As COVID-19 reemerges, gripping Europe again, the newly resumed night train service linking Paris and Vienna has hit a logistical snag days before it could have chugged full steam ahead. On its maiden voyage Monday, the train had no paying passengers onboard.
The return of night trains to the continent carries a symbolic weight as efforts have been made to shift travel from the air back to rail as Europe intends 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 mostly empty except for a delegation of officials and media.
“There should have been lots of people,” said Ibrahim Wade, an attendant incharge 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 Austrian Federal Railways (OBB) under the Nightjet brand offer regular seats, as well as simple and more comfortable sleeping cabins.
Some of the more luxurious berths have a private shower area, while other passengers have to wash up at the end of the train compartments.
Towels are provided, as is breakfast, but there is no Wi-Fi and the heating doesn't always work.
“We're clearly targeting business travelers with the night train,” said Kurt Bauer, chief of long-distance trains at the OBB.
The service is also aimed at tourists who prefer traveling long distances by rail. Salzburg, the city of Mozart, is along the route, so are Strasbourg and Munich.
“Our clients are more and more sensitive to environmental aspects, particularly the young,” said Jean-Baptiste Guenot, an executive with French rail company SNCF.
The low-cost airlines made the Orient Express obsolete more than a decade ago, and air travel is preferred for long distances than trains.
The train can be price competitive for those who book their tickets early, but it really sets itself apart on environmental grounds.
A trip by air emits about 10 times the amount of carbon dioxide than a train.
Vienna has become the European capital of night trains since the OBB in 2016 began investing in reviving the segment that train operators were abandoning.
Paris, a top tourist destination, was a clear choice for the OBB as there was no direct rail service linking the "city of love" and Vienna since the Orient Express stopped connecting the two cities in 2007.
Currently, three trains in a week will make the 1,400-kilometer (870-mile) run between the two cities.
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 planning to create a Zurich-Barcelona route with Geneva and Lyon along the way.
The French government is considering to start night trains to link Paris with Barcelona, Copenhagen, Madrid, Rome and even Stockholm.
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