The pandemic may have put a spoke in the wheels of international travel, but its negative impact on climate change is back on the agenda for Madrid and Brussels.
Reducing emissions from aviation is one of the EU’s main long-term targets, with CO2 emissions from international flights having risen by 129 percent in the last twenty years.
Finding an alternative to short-haul flights is one of the solutions being proposed. In fact, during the “Spain in 2050” national debate last May, Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez proposed that national flights be phased out in the next 30 years.
One solution is that proposed by the German Green party: introduce night trains across Europe.
This EU-wide rail network has been dubbed “Nightjet” , and although it still doesn’t exist, it is being pieced together thanks to its supporters France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
The aim is to initially unite 13 cities – Barcelona among them- through a network of cheap and low-emission sleeper trains called Euro Night Sprinters.
As the German Greens’ map below shows, this night network would eventually expand and link as many as 200 European cities via 40 services.
Iñigo Errejón, leader of left-wing party Más País, is the main political proponent of night trains in Spain.
His party is now negotiating with Spain’s Finance Ministry whether to allocate €210 million of the country’s 2022 national budget to launching five sleeper trains within, from or to Spain.
These would be Madrid-Galicia, Barcelona-Galicia, Madrid-Barcelona-Paris, Madrid-Lisbon and Algeciras-Cerbère (on the French border with Spain).
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If approved, this would see Spain follow a similar trend to France’s, where Macron’s government has banned nocturnal flights if there are any nocturnal rail alternatives, and two night train services (Paris-Nice and Paris-Hendaye) have been launched.
It’s worth pointing out that before the pandemic, Spain only had two national night time train services from Madrid to Ferrol and from Barcelona to Vigo (Galicia), neither of which is currently operational. The sleeper train that linked Madrid and Barcelona to Paris was cancelled in 2013 and the Madrid-Lisbon sleeper service has not restarted since its suspension in 2020.
Whether Mas País’s plans come to fruition could depend on how much pressure the EU wishes to exert on Spain after having allocated €140 billion to the country as part of its Covid recovery funds.
Otherwise, Sánchez’s 2050 plans for green travel for Spain (and a meat-free diet, but that’s another story) seem distant.
Crucially, night time train services will have to be well-priced for passengers as well if Spain and its national rail provider Renfe want to be able to compete with low-cost airlines that offer European city breaks, often for much better prices than travelling by train within Spain.