Time to wake-up on sleeper trains

Victor Thévenet — November 30, 2022

When will Europe step up its game on sleeper trains?

Imagine yourself. It is 8PM and you are boarding on your overnight train at Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Your destination is Madrid Atocha, which you will reach next morning just before 8AM after a 2,300 km long journey across Europe at an average speed of 200km/h. 

Today, such a journey is not feasible overnight. In China, on the other hand, this is common practice. The D901 train from the capital Beijing to the southern city of Shenzhen, neighboring Hong Kong, crosses the country in under 11 hours at an average speed of 220 km/h. In Europe, the Madrid to Berlin ride will take about 30 hours with an overnight stop in France. This discourages most passengers, who instead opt for flying. 

The grassroot NGO Back on Track is one of the many organisations who wants to change this state-of-play and is advocating for a new generation of high-speed night trains to be used on European tracks. Back on Track published a new report titled The Global Warming Reduction Potential of Night Trains, detailing the potential contribution of (high-speed) sleeper trains to climate change. Back on Track found that night trains on average emits 28 times less GHG emissions than planes per passenger-km. 

From rust to (slow) renaissance 

Let’s take a step back. It is no exaggeration to say that the network of night trains in Europe since the year 2000 has lived through a dramatic descent into hell. The offer at national and European levels for night trains have been considerably reduced all over Europe, reaching the state of extinction in some countries, like in Spain. Years of underinvestment has decreased reliability and comfort, making it an unpopular choice for travelers. This, combined with the rise of low-cost airlines made sleeper trains uncompetitive and their profitability was further reduced. As a result, you can no longer sip an Aperol Spritz gazing at Venice’s Laguna, sleep whilst crossing the Alps and enjoy a croissant for breakfast in Paris. Instead, when traveling across France, you must bear with the view of rusting trains on the side of tracks. Sadly!

However, from 2020, a dozen new night train connections have been launched, partly to respond to the growing urgency to shift to low-carbon transport modes. Major historical European operators plan to welcome you on board to at least 6 cross-border night trains in western Europe including the popular Zurich to Barcelona route. The French government reopened the Paris to Nice “blue train”. In the North, Swedish Snälltaget opened in 2021 a sleeper train between Stockholm, Copenhagen and Berlin. The list continues. 

But, the overall picture is not so shiny. Historic and new rail entrants are facing major difficulties to reopen and operate overnight journeys. The much awaited night train between Malmö and Brussels has been indefinitely postponed. New rail entrants like European Sleeper are facing major obstacles in accessing rolling stocks. There is an utmost urgency to have EU and Member States addressing those barriers to enter the market. 

Convincing Europeans to shift to the night trains

Be it for leisure or for business, we have been used to flying for very cheap and covering both short and long distances in a short amount of time. While a wake-up call is most necessary to show that this mode of travel is not in line with the climate urgency, the competitiveness gap with flights must be addressed. The differences in terms of travel time and price must be narrowed and rail operators must improve the comfort of traveling overnight to convince customers to shift to rail.  

  • Travel time. The Back on Track report looks at journeys up to 3,000 km that could use high-speed night trains, opening the door for long-distance overnight travel. It found that up to 32 % of air passengers would switch to night trains if there were an attractive offer, but only if massive investments in cross-border connections, signalisation and rolling stocks were undertaken. 
  • Price. Authorities must look at ways to decrease the price of train tickets by reducing rail network tolls and energy taxes attributable to night trains, while rail operators should revisit their business models offering cheap economy tickets compensated by premium services. 
  • Comfort. Increasing the level of comfort in night trains will be a game changer for customers and specifically business travelers: capsule beds for more privacy, high-quality wifi and showers on the train/at the station are required. 

Call for an EU strategy on night trains

Transport decarbonisation at EU level has been essentially carried on by looking at how cars, trucks, planes and ships can decarbonise themselves individually. While decade-longfights have been won such as the phase-out of ICE cars by 2035, a new complementary approach must be developed to meet climate neutrality by 2050. It is time to bring the modal shift to rail topic high in the EU agenda, with a clear strategy to facilitate night trains development, therefore giving you, Europeans citizens, the opportunity to wake up on sleeper trains across Europe. 

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