Dogu Express is looking for its old dreamful days.
Dogu Express, the overnight train giving service between Ankara and Kars, has attracted attention of millions by its breathtaking route via wide steppes of Central Anatolia and deep valleys of Eastern Anatolia as well as marvelous destination, Kars, with its historical and touristical attractions.
The train had become popular fast especially as young travellers shared their experiences via social media. This was so effective that the tickets of complete train were sold out in minutes. Together with additional wagons that tour companies reserved, the train had become the longest passenger train of Turkey.
The poor image of trains was started to change with high speed trains. With Dogu Express, conventional trains have also gained popularity. Ankara-Kars route has become one of the most well-known touristic routes of Turkey.
It was not easy to adapt this peak in demand for State Railways. Passenger transport is being done in predetermined routes with limited resources and subsidies. It was not easy to focus on profitability or shift resources to profitible areas, change prices according to demand like a private operator.
The problems grew rapidly. Many failed to buy train tickets. The additional wagons for tour companies did not solve the problem, since especially young travellers did not prefer standard programs and high prices of tour companies. Reactions increased. Many claimed tickets are sold out because of tour companies. Empty compartmens seen in system just before departure after being seen full all days long. Precautions for preventing ticketing system from lock down ended up with making ticket searches even more difficult.
The problems were very close to overshadow the popularity of train when a very important and innovative step was taken. A new train distinguishing people using trains for travel and transport, which also got rid of limitations of subsidized trains: Touristic Dogu Express.
Classical Dogu Express continued its daily service with coaches (with seats) and couchettes (with 4 berths per compartment) where Touristic Dogu Express started service with sleepers where each compartment has 2 berths together with a table and a sink. This new trains was not calling at small stations anymore, departing 3 times a week in each direction.
The train differentiates with an innovative feature, giving 3-hours-long-stops on way in 2-3 stations for city excursions. These stations were Erzurum, Erzincan, Sivas, Divrigi, Ilic, where trains call in some in westbound and others in eastbound. Passengers had the chance to have city excursions organized by tour companies or by themselves. Another difference was the price. Ticket fares of this unsubsidized train was much higher than the classic one, almost tripling the old sleeper fares.
Despite its high price, train service had managed to attract attention, also because no other sleeper train left on this route. Tickets were sold out fast. Ministy of Tourism, which was involved in developing this train, stated that touristic trains will be developed in new routes like Zonguldak, Pamukkale.
However things did not turn out as planned.
Touristic Dogu Express, which started with 3 weekly services, had first suspended due to pandemic, then restarted with 2 weekly services, and recently suspended again without any statement.
Though Dogu Express continued its daily service, there were no more sleepers on Ankara-Kars route, only standard seats and couchettes.
In fact, Turkey is one of the few countries keeping overnight trains, and there’s a big demand for all of them. Though prices were increased more than standard seats, sleepers and couchettes continued to be sold out fast. Getting on the train at city center, amazing sceneries, dining in restaurant car, sleeping in a comfortable bed, arriving rested at destination are all still very attractive.
Then what can be done?
Sleepers with two berths, table and sink is quite comfortable. But is the most expensive way of sleeping at berth. Couchettes with 4 berths are more economic and have more fun especially for groups. Compartments with 6 berths can also be produced and used, as in some of the Iranian, Russian and Romanian sleeper wagons.
Sleepers are comfortable options rather than a need. Thus, subsidizing couchettes or sleepers should be discussed. Instead of subsidizing all tickets, state can support travel of young people all over the country. Subsidies can be given to all students for travelling on couchettes limited time for each train during his/her education period.
Some do prefer travelling in his/her compartment in silence. But public areas in train have more fun. Dining cars can be reorganized, reserved for dining in specific hours and like cafes in rest of the time. Space for cafes can be increased to meet the demand, allowing travellers spending most of their time except sleeping there if prefered. Railways can make money from cafes making train travel more unforgettable for many passengers.
Dining should be reconsidered as well. Eating is important and fun in Turkey. Turkish Airlines used this very smartly. The current approach based on serving simple and limited menu to be consumed fast does not result with all passengers use the restaurant. On the contrary, many bring their own food or try to use local restaurants during long stops of train. Dining cars are empty in most of the time.
The innovative and brave attemp of long stops for city excursions should be reconsidered as well. The high turnout of tours shall not mislead, since some stations are in the middle of nowhere and there’s not much to do. Tours will be succesful when they become unforgettable experiences. Superficial and stereotype tours should be avoided, at least changed when realized. If TCDD Tasimacilik can show its open-mindedness in this subject, city authorities and tour compaines can compete to develop new programs for trains. Trains can offer different programs in different days, where all can be presented during travel.
Running out of tickets contribute to the dreamful atmosphere of trains, excitement of travel starts very early during buying of tickets. However it should not become a torture. Rather than querying every day one by one, listing trains with available berths within given time period would be a good improvement.
Creating waiting lists as in flights and using these lists in case of refund would be great. Full refund until last day should be reconsidered for sleepers and couchettes. Increasing pricing as less berths left will increase the income of railways and help balancing the demand and supply.
Several details about passenger like gender, full name, id, phone when buying the ticket can be entered once as in loyalty cards and this info can be used every time passenger buys a ticket. This will lighten the stressful reservation process.
Overnight trains of Turkey are also attracting attention of foreigners. However EYBIS, the train ticketing system, which is already hard to use for Turkish people, has additional difficulties for foreigners. English pages of system have still some labels and messages are in Turkish, only Turkish numbers are accepted in mandatory mobile number field, people can only buy tickets at most 30 days before departure, cannot find an English speaker staff in case of a problem.
The overnight trains still carry the potential to be another locomotive of railways and an important color of Turkish tourism.
Cover photo: Onur Uysal ©