The return of night trains shows the enduring appeal of rail

On a cold January morning, a train rolled into the Brussels Midi/Zuid/South station after a very special journey. Operated by Austria’s ÖBB, the so-called NightJet was the inaugural voyage of a new twice-weekly service connecting Vienna to Brussels and represented the revival of an old but august tradition: the night train.

Back in fashion

The sleeper train, which left Vienna at 8.38pm and arrived in the Belgian capital at 10.55am, carried senior European Union officials, who were greeted by a red carpet and a brass band. One of them was French Green MEP Karima Delli, who chairs the European Parliament’s Transport and Tourism Committee. “It’s extraordinary to be able to travel across central Europe and arrive in Belgium in just a dream,” she said.

The night train is back in fashion. New services are popping up around Europe as both passengers and operators rediscover the value of the sedate travel form.

When Deutsche Bahn scrapped its night services in 2017, ÖBB took over some of the key routes and the stock. Of ÖBB’s 34 million long-distance travellers last year, 1.4 million (or 4%) rode the night trains, contributing 17% of the turnover. ÖBB now runs 27 night trains, alone or with partners, serving cities in Germany, Italy and Switzerland.

The Netherlands Railways (NS) will have its service in December 2020 from Amsterdam to Nürnberg and then to Vienna. There is a push from German MEPs for Deutsche Bahn to restore the night train between the Berlin and Brussels by the time the country’s EU presidency gets underway in July. Swedish transport authorities have proposed services from Malmö to other European cities. The Swiss SBB is joining in, while the Caledonian Sleeper service in the UK has this year expanded its network, adding new luxury trains.

Increased comfort

Why are night trains enjoying a moment? There are two main reasons, both of which reflect wider transport concerns about climate and congestion.

The first one, about the environmental costs, ties in with the Swedish concept of ‘flygskam’ or ‘flight shame’ that is associated with teenage activist Greta Thunberg. Trains are seen as clean compared to flying – and there is data to suggest that people are shifting to rail for green reasons. A Paris-Venice flight generates about 105kg of carbon emission per passenger compared with about 29.4 kg by train.

The second is related to the ease and comfort of the service: train travel is seen as relaxing and agreeable. It recalls the romance of movies like ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ and ‘North By Northwest’ that featured sleepers. These trains may not be as fast from door-to-door as flying (although sometimes they are) and may not allow the at-destination convenience of driving, but they are less stressful and – for fans – efficient, practical and much more civilized. Not to mention cheaper: Vienna to Venice, for example, costs about €35 on a night train, compared to around €105 on a plane.

But night trains are offering customers a green and pleasant alternative to driving and flying. And for many Europeans in 2020, that is just the ticket.