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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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