A new awakening for sleeper trains

19 April 2023

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There is something miraculous about a sleeper train.

It starts with passengers being shown to their compartment – a roving home for the night, barely bigger than a garden shed. They soon fall into a deep sleep to the cadences of rattling rails – snoring as they speed through moonlit mountains, along coastlines where lighthouses spark in the night. Then, hours later, they rub their eyes, and part their curtains excitedly – like someone unwrapping presents on Christmas morning – to find an entirely new landscape revealed by the dawn outside. More often than not passengers are well rested – for travelling by sleeper is indeed like being a child in a pushchair, rocked to contentment by turning wheels.

Sleepers have a romance that has moved the pens of authors like Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming. They are universal symbols for the so-called ‘Golden Age of Travel’. And yet – in recent decades – they somehow became an endangered species in Europe. The 1980s onward saw the emergence of high speed rail services – such as TGVs in France, AVE in Spain and ICE in Germany. When trains cover immense distances at speeds of 200mph, there is little time for a nap. By the late 1990s, the growth of budget airlines also helped spell the closure of many routes. A landmark blow came on the 13th December  2009 when the Orient Express – the legendary sleeper train which had roamed Europe in some form or other since 1883 – creaked to a halt for the last time in Vienna. It had been on the move since the days of top hats and steam engines. In the age of broadband and jet engines, it reached the end of the line.

​​Staying grounded

​​Then, in 2019, a new word entered popular culture: ‘flygskam’ – translated from Swedish as ‘flight shame.’ A new generation of climate-conscious travellers were choosing to minimise their carbon footprint by keeping their feet down on terra firma. There were immediate results: domestic air travel dropped ​​​​9% in Sweden that same year1. Evolving alongside ‘flygskam’ came the concept of ‘tågskryt’ – meaning ‘train bragging’ – where travellers​ rave ​about their rail journeys on social media. ​​​   ​​

Generally speaking, t​rain travel is ​considered ​more environmentally-friendly than going by plane (though the relative difference in emissions depends on distances travelled, and the specific types of trains and planes used). As an example, Eurostar estimates a passenger’s CO2 emissions for a flight from London to Paris as being the equivalent of 14 equivalent train ​​​​journeys2. ​​​​​

​​​​​Sleeping Beauties

The pandemic upended the global travel industry, but has left one enduring change in Europe: the emergence of a new generation of sleepers tailored to ​​​​​flight-weary​ travellers. The prime movers in this renaissance are Austria’s NightJet trains which – from their base at the heart of Europe – have been steadily extending a web of services to all corners of the continent. Among the latest is a service southbound from the Germany city of Stuttgart to Venice, Ljubljana and Zagreb, with seasonal stops beside the island-strewn Croatian coastline at Rijeka.

New companies are entering the night train market – foremost among them European Sleeper, whose debut offering is a service chuntering between Brussels and Berlin from May 2023, with plans for the same route to extend eastward from the German capital to the beer gardens of Prague by 2024. Arguably even more exciting are European Sleeper’s plans for a night train from Amsterdam to Barcelona, which would mean you can hop between serene Dutch canals and the spires of the Sagrada Familia in a single snooze from 2025.

New routes continue to abound – but there are indications that the on-board experience is also changing with this bold new breed of night trains. From summer 2023 Nightjet will unveil new carriages with ‘mini cabins’ – berths that take their inspiration from Japanese capsule hotels. Equally eye-opening are the plans from French outfit Midnight Trains, which sells itself as a “Hotel on Rails”: though they are yet to have a launch date, they promise high-design compartments and the addition of a stylish bar carriage (a feature abandoned by many services due to high costs) in a bid to lure travellers away from airport terminals.

​​​A different class of train 

Similar but subtly distinct to sleeper trains are luxury trains – which have been roaming the rails in Europe and the wider world for many years. They’re less commonly used as a means of getting from A to B, but rather as a holiday package analogous to a cruise ship voyage, with fares including meals and sometimes also off-rail excursions. Most famous of them all is the Venice Simplon Orient Express: confusingly, not a direct successor to the old route which ended in 2009, but rather an opulent evocation of Agatha Christie-era travel that debuted in the 1980s, owned by Belmond. It will have new suites from 2023, but signs are that it will soon have new rivals too.

​​French hospitality giant Accor Hotels is planning to reveal its own luxury train at the Paris 2024 Olympics, centred on a number of historic sleeper coaches found rusting on the Poland-Belarus border by a train enthusiast in 2015. They’re currently in the process of being restored to their former art deco glory, with lavish interiors awash with velvet, bronze and mother of pearl. Accor also has another luxury train in the works in the form of La Dolce Vita – a 1960s-themed service trundling around the Italian peninsula with the flair of Federico Fellini production.​​​

​​​Engines of change

Even when it comes to ordinary, no-frills sleeper services, there are compelling reasons to choose the train over the plane. Sleeper trains save on the expense of a hotel, there are no baggage carousels to contend with nor hidden luggage costs – and though they are slower than planes, they can also be time-efficient, doing the mileage as you doze. ​     ​But perhaps best of all, sleeper trains usher you to the pulsing heart of a city – not to the airports that lie on their fringes. You can end a journey in spectacular terminuses that look like cathedrals of the rails – Milan Centrale perhaps, or Budapest Keteli. You disembark right on the cusp of squares and spires, parks and palaces. 

Sleeper trains are enjoying a bright new dawn. It cannot be long before the rest of the world wakes up to their wonders.

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