Maybe night trains will return, for middle distance trips around Europe…
Unfortunately, overnight train routes have long been in decline, due mainly to the growing popularity of cheap flights. German rail operator Deutsche Bahn ended all of its night routes, selling off the entirety of its sleeping carriages, while in France, the last Paris-to-Nice sleeping train service was discontinued in 2017. There has been a lot of campaigning to keep the night trains, which offer a far lower-carbon travel alternative to flying, for distances that take too long for a daytime trip. The Back on Track group has been lobbying rail operators and governments, and organizing protests. There seems to be a slight improvement, with Austria’s ÖBB buying Deutsche Bahn’s unwanted sleeping carriages, and even ordering more new ones for 2023. The Swedish government has announced plans to expand overnight trains to many European destinations. The Swiss rail operator SBB has said it is considering renewed night routes, citing market demand. In France, activists saved a popular sleeping-car route between Paris, Perpignan and the Spanish border town of Portbou. In the UK we have the recently upgraded Caledonian Sleeper, from London to Scotland. More people need to ask for night routes.
From the Orient Express to the Trans-Europe Express, few methods of travel have offered as much romance as a European night train. Unfortunately, these overnight train routes have long been in decline, particularly in Western Europe, due mainly to the growing popularity of budget airlines. In 2016, the German rail operator Deutsche Bahn ended all of its night routes, selling off the entirety of its sleeping wagons, while in France, the last Paris-to-Nice sleeping train service was discontinued in 2017.
As a result, fans of overnight rail travel have been fighting to save the service. The cross-border Back on Track group has been lobbying both operators and governments while also organizing protests inside train stations. Things have started to look up, with new routes, new carriages and renewed interest from travelers. Austria’s ÖBB purchased Deutsche Bahn’s unwanted sleeping wagons, and has since reported increasing numbers of overnight passengers, even ordering new sleeping cars set to enter service by 2023. In March, the Swedish government announced plans to expand overnight trains to many European destinations. In May, the Swiss rail operator SBB said that it was considering renewed night routes, citing market demands.
In France, activists saved a beloved sleeping-car route between Paris, Perpignan and the Spanish border town of Portbou, according to Nicolas Forien, a member of both Back on Track and the French group Oui au Train de Nuit (“Yes to the Night Train”).
“Public opinion is changing compared to a few years ago, when night trains were considered old-fashioned and nostalgic, something from the past,” Mr. Forien said. “Now it’s considered a serious alternative to flying which should be redeveloped.”
But by far, the highest-profile night train is the new Caledonian Sleeper, which offers luxurious sleeping cars for journeys between London and various destinations in Scotland, with upgraded features like en-suite lavatories and double beds, as well as improved options for dining. (The Caledonian Sleeper appeared on Travel’s 52 Places to Go in 2019 list.
“The most important thing for me these days is the climate discussion, because they are really climate-friendly alternatives to middle-distance flying,” Bernhard Knierim, an activist with Back on Track, said of trains. For Mr. Knierim, the optimal distance for overnight rail travel is “anything up to 1,000 kilometers,” or about 620 miles.
In terms of environmental impact, the difference between rail travel and flights can be substantial. Robert Lechner, a spokesman for the ÖBB rail carrier, points out that Austria’s electrified overnight trains do not require fossil fuels.
“In Austria, for example, the electricity for the trains comes from 100-percent renewable sources,” said Mr. Lechner. “In terms of geography, we have a lot of advantages. We have the power plants on the Danube River, and we have the power plants in the mountains.”
Not only do night trains allow travelers to avoid the guilt of flygskam, but train travel can also be productive, thanks to the onboard Wi-Fi that many night trains offer for free. For most travelers, however, the main “productive” time will be spent sleeping. They are also cost effective: These trains eliminate the need for booking a night of accommodation.
Al Mik, 32, frequently travels around Europe in his job with a Brussels-based nongovernmental organization, taking night trains instead of flying a few times per year.
Train travel takes longer than flying, but sometimes it’s more convenient, Mr. Mik said.
“There’s something really great about waking up and being dumped off in the center of the place you’re traveling to, instead of 20 or 30 kilometers out, as you are with most flights,” he said. “And then there’s the environmental factor as well.”
There is information on European night trains at
How low cost flights killed night trains
There are very few night trains left in Europe. In Europe, the network of slow night trains has largely been dismantled. Cheap air fares have just about killed them off – and it is hard to see how the trend will be reversed. Night trains are considered a niche market, expensive, nostalgic. Passengers prefer air to rail, which is considered too expensive and too slow. The trend is the same all across Europe, and elsewhere. Even low cost buses are helping to destroy the market for long distance, night, train travel. The trains depend on a railway line whose maintenance has to be paid; the plane, in the sky, is flying on its own – and electricity, which propels trains, is not a cheap fuel. Aviation generally pays no tax for its fuel. In France, over the past ten years, TGV (high-speed train) traffic has remained sluggish, while the number of air passengers has risen 20%. In Italy, despite the success of TGVs and competition between two operators, the long-distance rail offer has barely developed in twenty years. More than 80% of flights departing from Switzerland serve a European destination and 40% of them travel a distance of less than 800 km, “feasible by train”. But with the continuing availability of ultra-cheap air travel, people are unlikely to choose rail.
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.