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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My year of train-bragging

In 2019, ITF shipping expert Olaf Merk decided to live up to his own recommendations on cutting transport CO2. So for all his professional trips, he tried to avoid air travel and use the train instead. Did he manage, and what did he learn?

By Olaf Merk

For many years I was a frequent flyer, with an average of 35 trips annually. Then three things happened: Greta showed how to walk the talk; I had an accident that made it impossible for me to take a plane for four months; and Paris suffered a record heat wave that once again illustrated the urgency.

It was time to live up to my own recommendations. As a transport expert, I have been advocating drastic reductions of transport CO2 for a long time.  Now I decided I would no longer take the plane for travels within Europe.  And so, of the 17 international trips I took for my work in 2019 (of which 16 were within Europe), I made 13 by train.

What did I learn from this?

Welcome to your comfort zone

The first lesson: taking the train instead of a plane is not that hard. Expect more space and more freedom to move around. Some trains also have very pleasant dining cars. On a more metaphysical level, train travel offers the feeling to be connected to the countries that you cross. You are actually travelling, not just being moved from one place to another.

Of course, a train ride often takes longer. To get from Paris to Copenhagen took me 15 hours, and 11 hours to Rome. The links could be faster – astonishingly, relatively few European capitals are directly connected by rail connections.  

And there are quite a lot of weak links: taking the train to Copenhagen meant in practice taking three different trains, a ferry and a bus. It would have taken me two full days to get to Tallinn by train and bus from Paris, so I decided to fly instead. My excuses for the other non-train trips also somehow illustrate the vulnerabilities of train travel: a national strike and flooded rail tracks in southern France.

Travel longer, lose less time

Trains take longer, but I did not have to waste time going shuttling to and from airports. For obvious reasons most airports are located outside most cities, far from where you need to be, whereas train stations almost always lead directly to city centres. No need either to factor in time to work my way through gigantic airport shopping centres.

Changing trains is also less time-consuming than changing plane, too – not to mention that trains (usually) don’t require queuing at the security check or for boarding. Of course a ten-hour train journey wears me down. But, on balance, I find it is less stressful than air travel. The prospect of spending more than a working day travelling – even if you can actually work more effectively during train travel than during flights – makes you think twice whether you really need to make this trip, or whether tele-conferencing would not be a better option.

The price is not right

Lesson number three is that the price is not right. The main drawback of train travel is that it is often more expensive than travelling by plane. There are some noticeable counter-examples, but not enough. And as an employee, I am obliged to pick the most economical travel option – and in that logic, train travel involves extra costs that the organisation I work for needs to avoid. The same is the case for many other organisations.

I paid the difference in price between the train ticket and what an airline would have charged me. But I fear we cannot depend on the altruism of frequent flyers to see a massive shift to rail.

Bragging is contagious

The nicest part of train bragging is that it is contagious. There is a whole online community of co-braggers that are more than happy to support their peers. And so your example might well inspire others. I was excited when a German executive told me about his own shift to train travel a few months after I had shared with him my own conversion. All these small behavioural changes are starting to become visible at the macro-level: in countries like Sweden and Germany, air travel volumes in 2019 were down.

Yet, not everyone was equally enthusiastic: I also encountered sceptics when I outed myself. Some denied that planes have bigger carbon footprint than trains. Just to get this out of the way: in almost all circumstances, train travel is less carbon intensive than air travel. In the parts of Europe where trains are still dirty, they can be electrified; and electricity is becoming quickly cleaner in Europe. This in contrast to aviation: there are no immediate solutions to reduce aviation emissions except reduced demand. The most direct option that frequent flyers have to limit their carbon footprint is to fly less and shift to rail travel.

Picking up speed

What is my personal conclusion? Employers should encourage staff to travel less, and if they have to travel, travel by train. The costs of greenhouse gas emissions should be taken into account in the price comparison of travel modes, not as an afterthought via a carbon offset from a separate budget. Ideally, it should also cover other climate change impacts, such as radiative forcing, high for aviation. Employers should also make sure that flights for work reasons won’t be counted towards personal frequent flyer cards, which will incentivise their staff to fly more.

Train operators can also do better. More attention to customer service rather than on stacking as many people as possible in a train will make train journeys more attractive. They can improve service in train stations for frequent travellers; maybe develop a pan-European frequent rail traveller programme. There is huge potential in better integration of rail services with airports and aviation networks, too. Some airlines have started to realise this.

Competition among railway operators also helps, as do governments committed to a modal shift towards rail. They should accelerate the upgrading of missing links: I found Hamburg-Copenhagen, Lyon-Turin and railway connections to the Baltic states a pain. In parallel to investing in high-speed rail, governments should close loop-holes that keep the price of flying so low – aviation fuel, for instance, is not taxed at all.

If I can take the train most of the time, I guess almost everyone else can. After one year of bragging I know one thing for certain: The train with destination “low-emission transport” has left the station. For now, its pace is accelerating but still too slow. Together we can turn it into a high-speed train.

“Digitalization is a key enabler to even higher safety standards”

Laurent Troger, President of Bombardier Transportation, talks about the impact of digitization on the safety and security of rail and associated costs, harmonisation of technical and legal standards, and industry risks.

“We always put safety first, no exceptions. Now more than ever we believe that our relentless evolution of technical safety is a vital prerequisite for successful mobility solutions. Digitalization is a key enabler to safety standards in the transportation industry. This is for the benefit of rail operators, passengers and society”, Laurent Troger.


Safety and security are obviously very important in transport, but ensuring them carries significant costs. How can operators and manufacturers make mobility safer and more secure while keeping it affordable?

Rail manufacturers have shown that competition and innovation can deliver the safety standards we need at the price we want. For example, as the technology used to develop autonomous vehicles matures, its price drops and Bombardier is already applying those technologies to our rail vehicles. One example is our system to detect obstacles, a cost-effective breakthrough that exponentially improves tram safety. Taken overall, rail is still a very affordable mobility option. The capital costs for a new train account for around one third of its full lifetime cost and today’s trains are safer, more energy efficient, more reliable and easier to maintain then they have ever been.

Technical and legal standards play a huge role in making transportation safe and secure. From the global player’s perspective, where is more harmonisation needed to further improve safety and security?

We have made great progress with the existing European regulations supported by European standards and a single EU-wide authorisation process. These measures have already reduced costs and removed persistent administrative barriers. Signalling standards such as ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System) and ETCS (European Train Control System) are also positive achievements that we should be proud of, but are something we still need to build upon.

However, one area where I do see a need to maintain our focus on harmonization is in cyber security. Bombardier is working with other manufacturers, operators, authorities and assessment organizations to create a single, coherent set of safety standards. As critical infrastructures, the cyber security of the entire rail ecosystem’s technical integrity needs to be a focal point in the years ahead. Everyone from manufacturer and operator to the owner and the authority has a significant role to play in ensuring our rail systems aren’t compromised.

Do you see digitalisation and innovation as increasing the safety of rail mobility? Or do you view them as risks?

Digitalization is already improving security. Due to the relative affordability of advanced sensors, manufacturers are leveraging the power of mobility innovations for rolling stock services. This implies predictive maintenance or communication based train control for signalling. Both have increased safety and reduced the potential for human error while improving efficiency. Of course, the Internet of Things, interconnectivity and the potential integration of personal devices into operator’s platforms do present new challenges. But they are challenges that we will mitigate with cyber security solutions like the introduction of faster and more robust telecommunications – for example the Long-Term Evolution, hi-speed wireless standard for signalling infrastructure. It might not be easy to address these new challenges as they emerge, but it’s certainly not impossible. Either way, Bombardier chooses to see digitalization as an advantage and an opportunity.

Laurent Troger will join other transport leaders from across the globe for the ITF 2018 Summit on “Transport Safety and Security” in Leipzig, Germany held from 23 to 25 May. Find out more…

“The future of transport is electric”

Jochen Eickholt Siemens Mobility CEOJochen Eickholt, the CEO of Siemens Mobility, talks about electric highways and bus networks and creating cities full of sensors that link up cars with their surroundings.

One of your projects at Siemens is electrifying motorways, so electric trucks can be used for long-distance freight, without even requiring batteries. Why are you convinced that the “eHighway”, as you call it, is the future of road freight?

Transport remains the last sector where fossil fuel dependency has not been substantially mitigated, making it a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions. Electric mobility offers a variety of benefits here, including improved local air quality, fuel diversification into renewable sources to reduce dependency on fossil fuels, and increased energy efficiency to lower operating costs. The eHighway combines resource-efficient railway technology with the flexibility of road transport.

How does this work in practice?

The adapted hybrid trucks are supplied with electricity from overhead contact lines. An active pantograph can automatically connect and disconnect with the contact line at speeds up to 90 km/h. The direct transmission of electric energy ensures an outstanding efficiency of 80 to 85 per cent from substation in-feed to the wheel. This is twice as high as that of conventional diesel engines. The eHighway also makes it possible to recover braking energy and store it on-board. It can also feed other trucks operating on the system or even feed the electricity back into the public grid. These energy savings translate into even higher system efficiency, lower emissions, and lower energy consumption. High efficiency is the backbone of future road freight transport as well as decarbonisation.

Talking about electric mobility, would you agree that it will play a vital role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions of  passenger transport?

The future of transport is electric, whether by rail or by road.  For metros, light rail and high-speed trains  electrification has been established for many years as a way to ensure highest energy efficiency while  minimizing local emissions. With the ongoing electrification of railroads all over the world, rail traffic has become increasingly emission free. According to a recent study by the International Railway Union (UIC), rail is the most emissions-efficient major transport mode. Electric trains powered by renewable energy can offer practically carbon-free journeys and transport.

In cities, eBuses will play a role similar to the one I just described for the eHighway and hybrid-driven trucks. They offer the same advantages -energy efficiency, local zero emissions and, thanks to modern control systems, an improved travel experience for passengers. This is why they are in a good position to help satisfy the increasing demand for sustainable transport solutions in cities at a time when growing transport volumes and limited expansion possibilities for transport routes pose ever more serious problems.

What kind of innovations do engineers have in store to make electrified public transport a regular sight?

It is possible for instance to equip buses with a flexible Offboard High Power Charger, which adds considerable flexibility to eBus services. The buses need to stop at the charging station only for a few minutes. The system is ideal for high-frequency operations, since the charging infrastructure can be used by several buses per hour. It would even work if the vehicles were produced by different manufacturers. This is no scenario for the distant future; in fact the system’s practical feasibility in daily operation is already being demonstrated – for instance in Vienna, Gothenburg or Hamburg.

Offboard High Power charger
Offboard High Power Charger in Hamburg (Photo: Siemens)

Everyone is talking about self-driving vehicles. What is your take on autonomous driving?

The next step in the evolution of green, safe and efficient public transport on roads will be self-driving shuttle buses. At present there are several pilot projects under way, in areas such as university campuses and still operating with a driver as a back-up. Over the long run, electric-powered self-driving cars will be the new norm for individual and shared traffic in our cities. They are safe, emission-free and silent. But there is still a long way to go – infrastructures are not ready for that phase yet.


Cr2X screenshot

What needs to happen in terms of infrastructure?


Today, self-driving cars run well only under certain conditions,-  in a controlled environment and when the weather is right. The sensors fail when it rains or snows; and they also fail when the sun is too bright. And even though they already are quite powerful, sensors can’t see around the corner or through an object that is blocking the sensors sight. Today, the human driver serves as a “redundancy system” that makes up for these defects. But without someone at the wheel, the self-driving car would have only one option: to switch to safe mode in uncertain situations. This is not acceptable, because it means having to reduce speed radically or even stopping. Neither alternative is compatible with traffic regulations and the requirement not to hinder the flow of traffic. And, even worse, passengers wouldn’t accept driving in a slow and stuttering vehicle.

Overcoming these restrictions first of all needs a different perspective. We need to move from a car-centered approach to a systemic approach. There have to be sensors not only in the cars, but on the road as well to monitor and process what’s going on there – and communicate what they see to the cars. Similarly, cars need to communicate with one another and with the infrastructure around them. The combination of  complementary roadside sensor networks, a reliable real-time communication network such as 5G, and autonomous electric-powered cars will form a systemic transport net for future cities. But without the appropriate infrastructure, such a vision will remain  science fiction.

Jochen Eickholt leads the Mobility Division of global engineering giant Siemens AG. He studied electrical engineering at Aachen Technical University in Germany and Imperial College London, UK. He was appointed CEO of the Rail Automation Business Unit in 2009 and became CEO of the Mobility Division in 2012. On 31 May 2017 he will join ministers and other leaders for a discussion of  “The governance of transport in the digital economy” in the opening plenary of  ITF’s 2017 Summit on “Governance of Transport”


“We must reinvent mobility”

Michael_Cramer square CroppedMichael Cramer of the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport talks about the imbalance between transport modes and the lessons from “Dieselgate”.

A lot of innovation is happening in transport right now – headlines about self-driving cars and electric vehicles abound. Are we finally on the path towards sustainable mobility?

Cramer: Billions are still invested in forms of mobility that ruin our climate. And it’s still all about cars. Without reinventing mobility we will not be able to stop climate change. A veteran German politician, former Munich mayor Hans-Jochen Vogel, said it well as early as 1972: “Cars are murdering our cities. Those who sow streets will harvest traffic”. Even if one day all cars will be electric, they will still be murdering our cities. When all cars are self-driving, they will still be murdering our cities. We must reduce emissions, sure. But it’s not only about energy efficiency, we must also reinvent mobility as a whole. 90% of car rides in German cities are shorter than 6 kilometers. These are ideal distances to go by tram, bus, bicycle or to walk. Electric cars are being subsidized with billions of Euros – indiscriminately, regardless of the real effect. By comparison, peanuts are given to support the use of electric bicycles or of cargo bikes, where they could have a real impact – cargo bikes could take over half of inner-city deliveries. Neither is there enough investment into the electrification of rail. The interests of car manufacturing are still dominating policy decisions.

But all car companies are busy rethinking their business models. Most are taking a broader view and branch out into areas like Mobility as a Service. Is your description not outdated?

The car industry must change much faster if it really wants to avoid the fate of the large energy utilities. Those ridiculed renewable energies for decades and now find themselves rather wrong-footed. Edzard Reuter, who was boss of Daimler-Benz from 1987 to 1995, warned thirty years ago that car manufacturers would only survive if by evolving into providers of mobility. In those days, Daimler-Benz not only built cars but

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“It’s still all about cars” (Photo: Oran Viriyincy)

also trucks, busses, trams, light rail trains, high-speed trains and even bicycles. His successor sold all those activities. Today, automotive companies are completely dependent on car sales, while they could have profited from the global boom in trams and light rail, for instance. I don’t see much innovation coming from big players who can hardly budge; it will be small and agile companies that plant the seeds of change.

What about the institutions that set the rules under which innovations either thrive or fail – do governments and regulatory agencies also need to become a little more agile?

Let me be a little cynical: No, they really don’t need additional agility. They need to discover what it means to be agile in the first place. One way of becoming more flexible, reactive and creative is to listen less to lobbyists. Take the “Dieselgate” scandal. We Green members of the European Parliament had to go to enormous lengths to get an inquiry going into the tempering with emissions tests. This inquiry has found EU member states and the European Commission guilty of negligence. The committee of inquiry proposed to set up an independent body with responsibility for controlling vehicle emissions. The Parliament’s transport committee, which I shared at the time, voted for this proposal as well. But it was  subsequently killed in the parliament by organised interests who lobbied deputies with the spectre of job losses in their region.


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Cycling freaks (Photo: ITF)

What is the lesson from that for you, as a policy maker?

It is hard to stomach that Diesel is still subsidised in many countries, despite being much more harmful in terms of NOx, NO2 and particular matter than standard petrol. Half a million people die as a result of particular matter, NOx and NO2 emissions every year in the European Union. Imagine our drinking water would be polluted like that – there would be immediate action. Not for the air we breathe. Europe’s political institutions – the Council, the Commission, and the European Parliament – must work harder. If after this criminal fraud we can’t abolish subsidies for Diesel, we shouldn’t even be using the word “sustainability”.

Ultimately, are you an optimist or a skeptic regarding the future of human mobility?

A bit of both. We have all the opportunities in the world. When I started out in politics, I was treated as a freak because I advocated cycling as a mode of transport. But it is now a reality. In Copenhagen more than 50% of all inhabitants cycle to work. In Berlin, the number of cyclists has doubled over the past ten years, and without major policy interventions. People will do what is right, and that is my hope.


Michael Cramer is Member of the European Parliament for the Green Party.  He chaired the Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism from 2014-17 and remains on the committee. Cramer also heads the parliamentary platform “Rail Forum Europe” and initiated the 10 000 km-long Iron Curtain Bicycle Trail from the Baltic to the Black Sea. On 2 June he will discuss new business models in transport and  the role for authorities with other experts at ITF’s 2017 Summit on “Governance of Transport”. Part of the Summit programme is a bicycle tour led by the mayor of Leipzig.