The return of the night train

Five years ago, sleeper trains were on the way out. Now they’re seen as the future of short-haul travel between cities

Silent countryside and sleeping towns slip by in the dark outside the window, as the train thump-thumps its way over the tracks. Tucked into their bunk beds, tourists sleep off the bottles of beer from the dining car as business travellers run through their presentations one last time before drifting off into dreams of PowerPoint slides. As dawn light leaks through along the edge of the window blinds, the train rumbles into Stockholm, Amsterdam or Vienna, where passengers disembark in the centre of the city, perfectly refreshed and with a full day ahead of them.

Such is the promise and romance of sleeper trains, but five years ago that image was set to fade into the past, with night journeys a relic of a bygone era. In 2014, Deutsche Bahn ended its City Night Line routes that connected Paris to Berlin and the rest of Germany; in 2016, France dismantled its network of night trains inside and outside its borders; and in 2013, and Spain halted its Elipsos route between Paris and Barcelona and Madrid. And in Italy, sleeper train services were being reduced. At the time, much of the blame for bringing night services to the brink was pinned on competition from budget airlines offering faster connections at much lower prices, leaving struggling rail operators unable to make the economics work on seemingly niche services.

But such closures weren’t the end of sleeper trains. The past few years have seen a renaissance in overnight rail travel. Austria’s train operator ÖBB bought up Deutsche Bahn’s stock and took over the routes, making it the largest night-train operator in Europe — a smart move that’s seen ÖBB’s night train services more than double from 700,000 passengers annually to 1.5 million. Swiss operator SBB says night train traffic is up 25 per cent from the beginning of this year alone. And in the UK, GWR last year revealed renovations to the sleeper trains it runs to Cornwall, adding cocktail bars and surfboards, while the Caledonian Sleeper between London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen has been revamped with £150 million investment in new trains, that while not perfect – to say the least, initial journeys were hit by severe delays caused by engine troubles, with staff threatening to strike over “appalling conditions” including faulty toilets – have at least sparked a renewed interest in overnight rail travel.

Why the turnaround? One answer could be that guilt over the environmental impact of air travel is piling up – we now have the concept of “flight shame”, or as the Swedes put it, flygskam. Mark Smith, the train expert behind rail journey website The Man in Seat 61, says that back when he started in 2001, site visitors said they wanted to travel via train because they were afraid to fly or medically restricted from doing so, or just really liked trains. “Now what they say is two things, in one breath: they’re fed up with the experience of airports and flying, and they want to cut their carbon footprint,” he says. That shift has been happening for several years, he adds, but Greta Thunberg has really brought it to a head.

In response, German politicians are discussing ways to discourage short-haul flights via fuel taxes, while this summer French MPs proposed an idea to cut flights where trains could be used instead, and added a tax to all international air travel – despite cutting the very means, night trains, that would help them achieve those goals. While Swiss operator SBB says it’s unclear as yet how much of its growing business comes from sustainability considerations, customer surveys reveal such concerns are becoming increasingly important. “The train is the most climate-friendly and energy-efficient means of transport — besides your bicycle,” says company spokesman Oli Dischoe. “A train trip in Switzerland causes 27 times less CO2 emissions than a car trip on a comparable route.”

In terms of emissions, trains are more efficient than flying, but exactly how much more beneficial depends on the network infrastructure and fuel used. Countries that still use diesel — and that includes the UK’s sleeper trains — aren’t as good as electric trains, which are in wider use across Europe; that said, a diesel train journey still produces 84 per cent less carbon than an equivalent flight. But electric trains are only as good as the local energy mix. France has plenty of nuclear energy, while Dutch trains are entirely powered by wind energy. There are other factors to consider, such as how full a train is or the carbon emitted to build infrastructure, though of course that infrastructure is already in place, so making good use of it makes sense.

“In a country like Sweden, where almost all electricity is green and nearly all rail tracks are electrified, resulting in its trains being virtually zero-carbon, making the switch towards train travel is a far more climate-friendly option,” says Tomer Shalit, CEO and co-founder of ClimateView, a carbon data analysis startup who has given up air travel for trains when getting around his homeland..” His journey from Umeå, in Sweden’s north east, to the southern capital Stockholm takes nine hours. “The train departs at 21:00 and arrives at 06:00 in both directions,” he says. “I have an annual season ticket for the train and, based on the number of journeys that I’ve made during the year, I have already saved around 30 per cent in cost.”

And that’s the other reason behind the resurgence of night trains: they never should have been shut down in the first place. Back in 2015, Deutsche Bahn said it was shuttering the City Night Line routes because passenger numbers had fallen by a quarter, causing losses of millions of euros.
But only a few years on, ÖBB has helped shift to profit off the back of those same routes, says Smith. “They’ve made it work,” he says. “A shortage of passengers wasn’t the problem. Germany’s City Night Line trains were running full and passenger numbers were increasing. It was the economics, and the will to make those economics work.”

By that, Smith is referring not to the difficulty of selling tickets, but the costs of using infrastructure. Night services were hit particularly hard by the deregulation of train companies away from entirely state-owned organisations to private bodies, with one running the rails and others running trains, just as happens in the UK. That happened to Germany in 1996, and meant night services had to pay an access charge to use the tracks. “In the old world, where national railways operated track and train, they knew that running a sleeper train didn’t really cost anything in terms of infrastructure because rails were there anyway,” Smith explains. “In the new world, where an infrastructure company has to charge money to every train running over its rails, the sleeper train is charged a hefty access fee that pushes the weakest economically performing trains, the sleepers, over the edge.” Of course, the track is still there, whether a night train is running over it or not — and that suggests a failure of the market, Smith says.

Within that explanation is an admission that sleeper trains do make less money. While tickets can cost more than a standard train, beds take up more space than seats and more staff are required. But Smith argues that what’s holding back sleeper services isn’t cost or popularity – “the sleeping car from Cologne to Vienna, for example, leaves full every night,” he says – but is instead heavily impacted by politics. He points to Swedish services, where the government cut prices and actually bothered to advertise services, and ticket sales climbed by 65 per cent. Invest in a service and market it well, and passengers will buy tickets; run poorly maintained trains at high prices, and no-one will – meaning you can point to poor revenue when you withdraw services. “French railways decided they’re not going to work, so they don’t work,” he says.

Pascal Dauboin would agree. He lives deep in the southwest of France, and used to take the night train to Paris to visit his family. “It was quite practical,” he says. But now that France has shelved its night trains, he must take three different trains during the day, meaning a visit to see the folks eats up two entire days of his trip. To fight back, he and others formed a campaigning collective called Oui au Train de Nuit (Yes to the Night Train). “We took this fight to the local decision makers and the government, to tell them it’s not a good decision,” he says. “They should not destroy this type of consumer transport, because it could be useful — especially when we speak about the climate and fuel consumption and air pollution.”

The collective has had some success saving the two remaining night-train services, boosted by a petition in support of sleeper services that gained 160,000 signatures, but kept pushing to force the government to reconsider its decision to withdraw the other routes. Dauboin wants them to do that with climate in mind. “There are still people who are saying that night trains are not profitable, they lose money and so on,” he says, but it’s difficult to know full revenue details because operator SNCF’s accounting is something of a “black box”. He adds: “If you read the reports [that saw the services removed] you see that the CO2 emission costs were forgotten.” If the real financial and environmental costs were considered, he argues, the night trains never would have been cut in the first place.

To fly to Berlin, someone living in the UK must do the following: first, get to London and then reach one of the airports that ring the capital; arrive 90 minutes early to queue for security; unpack and repack bags on demand; drag yourself and luggage through a shopping mall from hell aka duty free; wait to board and then queue to do so; cram carry-on over your head or squish under the seat to eat into leg room. And that’s before the flight even takes off; then it’s cramped seats, elbow wars with row neighbours, and paying over the odds for a stale sandwich, or if you’ve prepared, pretending to be happy eating the squashed baguette you purchased at Pret in the terminal. Upon landing, do it all in reverse.

Via a night train – if one still existed – that trip would involve queuing for security half an hour early to board the Eurostar, changing trains in Paris, and then sleeping your way to Berlin. (And if the NightStar plans had come to fruition, we’d not even have to make that change; cancelled in 1997, those plans would have run sleeper services through the Channel Tunnel, linking London to Cologne, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, as well as Swansea to Paris, Plymouth to Brussels, and Glasgow to both.)

No wonder, as Smith says, people turn to trains because they hate the faff of flying. And, environmentmental benefits aside, night trains have plenty of appeal. Counterintuitively, night trains can be cheaper than budget flights, especially when hotels and supplemental travel is included, as taking the train to an airport and a cab to a hotel on the other side adds up. And a sleeper train is more efficient: walk onto your carriage just before departure, sleep through the trip, and arrive in the centre of town, right where you need to be.

Air travel still prevails, but night train services are making some gains. Business travel agency CWT has seen an increase in demand for rail travel of 8.8 per cent over the last year versus slower growth across air travel, but that’s largely for shorter daytime routes, says Rob Coomer, CWT’s senior director for customer management in the UK and Ireland. “We’re not seeing any upward trends or demand for sleeper train travel amongst our clients in the UK,” he says. “To give some context, our London to Edinburgh flight demand in the last year outstrips London to Edinburgh sleeper train demand 114:7 and that number has remained relatively static over the last 12 to 24 months.”

But that’s one specific route in the UK, and routes and demand vary by country. French business travellers will choose rail over flights if the journey time is below four hours, says Charles Buseyne, director of global product at Egencia, a corporate travel firm, but overnight rail is increasingly popular in Sweden, in particular routes from Malmo and Ostersund to Stockholm. “In Sweden, we have seen a 15 per cent increase in train travel between January to October this year alone,” says Buseyne.

While the environmental, comfort and productivity arguments are sound, CWT’s Coomer says the time taken to travel still matters – even if travellers are asleep through most of the journey. “Amongst our clients however, a one hour 35 minute flight still appears to be the most viable employee traveller’s route versus a ten hour 30 min sleeper train between London and Aberdeen – with 13 stops to disrupt your sleep – especially when they need to be in situ, fresh and ready for meetings upon arrival in destination.”

And that’s one of the challenges of night trains: they’re not as comfortable as many expect. The experience differs wildly by route and train operator – some trains have showers, most don’t; some have sparkling clean cabins, others have years of dust; some beds are comfortable enough, others are like sleeping on a shelf. Chris Newlands is the CEO of Spelfie, a startup, and cut his flights from about 60 last year to 20 this year by switching to the train, particularly to travel from Glasgow to London. “No security screening, you can be in the city centre for 10am, and you can work on the train are all positives,” he says. “Wi-Fi is not so great unless you’re in first class, I also sometimes suffer from motion sickness and I can’t sleep as there is a constant flow of passengers and stops.”

The tiny rooms do have their charm, but taller or larger people may find the constricted space and slim single beds a challenge. There’s little room for luggage, so travel light, and for those planning to work, there’s usually no desk – some sinks have a cover to create a flat surface, but it’ll be the only one in the room – and good luck getting signal through more remote parts of a route. That’s if you shell out for a room: some sleeper services charge extra for a room known as a couchette, while everyone else can make do in their seats. “Sleeper carriages can be first class, but there’s people who are prepared to just sit in their seats all night,” says Martyn Pring, author of Luxury Railway Travel. “Sleeper trains have always had a bit of student perspective.”

And then there’s the other stops. Night trains aren’t like taking the Eurostar to Paris, whizzing to a single destination. There are stops all through the night, with new passengers alighting and bumping bags down the corridor. The rumble of the train as it accelerates out of each station may not awaken deep sleepers, but you’d have to be medically unconscious to sleep through the shunting that rearranges carriages – you may start as the last carriage, but as services combine through the night, you may awaken in the morning to find several were added behind. And then there’s the schedules. Have a meeting in Krakow? The night train from Berlin arrives at 05:30.

This is perhaps why the Caledonian Sleeper has invested so much in new trains, making them more luxurious for tourists to reboot the romance of travel but also to make the London to Scotland route a better fit for business travellers. “That thinking has certainly underpinned the specification for that Caledonian Sleeper,” says Pring. The normally four hour and 20 minute journey to Edinburgh was already sensibly stretched to allow an 23:00 departure and arrival just past 07:00 – a reasonable time to arrive in the city. Some of the new rooms not only have double beds but ensuite washrooms – you’ll pay £400 for two people in that room, versus £45 per person for a seat only – but the company also offers showers at Euston and Edinburgh Waverley stations for a £5 fee.

But offering free breakfasts, renovated rooms with thick mattresses and other posh upgrades mean tickets aren’t cheap, nor are they easy to book. Travellers are advised to book ahead, and will need to, for the most part, go directly to the operator to purchase. Those using Interrail tickets to travel around Europe will find there’s an extra charge for overnight journeys, too. Operators like Caledonian Sleeper and GWR will be trying to balance comfort with costs, to ensure they’re offering an easier, more comfortable journey while still keeping prices affordable enough to tempt travellers from airlines. “There’s a bit of a mantra at Caledonian Sleeper at the moment, which is they’re not the cheapest way of getting between London and Scotland, but it’s the most comfortable and convenient way,” says Pring.

Regardless of route and couchette comforts, Smith has simple advice for taking a night train: shell out for a private room and enjoy yourself. “Don’t worry about whether you sleep or not. Take a bottle of wine,” he says. “Bring some snacks for a midnight feast. Take a good book. Enjoy the experience.” Remember when the trip was part of the holiday? Ditch the short flights and let night trains reboot the romance of travel.

Brits looking for a night train have two options: Great Western’s evocatively named Night Riviera Sleeper, which runs between Paddington to Penzance; and the Serco-run Caledonian Sleeper, which runs between London Euston and Scotland, with routes serving Glasgow, Edinburfgh, Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William. The UK needs more sleeper routes, not inside the country – though an overnight train to Wales would be nice, as would a ferry-train combo to Northern Ireland – but from Paris to make best use of the Eurostar connection. Instead of flying to Berlin for work or Spain for holidays, Brits could take an evening Eurostar service to Paris and change to a sleeper, waking up as refreshed or hungover as the bunk beds and on-board bar allows. “If I could have any sleeper routes back, I would have Paris to Madrid and Paris to Berlin,” says Smith.

Thankfully, ÖBB is expanding its routes. In 2020, Amsterdam and Brussels will be added to the 26 lines that already make up the NightJet network – and both are on the Eurostar route from London. There are plans in place to further expand the network, but a spokesperson said ÖBB could not yet name those destinations, though said the aim was for “an extensive night train network throughout Europe, from Rome to Stockholm and Berlin to Paris.”

In short, pack your bags and check your flygskam, minibreaks to Berlin and beyond could be back on the itinerary for climate-aware travellers — and for everyone else who wants a bit of romance back in their holidays.

Digital Society is a digital magazine exploring how technology is changing society. It’s produced as a publishing partnership with Vontobel, but all content is editorially independent. Visit Vontobel Impact for more stories on how technology is shaping the future of society.

All Rights Reserved for Nicole Kobie

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