Dream on: the overnight rail comeback that’s revitalising inter-city travel

As night trains return in force, Selwyn Parker revisits the old adage that the journey can be just as important as the destination

Europe to Asia while you snooze: The famous Trans-Siberian Express connects Moscow with Vladivostok over eight nights’ travel

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.”

Fresh arrivals: Nightjet passengers the morning after | Photo credit: © Harald Eisenberger www.eisenberger.co.at

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.

Sleeping on a Vietnamese … sleeper

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.

A no-frills express sleeper in Thailand

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.

Arriving in style: Austria’s ÖBB entice new Nightjet passengers to “dream now and enjoy tomorrow”

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.

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The fine art of taking good aim (when trying to save the climate)

Nobody throws a lance when they have no target: what climate policy can learn from human resource management  

Natural disasters are now more frequent and ferocious (Photo: D. Futalan, Pexels.com)

By Hans Michael Kloth

The annual round of climate negotiations known collectively as COP kicks off on 1 November in the Scottish port city of Glasgow. It will be the 26th edition of the “Conference of the Parties” to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change since 1995, the year when signatory countries began to meet annually to assess progress in their efforts to combat climate change. 

This year’s edition, COP26, is a critical meeting for that combat, for time is running out. Most data-based scenarios see temperatures rising far above sustainable levels if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut radically. And scientists warn that climate change will become irreversible as various tipping points approach that threaten to cascade and conjure a “hothouse” climate that will be less inhabitable for humanity. 

Changed dynamic

COP26 is also critically important because the positive dynamic has also changed. The pivot was the Paris Agreement, negotiated in the City of Lights at COP21 in December 2015. There, nearly 200 countries agreed to draw up national decarbonisation strategies and to submit them to a public registry maintained by the UN.  

COP21 created a positive dynamic (Photo: Bruno Chapiron/MAEDI)

More importantly, they committed to continually tighten the screw for carbon emissions and submit more ambitious reductions strategies every five years. COP26 marks the first of three rounds in which plans with increased ambition, better measures and concrete targets must be put on the table (the original date of 2020 was pushed back because of Covid-19).  

In between these five-year intervals, the world community will take stock of whether the world is on track to achieve net-zero emissions and climate resilience by 2050 – or not (see illustration below). 

The process set by the Paris Climate Agreement (Source: Climate Watch, WRI, CC BY 4.0)

Not looking too good 

At the moment, it doesn’t look too good.  Only eight parties to the Paris Agreement have enacted a legal net-zero target, according to Climate Watch. Fourty-four more have made a political pledge to implement net-zero or evoke this target in policy documents. But six years after Paris, 145 countries have not in any way indicated that they are working towards net-zero in 2050 or how – and these 145 make up just under half of GHG emissions.   

review of how countries tackle transport CO2 in their decarbonisation strategies – commonly known as Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs – does not make for encouraging reading either. Only 14% of NDCs contain a concrete target for reducing transport CO2, which is responsible for around a quarter of man-made CO2 emissions – a disappointing share that also hasn’t changed with the new submissions since 27 September (there was only one in fact, from South Africa). 

Public transport users in Toronto, Canada (Photo: Andre Furtado, Pexels.com)

To make matters worse, this group of committed transport decarbonisers which have set an overall reduction target for the sector accounts for a paltry 5% of all transport CO2 emissions.  Conversely, a look at the ten largest overall emitters reveals that all of them acknowledge the role of transport for decarbonisation of the world economy and 7 out of 10 propose concrete measures. But only one of them, Canada, has a concrete transport sector target (and there, it is only the province of British-Columbia, which aims for a 27-32% CO2 reduction by 2030 compared to 2007 levels). 

A glass half full?

Those who like to see the glass half full can point to the fact that three quarters (77%) of Paris Agreement signatory countries at least list transport decarbonisation measures and that these generate fully 87% of global transport CO2 emissions.  Some of these even have sub-targets for specific parts of the transport sector.

The European Union’s Green Deal, for instance, sets the goal of a 55% CO2 reduction from cars and 50% from vans by 2030, and zero emissions from new cars by 2035. Such specific targets are valuable and worth applauding, but they raise the question why such help to get their bearings right is not extended to airlines or the road haulage sector and, ultimately, transport as a whole. That said, the EU does have an economy-wide target of reality climate-neutrality by 2050. 

High-level targets help to create a sense of purpose, align efforts and bundle available resources. Based on decades of research in the cognitive sciences, human resource professionals advise managers to set “SMART” objectives for their teams – goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based. They also recommend that targets should be a bit of a stretch to activate energy, motivation and learning.  

It sounds just like what most national climate strategies need now.