Night train routes are emerging, or re-emerging, across Europe – as people want to avoid flying

For a lower-carbon way to travel further afield in Europe, the night trains were a wonderful alternative. Travelling relatively slowly, they cause the emission of far less carbon than flights. But the advent of budget airlines and dirt cheap fares meant that over the past 20 years, most night train services were closed down. Now there seems to be a resurgence of interest, with new routes being announced. The Swedish government said it would provide funds for two new routes to connect the cities of Stockholm and Malmö with Hamburg and Brussels. France has announced an overnight service between Paris and Nice. Austrian train operator ÖBB bought 42 sleeper cars from Deutsche Bahn in 2016 and has resumed half of the night-time routes connecting Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and Düsseldorf to Austria, Switzerland and Italy.  There is a route between Sylt in northern Germany and Salzburg in Austria. There is renewed enthusiasm among some of the public, as people reflect more deeply on how they travel – partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but also increased concern about climate breakdown.The recovery of the night train may not be all smooth running, however, as the economics of night services remain difficult.

People don’t want to fly’: Covid-19 reawakens Europe’s sleeper trains

Overnight services in Europe had seemingly hit the buffers but pandemic has revived demand

ÖBB has resumed half of its night-time routes connecting Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and Düsseldorf to Austria, Switzerland and Italy. 

For all their promise of romance and adventure, Europe’s sleeper trains had appeared to have reached the end of the line.

Cripplingly expensive to run and forsaken by travellers for budget airlines, a decision by the German rail operator Deutsche Bahn to terminate the service connecting Paris to Berlin six years ago ushered in the closure of routes across the continent including almost all of France’s network.

But as Europe continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, there are tentative signs of a new dawn for the couchettes and twin bunks, as the concerns of both governments and travellers’ over the environmental impact of short-haul flights are being complemented by a desire to avoid airport departure lounges and security queues.

In the last few weeks there has been a flurry of announcements and inaugural journeys. Last Thursday the Swedish government said it would provide funds for two new routes to connect the cities of Stockholm and Malmö with Hamburg and Brussels.

A few days earlier, France’s transport minister, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, said an overnight service would be resurrected between Paris and Nice following Emmanuel Macron’s Bastille Day promise to redevelop night trains for the nation.

Leading the way has been the Austrian operator Österreichische Bundesbahnen (ÖBB), which had the foresight to buy 42 sleeper cars from Deutsche Bahn in 2016. It has resumed half of the night-time routes connecting Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and Düsseldorf to Austria, Switzerland and Italy.

Despite a recent rise in the number of coronavirus infections in Belgium, up 71% week-on-week, a Brussels-Vienna service, which opened in February offering one-way trips from as low as €29.90 (£27.25), will recommence in September.

Along with government action there is evidence of renewed enthusiasm among the paying public too, as people reflect more deeply on how they travel amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

A new summer night train linking five EU member states – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia – had barely started setting off from Prague on 30 June when the level of demand from holidaymakers heading to the coast ensured it was upgraded to a daily service.

The Swedish rail company Snälltåget said in June it planned to quadruple the number of night trains on its Stockholm-Malmö-Copenhagen-Hamburg-Berlin route. A new Alpine-Sylt night express that began operating between Sylt in northern Germany and Salzburg in Austria was also due to run for only two months but will continue until November due to demand.

“What I am told by people using my site is two things in the same breath: they are fed up with the airport experience and they want to cut their carbon footprint,” said Mark Smith, who runs the award-winning Man in Seat 61 railway website offering information on pan-European services. “Certainly, in the short term, I am getting people commenting that they don’t want to fly [because of the pandemic]. I think climate change will be the bigger one in the long term because hopefully this pandemic will [be] over at some point.”

The recovery of the night train may not be all smooth running, however, as the economics of night services remain difficult.

A normal high-speed train can accommodate 70 people in a coach and take multiple journeys a day, offering a number of stops. A sleeper might hold 20 to 30 beds in a coach but the majority of its passengers will travel end-to-end. The rolling stock is used for just one journey over a 24-hour period.

Train services have had to pay track access charges as they cross borders since 2000. New services run by private companies are often just for the summer months, while state operators are taking huge government handouts in order to re-establish their overnight routes.

As a result, some of the most romantic night train journeys that were still running when the pandemic struck may still be discontinued, including the Thello Paris-Venice night train service and the Trenhotel Lusitania, which runs between Lisbon and Madrid.

Karima Delli, a French MEP who chairs the European parliament’s transport committee, welcomed governments’ loosening of their purse strings. “Relaunching night trains is both a necessity and an ecological solution to the planet,” she said.

But Alexander Gomme, from the Back on Track Belgium campaign group, said there needed to be a wider rethink of the costs to allow private operators to thrive, raise standards and take advantage of the new mentality.

“‘More state’ is a possibility but another is that the European Union makes it easier and cheaper for operators to book track access,” he said. “Night trains do a lot of kilometres and access charges are counted in kilometres.”

Nick Brooks, the secretary general of the Alliance of Rail New Entrants, which represents independent providers, argued that governments should also prohibit airlines receiving state bailouts from operating any short-haul or late-night flights that could be done by train. “This pandemic must lead to a better appreciation for rail,” he said.


Sweden’s night train to Brussels to debut in 2022

By Sam Morgan |


The Swedish government announced on Thursday (23 July) night train routes that will link the cities of Stockholm and Malmö with Hamburg and Brussels, in the latest indication that sleeper services are on the cusp of a renaissance in Europe.

Sweden’s transport authority was tasked by the Social Democrat-Green government with procuring sleeper carriages and organising timetables for two separate routes, which will run between the Swedish capital and Hamburg, as well as Malmö-Brussels.

The daily services should start operating by mid-2022.

Minister for Financial Markets Per Bolund, whose government allocated nearly €30 million for train travel in its autumn budget, said that “this really gives the possibility to discover Europe in the most sustainable possible way.”

After completing an assessment in April, the Swedish transport authority concluded that night train services through Germany’s packed network would not be feasible but that a final destination at Hamburg would be doable.

Night trains are growing in popularity as increased awareness about climate issues and a coronavirus-prompted appreciation for social-distanced travel suggest that consumer habits are gradually changing.

The head of the European Parliament’s transport committee, Karima Delli, told EURACTIV that the Swedish plan is a welcome step forward and added: “I hope this is just the beginning of a whole trend and I look forward to similar initiatives in all the member states.’

Yesterday, French transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said that an overnight train between Paris and Nice will be resurrected as part of the government’s mooted bailout of state operator SNCF. The route was abandoned back in 2017.

Czech railways have recently launched a direct service from Prague to the Croatian coastal city of Rijeka, running through five countries – including Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia – which has proved to be hugely popular with holidaymakers heading towards the seaside.

A sleeper train between Vienna and Brussels also debuted earlier this year, although the pandemic and strict quarantine measures have suspended the service for the time being.

In early June, night train advocacy group ‘Back on Track Belgium’ urged MEPs and Belgian politicians to push for Brussels to be established as Europe’s sleeper service hub, touting its central location on the rail network and international community of inhabitants.

According to the group’s projections, the Belgian capital could serve as a link between cities like Barcelona, Malmö – as confirmed by the Swedish government – Venice, Warsaw and Prague, among others. The cross-Channel Eurostar link also puts the UK within striking distance.

Belgium’s capital has all the attributes needed to establish itself as Europe’s hub for night-trains, according to a group in favour of resurrecting the services, which also sees the coronavirus crisis and the EU Green Deal as opportunities for rail’s most romantic of journeys.

Do the locomotion

Delli added that “ahead of the European year of railways, it is of major importance to launch or relaunch projects which will make CO2 emissions lower across the EU.” Estimates say that night trains can emit up to 14 times less pollution per passenger-kilometre than planes.

In early 2020, the European Commission suggested that 2021 should be declared ‘Year of the Rail’ in order to promote train travel as a sustainable transport option, as part of the EU’s Green Deal policymaking.

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) backed the Commission’s proposal on Wednesday, urging the EU executive to do all it can to engineer more visibility for railways and improve passenger services.

EESC member Alberto Mazzola, who drafted the institution’s opinion on the initiative, said that it “should be an opportunity to better communicate the attractiveness of a career in rail, especially to young Europeans”.

The opinion also backed a previous call by MEPs to offer European citizens a free rail pass when they turn 18 in order to boost interest in both train travel and the EU itself.

More tangibly, 2021 will be the first full year when member states are expected to have fully transposed the rules laid down by the Fourth Railway Package. A number of countries are yet to complete the process and 13 have requested extensions.



See also

Brussels has everything needed’ to be Europe’s night-train hub, say rail advocates

By Sam Morgan |

12 Jun 2020

Belgium’s capital has all the attributes needed to establish itself as Europe’s hub for night-trains, according to a group in favour of resurrecting the services, which also sees the coronavirus crisis and the EU Green Deal as opportunities for rail’s most romantic of journeys.

In an open letter to members of the European Parliament and Belgian lawmakers, ‘Back on Track Belgium’ urged politicians to prioritise night trains on trips up to 1,500km, impose a kerosene tax on aviation and iron out obstacles that currently stand in their way.

According to the letter, night trains are perfectly suited to trips of between 800 and 1,500km and their environmental credentials “are undoubtable”, as they emit 14 times less CO2 per passenger and per kilometre than a plane.

Brussels welcomed its first overnight service for the first time in more than a decade earlier this year when Austria’s state railway company started a Vienna route. But according to Back on Track, that was only a “modest step forward”.

The group wrote that the coronavirus crisis, which has hit not just air travel but train travel too, should be used as an opportunity to reflect and diversify Europe’s means of transport.

“It is clear that other international lines will not survive the COVID-19 crisis,” the letter warned, citing Spain’s decision not to relaunch services across the Iberian peninsula that used to link Lisbon to Madrid and beyond.

The group said that the pandemic is an opportunity to “travel more intelligently” and use “more sustainable European mobility”. Brussels could also function well as the hub for a rejuvenated network of sleeper trains.

“Brussels employs thousands of expats, and is strategically located between London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam… and is connected to a dense network. Brussels has everything needed to become a new night train hub,” their letter said.

According to the group’s projections, the Belgian capital could serve as a link between cities like Barcelona, Nice, Venice, Warsaw, Prague and Malmö, among others.

Political support could be easy to find across Europe, after 25 transport ministers have signed a pledge geared towards upping cooperation on international railway services. The plan is to collaborate better on digital solutions and other ideas that could free up infrastructure.

The EU’s new flagship policy, the Green Deal, also prioritises a number of objectives that railways are, in general, well-placed to facilitate. The transport sector is now the only part of the European economy where emissions are still growing, largely because of road vehicles.

Trouble on the line

But there are obstacles to a full resurgence. Network liberalisation has forced companies to axe unprofitable services that once connected the likes of Moscow, Copenhagen and Rome, which Back on Track insists “has not achieved the fixed objectives of the European Union”.

Track-usage fees, once minimal or even waived during off-peak hours, have increased, while the expensive sleeper wagons needed to start services have also discouraged incumbent firms or new market entries from setting up routes.

Back on Track also urges lawmakers to push for night trains to be given priority access to infrastructure in the same way high-speed Eurostar and Thalys services are. There is only so much track to go around though and freight operators are also keen to get preferential treatment.

Aviation’s plum position in offering cheap trips is also a convenient default option for many travellers, which European governments have chosen to prop up with multi-billion-euro coronavirus bailouts in recent weeks.

The aerospace sector employs thousands of workers while airports and airlines are also large-scale employers that drive a lot of economic activity.

Back on Track pointed out though that the Spanish government will not restart its night train services due to economic considerations but has furnished the likes of Iberia and Vueling airlines with €1 billion in pandemic aid.

Europe’s demand for rail travel will increase over the next decade, according to new analysis that cites the public’s new-found appreciation for cleaner air and climate issues as a result of the virus outbreak. Airlines are predicted to be the main loser of the train resurgence.

Despite heralding the Austrian sleeper arrival in January, Belgium is also sticking with planes. The government is locked in talks with Lufthansa over a multi-million-euro package for its flag-carrier Brussels Airlines.

A Flemish minister provoked ridicule earlier this week when she took a 40km flight between the Belgian capital and Antwerp, a distance covered by train in 45 minutes.

Lydia Peeters said it was part of a promotional campaign aimed at boosting regional airports as part of the virus recovery but later admitted it would have been enough to be present at the press conference called to mark the event.

Aviation’s seemingly unfair advantage is why Back on Track urges MEPs, in particular, to push for a kerosene tax in order to rebalance the mobility equation. Jet fuel is currently exempted from levies under an international agreement dating back decades.

A European Commission study said last year that a pan-European tax could net up to €27 billion in revenues. Work is ongoing on how the charge could be imposed, as matters related to tax have to be adopted by unanimous decision in the European Council.

Environmental groups have suggested that the unanimity question has an easy work-around, in that willing countries could agree bilateral or multi-lateral agreements where flights between their airports would be subject to taxation.

The Commission, for its part, has urged the Council to drop its unanimity requirement for certain areas of tax policy, in particular environmental issues. An update of the bloc’s venerable Energy Taxation Directive is also currently on the docket.


See earlier:

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.



See earlier:

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.