The revolution of the night train has been praised as an airplane substitute. This is the status of that 2023The revolution of the night train has been praised as an airplane substitute. This is the status of that 2023

The revolution of the night train has been praised as an airplane substitute. This is the status of 2023

The revolution of the night train has been praised as an airplane substitute. This is the status of that 2023
The revolution of the night train has been praised as an airplane substitute. This is the status of 2023

Following decades of decline, night trains are starting to reappear throughout Europe, offering the possibility of more environmentally friendly means of transportation as tourists search for alternatives to flying.

An overnight train is unlike anything else. The thrill of leaving in the evening and the spirit of exploration The multicultural blend of foreign visitors And the ageless cultural appeal that served as the basis for hits like “From Russia With Love” and “Murder on the Orient Express,” as well as classic tunes by artists like Ray Charles, David Bowie, and James Brown

There’s also the actual travel itself: going to sleep as you leave a large city and waking up in a new one—perhaps even a new nation—can make lifelong memories.

The new wave of night trains is being hailed as a potential replacement for short- or even medium-haul flights between the US and Europe; at least that is the theory.

How is that going, then?

Even before they experienced a renaissance, traveling long distances by night train could be enjoyable, memorable, and occasionally cost-effective; however, chance has always played a significant role.

When fares are most affordable, they combine the price of a hotel room for the night with hundreds of miles of travel; however, on busy routes, prices quickly increase, making most travelers unable to afford them.

Night trains are difficult, costly, and labor-intensive to run wherever they run, which is one of the main reasons they started to decline in the first place.

Thanks to overnight diversions, delays are often measured in hours rather than minutes, and accommodations have been inconsistent, ranging from comfortable and modern to rudimentary and antiquated.

Similarly, if you’re trying to sleep at a bachelor party or in a carriage full of rowdy teenagers, the novelty quickly wears off. Nobody enjoys feeling as though they’ve slept on a park bench when they wake up at seven in the morning in a new city.

The trail of comebacks

However, growing environmental concerns have had as much of an impact on their recent renaissance as Agatha Christie or James Bond, especially in continental Europe.

The flygskam (flight shame) phenomenon, which originated in Scandinavia and is rapidly spreading, is pushing environmentally conscious tourists to look for alternatives to short-haul air travel.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, long-distance travel between major cities is once again booming where there are strong rail connections, and for longer trips, overnight trains can present a compelling alternative to the uncomfortable early morning flights.

Overnight connections between major European cities have been restored and expanded in recent years, reversing decades of declining services, thanks to the Austrian Federal Railways’ (ÖBB) “Nightjet” network.

They will gain even more momentum in December when opulent new trains between Vienna and Hamburg start running. Perhaps the most obvious indication that night rail travels are returning are the 33 new trains, which offer fully accessible cabins, cozy sleeper cabins, and discrete “pods” for single passengers in place of traditional shared couchettes.

The man behind The Man in Seat 61 website, Mark Smith, is an expert on rail travel and is impressed with these new developments. He remarks, “The new trains are really very classy.” “In my opinion, ÖBB has done a great job of providing a shower and toilet in each single or double-bed cabin, all while offering reasonably priced beds in small cabins so that guests are not forced to bunk with complete strangers.

The biggest innovation, in my opinion, are the mini-cabins, which are essentially Japanese-style capsule hotels on rails. I predict that younger, environmentally conscious tourists will love them.

ÖBB has revitalized overnight routes connecting major hubs in Vienna and Zürich with cities in Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and, more recently, Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam. This has been achieved through collaboration with the Swiss Federal Railways and Deutsche Bahn in Germany.

Due to its success, other nations—most notably France, Italy, and Sweden—have been inspired to reconsider their overnight operations, resurrect closed routes, and even suggest new carriages to enhance their current fleet.

Recently, Italian State Railways (Trenitalia) pledged to purchase seventy new carriages for their night trains. These carriages will have first-rate cabins with private bathrooms and showers, some of which will have double beds.

The first cars will be used on the long-distance route that travels across the Strait of Messina on the final passenger train ferry in Europe, running from Milan to Sicily. Up to 370 new overnight carriages could eventually be added as part of the $770 million contract, modernizing Italy’s whole fleet of overnight trains.

Amtrak, the country’s premier passenger train company, has begun replacing over 800 aging “Superliner” and “Amfleet” vehicles on 14 overnight routes, including the renowned Coast Starlight and California Zephyr.

rocky travels

A number of private startups have also been motivated to enter the European market by the promise of new routes, lower prices, or more opulent lodging that will appeal to various segments of the travel industry.

Only a few have been implemented thus far: Snälltåget in Sweden connects Stockholm with Denmark and Germany, while Regiojet in the Czech Republic runs a few overnight routes, including transseasonal international trains from Prague to Croatia’s Adriatic coast.

European Sleeper is an aspirational newcomer that launched its Brussels-Amsterdam-Berlin route in May 2023, offering travelers heading to or from London convenient connections with Eurostar.

However, other open-access operators hoping to capitalize on the resurgence of overnight travel should take note of European Sleeper’s challenging times finding a suitable train and time. A serious lack of functional coaches caused the start to be postponed from its original 2022 launch date.

Eventually, ES was able to put together an impressive collection of 1970s couchettes, seated coaches, and even a historic 1950s sleeping car that had once been operated by the illustrious Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits (CIWL), the company that once ran the Orient Express. It is sufficient for one train, which will run in each direction on different days, three times a week. If more rolling stock becomes available, it intends to raise the frequency to once a day.

The initial plan for ES was to extend beyond Berlin to the popular tourist destinations of Dresden in eastern Germany and Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. However, due to a deficiency of appropriate train routes, which are the scheduled intervals allotted to particular trains, this will not be achievable until March 2024. When the trains can sell out weeks in advance of departure and demand exceeds supply on a route that draws both business and backpacking tourists, it is inconvenient for all parties concerned.

With Brussels-Copenhagen-Stockholm and Brussels-Barcelona already mentioned, ES hopes to add a new route every year. However, the difficulties it will likely face in obtaining rolling stock approved for France and Spain and running through France will likely be significant.

“It’s important to recognize that establishing new sleeper trains takes work,” advises rail specialist Smith. “However, startups like European Sleeper and ÖBB are demonstrating that it is feasible.”

In an attempt to make a name for itself, Midnight Trains, a hopeful French company, has announced plans to start offering a posh “hotel on wheels” service between Paris and Barcelona in 2025.

Its long-term goals include serving ten locations that radiate outward from Paris. While none of them can be considered simple, some will be easier to accomplish than others.

If enough rolling stock can be acquired, routes to Milan/Venice, Florence/Rome, Hamburg, Berlin, and Copenhagen appear feasible. However, vehicles equipped with gauge-changing capability will be needed to operate on rail gauges in Spain and Portugal that are wider than those of standard European tracks, which will prevent Paris to Madrid and Porto from being accessible.

An even longer shot is Midnight Train’s controversial proposal for a Paris-Edinburgh route, which would necessitate the construction of new trains that would adhere to strict fire regulations for the Channel Tunnel and fit through smaller British tunnels, bridges, and platforms.

A comparable plan, called Nightstar, to operate overnight trains between major UK cities and mainland Europe in the middle of the 1990s never progressed past the testing phase, and the partially completed coaches were eventually sold to Canada’s VIA Rail at a steep loss.

The emergence of low-cost airlines completely destroyed Nightstar’s business case, but in light of the UK’s exit from the European Union, it’s likely that the huge expense and political opposition to creating international overnight connections between the UK and mainland Europe will still greatly exceed any potential advantages.

Trapped near the border

International night trains to the UK face significant challenges due to UK/EU border control requirements, which also hampered German plans for high-speed trains between Frankfurt and Brussels during the day and, more recently, their much-discussed capacity crunch on Eurostar.

Even more, Midnight Trains has not yet begun the process of refurbishing any vehicles to meet its suggested specifications. It is not alone in this regard; locating suitable “pre-loved” rolling stock is a formidable challenge for all aspiring open-access train operators.

Obtaining the necessary finance to acquire and approve special new night trains is also very difficult without government backing, which is something that BB and other incumbent state railways enjoy.

National rail companies, according to Nick Brooks, secretary general of ALLRAIL, a pressure group that advocates for non-state train operators, have an unfair advantage that could impede efforts to increase service.

He states, “Politicians need to understand that the night train market will be effectively closed for an extended period of time.” “This would be absurd since there is already a well-defined and effective alternative model, and it would go against the objectives of the single EU rail market.

“European Sleeper shows that there is a growing demand for long-distance, cross-border passenger rail, including night trains, and that these services can be provided in an open-access, commercially viable manner.”

A potential resolution could be for the European Union and rolling stock leasing firms to support the acquisition of a fleet of customized overnight vehicles that could be leased to any operator.

Thus, what does all this signify for the much-heralded revolution of the night train?

European night train services are still lacking in the excitement department, with the notable exception of the government-subsidized Nightjet, which is set to grow significantly over the next five years.

The enormous challenges of financing and establishing new operations are stifling the growth of demand.

No amount of positive travel articles can remove the operational, political, and financial barriers, nor can they alter the fact that night train fares are still higher than those of low-cost airlines and dynamically priced long-distance buses.

When considered separately, night trains with 200–300 passengers per trip are unable to accomplish the necessary modal shift away from automobiles and air travel; only high-speed trains are able to offer that level of frequency and density on lengthy intercity routes.

However, in the upcoming decades, night trains can and will play a significant niche role on long-distance routes spanning 500–1,000 miles, provided the proper conditions are met along with carefully targeted financial and political support.


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