As night trains return in force, Selwyn Parker revisits the old adage that the journey can be just as important as the destination
As the European Year of Rail reaches its close, one of its legacies will be the restoration of arguably the most loved of all journeys after a long absence caused primarily by cheap flights that have undercut overnight rail and by the advent of superfast trains that slashed travel times between cities.
Night trains are being revived in several regions, notably Europe, as rail authorities bow to passengers’ growing recognition that speed is not always the most important consideration. As Veronika Haunold, EU and international affairs manager for Austria’s state-run OBB rail service that helped pioneer the recovery of overnight travel with the launch of the Nightjet in 2020, explains: “What matters most to night train passengers is what time they arrive at their destination in the morning, not how long it takes them to get there.”
The aftermath of the pandemic may also be exercising its influence as inter-city commuters seek more personal space in the form of separate compartments with individual facilities. And by no means least, there’s flight-shaming, the movement that disapproves of travel by air because of the high emissions per passenger. Governments are under pressure to at least restore the regulatory balance between rail and aviation.
Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the night train is making a long-awaited comeback. In Europe, several companies have ambitious plans for the near future. France’s Midnight Trains expects to start selling tickets in 2024 for cross-border travel. OBB’s Nightjet, which is run in co-operation with government-owned rail groups in France, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland, has proved so popular that frequencies will be steadily increased as tracks become available. And there are moves afoot to expand Eastern Europe’s EuroNight service between capitals with the co-operation of OBB and other rail groups.
And that’s just in Europe. Indonesia revived its night trains in 2018 after a long period of neglect and now provides facilities akin to business class in aircraft.
In some countries, though, the night train never went away. For Thailand, Bangkok’s long-running sleepers may be basic – no showers, for instance – but they have been popular with locals, commuters and tourists for years. In 2016, more luxurious sleeper cars were added. But the grandaddy of night trains is surely Britain’s privately-owned Caledonian Sleeper, running Sunday to Friday from the top of Scotland to London Euston. Launched in 1873, the Sleeper survived in various guises until 1988, an astonishing 115 years, before it was revived in 1996 and has been going strong ever since, picking up carriages during the night. Completely new carriages were introduced in mid-2019, replacing tired rolling stock with worn interiors. Britain has a good record in domestic night trains – a second service, the Night Riviera Sleeper between London Paddington and Penzance on the Cornish coast, was revived in 1983.
The revival of the overnight train is a victory for passengers. Rail enthusiasts treasure the experience it provides – dining and drinking while the countryside flies by before falling asleep to the clickety-clack of the wheels. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in From a Railway Carriage: “All of the sights of the hill and the plain/Fly as thick as driving rain;/And ever again, in the wink of an eye, Painted stations whistle by.”
It all started going wrong for overnight rail in the 1990s. In the teeth of competition from aviation, state-run rail largely allowed the overnight service to wither and nearly die. Most European state-run companies poured their resources into domestic networks and cut the cross-border links on which overnight services rely. And having given up the fight almost before it started, they parked up their cars. As rail consultant Mark Smith of The Man in Seat 61 points out: “[Some] operators abandoned night trains and scrapped the stock or let it rot in sidings, so it was no longer fit for purpose without major expenditure.”
While Brussels may have the best of intentions for night trains, some countries just aren’t working together and red tape is rife. In just two examples, as OBB’s Haunold points out, locomotives must be changed at the German border to comply with local standards, while Belgium insists that doors can only open for disembarkation on one side. In short, more cross-border co-operation is required. “What is needed is a timetable that is co-ordinated throughout Europe,” she told a seminar this year. Other operators complain about cross-border tax complications such as VAT, something airline passengers don’t have to pay.
Another factor in the near demise of the night train was the need for speed. Both passengers and rail companies everywhere became excited about flagship superfast trains hurtling through the countryside at 200-300km/h. Before 1965 when Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train started slashing travel times between cities by half, overnight rail in the basic “blue sleepers” was common. Today there’s only one surviving night train in all of Japan, the Sunrise Express serving two destinations out of Tokyo. However, berths are so popular, especially the private cabins, that it’s essential to book well in advance.
Today’s night trains are a definite improvement on those of yesteryear. The new operators are improving the experience: mini-suites with individual toilets and showers, more comfortable beds, working facilities, quieter carriages, high-quality bars and food. Passengers are happy to pay a premium for this level of comfort, with tickets prices roughly pitched at the equivalent of a night in a four-star hotel, including travel. All that’s required now is for EU-wide regulators to get together so that costs and complexity can be reduced.
Selwyn Parker is an independent journalist and author of Chasing the Chimney Sweep about the first Tour de France of 1903.
The International Transport Forum’s Decarbonising Transport initiative promotes carbon-neutral mobility to help stop climate change. It provides decision makers with tools to select CO2 mitigation measures that deliver on their climate commitment. Learn more
The latest ITF Statistics Brief includes data for a full picture of transport trends during 2020, including passenger and freight rail transport. Get the Brief