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Transport / Mass transit

Europe’s night trains are under threat – and campaigners are moving to defend them

As CityMetric readers, you’ll already know that sleeper trains are one of the best ways to travel, whether you want an efficient, environmentally-friendly overnight journey from A to B, or an epic travel adventure involving wine, food and views.

But this most civilised mode of transport is, alas, under threat. Deutsche Bahn stopped running night trains in late 2016 (although Austrian Railways took over several routes), the last Paris-Nice night train ran in December and various services across Europe are under review.

Those who like to lie down and snooze to their destination are not going to lie down and take it any more, however. April saw a week of demonstrations, seminars and campaigning to defend and expand overnight train services. From singing in Malmö Central Station to letters to the Swiss transport minister, Europe’s night train fans aren’t giving up without a fight.

“We tried to keep away from the sad stories,” said Poul Kattler, one of the organisers at Back On Track, a European coalition to support cross-border rail. “I think what is especially important is we are still able… in the very special case to keep up spirits across countries.”

The 19 events across Europe underline the benefits of existing night train services, as well as calling for the reinstatement of iconic routes like Paris-Madrid and Vienna-Prague-Berlin. From Spain to Sweden, there were demonstrations of love for cross-border night trains across Europe. Kudos in particular to the brave souls who took their sleeping bags and lay down on platforms in Vienna, Prague and Berlin to express their displeasure at the lack of an overnight connection.

Indeed, there’s so little joined-up cross-border thinking right now that there isn’t even an official map of all European night train services. Luckily — and because there’s nothing better than a map – Back On Track support Per Eric Rosén has made one, and it’s a beauty:

 

You can see the whole thing here.

One thing that’s worth noting about the protests is that night train fans’ motivations are as diverse as their dress sense. There’s an efficiency angle, because if you travel overnight you don’t need a hotel and you can travel while you sleep. For some people, like your correspondent, it’s all about the comfort – there’s nothing like a glass of fizz and dinner in the dining car before heading off to bed.

Poul Kattler, meanwhile, is a fan for environmental reasons. “If we’re going to be serious about climate change footprints, the night train is a good answer to that,” he said. “If you take three aeroplanes and put the passengers on one night train, it’s a starting point.”

Like the moonlight flashing on rails as the Orient Express (the EuroNight one, not the VSOE) emerges from a tunnel, there are glimmers of hope. The Caledonian Sleeper, which links London to Scotland is getting fancy new carriages later this year, including double beds and a Club Car which promises to take passengers “on a culinary tour of Scotland” – who doesn’t want to drink single malts on a train?

And ÖBB Austrian railways, which took over 16 routes from DB linking Austria, Germany, Italy and Switzerland had 1.4m night train passengers last year, and “expects a slight increase in 2018,” according to Kurt Bauer, head of long-distance services at ÖBB. “We’re very pleased to have entered into the night train market,” he said in an interview with Swiss Railways. “We made a good name for ourselves in the last year, and want to make Nightjet a synonym for night trains in the future.” Even more excitingly, they plan shiny new trains from 2020.

Kattler is a fan of Swedish new-entrant operator Snälltåget’s “Berlin Night Express”, which links Malmö and the German capital. The journey also offers a crazy travel experience where they put the train on a ferry across the Baltic Sea, from Trelleborg to Sassnitz. The crossing takes for hours and you can hop off the train and visit restaurants and shop on the ferry.

 

What does the future hold for night trains? It’s far from clear, but in the meantime, Kattler and his fellow activist visited Brussels in late April to meet the European Commission and parliamentarians to build on their week of action and discuss the future of rail. And for the rest of us, the Man in Seat 61 has a guide to booking pretty much every night train, ever. Goodnight, and happy travelling.


 
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