Privatized European Trains Accent Service
Sleek, bilevel sleeper cars and a well-trained staff make rail service appealing for all types of travelers
ZURICH — 'Good morning, sir. It's 7 a.m.,'' the awakening voice on my hotel train phone announced. ''Hope you've had a good night's sleep. I'll be serving breakfast in about 15 minutes.''
It was young Marco Parrella, a Swiss steward aboard the newly privatized Wienerwalzer, one of three overnight sleeper train routes now providing greatly upgraded service in Central Europe to budget-conscious backpacker tourists and the well-to-do.
Shortly after his call the uniformed steward knocked on the door to my deluxe double to present a sumptuous breakfast as the CityNightLine train from Vienna moved nearer Zurich. I had just showered in the compartment's private bath and my hair was wet.
''Bon appetit,'' the train attendant said with a grin.
Mr. Parrella and other well-trained service crew like him are the primary reason these sleek new bilevel sleeper trains have become a big hit for rail passengers in German-speaking Europe.
They also suggest the private sector's best answer to questions about its role in making rail travel more appealing to the riding public - a ''sleeper'' investment in more ways than one.
''It's service, service, service,'' insists Zurich-based Dagobert Nawroth, head of marketing and sales for the German, Austrian, and Swiss consortium running CityNightLine.
For most of passenger rail's history, the public has viewed the role of private enterprise skeptically, thanks to early exploitation by 19th-century US ''robber barons'' - magnates like Jay Gould, ''Jubilee Jim'' Fiske, and Cornelius Vanderbilt.
The notion of a public trust largely escaped these profit-focused entrepreneurs. As a result, even today the job of winning back public faith remains an uphill struggle. Thus the model of CityNightLine becomes all the more intriguing.
When Mr. Nawroth and his CityNightLine management co-workers took over the first two of their current three overnight rail runs in late May, their task was clear. The Zurich-Vienna Wienerwalzer and the Vienna-Dortmund Donaukurier had lost ridership because of uninspired public stewardship. How could the private sector do any better?
Nawroth says his group - DACH Hotelzug AG (the acronym incorporates the national abbreviations for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland) - blamed much of the sleeper lines' fall from public grace on the brusque and bureaucratic manner of their on-board staff.
''Above all, we wanted to change that,'' Nawroth explains.
To do so, DACH focused on hiring attendants with backgrounds in hotel and restaurant service, then enriching it with a training program attuned to the ''mobile hotel'' situation.
At the same time, the firm made a costly investment in new rolling stock - elegant bilevel coaches for standard and deluxe sleeper compartments - and totally renovated cars with reclining chairs or ''sleeperettes'' for those on tight budgets. Not insignificantly, DACH also decreed that the CityNightLine would be both air-conditioned and nonsmoking.
The decision to ban smoking except in the lounge area, says DACH's overseas sales manager Bozidar Kojich, had technical and security reasons behind it as well as health concerns.
A Chicagoan with a deft sense of North American marketing know-how, Mr. Kojich has helped develop a pricing strategy designed to appeal to non-European foreigners traveling with a Eurail pass or ticket. The CityNightLine also offer sharp discounts to Europeans outside the DACH partner countries with Inter Rail passes.
The price deal for such customers permits about 50 percent reductions on both standard and deluxe sleeper compartments and roughly 90 percent for ''sleeperette'' riders. The ''sleeperette'' offer permits a budget-conscious American tourist with a Eurail Pass to buy ''add-on'' tickets for CityNightLine passage through a travel agent in the United States at minimal cost. The 11-hour Wienerwalzer trip between Zurich and Vienna, for instance, can be experienced in a reclining chair with a modest breakfast included for an add-on price of $7 each way. Full-price fares from Zurich range from $410 for a deluxe sleeper to $78 for coach.
''Considering the cost saved in overnight hotel bills,'' Kojich says, ''I'd call that quite a proposition.''
Since their May 28 debut CityNightLine has added a third route (the Zurich-Hamburg Komet) to the network. In June the system will add a Berlin-Zurich service. For the low-budget foreign tourist, Kojich points out, three hotel nights can be saved if a tourist arrives in the early morning, tours during the day, then CityLine travel. He suggests Hamburg-Zurich, Zurich-Vienna, and Vienna-Dortmund as one combination requiring a total $21 add-on to a Eurail Pass investment.
Apart from cost advantages to riding the CityNightLine - something for passengers at either end of the price range - DACH has also dropped one unpopular feature of sleeper services: the crowded six-person ''standard'' compartments still run by cooperating government-controlled national railways' EuroNight trains.
Private-sector surveys appear to have found no market demand for squeezing people into sleeping quarters like sardines. Public rail authorities could have concluded the same thing years ago but did not. Score one bonus point for the privatizers.
While an obvious reform like this wins public support, so too have DACH moves to increase creature comforts in both the new standard and deluxe compartment designs.
Each sleeper class now offers a wash basin, a phone for room service, controls to adjust air-conditioning, and a serving area for meals. Such amenities were largely missing from the previous Wienerwalzer, which made the Zurich-Vienna run under joint Swiss-Austrian government EuroNight train management.
Deluxe train compartments also come equipped with private shower and toilet as well as a larger serving table. The bilevel cars provide upstairs/downstairs admission to these new-design bedrooms off carpeted corridors.
Finally, state-of-the-art advances such as the CityNightLine's cushioned glide technology reduce shock impact and result in much more restful sleeping comfort.
Recalling the lackluster EuroNight alternative, veteran rail travelers may wonder what will be done to improve the remaining EuroNight lines now that CityNightLine has shown the way. Widespread public approval of the new private services could force action sooner than expected a mere six months ago.