Europe’s evening trains are on monitor for a resurgence

(CNN) – Go to bed in one major city and wake up in another; Nudging the landscape as a new land glides by; You’ll be rocked to sleep as you rattle across a continent. No wonder Europe’s night trains have been synonymous with romance immortalized by writers like Agatha Christie.

Until recently, however, the reality was very different. In fact, much of the European night train network has been cut in the last ten years.

In 2013 and 2014, lines from Paris to Madrid, Rome and Barcelona were eliminated. Amsterdam to Prague and Warsaw; and Berlin to Paris and Kiev.

For many, the end of the line seemed near.

But recently, night trains have resurfaced across Europe. On December 8th, four national rail operators joined forces to announce new routes between 13 European cities.

Back on track

Vienna-Munich-Paris and Zurich-Cologne-Amsterdam will be in operation until December 2021.

Two years later, a Vienna / Berlin to Brussels / Paris starts. And in December 2024, sleeper trains will run between Zurich and Barcelona.

“Four routes that connect 13 cities – that will make people’s work easier.”

Rajesh says she would like to see a night train on the “key route” from Paris to Rome, but she thinks the future of sleeper trains on the continent is bright.

“They’re great because they save you from paying for a hotel.

“You leave work at a normal time, have dinner, make your way to the station, get on the train, have a glass of wine, and wake up in the place you want to be in the unearthly hour like you are for do a cheap flight.

“Trains take you to the heart of the city.”

Romance on the rails

Night trains used to be an integral part of European travel (Photo: Berlin Central Station).

Kai Mueller

“Murder on the Orient Express.” “Stamboul Train.” From Agatha Christie to Graham Greene, writers have taken inspiration from the great night trains in Europe, and the rest of us have always found something romantic about them.

However, during the half-dozen trips he made across Europe in 2015, he said that he “always had an unforgettable experience”.

“I did it at a time when they were probably the lowest, but there was still some kind of romance,” he says.

“They had given up many of them in France and Germany, and cheap flights were ruining long-distance rail travel, but there were positive signs too. Everyone I spoke to said they will never go away entirely.”

“A business analyst and Zugspotter said night trains would never go away because planes are never allowed to fly at night. The trains are greener, save you a hotel bill for the night, and still have a romantic appeal.”

Add to a profit

Deutsche Bahn had previously canceled many night routes.

Deutsche Bahn had previously canceled many night routes.

Kai Mueller

It seems that the predictions were correct, not least led by Austria.

In fact, rather than falling out of favor with the European public, night trains have always been very popular.

According to Mark Smith of the train website The Man at Seat 61, the problem was how to make them economical.

“They need special vehicles, they only make one trip a day and cannot carry intermediate passengers – no one would board at 2 a.m.”

Nicolas Forien, part of Back on Track, a European network advocating for cross-border sleeper trains, says the trains have had “tough competition from low-cost airlines, cars, buses and the development of high-speed trains” – with reduced overall travel time the need for a night shift.

“There was a lack of investment and no new vehicles have been built for years. Governments were neglecting this part of the rail sector and vehicles were approaching their age limit, causing many lines to be closed,” he said.

“Now we are at a critical point – and if we want to introduce new services, we have to invest in them.”

While countries like Germany and France tacitly moved their routes out of the way, ÖBB saw a future and picked up many of the abandoned Deutsche Bahn routes, including Munich to Rome and Berlin to Hamburg. Both Forien and Smith attributed the revival of the services to the Austrian rail network.

“There are high costs, but a lot depends on attitude, willingness and management focus”, praises Smith, ÖBB boss Andreas Matthä, who took over in 2016, for the fact that “night trains wash their faces commercially”.

On Austrian railways, the “Nightjet” sleeper trains now account for almost 20% of long-distance traffic, far from the 5% in Germany before Deutsche Bahn let them slip.

“Finding passengers is not a problem – and it just keeps getting easier when people are fed up with the airline’s experience and want to reduce their carbon footprint,” he says.

Bragging train

The Thello night train runs from Paris to Northern Italy.

The Thello night train runs from Paris to Northern Italy.

KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP / Getty Images

In fact, in recent years “flight shaming”, inspired by the message of Greta Thunberg, has spread across Europe. In 2018, domestic flights in Sweden fell by 9%, while the following year, the Dutch airline KLM published advertisements encouraging people to fly less.

In return, Europeans are turning their attention to the continent’s extensive high-speed network.

“They are so much better than flying around Europe,” says Rajesh.

“You come straight there and have this freedom – you can get up, walk around, breathe, get food, change seats, work … you can do things and the journey takes place next to you. Flying in Europe, you just don’t get it .

“And while trains aren’t climate neutral, they’re a hell of a lot better than flying.”

And although Europe’s bullet trains are experiencing the bulk of flight shame (or boastful) love, night trains are experiencing a resurgence.

ÖBB was quietly leading, but even in the UK, refurbished trains on sleeper services to Cornwall and the Scottish Highlands – on opposite ends of the country – sparked a rush for booking in 2018 and 2019.

It is not just the large national companies that are breaking new ground. Boutique operators are getting into the night train game. The Swedish company Snallenåget already offers summer services from Malmö to Berlin. The service is so successful that they are planning a Stockholm-Copenhagen-Berlin route for next year.And in the summer of 2020 the Czech airline RegioJet, which already operates night trains between Prague and Košice in Slovakia, introduced a sleeper train from Prague to the Croatian coast. The utilization rate was 90% and the trains ran daily instead of three times a week as planned. The service is scheduled to resume in summer 2021.

“It taught a lesson to various observers on how to do it, and we may see more of it,” says Smith.

A boom after Covid?

RegioJet runs night trains to Prague.

RegioJet runs night trains to Prague.

Gabriel Kuchta / Getty Images Europe / Getty Images

The Covid-19 pandemic also helped. Aviation has taken a nosedive – who wants to be squeezed next to a stranger? Trains are easier to get to socially, says Rajesh. And night trains – where you can book an entire compartment for yourself – are even better.

In fact, in 2024 the ÖBB will introduce “capsule” sleeping cars – rooms with four beds that can be shared with strangers. Each berth is a self-contained “mini-suite” with a lockable door that folds around the bed.

“For planes the [post-Covid] The recovery could be difficult so there is room for trains and night trains to get a better market share, “says Forien.

Europe’s geography also helps in the case for night trains, says Forien, who points out that half of the flights departing France are either internal or to a neighboring country.

“That’s around 1,000 kilometers and that’s the perfect distance to sleep at night,” he says.

“The distance between the European capitals is mainly ideal for night trains. The continent could be a night train paradise.”

The end of the line

Back on Track campaigns for night trains to Spain (shown: Madrid's Atocha train station).

Back on Track campaigns for night trains to Spain (shown: Madrid’s Atocha train station).

OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP / AFP via Getty Images

What does the future of night trains in Europe look like? It would have been crazy to say that five years ago, but today it looks bright.

“Bullet trains are great for medium distances, but it’s better to spend 12 hours on a sleeper train than eight hours on a bullet train,” says Mark Smith.

“This practicality and the romance of having your own bedroom on a moving train and waking up hundreds of kilometers away don’t often come together.”

In fact, Smith believes the only stumbling block is capacity – vehicles are finite. “In the short term, the problem is how to expand the network with the existing vehicle fast enough to meet growing demand, given that climate change is real and Covid-19 makes sleeper trains attractive,” he says.

The only problem? The price. “If we want to be a real alternative, we need trains that are cheaper than the plane,” says Forien. Back on Track calls for a Europe-wide kerosene tax that would increase operating costs for aviation and “transform the shift from planes to trains”. Smith also wants nighttime track access fees to be reduced.

While Rajesh would like to see night trains en route from Paris to Rome (in addition to the Thello trains already running from the French capital to northern Italy), Forien believes that Spain and Portugal should be next in line.

And it looks like their dreams may one day come true, as Forien believes political support for sleeper trains will increase.

The French government plans to bring back the previously closed Paris-Nice and Paris-Lourdes-Tarbes lines in 2022.

In the meantime, under the outgoing German and future Portuguese presidency of the European Union, 2021 has been named European Year of the Railways.

The aim is to “make rail travel a convincing alternative to intra-European flights and long hours on the autobahn – by means of cross-border high-speed trains and night trains,” said German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer in a statement.

Pedro Nuno Santos, Portugal’s Minister for Infrastructure and Housing, agreed, saying: “I firmly believe that the railways will be the core of our future transport networks.”

In the meantime, the romance of the night train lives on.

“Every flight is the same, but I remember all of my night train journeys,” says Andrew Martin. “You feel like you’ve been on the train for a week because there are so many experiences and sensations.

“You are always an adventure. I’m glad you are back.”

For Rajesh, one only has to look at Regio Jet’s success to see the future: “People like them, they are fun. The proof is in the pudding.”

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