Inside the not-so-romantic return of sleeper trains to Europe

Oon a sultry Sunday evening in late July, Clyde Buchsbaum boarded the Vienna-bound train at the Gare de l’Est in Paris, opened the door of compartment 412, threw her hat on the top bunk for her overnight journey, and set about the serious business of maneuvering her huge lavender suitcase in place. “The flights were so expensive and with all the chaos in flying right now, I didn’t want to be stuck in an airport somewhere. And I didn’t want my bag to get lost,” she said. With a final push, she pinned the giant under her seat. “As my husband always says, I’m not one to travel with just a small carry-on.”

This summer’s air travel chaos has added yet another reason for a growing number of European travelers to choose the rails. But a key factor – and that behind a number of public and private initiatives to bring back night trains – is a concern about climate change. Travel by rail can radiate so little as one-fifth of the greenhouse gases as flights, which is why rail companies, national governments and EU authorities cite emissions reductions as the reason for rebuilding a network of medium-distance night railways that once connected the continent. Yet, despite all the search and effort, these initiatives still have a long way to go.

Read more: Why air travel is hell this summer

The night train network in Europe began to fall apart in the 1990s. With the advent of low-cost airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair, the demand for night trains has evaporated. By 2019, both Germany and Switzerland had sold out or closed their night services altogether, and the total number of passenger night trains in Europe has fallen from around 1,200 per week in 2001. to about 450. Dismantling made it difficult for even the most determined traveler to book a ticket for intercontinental travel; today, anyone hoping to travel by train from, say, Copenhagen to Barcelona would have to collect their own ticket, navigating a confusing thicket of national timetables and websites, and then changing trains anywhere from three to eight times during the two-day trip.

A national company has in recent years started taking steps to revive night trains. Citation growing concern about climate changeAustria’s state-owned railway company ÖBB bought back some of the old international lines in 2016 and started running one-night trips at a rate of about one per year. The Paris-Vienna night flight started in December 2021.

In 2019, these efforts received an important boost when flygskam— the Swedish word for “flight shame” — exploded into public consciousness around the world thanks to activist Greta Thunberg. And they swelled again this summer, when massive staff shortages led to a tumultuous season of canceled flights and lost luggage. “Before the corona, we were always full in the summer months and on weekends, and that was it,” says Bernhard Rieder, media relations director for ÖBB. “This year from Easter we are completely full on all lines every day. We get a lot of complaints from people saying “we hardly have a chance of getting a place or a bed”.

Some startups are paying attention. In 2019, growing criticism of carbon-emitting flights combined with a lack of convenient cross-border rail options led businessmen Adrien Aumont and Romain Payet to found Midnight Trains. It’s a private company that, when it goes live, promises to connect 10 European cities from its hub in Paris with transportation that looks more like a hotel on rails than a traditional overnight train. “It’s a product that hasn’t been reinvented in the last 20 to 30 years,” says Payet. “That’s why we started working together on how to reinvent the night train to make it the most sustainable and convenient way to travel around Europe.”

Compartment of the Nightjet train operating on the route Vienna/Innsbruck to Hamburg, July 11, 2022.

Christian Harizius—Picture-Alliance/dpa/AP

When Midnight Trains launches its first line in 2024, there will be easy online bookings and refunds, a restaurant car serving recipes designed by a Michelin-starred chef and a range of accommodation – all private and equipped with real beds and bed linen.

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There are complications for both public and private night train initiatives. The prices are the same: at the end of July, a one-way Paris-Vienna Nightjet ticket for a sleeper bed for four or six people cost about 154 euros (exact costs vary by date and amenities), which was slightly more than plane tickets at that time. Part of the discrepancy is a flaw built into Europe’s pricing structure: air tickets are exempt from VAT, but rail tickets are not.

And of course, the train journey is considerably longer. Passengers boarding the Nightjet avoid the airport rush and winding security lines. But the trip from Paris to Vienna takes 14 hours versus 2.5 hours by plane. Part of this is due to rail traffic, which forces trains to sit idle – sometimes for up to 45 minutes – on the tracks. “People have this perception that the tracks are empty, but that’s not true,” says ÖBB’s Rieder. At night, the tracks are crowded with slow freight trains, making competition for rail space fierce.

There are also technical and legal reasons for the frequent delays. Car engine specifications still vary from country to country and therefore often have to be changed at border crossings due to different power supplies and safety regulations. Once trains stop, authorities often take the opportunity to board and check passengers’ passports – even within the borderless Schengen area, which covers around 26 European countries. “We’re trying to buy locomotives that will be interoperable between countries so we don’t have to stop at the border, but the manufacturers say they won’t have them ready until 2026 or 27,” says Midnight’s Payet Trains. Meanwhile, the company is also working on a system that will allow passengers to upload ID before traveling, just like airlines do.

Many of these issues are addressed in the European Commission’s Action Plan, which was approved at the end of 2021. It calls for a pan-European ticketing system that will allow passengers to easily combine international journeys, infrastructure investment that will eliminate need to change locomotives at the border and review VAT charges. But even the target date for adopting the digital booking system at the end of this year has now been pushed back to the second half of 2023.

“This is not something that is easy,” says Adalbert Janz, the European Commission’s spokesman for transport. “We have 25 networks at European level that are quite complex.” Janz says the EU has made progress by directing €50 billion of its COVID-19 recovery funds to rail and passing legislation that creates certification of European level for railway infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the EU’s goal of cutting carbon emissions by 55% by 2030 and reaching the more ambitious goal of zero emissions by 2050 benefits the railways. During the pandemic, France and Austria provided bailout money to their respective national airlines on the condition that they phase out domestic flights of less than three hours, and France has since banned short-haul flights outright if rail or bus alternatives exist. The energy crisis also provided a boost: this summer Germany reduced all domestic rail tickets to €9 for 3 months, while Spain made regional and city trains free between June and August.

Yet huge hurdles remain for rail companies to meet European demand for rail travel, the biggest being a lack of carriages – what the rail industry calls “rolling stock” – as the relatively few remaining manufacturers struggle with increased demand. “There are no new cars or even used cars on the market,” says ÖBB’s Rieder. “In 2018, we ordered 33 complete new train sets. And they won’t be delivered until the middle of next year.

The rolling stock shortage helps explain why Midnight Trains won’t debut its first line, which Payet expects will be from Paris to northern Italy, until the second half of 2024. “When you look at the manufacturing sector, all the big ones have a backlog for the next 10 years only from the national companies,” says Payet. “And if you’re a small private company trying to get in [to the industry]they’re actually telling you we’re full until 2028.”

The lack of new carriages also explains why some amenities that could make night trains more attractive to passengers, such as WiFi and plenty of electrical outlets, are missing from the Nightjet. Most cars are now 25 or 30 years old.

But Buxman, who enjoyed the simple breakfast the flight attendants bring to each passenger and relished the opportunity to socialize over wine with the other women in her all-female cabin on board, says she would look forward to taking the Paris-Vienna overnight flight again. However, she admits that she did not sleep well. “The beds were a little hard,” she says.

A few compartments further on the Nightjet, Jean-Baptiste Fouvry also had a relatively sleepless journey. On his way to a professional conference in Vienna, the 32-year-old had chosen a seat instead of a bed and spent the night upright with five others in a crowded compartment. As an environmentally concerned scientist at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics, he still has no regrets about his decision to travel by train. “If you care about climate change,” he says of the trip, “it’s not terrible enough not to.”

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