But an even more ambitious project could deliver Britons to continental Europe via surely one of the most romantic modes of transport around, Elmer van Buuren, a co-founder of the European Sleeper cooperative, told the Observer.
“I think there’s also huge potential in eventually running sleeper trains through the Channel tunnel,” said Van Buuren. “Of course, introducing new services through the tunnel is something really ambitious that we are not, at the moment, ready for.
“But London and the UK is just that much further away from the rest of the continent that it would actually be very sensible to have a sleeper service,” he said. “Despite Brexit, I think there’s still many people in the UK that want to come to Europe for holidays and business so I think there’s definitely a market there.”
Van Buuren’s plan would be the realisation of a vision that nearly came to pass some three decades ago.
A fleet of sleeper trains for journeys via the new tunnel was built in the 1990s under plans for a “Nightstar” service connecting London, Plymouth, Swansea and Glasgow to Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Cologne. But rising construction costs and the rise in the popularity of budget airlines was thought to have made the project redundant. The plan was formally dumped in 1999. Some of the carriages were then sold to a train company in Canada where they are still in use between Montreal and Halifax.
Major bumps in the track remain today. The trains would need to be bespoke rather than sourced from existing rolling stock, driveable from each end, with a minimum length of 375 metres. They would require systems that can halt the spread of fire for the length of time a train is in the tunnel although experts say the existence of an evacuation tunnel running parallel with the two rail tunnels makes the route extremely safe.
Last summer the UK rail industry’s High Speed Rail Group published a report blaming the overly stringent tunnel regulations for holding back plans for sleepers. They called for the government to modernise the regulations in time for the Channel tunnel’s 30th anniversary in 2024 to take into account the fact passengers are now banned from smoking.
But whether those changes come or not, the costs would be significant for any such service – and Ryanair and easyJet are not going away.
Van Buuren, who founded the European Sleeper with Chris Engelsman. who runs the Noord West Express website promoting rail travel, nevertheless said he believed that the “Greta Thunberg effect” on public attitudes to flight and the impact of the recent health crisis offered grounds for optimism for the new Brussels to Prague line and a subsequent expansion of services.
The pan-continental sleeper will coordinate with Eurostar service timetables when the first new night train pulls away from a platform at Brussels Midi station next spring. Excitable rail enthusiasts, note that the announcement follows the launch of Austria’s Nightjet Brussels to Vienna service, which briefly commenced before the pandemic in 2020, offering something of a renaissance for the couchettes and twin bunks of the past.
The initial Brussels to Prague service will be run in partnership with the established Czech independent operator RegioJet, which owns the rolling stock. There will be seating accommodation as well as sleeping compartments, with free internet access and free coffee. Shares in the European Sleeper cooperative will be available to small investors from next month, Van Buuren said, adding that he had been cheered by an enthusiastic reaction to his announcement.
“The sleeper train is not as quick as a plane but you can board and you don’t need to queue up anywhere,” he said. “You can sit down, relax, read a book, prepare your meeting, watch Netflix, have a drink. You go to sleep. You wake up the next morning, you open your curtain and you’re in different worlds. I mean, how great is that? And more and more people are starting to understand that this is actually a different approach to the value of time.”
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.
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.