The First Ever Independent Scheduled Long-Distance Passenger Rail Service Departs from Belgium

A few days ago, history was made in Belgian passenger rail: European Sleeper was the first independently owned scheduled long-distance rail operator to depart from Belgium. Its new night train is commercially driven – not a Public Service Obligation (PSO) – and links Belgium, the Netherlands with Berlin in Germany.

The launch marks the culmination of a complex project initiated by the company’s co-founders Elmer van Buuren and Chris Engelsman. Others in the rail sector told them that it would be extremely difficult. Nevertheless, Elmer and Chris showed huge determination, and the service is now there.

From left to right: European Sleeper founders Elmer van Buuren and Chris Engelsman with Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Georges Gilkinet

Above all, European Sleeper demonstrates that demand for long-distance cross-border passenger rail, including night trains, is growing fast, and that such services can be operated in a commercially viable Open Access manner.

Not only that: it shows that – in the Single European Rail Area (SERA) – operators no longer need to partner up with national incumbents when crossing an internal EU border.

In this case, one single operator is able to operate across the border to Germany on its own whereas inexplicably many multi-billion euro companies such as the Italian state-owned rail incumbent FS Trenitalia still seem to think that they cannot operate to Germany unless they collaborate with Deutsche Bahn (DB).

Of course, it is understandable if EU Member States want to help new cross-border long-distance trains financially, but this should be done in a non-discriminatory manner for all operators, not just for one operator.

For example, Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister Georges Gilkinet announced at the launch that Belgium passed a law under which all night train operators will pay nothing in Belgium for track access fees and energy over the next two years.

“Belgium’s approach to encouraging night trains is very welcome – and it should be emulated across Europe”.

Salim Benkirane, Policy Officer at ALLRAIL