Markus Hunkel claims that he owes the idea for the Alpen-Sylt-Express to Angela Merkel and Markus Söder. At a press conference at the end of April, the Chancellor and the Bavarian Prime Minister pondered aloud for the summer vacation of their countrymen for the first time during the Corona crisis. The borders were still tight at the time, so Söder suggested that one should "not go to Austria", "one could also go on holiday in Bavaria". Merkel did not miss the opportunity to point out the "super opportunities" in the north. "We thought: Then we simply connect the north with the south," says Markus Hunkel, managing director at the private rail operator RDC Germany.
If everything goes well, a Saturday night train will set off at 7:55 p.m. at Westerland station on Sylt, which will arrive around a thousand kilometers and almost 16 hours later at the main train station in Salzburg, Austria. The borders are open again. You can stay up to Salzburg, but you can also get off in Nuremberg or on Lake Chiemsee in the spirit of Söder. Or at one of the other 15 stops in northern and southern Germany. On Thursdays and Saturdays the night train will travel from the North Sea to the mountains, on Fridays and Sundays in the opposite direction. RDC will first try out how well the offer will be accepted by the beginning of November. "We are looking forward to getting the first night train 'Made in Germany' back on the rails after four years," says Hunkel.
In December 2016, the last night train of the Deutsche Bahn ran through the country, also from north to south, namely from Hamburg to Munich. At that time, the group ceased to do business with sleeping and couchette cars on the grounds that it was not economically viable. A lot has happened since then: Many people are more concerned about how they can get from A to B in a climate-friendly way, the term "Flugscham" has made it into the Duden, and Fridays-for-Future activist Greta Thunberg travels across Europe on the night train. And numerous politicians, especially in the EU Parliament, are calling for more connections within the continent that enable passengers to get on the train in the evening and wake up to their destination the next morning.
399 euros per compartment
For the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB), which had bought a total of 42 sleeping and 15 couchette cars from Deutsche Bahn after 2016, business in the reunification niche has always been worthwhile - and even more so since Fridays for Future. The company has invested 200 million euros in order to be able to use 13 new, more modern night trains from next year. After a pandemic forced break, the first Nightjet drove from Vienna to Hamburg on June 26th.
The Alpine Sylt Express is now also celebrating its premiere during the Corona crisis. "We want to react to the trend towards ecologically sustainable travel and to the fact that more people will be spending their holidays in Germany and Austria this year," says Hunkel. In addition to holidaymakers, he also wants to appeal to business travelers traveling between large cities such as Hamburg, Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Munich.
Passengers have the choice between two price models: If you are traveling with a group, you can book an entire couchette compartment for yourself and up to five passengers, which costs at least 399 euros for a single journey - no matter where you get off. The more people traveling with you, the cheaper the price: This principle is familiar to rail travelers from Deutsche Bahn country tickets.
Whoever travels alone or with a child up to 14 years old, depending on the time of booking, pays € 99 for a one-way trip in the best case, € 199 in the most expensive case - and also has a whole compartment to himself, in the sense of infection protection. "We are offering this price model this year as part of our hygiene concept. The cheapest price applies while stocks last," says Hunkel. Because the passengers remain among themselves in their compartment, they do not have to wear mouth-nose protection despite the pandemic.
"This is a sensible concept adapted to Corona," says night train expert Joachim Holstein. He was once a steward for Deutsche Bahn at a late hour, and since the end of the era he has been fighting with the European network Back on Track for more night trains in Europe. For singles with and without children and for groups of three or more, the price can easily keep up with comparable offers. Deutsche Bahn also drives Sylt from several large German cities, but not with the night train, but with the IC. "It is a strong signal when a private company that needs to make a profit puts a new night train on the rail," says Holstein.