Sleeper Trains Return to Europe Amid Climate Crisis

On a sweltering Sunday evening in late July, Klaydy Buchsbaum boarded a train bound for Vienna at Paris’s Gare de l’Est, slid open the door to compartment 412, tossed her hat onto the upper bunk for her overnight journey and got down to the serious work of maneuvering her oversized lavender suitcase into place. “Flights were so expensive, and with all the chaos in flying right now, I didn’t want to get stuck in an airport somewhere. And I didn’t want my bag to get lost,” she said. The behemoth was finally crammed under her seat. “As my husband always says, I’m not the kind of person who travels with just a small carry-on.”

This summer’s air travel chaos has added another reason why a growing number of European travelers are opting for the rails. But a key factor—and the one behind a number of public and private initiatives to bring back overnight trains—is concern over climate change. Railway journeys can release as low as one-fifth of the greenhouse gases that flights. This is why E.U. member countries, railway companies and national governments are all concerned. The lowering of emissions is one reason that bodies are promoting the reopening of the network for overnight intermediate-distance railway lines once connecting Europe. Even with all this effort and demand, these initiatives have still a lot of work to do.

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Europe’s night train network began eroding in the 1990s. The demand for overnight trains dwindled as low-cost airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet emerged. In 2019, Switzerland and Germany had either sold their night connections or closed them down completely. The total number of European passenger night trains had dropped from approximately 1,200 weekly in 2001 to 450 in 2019. It was difficult for anyone to buy a cross-continental train ticket after the dismantling. Today, anyone who wants to travel on a train between Copenhagen and Barcelona would need to create their ticket using a confusing web of timetables and website links. Then, they could change trains three to eight times over the two-day trip.

Overnight trains have been revived by one company in the country. This has been done since recent years. Citing growing concern about climate change, Austria’s state-owned railway ÖBB bought up some of the old international lines in 2016 and began launching overnight journeys at a rate of about one per year. Paris-Vienna Nightjet started operating in December 2021.

In 2019, those efforts got an important boost when flygskam—the Swedish word for “flight shame”—burst into public consciousness around the world, thanks to activist Greta Thunberg. The numbers grew once again during the turbulent summer, when staff shortages caused a rash of cancellations and baggage loss. “Before corona, we were always full during summer months and during weekends and that was it,” says Bernhard Rieder, director of media relations for ÖBB. “This year, from Easter, we’ve been completely full on all lines every day. We get a lot of complaints from people who say ‘we hardly have a chance to get a seat or a bed’.”

Some start-ups pay attention. Midnight Trains was founded by Romain Payet and Adrien Aumont in response to growing concerns about carbon-spewing airlines. It’s a private company that, when it is up and running, promises to connect 10 European cities from its hub in Paris with transport that is more like a hotel on rails than a traditional night train. “This is a product that hasn’t been reinvented for the last 20 to 30 years,” says Payet. “So we started working together on how to reinvent the night train to make it the most sustainable and comfortable way to travel across Europe.”

Nightjet compartment that is used on the Vienna/Innsbruck – Hamburg route on July 11, 2022.

Christian Charisius—Picture-Alliance/dpa/AP

When Midnight Trains launches its first line in 2024, there will be easy online booking and refunds, a dining car serving recipes designed by a Michelin-starred chef and a range of accommodations—all of them private and outfitted with real beds and linens.

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Public and private night-train initiatives can be complicated. One price: In late July, an all-round Paris-Vienna Nightjet tickets for a berth at a couchette with four or six people cost approximately 154 Euros (the actual costs depend on the date and amenities). This was slightly less than what you would pay for plane tickets. This discrepancy can be explained in part by a problem with the European pricing structure. Rail tickets are exempted of VAT while airline tickets are.

A rail trip is much longer. Nightjet passengers avoid having to make the long trip from Paris to Vienna and then navigating the security lines. The trip from Paris to Vienna takes still 14 hours, compared with 2.5 by plane. Some of that is down to rail traffic that forces trains to sit idle—sometimes for as long as 45 minutes—on the tracks. “People have this perception that the tracks are empty, but that’s not true,” says ÖBB’s Rieder. The tracks can be crowded at night with freight trains and slow cars, making it difficult to find a place on them.

Sometimes delays are caused by legal and technical reasons. Due to differences in engine car specifications, it is often necessary to change them at border crossings. Once the trains stop, authorities frequently use the opportunity to board and inspect passenger passports—even within the border-free Schengen area that covers some 26 European countries. “We’re trying to buy locomotives that will be interoperable between countries so we don’t have to stop at the border, but the manufacturers are saying they won’t have those ready until 2026 or ‘27,” says Payet from Midnight Trains. In the meantime, Midnight Trains is developing a system to allow passengers to submit their documents online before they fly, much like airlines.

Many of these issues are addressed in the European Commission’s Action Plan that was approved at the end of 2021. This plan proposes a Europe-wide ticketing platform that allows passengers to quickly piece together international travel arrangements, as well as infrastructure investments that eliminate the need for railroad changes at the border. Additionally, it calls for a review of VAT rates and the establishment of an EU-wide ticketing program. The target date of digital booking systems adoption at the close of this year has been moved to the second quarter of 2023.

“It’s not something that’s easy,” says Adalbert Jahnz, European Commission spokesperson for transport. “We’ve got 25 networks on the European level, which are pretty complex.” Jahnz says the E.U. It has advanced by redirecting 50 billion euro of COVID-19 Recovery funds to rail, and passing legislation which creates Europe-level certification of rail infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the E.U.’s goal of cutting carbon emissions by 55% by 2030, and reaching the more ambitious target of net zero by 2050, has been a boon for rail. France and Austria set conditions for their national airlines to stop short-haul flights. Since then France has banned all such flights, whether they are by rail or bus. A boost has been also given by the energy crisis: Germany reduced domestic rail ticket prices to 9 euro this summer for 3 months. Spain offered commuter and regional train services free of charge from June through August.

Yet from the rail companies point of view, huge obstacles remain to meeting Europeans’ demand for rail travel, and the greatest is the lack of carriages—what the rail industry calls “rolling stock”—as the relatively few remaining manufacturers grapple with increased demand. “There are no new cars or even used cars available on the market,” says ÖBB’s Rieder. “In 2018, we ordered 33 complete new train sets. And they won’t be delivered until the middle of next year.”

The shortage of rolling stock helps explain why Midnight Trains won’t debut its first line, which Payet expects to be from Paris to northern Italy, until the second half of 2024. “When you look at the manufacturing sector, all of the big ones have backlogs for the next 10 years just from the national companies,” says Payet. “And if you’re a small, private company trying to get in [to the industry], they basically tell you, we’re full until 2028.”

Nightjet does not have new carriages, which is why some amenities that would make overnight trains more attractive to travellers, such as WiFi or plenty of electrical outlets, do not exist. Many of these cars are 25-30 years old.

Buchsmann said she enjoyed the basic breakfast provided to passengers and that it was a great opportunity to get to know other passengers. Still, she admits, she didn’t sleep all that well. “The beds were a little hard,” she says.

Jean-Baptiste Fouvry had a very sleepless night on his Nightjet flight. A 32-year-old man was travelling to Vienna for a professional conference. Instead of taking a berth, he chose to sit in the seat and spent the night in the same compartment as five other passengers. As an environmentally-conscious scientist at Paris’ Institute of Astrophysics, he still didn’t regret his decision to travel by train. “If you care about climate change,” he says in reference to the journey, “it’s not sufficiently horrible enough not to do.”

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