Climate-conscious travelers are jumpstarting Europe’s sleeper trains

After being gently awakened in her sleeper cabin, Sarah Marks spent the morning of her 29th birthday watching the Alps zoom past the windows of her night train to Zurich.

“The train comes in right next to the lake, with the mountains behind it,” Marks said wistfully. “Very romantic, I must say.”

By the time of that trip from Zagreb, Croatia in 2022, it had been four years since she had taken a flight – since around the time Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg started spreading the term flygskam, or ‘flight shame’.

They join a growing number of climate-conscious Europeans, especially younger travelers, who are eschewing carbon-spewing planes in favor of night trains. In doing so, they have sparked something of a revival of the overnight train, discovering what many believe is a slower, richer way to travelone that was on the brink of extinction.

“It’s amazing that I can fall asleep in one city and maybe even wake up in another country,” says Marks, a Londoner who grew up flying several times a year. “When I swapped the plane for the train, it was a no-brainer because this is also a superior experience.”

REINVESTMENTS, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE

Although still a niche and relatively expensive market, demand for sleeper trains is increasing. Online platform Trainline said overnight bookings rose 147% in 2023 compared to 2019, the year before the pandemic. And this is evident from a climate study by the European Investment Bank 62 percent of respondents supported a ban on short flights.

Governments have started to reinvest in night trains as they look for ways to meet targets to reduce carbon emissions by 2030. The European Commission has three new ones night routes in a pilot program aimed at supporting cross-border travel, including some ambitious private startups.

“Public investment somehow goes back to the good old days, when railways provided a public service,” says Poul Kettler, one of the founders of Back on Track, a pan-European rail advocacy group. “The climate has a price tag, and they are now willing to pay for it.”

Sleeper trains never completely disappeared, especially in Eastern Europe, but proponents say they suffered for years from underinvestment while low-cost airlines sold tickets at a fraction of the price.

The national railways have committed resources to high-speed daytime rail, and governments have promoted more short-distance air travel by expanding airports and largely exempting jet fuel from taxes. The supposed death knell for sleeper trains came when Germany’s Deutsche Bahn closed their remaining night routes in 2015.

But the turnaround began almost immediately. The Austrian railway ÖBB gambled on night trains by buying up all German sleeping cars. They refurbished the cars, renamed it Nightjet and applied cost-saving lessons from the aviation industry. Now Nightjet operates 22 international sleeper flight routes, mainly in Central Europe, but stretching from Vienna to Paris and Hamburg to Rome.

In December, Nightjet began rolling out 33 new seven-car trains, complete with room key cards, cell phone permeable windows for better photos and digital thermostats in every compartment.

A NEW KIND OF PASSENGER

Nightjet probably saved the entire night train industry, says Thibault Constant, a former engineer at French state-owned railway company SNCF, with 250,000 followers on his Simply Railway YouTube channel.

The atmosphere on sleeper trains has changed dramatically, he said.

“Ten years ago, only old people and crazy people took the night trains,” said 27-year-old Constant as he rode the train through the Czech Republic. “Now I’m following the same line with a bunch of teenagers and all kinds of people.”

Nightjet’s success was evident other national railways that sleeper trains were worth upgrading, proponents say. For example, in 2023, the Czech and Hungarian railways started refurbishing their sleeping cars, and national operators in Italy and Finland signed contracts for new ones.

Private companies are also stepping in to fill service gaps. European Sleeper launched last year – partly dependent on crowdfunding – with services from Brussels to Berlin via Amsterdam, and extended the line to Prague in May. The European Commission has selected the company’s plans for an Amsterdam-Barcelona route from its pilot projects.

Yet progress is slow. According to Back on Track, a much-hyped French proposal in 2021 to invest $1.5 billion in night trains has still not started. (France has revived four night lines south from Paris in the past two years.) And Spain’s Renfe stopped the last of its Trenhotel lines in 2020 with no plans announced to bring them back.

ROMANCE OF THE RAILS, WITH HURDLES

Challenges include the lack of a central booking platform for train tickets; the more than 30 European operators each have their own websites. It is also difficult to make night trains profitable, as a day train car has about 70 seats, compared to the 20 to 40 berths on an average night train.

And then there’s the matter of price and competition from budget airlines. For example, a fourteen-hour night train ride from Paris to Berlin with Nightjet at the end of April cost 139 euros for a bunk bed in a 4- to 6-person couchette, while a flight with budget airline Transavia cost 50 euros. Private cabins on the train can be significantly more expensive, while reclining seats are comparable to the price of a flight.

However, Marks noted that a sleeper car saves travelers the price of a night in a hotel, not to mention the cost of traveling to city centers from far-flung airports. Top flight prices rarely include fees for baggage, seat assignments and other extras.

Sleeper car enthusiasts say the experience is worth some extra effort and expense.

Mark Smith, whose website Man in Seat 61 is a guide to European train travel, says: “What’s better than being in crisp, clean sheets while traveling with a bottle of wine and then you’re there the next morning? It’s quite fun.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Albert Stumm lives in Barcelona and writes about food, travel and wellness. Find his work https://www.albertstumm.com

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