All aboard the sleeper - The unexpected renaissance of European night trains


In his 2017 book Night Trains, British writer Andrew Martin nostalgically celebrates the bygone era of sleeper trains and overnight rail travels. Attempting to recreate the journeys immortalized by novels like Murder on the Orient Express, Martin embarks on a series of nocturnal train adventures across Europe, just to realize that today’s sleeping carriages are nothing but a pale shadow of the opulent “hotels on wheels” that whisked wealthy passengers from Paris to Istanbul in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

In 1934, when Agatha Christie published Murder on the Orient Express, the eponymous train was the pinnacle of luxury travel. In the dining car, waiters wearing immaculate white jackets laid nine-course spreads on starched linen while the interiors were a triumph of art deco glamour. Even in economy class, the steel ladders of the berths, introduced in the late 30s, had carpeted rungs.

In comparison, the rolling stock of today’s night trains leaves Andrew Martin unimpressed, to say the least. His couchette on an Intercités de Nuit, an overnight service run by France’s national railway company, is “a pretty good simulacrum of a prison cell.” As for refreshments served on board, the average breakfast consists of "a plastic cup of instant coffee and a jam-filled croissant in a sealed wrapper uninspiringly labelled ‘7 Days’."

Despite the spartan hospitality, night trains aren't particularly profitable either. "They do not make money," wrote Martin, "so their future looks uncertain in Western Europe."

In 2017, when Martin published his eulogy, overnight rail routes were being axed across Europe and sleeping carriages seemed ready to be parked at the transport museum, killed by budget airlines and high-speed trains. However, just a couple of years later, night trains may be about to undergo an unexpected renaissance.

In October, the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB)—one of the very few European rail operators that never gave up on overnight routes—announced plans to introduce a new Vienna-Brussels Nightjet service from January 2020.

A connection between Amsterdam and Vienna might follow in 2021. It would be the first international night train running in the Netherlands since December 2016.

A recent study by the Institute of Mobility Policy, part of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure, concluded that there’s good potential for sleeper trains from Amsterdam to several European destinations, including Vienna, Zurich and Milan.

Support for night trains is gaining momentum in Switzerland, too. The Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) is discussing the reintroduction of wagon-lits, withdrawn from Swiss rails in 2009 (current overnight services from Zurich are operated by ÖBB).

A survey commissioned by the Swiss Association for Transport and Environment found that the majority of polled Swiss are in favor of trans-European night trains. “We see the demand and are therefore looking into whether we can rebuild the night-train network. We’re now examining the routes and connections,” Armin Weber, SBB’s head of international passenger transport, told Swiss public television SRF.

The Swedish government is also interested in exploring the possibility of revamping its nighttime rail offer, as part of the country's ambitious plans to be carbon neutral by 2045.

The relatively low environmental impact of rail travel is one of the main reasons driving the comeback of romantic sleepers and couchettes. Night trains were killed by faster and cheaper airplanes but now they’re taking their revenge.

report published in October by the UK Committee on Climate Change stated that “flying is the quickest and cheapest way for a consumer to increase their carbon footprint.” (Overnight) rail travel, which is virtually always less carbon-intensive than aviation, might then become the go-to choice for eco-minded travellers. Moreover, passengers save up an expensive hotel night and wake up well-rested right in the city centre, ready for their visit or meetings.

So, are night trains the silver bullet for climate-conscious, efficient and even glamorous travels? No, or at least not yet. Hefty track access fees, infrastructure capacity constraints and high maintenance costs put the brakes on railway companies' investments in their overnight services.

And even when they do invest, things don't always turn out as hoped.

The case of the new Caledonian Sleeper is exemplary in this regard. Connecting London to Scotland, the Caledonian Sleeper is one of the two remaining overnight routes in the United Kingdom (the other, the Night Riviera, connects London to West Cornwall).

The Scottish government and Serco, the company which operates the train on behalf of Transport Scotland, spent £150 million ($193 million) to renovate the rolling stock and the overall experience.

Harking back to the golden age of wagon-lits, the refitted Caledonian Sleeper was vaunted as a "luxury hotel on wheels," equipped with en-suite double rooms and a new technology to help ensure travellers sleep undisturbed during the journey. The restaurant car was freshened up too and Highland classics like smoked venison, haggis and a wide range of whiskies were added to the menu. 

Unfortunately, since their introduction in April 2019, the new fleet of trains has been plagued by a variety of glitches and faults, from severe delays to water problems. The Office of Rail and Road (ORR), the U.K.'s railways regulator, reported that, between April and June, the Caledonian Sleeper has attracted the highest complaint rate of any train operator in the country.

Part of the charm of wagon-lits is that moving them across countries amounts to an epic operation. It requires solid infrastructure, a faultless rolling stock, specialized personnel able to maintain hotel standards in difficult conditions and (often) international cooperation. It may sound utopian but, in Europe, night trains can also be vessels of continental integration, cutting across national borders like a knife through butter (however, EU rules have paradoxically stymied overnight rail services in the past).

The challenge now is to make this romantic and climate-friendly travel option more economically viable, both for operators and passengers. And to ensure it remains a reasonably pleasant experience.

It’s an uphill struggle and there’s a lot of work to do but this also means that for night trains the end of the line is still far, far away.

Header image: SBB Intercity train
Credit: Pixabay

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