Blame it on #flygskam, the pandemic or simply a new appreciation for the joy of moving a little more slowly through the world: Europe’s sleeper trains are enjoying a surge in popularity as travellers give the likes of Ryanair the boot, and take to the rails instead.
There was a time, not far back, when it looked like budget airlines would kill off long-distance rail travel in Europe, but the steady uptick in the number of overnight rail services is opening up a new way to explore the continent.
And I don’t mean those with pockets deep enough to bag a billet on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express or Royal Scotsman. These opulent sleeper trains by storied hotel brand Belmond certainly have their place, but for those without a trust fund, a boom in overnight trains is reshaping how we travel across Europe.
In part that’s driven by carbon awareness and a drive to sustainability. A recent survey by the European Investment Bank showed that nearly two-thirds of Europeans would support a ban on short-haul flights, with even more proposing a punitive carbon tax. And the figures support this. Depending on your route, travelling by rail emits up to 90% less CO2 than short-haul flights. Even on longer overnight journeys, the stats for CO2 emissions, energy consumption and air pollution put the train way out in front. Use EcoPassenger to see for yourself.
OK, you’re convinced. So where can you go?
While new services are mooted from Barcelona to London and beyond, right now the centre of Europe’s sleeper train universe is Austria, where the ÖBB — Austrian Railways — has established itself as the hub for overnight travel with its Nightjet service.
Nightjet offers three categories of travel, from humble seating compartments and shared couchettes, to comfortable private sleeper berths with large bunk beds. Upgrade to the deluxe compartment and you’ll enjoy your own en suite bathroom too.
Currently the Nightjet service connects 26 cities across eight countries, with additional destinations available through the affiliated Euronight service that extends the network to Hungary, Slovakia and beyond.
ÖBB is investing heavily in the service, with another 20 seven-car Nightjet trains under construction.
“[This] is an important step in positioning ÖBB as the market leader in Europe’s night train business,” ÖBB CEO Andreas Matthä told the International Railway Journal. “With the new Nightjets, ÖBB is investing in the sustainable future of travel. Night trains provide climate-friendly overnight connections between European cities, make rail journeys more comfortable and attractive, and thus make an important contribution towards achieving climate goals.”
The new trains, due in service from late-2022, will connect Austria and Germany to Italy, while later additions will bolster routes to Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Planning a ski holiday for 2022? Take the train.
But it’s not only Nightjet to consider. The Trenhotel Lusitania runs overnight between Madrid and Lisbon. The French Intercité de Nuit overnight trains connect Paris with cities across southern France, while the Caledonian Sleeper trains link London with towns in Scotland.
New operators are also looking to grab a slice of this growing market, with the likes of Midnight Trains planning to offer services connecting Paris to a dozen European cities by 2024, offering “a combination of modern sustainability and glorious Roaring 20s charm”.
Unlike ÖBB, which adds simple comfort to an overnight journey, Midnight Trains will surely tap into the demand from millennial and Generation Z travellers for experiential travel, promising a ‘hotel on wheels’ where wood-panelled compartments are all en suite and decorated in the style of a chic boutique hotel.
On many levels the night trains make perfect sense. For South Africans spending Randelas the ability to save on a pricey night’s hotel bill in a European capital is an immediate selling point. There’s also no airport security to contend with, and at most stations you’ll simply roll up, step on and settle in. At your destination it’s even easier, with centrally located stations depositing travellers in the heart of each new city. With a bit of careful planning you could hop overnight through Europe and awake to a new capital each morning. All aboard?