Night sleeper trains are being revived across Europe
Sleeper trains are continuing to make a comeback in mainland Europe, with a number of new services being launched since last summer, or due to start later this year, or in 2024. Last year a new 13 hour sleeper service was started, between Stockholm and Hamburg, by the Swedish railway company SJ. The carbon footprint of an electric-powered train is just a small fraction of that of a flight. Passengers can then transfer to other trains, from Hamburg, to locations in European countries. The company plans to extend the route to Berlin from April. It will compete with an existing provider of night trains between Stockholm and Hamburg and Berlin – Snälltåget. There is going to be a sleeper train service by the Belgian-Dutch firm, European Sleeper, between Brussels and Amsterdam to Berlin. The company intends to extend its route to Prague from 2024. French night train business Midnight Trains says it will launch its first luxurious (not cheap) services from Paris in 2024, to more than 10 destinations include Rome, Porto and Edinburgh. There is also Nightjet, owned by Austrian Railways, which will have services between Vienna and Paris and Brussels. And there are more to come…
Why sleeper trains are being revived across Europe
By Suzanne Bearne, Business reporter (BBC)
There’s no doubt that Julia Senninger is a train aficionado. Living in the Swedish capital Stockholm, the 33-year-old regularly travels by rail, not only to visit her family in Luxembourg, but also to her holiday destinations.
She favours train travel over flying mainly for environmental reasons. Yet she adds that trains are simply more enjoyable, especially sleeper services.
“It’s so much more fun,” says Ms Senninger. “You meet more people, and you more have interesting conversations.”
She is in luck, as sleeper trains are continuing to make a comeback in mainland Europe, with a number of new services being launched since last summer, or due to start later this year, or in 2024.
Back in October, Ms Senninger and her husband travelled on the then newly-launched sleeper service from Stockholm to Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city. This is run by Swedish railway company SJ.
The service departs Stockholm every day at 5.30pm and arrives into Hamburg at 6.30am.
SJ’s sleeper train takes 13 hours to travel between Stockholm and Hamburg
“We booked the train as soon as it launched,” says Ms Senninger, who works for firm of architects.
“It still sounds like a long time, but you go to sleep, and it’s such a nice atmosphere on the train.”
The carbon footprint is just a fraction of a flight. Flying from Stockholm to Hamburg results in around 250kg of carbon dioxide emissions per passenger, according to calculation website EcoPassenger. By contrast, the C02 released by travelling via electric-powered train is just 26kg.
The SJ night train has nine coaches, and capacity to carry 400 passengers. Dan Olofsson, head of tendered services at SJ, says the new service was proposed by the Swedish government, “as they wanted to move more people towards climate-friendly travelling, and one of the solutions was the night train between Sweden and Germany”.
The service is powered by renewable energy, and Mr Olofsson says it is typically being used by Swedes to connect them to other rail services from Hamburg.
“Hamburg isn’t the main destination for most travellers, but is an important hub for people to reach more destinations in Germany and France and so on,” he says.
“We have people wanting to travel on it to reach ski resorts, but then also to have meetings in Brussels. That’s why we arrive early in Hamburg.”
The company plans to extend the route to Berlin from April. It will compete with an existing provider of night trains between Stockholm and Hamburg and Berlin – Snälltåget.
There was much buzz among train fans earlier this year when news emerged that Belgian-Dutch train firm European Sleeper was to begin transporting people overnight from Brussels and Amsterdam to Berlin.
“I’m a big train night fan,” says European Sleeper co-founder Chris Engelsman. “It’s adventurous, romantic and efficient.”
He rolls off lists of his favourite journeys, including Vienna to Kyiv, and Milan to Sicily, which also includes a boat ride. “The holiday starts when you board the train.”
European Sleeper plans to extend its service from Berlin to Prague
Starting services from the end of May, European Sleeper will initially run trains three times a week, with each departure able to hold about 500 people.
But why between Brussels and Berlin? “There’s no other night train on this route,” says Mr Engelsman. “About six years ago German railways ended the night train service. I was frustrated about it as it always seemed pretty well booked.”
European Sleeper intends to extend its route to Prague, the Czech capital, from next next year.
French night train business Midnight Trains says it wants to “reawaken the enchanting experience of the night train” when it launches its first luxurious services from Paris in 2024. Aiming to ultimately serve more than 10 destinations include Rome, Porto and Edinburgh, it claims its trains will be like “hotels on rails” that have old-fashioned “glorious roaring 20s charm”.
Meanwhile, existing sleeper train service Nightjet, which is owned by Austrian Railways, will later this year start operating its Brussels-Vienna and Paris-Vienna lines on a daily basis, up from three times a week.
Nightjet’s sleeper trains are due to increase their frequency later this year
Cat Jones is the founder and chief executive of flight-free travel agency Byway Travel. She says that the returning popularity of sleeper trains are “putting the joy back into travel”.
“The point of travel is the experience rather than just the arrival,” she says. “People are connecting that the holiday starts when the door opens on the train.”
However, depending on the location, and especially if starting from the UK, travelling by train can often be more expensive than flying. Trains fares in the UK can in fact be 50% more costly than flights, according to a 2021 study by consumer choice magazine Which?.
“Like flying, you do need to book ahead to find a cheaper price,” says Mark Smith, founder of train guide website Seat61. “But you need to remember airlines pay no duty on fuel.
“Some countries charge VAT on train journeys, but no-one does on air tickets. But then sleeping on a train overnight saves a hotel bill.”
He adds that even if long-distance rail travel can be more expensive, “we’re seeing lots more people choose the train”.
“It used to be that people had a flying phobia or just liked trains, but now everyone is trying to cut their carbon footprint and wants a more enjoyable journey,” says Mr Smith.
“People want to get away from the stress of the airport, and once they travel by train and see more scenery from the window, and saunter to the hotel easily when they arrive in the city, they want to do it again.”
Night trains map
Please note there is currently no sleeper service running to Milan, Venice or Rome.
In coming years, it might be possible to get the sleeper train from London to Europe …?
A new night rail service in 2022 was announced last week between Brussels and Prague, stopping at Amsterdam, Berlin and Dresden, with tickets expected to cost from €60 one way. It is possible there might again be sleeper trains available between Britain and Europe, via the Channel Tunnel, though it cannot happen soon. As the UK is a bit outside Europe, further away, the sleeper makes sense. In the 1990s, a fleet of trains was built for night trains between the UK and Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Cologne. But rising construction costs and the rise in the popularity of budget airlines made the project redundant. The plan was formally dumped in 1999. Some of the difficulties are that trains would need to be bespoke rather than sourced from existing rolling stock, driveable from each end, with sufficient fire safety precautions. It would not be possible to keep fares as low as the cheap airlines, but the “Greta Thunberg effect” on public attitudes to flight and climate change would probably mean people want to travel by rail. The night train between Brussels and Prague is due to start in spring 2022. “You wake up the next morning, you open your curtain and you’re in different worlds. I mean, how great is that?
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.