.
Last November, nine EU countries, including Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Sweden urged the commission to propose new measures on increasing the price of aviation.
But tax laws require EU unanimity among member states.
Under its ‘Green deal’, the commission also pledged to revise the energy taxation directive, and to “look closely” at the tax exemptions for aviation fuels.
But leading airlines were quick to attack the EU executive last December, warning of economic damage.
A 2019 commission study said that “abolishing the exemption of energy taxation on aircraft fuel would, if it were possible, result in an increase of the average ticket price by 10 percent, and decrease in passenger number of 11 percent”.
The aviation sector’s CO2 emissions would decrease by 11 percent, and the study claims that the higher revenues would offset the negative effects of job losses, so that net GDP would not be impacted.
Transport represents almost a quarter of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions and is one of the main causes of air pollution in cities.
To achieve climate neutrality by 2050, as EU leaders set out to do last December, a 90 percent reduction in transport emissions is needed.
The commission has proposed to spend €30.6bn on investments in European infrastructure for transport in the next budget period between 2021-27, but key member states have been pushing to cut overall EU spending due to Brexit.
On Monday, Sophie Dutordoir, the CEO of the Belgian railway firm SNCB, called on the EU and member states to help make prices more attractive for passengers.
“Financial support will be necessary as it was for high-speed lines,” she said.
Elisabeth Werner, the commission’s director general for mobility and transport, also encouraged railway operators to make ticketing services easier and decrease the number of locomotive changes.