End of the line for European over-night sleep trains, with the relentless rise of low cost air travel

It used to be possible to make a number of longer journeys between cities in Europe by sleeper train. Though not always the most comfortable night’s sleep, and with the added interest of sometimes needing to share a couchette, they were a relatively low carbon way to travel a long way, without the need or expense of a hotel for the night. But now more and more of these night services are being terminated, and those that remain don’t have enough investment to keep them up to modern standards of comfort. As the price of air travel is so low, due to subsidy (air travel in Europe pays no fuel duty, and no VAT; the highest tax is APD from the UK at €13 per return trip), over-night rail journeys cannot compete on price.  In an article in Passenger Transport, Jonathan Bray bemoans the sad decline of these train routes, which made longer trips around Europe possible, by a low carbon route.  It is short sighted of governments to cut these routes, and to focus instead on every cheaper air travel, and the more sexy (and higher carbon) high speed rail schemes. The rail routes may be needed in future, as a less carbon intensive form of travel.  Governments and the rail companies need to be ambitious about the contribution over-night train services can make to decarbonising travel.



Dark night of the railway’s soul



A journey on a sleeper train lingers in the memory, but what was once a coherent pan-European network is now being eroded

The classic Flanders and Swann song ‘The Slow Train’ mourned the loss of great swathes of the UK rail network in the 1960s through its incantation of evocative station names lost to the Beeching cuts. Perhaps we are now due a chanson version of those rather larger European places that have lost their sleeper service. Berlin to Paris; Paris to Madrid; Amsterdam to Warsaw; Barcelona to Milan; Berlin to Vienna; Brussels to just about everywhere.

What was a coherent network, which nightly and confidently spanned the continent, is becoming an increasingly ragged, bleary-eyed, and vulnerable shadow of its former self.

Starved of cross-subsidy and financial support whilst billions are pumped into high speed rail and aviation dodges its environmental on-costs.

Losing out as national rail companies start to free themselves of geographical constraints and obligations, whilst at the same time seeking to ward off new entrants that fill the gap.

Starved of the capital needed to meet passengers’ expectations and to operate within an increasingly technically complex, but operationally simplified, environment. All leaving what was an interlocking European overnight network enfeebled and of wildly varying quality.

Sleeper journeys linger in the memory. The upper tier of a three-tier third class metre gauge sleeper in India, where you slid yourself between the bed and the ceiling into a space with the headroom of what felt like a coffin – except coffins don’t have fans in a dusty cage that I also somehow had to make space for. The only way to keep the claustrophobia at bay, and keep myself from Edgar Allan Poe-inspired dreams, was to position myself so I could see the floor of the compartment. Or the St Petersburg to Murmansk sleeper, which I used en route to an island in the White Sea, which as with all ex-Soviet sleepers are ruled by formidable ‘provodnitsas’ (female attendants), have a samovar in every carriage and where travellers get their slippers and nightwear on as soon as they are in the compartment. Or the sleeper that used to run from Calais Ville to the South of France – seemingly full of rail men from the south east of England on their ‘priv’ tickets. In my couchette compartment there was a French man who slept embracing his racing bicycle, though whether out of devotion, comfort or parsimony, was unclear.

Overnight train journeys linger in the same way that little does from a flight, other than possibly relief that this time it wasn’t too aggravating. Of all these sleeper journeys I’ve made over the years the worst one was the last one I took earlier this year on the ‘ Thello’ service from Paris to Milan. It was the worst, partly because the air con did nothing much more than hint at the possibility of cooling the swelter of the couchette, which, despite the sun repelling grime on the windows, was at a temperature and humidity at which you are advised you shouldn’t leave dogs in cars. A problem which staff in a variety of ‘uniforms’ strove inconclusively to address. But it wasn’t these deprivations that made it the worst sleeper journey I’ve done: it was the worst because it felt like this was another sleeper that was being run badly in order to kill off demand. Even though it was very busy, any of the users (including me) would surely think twice about taking it again, or recommending anyone else to use it.

To kill off sleeper trains like this is a mistake because with their nightly cargoes of sleeping and dreaming souls the sleeper train not only gets people from A to B in a conveniently unconscious state – whilst saving on the cost of a hotel room – it also makes a wider statement about how railways see themselves, and how they will be seen by the wider world. Sleeper trains are a remnant of when the railways were long distance and international travel – but also a statement of future intent.

That in a world where cheap flights cannot last forever (because ultimately either they, or the planet, has to go) that the railways have the vaulting ambition to be part of the solution. A universal offer of trains that not only go fast in the day, but also go bump in the night. Available for those who cannot, or do not wish to fly. Enabling rail to cover all the bases. An extra string to the traveller’s bow. Another tool with which to chip away at the carbon edifice we know has to be scaled back.

There’s more to it too. Sleepers show that rail is a mode of travel that has hinterland, that makes and holds memories, that is more than the sum of its moving parts. More than a means by which accountants can move people in the smallest amount of personal space they can, as fast as they can, for as great a yield as they can, in an environment where for all intents and purposes you could be on rails or in the sky. Sleepers show that rail can still find place for its most culturally resonant and artistically celebrated format – time and time again on the page and on the screen.

More than that too – the sleeper train is also the railways’ ambassador – after all a symbol of tension or rapprochement between nations is when sleeper trains are withdrawn and reinstated. Between, say, India and Pakistan or within the former Soviet Union. With the European dream reduced to a brutal fiscal cage fight what a time for Brussels to look the other way whilst the ambassadors of the railways are carelessly discarded.

None of this cuts any ice in the gin and tonics of the executives of the big European rail powers it seems. The national giants of the European rail scene seem more interested in buying out the railways of other countries than they are in providing an overnight train between those same countries.

Much more focused too on unleashing the very coach competition that will undo the secondary long distance rail routes. Perhaps so they can focus on turning long distance rail into a one trick pony (though admittedly a hell of a trick) of high speed rail instead of a wider vision of rail as central to the wider task of decarbonising and socialising long distance travel wherever it can.

But if the big rail powers and Brussels don’t get it some of their customers do and a fight back is underway. On June 21 at Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof activists from the ‘Back on Track’ campaign, which is fighting to save the international sleeper train network, set out folding beds with cards stamped with the names of places now denied a sleeper link.

Activists on the platforms in Zürich to protest against reduction of night trains. Similar actions are planned Europe-wide on the 20.6.2015

Parallel actions took place in Basel, Bern, Copenhagen, Dortmund, Geneva, Hamburg, Madrid, Odense, Paris and Vienna over that same weekend. The biggest protest yet by those infuriated by the loss of the most civilised way to travel between some of Europe’s largest cities.

Alongside this political fightback there are other signs and signifiers that the night train has not died peacefully in its sleep. At one end of the spectrum step forward Russia’s state-owned railway’s new high-end overnight services from Moscow to Paris and the South of France, that partly recreates the recently withdrawn Berlin to Paris overnight.

At the other end of the spectrum there are entrepreneurs like the London Sleeper Company, which is pitching a plan for a new overnight services that could use the channel tunnel to provide London with sleeper services to Barcelona, Milan, Berlin and Zürich.

Closer to home there is the UK’s investment in the Cornish ( link ) and Scottish ( link ) night trains. Services that survive for all the reasons set out above – their utility for travellers, alongside their cultural and political resonance as symbols that an increasingly fractious UK still wishes to be united by nightly sleeper train.

However, for all this there’s no doubt that across the board the European night train network is in a bad place. Yet sometimes what looks like a result of inevitable progress turns out not to be so. Sometimes the financial numbers change – like the cost of air travel is likely to – upwards. Attitudes change too – the night train could fuse its environmental credentials, its cost and time advantages, and the way it makes travel into an event, to gain new generations and types of travellers, as well as regaining old ones. And the tracks between Europe’s great cities will still be there for when this particular dark night of the railway’s soul comes to an end.


About the author: PTEG is the Passenger Transport Executive Group. Jonathan Bray is director of the PTEG Support Unit. Before joining PTEG in 2003, his background was a mix of transport policy and transport campaigning.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.



See the Back on Track campaign  http://back-on-track.eu/




Back on Track is a European network to support improved European cross-border passenger train traffic.

Back on Track petition   http://www.petitions24.com/no-more-cuts-develop-europe-long-distance-rail

No more cuts – Develop Europe’s long-distance rail!

Trains can create the best and most environmentally friendly connections across Europe. But a wave of closures of long-distance rail services has swept through our continent. We are facing an important Climate Summit later this year and this is the time to get back-on-track!

This is our message to the railway companies and the politicians:

We demand:

  • No more cuts – maintain all long-distance European rail services
  • Develop direct trains between major cities in all European countries, both by day and (!) by night
  • Establish a European rail timetable information and ticket booking system

The Back on Track coalition will take your opinion to the rail companies and to EU with some more practical proposals. Have a look and see what we will do with your support.





End of the line for European sleeper trains? Protests as night services are cut amid fierce competition from budget airlines

  • Commuters believe train travel is being overshadowed by aviation market
  • Calls for governments and operators to focus more on infrastructure
  • Protesters turn up at train stations in pyjamas to voice anger at cuts
  • In contrast, investment made into UK’s night-train routes and services 

Budget air travel has revolutionised tourism in Europe, but it’s claimed train services have been derailed in the process – a blow for those who are afraid of flying.

One rail worker even claimed it was easier to travel by train on the continent 40 years ago.

Night trains have been hardest hit and protests took place across Europe at the weekend against the phasing out of many cross-country sleeper services.

Protests took place in stations across Europe, such as here in Berlin, against cuts in European train sleeper services

Commuters dressed in pyjamas to emphasise their anger at the service cuts and lack of investment

European rail operators and politicians believe increased competition between budget airlines and rail operators is to blame with investment in trains diminishing as budget air travel soared higher.

Bernhard Knierim, from the Back on Track campaign group, which wants more investment in the train network, told MailOnline Travel: ‘It is totally incomprehensible that more and more international trains are discontinued, while everyone talks about the climate being at risk.

‘Trains are the most climate friendly way to travel over long distances, and they are also a very comfortable means of travel. This is especially true for night trains, because one can cover a long distance overnight and arrive well-rested at the destination the morning.

‘However, the European Union insists on their ideology of all train companies being in competition with each other. The result is that the companies make life very hard for each other and there are fewer and fewer cross border trains. This cannot be the merging Europe we want.’

In Geneva, Switzerland, on Friday, those unhappy with the cutting of many sleeper routes turned up in their pyjamas to speak out. This continued through the weekend, with a pyjama party thrown in the Swiss capital of Bern yesterday.

Similar demonstrations took place in trains stations in Germany, who have also been affected by a reduction of sleeper services.

Parallel actions took place in Basel, Bern, Copenhagen, Dortmund, Geneva, Hamburg, Madrid, Odense, Paris and Vienna over the weekend; a total of 11 cities in six different countries.

The message from the protestors was clear, night trains not night planes should be invested in

The message from the protestors was clear, night trains not night planes should be invested in

The Amsterdam to Copenhagen service was cancelled last year, and similar moves were made on the Paris to Berlin, Hamburg and Munich sleeper route.

The Amsterdam to Prague and Warsaw sleeper is set to be cut back to run from Cologne to Warsaw and Prague.

In addition to the loss of the service between Berlin and Paris, recent cancellations include Berlin –Vienna (direct daytime train), almost all international trains in the Baltic States, Berlin–Krakow (day and overnight trains), Paris–Madrid and Bucharest–Sofia (overnight trains).

Also affected are all overnight services to and from Brussels, a city that once boasted direct links with Berlin, Milan, Moscow, Vienna and Warsaw. It will lose its last remaining long-distance EuroCity route to Switzerland in 2016.

People arrived at Bern train station in their overnight gear to voice their anger at sleeper service cutbacks

The actions are in stark contrast to sleeper services in the UK, where investment has been made to breathe new life into this way of travelling.

Both the Caledonian (London to Scotland) and the Night Riviera (London to Penzance) services have been heralded for bringing back a bit of romance to train travel.

With China and Russia also similarly investing heavily in their night trains, many Europeans feel they are getting short-changed in the services being offered.

Mr Knierim added: ‘Anyone who takes the environment seriously should not allow the increasing degradation of cross/border rail links.

‘This forces people to switch to flying. Night trains are the most comfortable and most environmentally friendly way to travel over long distances across Europe.’

Fellow campaigner Jon Worth added: ‘Train travel is the greenest and most civilised way to travel.

‘Yet within Europe, and especially between European countries, it gets harder and harder as services are cut.

‘There are ways to make cross/border rail appealing and profitable. I am exasperated the railway companies cannot see this.’

Mark Smith, who runs the award-winning Man on Seat 61 railway blog told MailOnline: ‘High-speed trains have made travel around Europe far easier by train – but for longer journeys such as Paris-Madrid or Paris-Berlin a time-effective sleeper train is a far better alternative.

‘The loss of these overnight trains makes a large hole in the travel options for those of us who don’t want to fly, or who can’t. Hefty track access charges have been a significant factor in their loss – yet the track and signalling are still there, with no apparent saving from the wthdrawal of these trains.

‘With airlines paying no tax or duty on their aviation fuel (the equivalent of you or me filling up our car at 70p per litre), the EU say they want to promote less polluting forms of travel, but seem to be promoting policies which have the opposite effect!’

Speaking to the Guardian, Joachim Holstein, 53, a conductor with German state railway Deutsche Bahn, believes rail travel throughout Europe was actually easier 40 years ago.

‘You used to be able to undertake train journeys of 2,000 kilometres without changing trains, from Munich to Athens, Warsaw to Brussels, Copenhagen to Paris. Now that is impossible and it’s getting ever more difficult to cross Europe by train, which seems so contrary to what Europe stands for.’

Back on Track believes the cross-Europe rail network needs investment and is a vital cog in the ‘European Project’, the Guardian reported.

The cut in sleeper train services is also a blow to people with a fear of flying, or whose ill health meas they can’t use aviation as transport.

‘Some are scared to fly, others have health conditions and may just find it far more relaxing to get on a train and arrive refreshed at their destination the following day,’ added Holstein.



How an uneven transport market is killing off green options – while the highest CO2 forms are the cheapest

An interesting blog by a PhD student, researching behaviour change and air travel, looks at the problem of unfair competition between low carbon forms of transport – such as rail – with high carbon flying. Depressingly, many overnight sleeper trains across Europe are now being cut.  Due to the tax exemptions of aviation, paying no VAT and no fuel duty, the market for air travel is rigged. This makes low-carbon travel choices uncompetitive and eventually unprofitable, so they are ended. T&E has estimated the industry’s tax exemptions cost EU governments around €10 billion.  It is also the case that those who travel the most, the furthest, or fly first/business class are the most subsidized.  Because of the tax breaks and subsidies, as well as significant economies of scale enabled by the rapid growth of low cost carriers, air fares have become, on average, 1.3 % cheaper every year since 1979 – a third cheaper in real terms than they were 20 years ago. In stark contrast, rail fares have risen, on average, by 1.2% since 1995.  Transport choices are being reduced, and we risk being on a path to flight dependency, with the lower emissions types being priced out of competition.