Night Trains – They’re not dead yet

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Germany’s Deutsche Bahn and France’s SNCF terminated most of their respective City Night Lines and Intercités de Nuit pan-European night train routes by the end of 2016. The cessation of services by these two large overnight train operators seemed to herald the end of the line.

So it seems strange that author and journalist Andrew Martin held faint hope for the mode in his book Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper in the face of increasing cuts, despite the services having been overtaken by faster aeroplanes and high speed trains, cheaper long distance coaches, and more flexible but more tiring (and polluting) road trips. Even overnight trains’ railed brethren, high-speed trains, have pushed wagon-lits (French meaning bed car) to beyond the profitability margins.

Having been written during the nadir of European night train services in 2017, whence the book was published, this book is almost a requiem. It relates the author’s trips on modern reconstituted equivalents or evolutions of classic European sleeper trains such as the Golden Arrow/Flèche d’Or, the Night Ferry train, le Train Bleu, the Rome Express and the Orient Express. But the book is as much a social and cultural history as about the trains themselves.

There are several interchangeable terms for night trains – sleeper trains, sleepers, overnight trains and wagon-lit. Berths are stacked two or three vertically, often in the direction of travel, whilst cabins have beds lying cross-wise that fold up into a sofa or chairs.

All Eight Arts are referenced

Like a railway version of James Burke’s Connections television series, Martin’s book draws in Napoleon III, Impressionism, Edwardian tourism, Agatha Christie, British diplomacy, Inspector Maigret, onboard food quality and modern European rail integration. He also weaves in his sharp observations and dry wit about fellow travellers and locals.

The examples he includes (but are by no means exhaustive) in fact cover all of the philosopher Georg Fredrick Hegel’s and Ricardo Canudo’s breakdown of the Eight Arts:

  1. Architecture – of railway stations and hotels.
  2. Sculpture – on and inside said buildings.
  3. Visual Arts (painting and drawing) – Impressionists liked to portray the increasing industrialisation of travel and infrastructure, specifically railway stations.
  4. Music – the German band Kraftwerk.
  5. Literature and Poetry – the murder mystery aboard night train genre.
  6. Performing Arts (theatre, dance, spectacle) – Le Train Bleu ballet of 1924 featured a story by Jean Cocteau, costumes by Coco Chanel and scenery by Pablo Picasso.
  7. Cinema – numerous films have been set on night trains, including that most famous one, Murder on the Orient Express.
  8. Media arts (television, radio, photography) – Ian Nairn’s television series Journeys, among others.

It is an injustice that the culinary arts are excluded from this breakdown of Arts, given the excellent quality of onboard night train meal options described therein.

Evolving roles of night trains

International train travel was the long haul luxury flying experience of its day – railway company rivalries and national prestige were at stake. The wealthy often had their own sleeping and parlour coaches added to trains. But several classes of traveller were carried on sleepers, making them the standard long distance travel mode on most continents for most of the 20th century. European night trains were also the forbearers of frictionless borders predated the Schengen agreement by over a century – by entrusting their passports to the train’s staff, passengers could sleep through border crossings.

Being the wealthiest country in Europe around the turn of the twentieth century, well off British tourists took sleeper trains to warmer and historic places in Europe. So much so that for many European railway companies Britons were a major component of their ridership and profits. As a rearguard action, British railway companies in turn heavily promoted domestic holiday destinations.

Initially the only comfortable and safe mode for long distance land journeys, night trains have evolved from their heyday after being demoted down the transport hierarchy, to the extent that Europe’s night trains were thought to be withering to the point of extinction in recent years.

Whilst the fallen flags of extinct classic night trains have often been revived, sometimes it is merely in name, taking advantage of a long lost sleeper’s cachet and reputation. Or it can take the form of an evolution of service, typically because of changing ownership and demographics. Nevertheless, night trains persist in many countries in the face of accountants and MBAs.

To get a sense of the tone, breadth and humour of the book, check out the preview in this 2017 article in the Guardian.

Interesting facts

  • Dover Ferry station was the only timetabled British Rail passenger point with no platform.
  • The Paris Petite Ceinture railway operated as a western Europe sleeper train hub, allowing through passengers in wagon-lits to bypass Parisian stations.
Petite Ceinture track (blue line), connections (blue dots) with SNCF rail network, and the Petite Ceinture track is used by RER C (orange). Assoc’n Sauvgarde Petite Ceinture

And modern developments

With many countries prioritising their day trains between larger cities, many smaller cities and towns have now lost their rail service and often intercity bus services as well. As a result, many countries still invest in night trains to provide much needed local travel options, despite the apparent money losses. It’s a social good that doesn’t appear on any balance sheet.

Fortunately most night trains have not been repackaged into the airline experience of cramped seats, over-processed food and indefinitely wrapped snacks. Sleepers are a respite from fast but increasingly queued and cramped travel.

Night train types

There are some key differences among contemporary night train markets and demographics:

  • The UK’s Caledonian Sleeper and Night Riviera trains are as much long distance commuter trains as tourist ones – they provide comfortable, unhurried travel in and out of London every night (except Saturdays) from major and minor cities and towns, saving the traveller an expensive hotel stay in London.
  • ‘Adventure’ tourist trains to remote regions, usually on the periphery of Europe (northern Scandinavia, Scottish Highlands), which also provide key transport for locals.
  • Most sleeper trains have some larger First Class cabins and multi-course meals to provide a mid-range land cruise experience, in addition to sleeping berths and reclining seats for budget travellers.
  • Private luxury land cruise trains like the Orient Express still enjoy good custom.
  • Some sleepers to Swedish and Alpine ski resorts are still being operated.

Night train resurgence

The resurgence started when Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) took over some of Germany’s Deutsch Bahn night train routes, rebranding them as Nightjet. Austria saw the benefit in taking advantage of its central location to become the long distance train crossroads of Europe. They have been proven successful, quickly breaking even as traffic grew from 1.4 million passengers in 2017 to 1.6 million in 2018, with 1.8 million expected in 2019.


ÖBB Nightjet network

Nor has ÖBB stood still – it recently ordered a fleet of 13 new Nightjet trains which are expected to enter service in 2022. Furthermore ÖBB’s success has motivated other countries to take another look at the sleeper train services – ÖBB is expecting to operate a sleeper train service to France later this year, an Amsterdam connection in the near future, and it is evaluating additional night train routes in partnership with Sweden and even Germany.

Sweden

Sweden already has domestic overnight trains to its north, and a thrice-weekly summer service between Malmö and Berlin, but it is now looking to expand sleeper service to several European destinations. This is part of a government initiative to increase environmentally-friendly transport, specifically by reducing the massive carbon footprint from transportation, as part of Sweden’s goal of becoming the world’s fossil-fuel free country.

Scandinavian night train network

Switzerland

Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) had withdrawn night trains in 2009, but has recently identified a market need and was looking at potential routes, for which it would partner with ÖBB. SBB expects it could launch new services in two or three years, once new night train rolling stock is ordered and delivered.

Netherlands

Netherlands Railways is also working with ÖBB to reintroduce night trains to Amsterdam.

France

Prioritising it’s TGV network, SNCF cancelled its mythic Train Bleu between Paris and Vintimille in Italy in 2017. The railway still operates a couple lntercité de nuit trains, but only during the summer and winter holidays.

French rail activists were instrumental in having the French government commit to continuing its two remaining overnight trains between Paris and the Alps and the Pyrenees after the next long-term contract with SNCF Mobilités that starts in 2020, allocating €30m for refitting the rolling stock.

In May 2019 the French government voted to study new night train routes and partnerships for economic and tourist development. Interestingly these look like they will be operated as five routes out of Strasbourg, not Paris.

Czech Republic

Czech train operator Regiojet Introduced a new overnight line in 2017 with all-new cars traveling from Prague through Slovakia and was later extended further east to the city of Humenne.

Finland

Finland is an outlier as it has not cut down its night trains. It invested millions of Euros in double-decker sleeper cars in 2010 for its popular Santa Express overnight train that travels between Helsinki and snow-covered Lapland above the Arctic Circle.

Finland’s new double decker sleeper cars

Russia

Russian Railways (RZD) also operates eight cross-Europe sleeper routes, including Moscow-Paris and St Petersburg-Helsinki, as part of a soft diplomacy initiative. These trains have bogie changes for the track gauge difference.

Night trains are back in business

Many countries are now reinvesting in in new sleeper car stock, such as Scotland’s Caledonian Sleeper, which spent £150m on a new fleet of 75 coaches. Even high end lifestyle and design magazine Monocle advocates them for the unhurried elegance of travel.

A number of European countries are committing to more environmentally friendly travel, as a train emits less than half of the CO2 compared to aeroplanes, with the added benefits of less unproductive waiting and security hassle. And as climate change and environmental concerns mount, this trend of increasing investment in sleepers should continue. Finally the environmental ledger is being considered.

The most ecological land travel mode, many night train lines are electrified, further reducing pollution. Lesser known is overnight trains’ role in demand shifting – reducing rail demand at peak train times, spreading out ridership and increasing rail network capacity. They also provide important tourist access to smaller and less accessible cities, towns and attractions.

Sweden has led the way with its concept of ‘flight shaming‘ (flygskam) those who take ecologically ruinous flights when they could #stayontheground to travel instead. Student climate activist Greta Thunberg leads the way by refusing to fly, instead taking long distance trains, often sleepers, in her travels across Europe.

Night train advocate groups, Back on Track and Stay Grounded have also sprung up to promote the large environmental advantages of trains over planes, espouse long distance freight trains and end Europe’s tax exemption on aviation fuel.

With no security line up and inspection, no fuel or baggage surtaxes and no mandatory checked baggage, sleeper train passengers can arrive up to a minute before departure and depart. On board showers and dining cars on most trains allow provide gastronomical and physical refreshing. Sleepers provide travel without losing a sightseeing day.

Last thoughts

Fortunately the most important thing that I learned from this book is that its conclusion, night trains were an endangered species, was wrong. To be honest, Martin had described the very start of the renaissance of and reinvestment in European sleeper train services and rolling stock. But the book desperately needs an index – I’ve started my own. Furthermore I shall be buying Andrew Martin’s book Belles & Whistles on British railway lines, written in a similar style.

Final takeaway

Does a plane trip in itself spark joy?

Not for me, and I suspect not for most non-Business Class flyers. But for many, the sleepy iron symphony makes the journey as memorable as the destination.

Night Trains by Andrew Martin, Profile Books, 250pp, 2017.

Written by Long Branch Mike