For all their promise of romance and adventure, Europe’s sleeper trains had appeared to have reached the end of the line.
Cripplingly expensive to run and forsaken by travellers for budget airlines, a decision by the German rail operator Deutsche Bahn to terminate the service connecting Paris to Berlin six years ago ushered in the closure of routes across the continent including almost all of France’s network.
But as Europe continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, there are tentative signs of a new dawn for the couchettes and twin bunks, as the concerns of both governments and travellers’ over the environmental impact of short-haul flights are being complemented by a desire to avoid airport departure lounges and security queues.
In the last few weeks there has been a flurry of announcements and inaugural journeys. Last Thursday the Swedish government said it would provide funds for two new routes to connect the cities of Stockholm and Malmö with Hamburg and Brussels.
A few days earlier, France’s transport minister, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, said an overnight service would be resurrected between Paris and Nice following Emmanuel Macron’s Bastille Day promise to redevelop night trains for the nation.
Leading the way has been the Austrian operator Österreichische Bundesbahnen (ÖBB), which had the foresight to buy 42 sleeper cars from Deutsche Bahn in 2016. It has resumed half of the night-time routes connecting Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and Düsseldorf to Austria, Switzerland and Italy.
Despite a recent rise in the number of coronavirus infections in Belgium, up 71% week-on-week, a Brussels-Vienna service, which opened in February offering one-way trips from as low as €29.90 (£27.25), will recommence in September.
Along with government action there is evidence of renewed enthusiasm among the paying public too, as people reflect more deeply on how they travel amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
A new summer night train linking five EU member states – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia – had barely started setting off from Prague on 30 June when the level of demand from holidaymakers heading to the coast ensured it was upgraded to a daily service.
The Swedish rail company Snälltåget said in June it planned to quadruple the number of night trains on its Stockholm-Malmö-Copenhagen-Hamburg-Berlin route. A new Alpine-Sylt night express that began operating between Sylt in northern Germany and Salzburg in Austria was also due to run for only two months but will continue until November due to demand.
“What I am told by people using my site is two things in the same breath: they are fed up with the airport experience and they want to cut their carbon footprint,” said Mark Smith, who runs the award-winning Man in Seat 61 railway website offering information on pan-European services. “Certainly, in the short term, I am getting people commenting that they don’t want to fly [because of the pandemic]. I think climate change will be the bigger one in the long term because hopefully this pandemic will [be] over at some point.”
The recovery of the night train may not be all smooth running, however, as the economics of night services remain difficult.
A normal high-speed train can accommodate 70 people in a coach and take multiple journeys a day, offering a number of stops. A sleeper might hold 20 to 30 beds in a coach but the majority of its passengers will travel end-to-end. The rolling stock is used for just one journey over a 24-hour period.
Train services have had to pay track access charges as they cross borders since 2000. New services run by private companies are often just for the summer months, while state operators are taking huge government handouts in order to re-establish their overnight routes.
As a result, some of the most romantic night train journeys that were still running when the pandemic struck may still be discontinued, including the Thello Paris-Venice night train service and the Trenhotel Lusitania, which runs between Lisbon and Madrid.
Karima Delli, a French MEP who chairs the European parliament’s transport committee, welcomed governments’ loosening of their purse strings. “Relaunching night trains is both a necessity and an ecological solution to the planet,” she said.
But Alexander Gomme, from the Back on Track Belgium campaign group, said there needed to be a wider rethink of the costs to allow private operators to thrive, raise standards and take advantage of the new mentality.
“‘More state’ is a possibility but another is that the European Union makes it easier and cheaper for operators to book track access,” he said. “Night trains do a lot of kilometres and access charges are counted in kilometres.”
Nick Brooks, the secretary general of the Alliance of Rail New Entrants, which represents independent providers, argued that governments should also prohibit airlines receiving state bailouts from operating any short-haul or late-night flights that could be done by train. “This pandemic must lead to a better appreciation for rail,” he said.