Europe's Night Train Nostalgia: Quiet Rebirth Of Sleeper Car Travel

A new Vienna-Brussels line has just opened, while in France only two night lines still exist, compared to a dozen ten years ago.

View from a 'Nightjet' train sleeper cab
View from a "Nightjet" train sleeper cab
Olivier Razemon

PARIS — We all have memories of the night train, some positive, others not so much. There's the snoring of other passengers, the wafting smells, the unexpected noises that interrupt sleep in the narrow berths. But there's also nostalgia for the characteristic rocking that is so synonymous with travel, adventure and new beginnings.

This mode of transport isn't entirely a thing of the past, however. Far from it. It remains the most efficient way to reach a distant destination without flying, and is an answer, in that sense, to flygskam, Swedish for "plane shame." The concept has spread across the European continent over the past two years, much to the chagrin of the airline industry.

The railway sector is taking note too, albeit for the opposite reason, and has to be encouraged by the recent feedback from passengers on the new Vienna-to-Brussels train, which made its inaugural journey on the night of Jan. 19-20. The Austrian company ÖBB now runs the train twice a week under its Nightjet brand. It makes 15 stops and takes 14 hours to travel the 1,000 km that separate the two capitals.

"I slept wonderfully," said passenger Karima Delli, president of the transport committee at the European Parliament. "I had a real bed, a bathroom, and a picture window that allows you to admire the landscape."

In late 2016, ÖBB took over lines abandoned by Deutsche Bahn. Since then it has inaugurated a number of new routes. Austrian trains now run every night in Central Europe, from Hamburg to Zurich and from Rome to Vienna, and at prices starting at under 50 euros. Sweden and Finland have invested heavily in their network and equipment as well, as has the private company Caledonian Sleeper in the United Kingdom.

There's also a collective of European associations called Back on Track that actively lobbies EU authorities for the preservation — and restoration — of night train services.

It was treated as a niche.

In France, only two nocturnal lines remain: from Paris to the Pyrenees, and another to the Southern Alps. A decade ago there were a dozen such lines. The two that remain are quite successful still, even if the SNCF, France's national railway company, prudently prefers not to publish figures. The night train sometimes even comes to the rescue of the TGV. In October 2019, when floods interrupted the rail line between Montpellier and Perpignan, the SNCF re-established for one month a daily night service between Paris and Perpignan, via Toulouse.

The rail company has long treated its night trains as just a niche for cash-strapped vacationers, but admits that at certain times, especially in summer and during the winter holidays, the trains fill up quickly. It also acknowledges that passenger numbers have been steady from year to year and are even growing a bit, presumably as a result of rising environmental awareness.

A "Nightjet" heading to Brussels — Photo: Österreichischen Bundesbahnen (ÖBB)

Travelers tell a similar story. "Every time a took a night train, whether it was to the south of France or over to Savoy, it was full," says Juliette Labaronne, author of Slow Train, a guide that lists 30 rail journeys in France. "After the book was published, many readers told me that they were sad about the disappearance of night trains and auto-trains," she says.

A association called Oui au Train de Nuit ("Yes to the Night Train") that was formed in 2016 — when the Ministry of Transport announced the removal of most of the last lines — also laments the loss, and points out how beneficial the trains are not just to passengers, but also to the environment and society as a whole. The group is made up of a core of diehard night train users, many of them cyclists from places like Perpignan and Toulouse.

Substituting plane travel is an obvious argument. A trip made during sleep time can be longer, and therefore go further. "Half of all air passengers in Europe travels distances can be covered by night train," notes Delli. It turns out to be "much cheaper than high-speed lines", while avoiding the construction of new tracks, adds Sylvain Fischer, spokesperson for the Oui au Train de Nuit association.

The use of conventional lines would also allow cross connections than can better serve medium-sized cities. "This is also how we limit over-tourism, because the night train does not drop all its passengers in the same place," observes Fischer. Finally, for passengers, traveling at night saves the price of a hotel room.

It was once a transportation for the masses.

Despite these advantages, several obstacles remain. The train stock that circulates in France, in particular, is gradually becoming obsolete. On SNCF trains, the compartments always house six superimposed berths, or four in first class. The straps preventing falls, the metal ladder that provides access to the upper seats and the brown curtains will not disorient travelers who have not been on a night train for 20 years. Worn window seals sometimes let outside air in, causing hissing and cold currents, and the sanitary fittings have aged.

No breakfast is provided, and the cars do not offer a vending machine for drinks or food. Finally, and this is a tough one for today's customers, the compartments don't have electrical outlets, essential for our many smartphones, computers and the like.

The Ministry of Transport has promised an upgrade to existing lines. But, for operators of future lines, this may not be enough. "We would have to acquire new very specific cars," concedes Raphaël Daniel, spokesperson for the company. A heavy investment: a car costs between 1.7 and 2.7 million euros, based on recent acquisitions by British or Austrian companies.

The modernizing of the equipment would also make it possible to offer different levels of comfort, "reclining seats, sleeping compartments and cabins for two people in the same convoy, all at very different prices," says Juliette Labaronne. "A business class and private compartments could be attractive to executives."

A "Nightjet" train in a Czech Republic train station — Photo: Österreichischen Bundesbahnen (ÖBB)

The night train was once a means of mass transport, celebrated by singers, novelists, filmmakers, and widely used by military conscripts on leave. Its decline is often associated with the rise of low-cost flights, which linked European capitals in the early 2000s in two or three hours by plane instead of twelve hours by train. "In reality, the decline of night trains is mainly due, everywhere in Europe, to the development of high-speed train lines, beginning in the 1980s," explains Vincent Kaufmann, director of the laboratory of urban sociology at the Federal Polytechnic from Lausanne. "In the major countries, Germany, France, Italy, the railway companies were obsessed with speed. Classic lines, day and night, have been abandoned, and countries like Switzerland, Austria and Belgium have suffered the consequences."

Thus, the European map of rail connections today has become a juxtaposition of essentially national links, where long lines crossed the continent in the 1980s or 1990s. Since then, access to these trains has deteriorated. Regulars recount the difficulties encountered in booking tickets online, the unexpected cancellation of trains or the accumulated delays. Finally, the abolition of national military service did not help, nor, of course, the democratization of air travel. Kaufmann says the return of the night train can benefit from a certain "romantic momentum," but ultimately it can become a permanent fixture when European realize the problem of taking an airplane for a trip that can be covered in a few hours by train.

"Even without a sleeping car, trains should run at night, or even in the evening," he said. Now we just need to wait for the demand to grow.

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Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

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