May 30, 2024

Sleeper trains in Europe

Ahead of the launch of a new Brussels-Berlin night train service on May 25, Stuart Forster looks at the growing appeal of sleeper trains in Europe…

Sleeper trains are often romantically associated with First Class travel and adventures penned by novelists such as Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming. With sustainability concerns now driving many travellers’ transport choices, there is renewed interest in overnight travel on trains.

“Going to sleep in one place and waking up in another is one thing, but the idea of gliding through the countryside being rocked to sleep by the movement over the tracks has a gentle appeal as well – especially after a delicious dinner in the dining car. Plus sleeper trains have a sort of old-time nostalgia, even though many of them are very modern with great facilities,” says Cat Jones, the founder and CEO of Byway, a travel company whose focus is flight-free travel. 

Research shows that 34% of passengers chose Nightjet services operated by ÖBB, Austria’s national railway, because of sustainability concerns. “As Austria’s largest mobility provider, we are committed to a sustainable and climate-friendly transformation of our transportation system,” comments ÖBB spokesperson, Bernhard Rieder. 

He adds that rail travel is “by far the most environmentally friendly mode of transport” despite carbon emissions varying between operators in European countries. According to ÖBB calculations, travelling on a Nightjet service between Vienna and Paris results in 45.1kg of carbon emissions per passenger, compared to 419.6kg when flying.

New trains

ÖBB has ordered 33 new Nightjet trains and the first will enter service this year on routes between Austria and Italy. They have seven carriages, made up of two seating cars, three with couchettes and two with fixed beds, private toilets and showers. New mini cabins are designed for use by solo travellers. Each Nightjet will feature a couchette compartment with an accessible toilet. 

Plug sockets, USB ports and inductive charging stations are available aboard Nightjets. They offer free wi-fi and onboard entertainment is supplied via the ÖBB Railnet portal, which facilitates streaming and access to magazines and newspapers. 

The move to greater sustainability aboard Nightjet services has seen paper cups replaced by porcelain and local bakeries supplying the bread rolls served for breakfast.

Similarly, the UK’s Caledonian Sleeper serves food and drink sourced from producers in Scotland. And since October, refillable containers have dispensed toiletries, eliminating use of approximately 400,000 single-use plastic bottles a year, reducing virgin plastic use by 81% and liquid waste by 75%.

Private initiatives

“Sleeper trains were not empty before they were cancelled but they were loss-making,” points out Louis Lammertyn, an expert in decarbonising transport, about the previous generation of night services. He argues that state-owned operators focused on daytime services and night trains were never optimised. “It’s possible to do it way cheaper, without the inefficiencies and overhead costs of state operators,” suggests Lammertyn.

“They are coming back because we need them. People are asking for them. Every single night train line that is being opened is near to fully booked, so you can profitably operate if you have a good cost structure. There is an increase because people are aware of their carbon footprints and that they should travel more sustainably,” he adds.

Sleeper services offer people a greater sense of qualitative time than flying, even if the overall journey time is longer. “It’s a different time of the day. If it’s sleeping time, it’s a huge optimisation. You spent the whole day somewhere really awesome and you don’t pay for a hotel,” explains Lammertyn, pointing out that night trains negate the need for early morning airport runs and other stresses associated with flying.

That view is echoed by Chris Engelsman, one of the co-founders of the European Sleeper, who also sees the sustainability movement as being a key factor in now being the right time to launch a new sleeper train service: “It’s important that we have a dedicated company because night trains require some special attention. It’s a niche market and there are a lot of different aspects to a usual daytime train. It has bedding. It has stewards on board. It needs to serve breakfast. All these things are different and require a specialised approach. That’s why we think a dedicated railway company for night trains is very useful.

Even before the first train has pulled out of the station, plans are afoot to expand the European Sleeper’s route to Prague. Travellers, it seems, are waking up to what sleeper trains offer.