There’s nothing quite like an overnight train. The excitement before an evening departure. The sense of adventure. The cosmopolitan mix of international travelers. And the timeless cultural appeal that inspired “Murder on the Orient Express” and “From Russia With Love” or legendary songs by the likes of James Brown, David Bowie and Ray Charles.
And then there’s the journey itself – retiring to bed as you clatter out of a big city and waking up in a new city, or even a new country, can create memories to last a lifetime.
At least that’s the theory – and why the new wave of night trains are being touted as one way to replace short or even medium-haul flights across Europe and the US.
So how’s that going?
Even before their renaissance, night trains could be a pleasant, memorable and sometimes economic way to cover long distances – but luck has always been a big factor.
At their best, fares can be good value, combining the cost of a bed for the night and hundreds of miles of travel, but prices quickly ramp up on busy routes, often putting them out of reach for most travelers.
Wherever they run, night trains are complicated, labor intensive and expensive to operate – one of the major reasons they went into decline in the first place.
Delays are frequently measured in hours rather than minutes, thanks to overnight diversions, while the quality of accommodation has been patchy, ranging from modern and comfortable to basic and outdated.
Equally, the novelty soon wears off if you’re trying to sleep in a carriage full of hyperactive teenagers or a bachelor party. No one likes to arrive in a new city at 7 a.m. feeling like they’ve slept on a park bench.
The comeback trail
Their recent renaissance though, notably in mainland Europe, owes as much to growing environmental concerns as it does to Agatha Christie or James Bond.
Spreading quickly from Scandinavia, the flygskam (flight shame) phenomenon is encouraging climate-conscious travelers to seek alternatives to short-haul air travel.
Where good rail links exist, long-distance travel between major cities is booming again after the Covid-19 pandemic, and for longer journeys overnight trains can offer a compelling alternative to the unpleasant experience of early morning flights.
Led by Austrian Federal Railways’ (ÖBB) “Nightjet” network, overnight links between major European cities have been restored and expanded over the last few years, reversing decades of dwindling services.
They will receive another boost in December when luxurious new trains enter operation between Vienna and Hamburg. Featuring comfortable sleeper cabins, discreet “pods” for solo travelers rather than traditional shared couchettes and fully accessible cabins, the 33 new trains are perhaps the most visible sign that night rail trips are back.
Rail travel expert Mark Smith, who runs the The Man in Seat 61 website, is impressed with these new developments. “The new trains are very classy indeed,” he says. “In my view ÖBB has got it right, offering a shower and toilet in every single or double-bed cabin whilst offering beds at budget prices in mini cabins where travelers no longer have to share with strangers.
“The mini-cabins — a sort of Japanese-style capsule hotel on rails — are the biggest innovation and I think they’ll be a hit with young climate-conscious travelers.”
Working with Swiss Federal Railways and Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, ÖBB has reinvigorated overnight routes linking main hubs in Vienna and Zürich with cities in Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and, more recently, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam.
Its success has encouraged other countries, most notably France, Italy and Sweden, to re-examine overnight operations, revive abandoned routes and even propose new carriages to improve their offering.
Italian State Railways (Trenitalia) has just committed to buying 70 new carriages for night trains, featuring high-quality cabins with en suite toilet and shower, some with double beds.
The first vehicles will be deployed on the long-distance route from Milan to Sicily, which crosses the Strait of Messina on Europe’s last remaining passenger train ferry. The $770 million contract could eventually see up to 370 new overnight carriages introduced to update Italy’s entire overnight train fleet.
In the United States, national passenger operator Amtrak has started the process of replacing more than 800 veteran “Superliner” and “Amfleet” cars on 14 overnight routes, including the world-famous California Zephyr and Coast Starlight.
Several private startups have also been inspired to enter the market in Europe, promising new routes, cheaper fares or more luxurious accommodation appealing to different sectors of the travel market.
So far, only a handful have made it onto the rails – Sweden’s Snälltåget now links Stockholm with Denmark and Germany, while Czech travel provider Regiojet operates a handful of overnight routes, including seasonal international trains from Prague to Croatia’s Adriatic coast.
An ambitious new player is European Sleeper, which opened its Brussels-Amsterdam-Berlin route in May 2023, providing useful connections with Eurostar for travelers to/from London.
However, European Sleeper’s difficulties in securing a suitable train and timings offer sobering lessons for other open-access operators hoping to exploit renewed demand for overnight travel. Originally expected to launch in 2022, the start was delayed by a critical shortage of serviceable coaches.
ES eventually managed to assemble a collection of 1970s seated coaches, couchettes and even a venerable 1950s sleeping car built for the legendary Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits (CIWL) – one-time operator of the iconic Orient Express. It’s enough for one train, running three times a week on alternate days in each direction. It hopes to increase the frequency to daily when more rolling stock becomes available.
ES’s original intention was to run beyond Berlin to the tourist honeypots of Dresden in eastern Germany and the Czech capital Prague, but a lack of suitable train paths (the timetabled slots allocated to specific trains) means that won’t be possible until March 2024. It’s frustrating for all involved when the trains can sell out weeks before departure and demand outstrips supply on a route that appeals to backpackers and business travelers alike.
ES has ambitions to add a new route each year, with Brussels-Copenhagen-Stockholm and Brussels-Barcelona mentioned so far, although the challenges it faces in securing rolling stock authorized for France and Spain and operating through France are likely to be formidable.
“The effort required to get new sleeper trains up and running should not be underestimated,” says rail expert Smith. “But ÖBB and start-ups such as European Sleeper are proving that it can be done.”
French hopeful Midnight Trains is also trying to break onto the scene, promising to deliver a luxurious “hotel on wheels” experience between Paris and Barcelona from 2025.
Long-term, it plans to serve 10 destinations radiating from Paris. Some will be easier to achieve than others, although none could be regarded as straightforward.
While routes to Milan/Venice, Florence/Rome, Hamburg, Berlin and Copenhagen look achievable if sufficient rolling stock can be obtained, Paris to Madrid and Porto will require vehicles with gauge-changing capability to run on rail gauges in Spain and Portugal that are wider than standard European tracks.
An even longer shot is Midnight Train’s eyebrow-raising proposal for a Paris-Edinburgh route, which would require new trains built to fit through smaller British tunnels, bridges and platforms and to meet stringent Channel Tunnel fire regulations.
A similar plan to run overnight trains between major UK cities and mainland Europe in the mid-1990s – known as Nightstar – never made it beyond the testing stage and the part-finished coaches were eventually sold to Canada’s VIA Rail at a huge loss.
Nightstar’s business case was blown apart by the rise of low-cost airlines but following the UK’s Brexit from the European Union, it’s likely the enormous cost and political resistance to establishing international overnight links between the UK and mainland Europe will still far outweigh any benefits they could deliver.
Stuck at the border
UK/EU border control requirements present a huge obstacle for international night trains to the UK, as they did to German plans for Frankfurt-Brussels-London daytime high-speed trains and, more recently, their well-publicized squeeze on Eurostar capacity.
Midnight Trains has yet to obtain any suitable vehicles, let alone start the process of refurbishing them to its proposed specification. It is not alone in this respect – all prospective open-access train operators face a huge task in sourcing appropriate “pre-loved” rolling stock.
Without government backing – enjoyed by ÖBB and other incumbent state railways – it’s also very difficult to obtain the necessary finance to acquire and approve special new night trains.
Nick Brooks, secretary general of ALLRAIL, a pressure group representing non-state train operators, says national rail companies have an unfair advantage that could stymie efforts to expand services.
“Politicians must be clear: the night train market will be effectively closed for a very long time,” he says. “This would run contrary to the goals of the single EU Rail market – which is madness when a clear and efficient alternative model already exists.
“European Sleeper demonstrates that demand for long-distance cross-border passenger rail, including night trains, is growing fast, and that such services can be operated in a commercially viable open access manner.”
One possible solution is for the EU and rolling stock leasing companies to back the procurement of a fleet of special overnight vehicles for lease to any operator.
So, what does all this mean for the much-vaunted night train revolution?
With the honorable exception of government-subsidized Nightjet, which plans to expand rapidly over the next five years, European night train services have yet to match the hype.
Demand is growing, but the enormous difficulties of financing and setting up new operations is suppressing growth.
No amount of favorable travel articles will make the operational, political and financial obstacles evaporate, nor do they change the reality that night train fares remain expensive compared to low-cost flights and long-distance buses with dynamic pricing.
Taken in isolation, night trains carrying 200-300 passengers per trip do not have the capacity to deliver the required modal shift away from air travel and cars – only high-speed trains can provide that kind of frequency and density on long-distance inter-city routes.
However, given the right conditions, with carefully targeted financial and political support, night trains can – and will – play an important niche role on long-distance routes of between 500 and 1,000 miles over coming decades.