New night train opens between Paris and Vienna… without passengers

The first new night train between Paris and Vienna has been hailed as an encouraging development in the fight against climate change. But as the first carriage pulled out of the Austrian capital on Monday evening, there were no passengers on board.

The first Nightjet Train between Vienna and Paris is pictured before departure at the Central Station in Vienna, Austria. Covid-19 restrictions prevented passengers from boarding.
Travellers no longer need to show a 3G proof to enter Austria. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

The timing could perhaps have been better.

With a resurgence of Covid-19 gripping Europe, there were no paying passengers for the maiden voyage of the reborn night train linking Paris and Vienna.

A return of night trains to the Old Continent is seen as symbolic of the efforts to shift travel from the air back to rail as Europe seeks to meet its climate change commitments.

But as the train following the route of the legendary Orient Express pulled out of Vienna‘s train station on Monday evening, it was empty except for a delegation of officials and media.

“There should have been lots of people,” said Ibrahim Wade, an attendant in charge of a sleeping cabin car, holding a list of absent passengers.

“It’s due to the health situation.”

The night trains operated by Austria’s national rail firm OBB under the Nightjet brand offer regular seats, as well as both simple and more comfortable sleeping cabins.

Some of the more luxurious berths even have private showers, while other passengers have to wash at the ends of the train cars.

Towels are provided, as is breakfast, but there is no Wi-Fi and the heating didn’t always work.

“We’re clearly targeting business travellers with the night train,” said Kurt Bauer, chief of long-distance trains at OBB.

The service is also aimed at tourists who like to take their time. Salzburg, the city of Mozart, is along the route. As are Strasbourg and Munich.

“Our clients are more and more sensitive to  environmental aspects. Particularly the young, but not only,” said Jean-Baptiste Guenot, an executive with French rail company SNCF.

It was low-cost airlines which killed off the Orient Express more than a decade ago, and flying remains the main competitor for long-distance train travel.

The train can be price competitive for those who reserve very early, but it really sets itself apart on environmental grounds.

A trip by air emits about 10 times the amount of CO2 as one by rail.

Vienna has become the European capital of night trains since OBB began in 2016 to invest in reviving a segment other train operators were abandoning.

Paris, a top tourist destination, was a clear choice for OBB as there was no direct rail service linking the City of Love and Vienna since the Orient Express stopped serving the two cities in 2007.

Three trains weekly will make the 1,400-kilometer (870-mile) run between the two cities for the moment.

Nightjet plans to launch a Paris-Berlin service next, and at the end of 2023 it hopes to have night trains between Berlin, Brussels, Paris and Vienna link up.

Nightjet is also looking to create a Zurich-Barcelona route that would serve Geneva and Lyon along the way.

The French government would also like to see night trains linking Paris with Barcelona, Copenhagen, Madrid, Rome, and perhaps even Stockholm.

Member comments

  1. An excellent initiative, I wish them all the best and should I need to travel to these destinations I will certainly use rail as opposed to air travel.

  2. I took the Paris-Vienna return trip last night on the Nightjet . My sleeper car was about 3/4 filled. Very pleasant and I got a good night’s sleep. So glad this route has been added. I’ll be a regular on his train.

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EXPLAINED: How to not be ‘bumped’ from an overcrowded Austrian train

Austrian trains have been overly crowded recently, with some people who had valid tickets having to be removed for "safety reasons". Here's how to make sure you get to your destination.

EXPLAINED: How to not be 'bumped' from an overcrowded Austrian train

Train travel is a safe and relatively comfortable way to get around Austria, but there is still much to do to make these journeys better for travellers, especially for commuters.

In Austria, a combination of high fuel prices, the adoption of the subsidised Klimaticket, and Vienna’s new short-term parking system, combined with other factors including a green surge and nice weather, has led to an increase in the search for train travel.

The operator ÖBB expects an even higher surge in the next few days, as warm weather meets holidays in Austria. This has led to several journeys being overcrowded, with people travelling standing up or being removed from trains when they reach capacity and the number of people compromises safety.

READ ALSO: Half-price Europe train tickets on offer in Interrail flash sale

“Safety is the top priority. If the train is too full to be guided safely, passengers must be asked to get off. If they don’t do it voluntarily, we have no choice but to get the police. This happens very rarely,” Bernhard Rieder from ÖBB told broadcaster ORF during an Ö1 interview.

Why are trains overcrowded?

There are several reasons for the surge in train travel, but they boil down to two things: rising costs for other means of transportation and environmental worries.

With galloping inflation, Austrians have seen prices of fuel climbing, and as the war in Ukraine continues, there is no likelihood of lower petrol prices any time soon.

At the same time, since March, Vienna (the destination for many domestic tourists and commuters) has instituted a new short-term parking system, basically removing free parking in the streets of the capital.

Driving has become more expensive when everything else seems to be costly, and many Austrians turn to train travel. Particularly for those who are holders of the Klimaticket, a yearly subsidised card that allows for unlimited travel for just over €1,000 – early buyers could get a hold of the ticket for under €900.

READ ALSO: Nine German expressions that perfectly sum up spring in Austria

The ticket allows travellers to “hop on and hop off” as they wish, making occupancy more unpredictable. However, it is possible to reserve seats even if you have them, and there are low-budget bundles for commuters.

The Klimaticket was created in an effort with the Environmental Ministry, looking to increase the use of greener transport alternatives in Austria.

The environmental concern is also one of the reasons why train travel is on the rise globally – travelling by train is also more convenient in many cases, with comfortable seats, free wifi, a dining area and the fact that you can start and end your journey in central stations instead of far-away airports.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Trains are in fashion so why is rail travel across Europe still so difficult?

Why won’t ÖBB only sell as many tickets as there are train seats?

A reasonable question, but that is not possible with the way train journeys operate in Austria – and in most countries.

Some tickets are “open” and flexible, meaning that people can board any train from a specific time. These are particularly useful for commuters who might be late leaving work, for example.

Additionally, holders of the Klimaticket and other regional yearly offers don’t need to buy tickets. They only need to show their Klimaticket card with an ID once checked.

READ ALSO: Austria’s nationwide public transport ‘climate ticket’ now available

What is ÖBB doing to avoid overcrowding?

After the several incidents of overcrowding when people even had to leave their trains despite having valid tickets, ÖBB announced it would bring additional trains for the peak season around the holidays (May 26th, June 5th and 6th and June 16th), increasing the number of seats by “thousands”, according to a press statement.

What can I do to guarantee my journey?

Despite the increase in offer, the operator still warns that “on certain trains, demand can still exceed capacity”.

The best way to try and guarantee your journey, according to ÖBB, is by reserving a seat.

READ ALSO: One day in Vienna: How to spend 24 hours in the Austrian capital

“A seat reservation is the best way to use the most popular train connections. Starting at €3, you can reserve a seat in ÖBB trains in Austria”.

Reservations are available online at the ÖBB app, at the ÖBB ticket counter, and at the ÖBB customer service at 05-1717.