The Modest Supremacy of Nighttime Trains

The overnight sleeper represents perhaps the most traditional and romantic form of the wheel on rail transport. From the Murder on the Orient Express to Casino Royale, the sleeper train features prominently in our popular culture. The long-standing and global tradition of ‘named trains’ contributes quite aptly to this reputation of grandeur. From Amtrak’s (USA) Sunset Limited and Califonia Zephyr to Great Western Railway’s (UK) Night Riviera and the former Deutsche Bahn Borealis (Amsterdam to Copenhagen), the imagery conjured up by such journeys is comparable with that of an intrepid and mysterious expedition many miles away from your average trundle on a packed commuter train to the office.

In recent decades, all the aforementioned named trains have been hanging on delicate financial threads. In the case of Deutsche Bahn’s City Night Line services, the ruthless axe finally came down in 2016 on the basis of a 32 million loss profile per year. Earlier that same year in neighboring France, state-operated SNCF was forced to pull the plug on all but it’s two most distant Intercités de Nuit routes linking Paris with provincial towns and cities.

But far from being a luxurious throw-back to a bygone Golden Age of Rail before the coming of the ruthless time-cost efficiency dominance of the aviation era, the overnight sleeper is heading for a renaissance. It’s hard to beat the genuine time efficiency, productivity, and simple enjoyment of a meal on-board with a view at the dining car, followed by a comfortable lie-flat bed (beating the best reclining seating that airlines offer in their premium economy or business class) and breakfast next morning, before disembarking at your destination refreshed and ready for a day of work, family, or adventure. Most European sleeper trains – with many other countries following a similar convention – are typically formed of three types of on-board accommodation: seats (‘Coach Class’ in the USA); couchettes with 4-6 bunk-beds per compartment; and, sleepers with 1-4 (often bunk-)beds per compartment. The price and comfort level usually follow a logical progression.

The #Flygskam agenda is on the cusp of going mainstream as a social-political movement fueled by international traveler concerns in response to climate and ecological issues. The sustainability credentials of the night train unleash its sharpest weapon in the fight against its rivals in the context of the 21st century call to action on low carbon mobility. In this domain, the modest overnight sleeper can move itself from the cover of darkness and rise to challenge of the once thought untouchable market-dominance of aviation. Outside China, where the rapid growth of the high speed (300 km/hr +) network has also included high-speed overnight sleeper trains, it is generally the case that overnight trains are in far less of a rush than their daytime counterparts. For instance, the 800 km between Zürich and Berlin can easily be covered at leisure over a full and comfortable night’s sleep. In order to achieve this, an average operating speed in the region of 160 km/hr (100 mph) will suffice. With a good total-train capacity, passenger load factor, and electric traction, this is the recipe for an almost optimum balance of low energy consumption against speed and journey time.

Swedish Railways (SJ) overnight ‘Arctic Circle train’ from Stockholm to Narvik at Abisko Östra station inside the Swedish Arctic Circle.

With these parameters in mind, it is no surprise that many of Europe’s long-distance rail operators are looking favorably at opportunities for relaunching or expanding their night train operations. Whilst Deutsche Bahn pulled out of its City Night Line routes in 2016, Austrian Railways (ÖBB) procured most of the stock (including the most advanced double-deck sleeper cars out there) and re-launched most of the routes in Central Europe from hub stations of Vienna and Zurich under its Nightjet brand. Now, three years on and in the context of buoyant and rising passenger figures, ÖBB is looking toward fleet expansion and a partnership with Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) to establish a more significant pan-European network in the early 2020s. Deutsche Bahn has even announced it is considering re-entry to the night train market.

In the UK, two domestic sleeper operations remain in place linking London with Cornwall and London with various destinations in Scotland. On the international front however, the story of the ill-fated Nightstar operation is one of frustration at the incredible lack of foresight and vision for strategic sustainable mobility. In the 1990s, the state railways of France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK (prior to privatization) worked on a concept that would have provided an ideal, low carbon, night-train network linking a swathe of major cities in northwest Europe – from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Swansea, and Plymouth through London to Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and German Cities of the Rhein- Ruhr region. Rolling stock was procured and even put on test, only to subsequently be sold and shipped off via Rail Canada. Lower than forecast passengers and revenue on the sister daytime Eurostar, service along with various other political difficulties, led to the wholescale cancellation of the Nightstar project in 1999. These financial challenges should have come as no surprise, with the 90s being the decade of the rise of the budget airline, fueled by the European Union’s liberalization of the air passenger market. This process of deregulation has been widely referenced for its role in arguably handing air transport an unfair advantage over rail in Europe.

Given that an essential component of the night train experience is on-train facilities (there’s little scope for ‘no-frills’ tactics in this business), it’s important that sustainability is embedded across the whole travel experience. From on-board catering to the bedding, cleaning, and soap products issued in the sleeper cabins, the full operation needs to embed concepts of sustainability and minimal environmental impact. It is all too often ,and sadly, the case that railway carriages are littered with single use plastic pots, tubs, trays, and bottles upon reaching their destination station. In this domain, there is a great case study that sets the standard for the direction of travel. Swedish train operator Snälltåget, plies routes within Sweden, including a seasonal international overnight link between Berlin to Stockholm and a winter service linking Malmö and Stockholm to the Swedish mountain County of Jämtland. For on-board catering, Snälltåget offers passengers The Pub, an on-board catering car built around reusable crockery with vegetarian and vegan meal options prominent on the menu!

To sum up, then, visions of sustainability often have their roots in historical practices that were once dismissed in the name of progress and modernity. The impending resurgence of the overnight sleeper certainly embodies this principal as it reinvents its own wheel as a critical and mainstream feature of our 21st century mobility system.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on October 24, 2019.


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