Passenger night trains have been operating since the mid-1800s, first as the backbone of practical long-distance travel and later as a symbol of a by-gone era, romanticised by popular culture and nostalgic appeal.
Throughout Europe, the number of night train services has greatly reduced over the past 50 years. After the World War II, the advent of air travel, high-speed rail services and the rise of private car ownership have collectively phased out night trains from circulation.
As of last year, only 11 EU Member States retain their domestic night train services.
Recently, European Parliament’s Committee on Transport & Tourism published a report titled ‘Passenger night trains in Europe: the end of the line?’, which looks in detail at the financial, economic, social and environmental viability of night train services.
The report found that night trains still contribute to the mobility needs of European citizens, but deemed it “unlikely that the night train sector will grow beyond a small niche”.
In the wake of cuts, one country seems intent on preserving and even expanding its night-time rail services: Austria’s night trains represent 17% of the country’s operator, ÖBB’s, long-distance revenue, and it recently announced plans to expand its Nightjet services.
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Who rides night trains?
In 2015, campaign group Back on Track staged a Europe-wide protest against government cuts to night train services. Protesters from Madrid, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Dortmund, Copenhagen, Odense, Basel and Hamburg gathered at 7am in their respective cities to show their support and put pressure on politicians and rail providers to reverse drastic defunding of night train services across the continent.
The grassroots organisation believes that “neglected night trains are a strong indicator of a dis-integrated and deteriorated rail system”.
The report found that today, Western Europe has limited night trains, with tourist-focused “hotel trains” in Spain, Portugal and Ireland and limited Public Service Obligation (PSO) services in the UK. Last year, Germany’s DB closed all its services and France’s SNCF closed all but three routes.
Eastern Europe and Russia still retain the largest number of services, while in Central Europe, Austria has by far the most prominent network, mainly due to its geographical layout. The major population centers in Austria lie on a single, 1,000km-long east-west corridor, on which ÖBB operates a number of night trains that also reach the surrounding countries.
Although mass data collection is scarce, independent responses from individual operators reveal that passengers who still take the night train are made up of a mix of environmentally minded riders, school groups and students, price-sensitive travellers, families with children, the elderly and “night train lovers”.
Why are sleeper trains disappearing?
The challenges faced by this antiquated mode of transport are multi-faceted. Firstly, infrastructure capacity constraints are cited as the main reason for many closures.
“Night trains may not be viable practically,” the report stated, “either where they impose additional costs on the infrastructure manager, or where they compete for restricted capacity with other services of greater economic, social or environmental value.”
Equally, investment in high-speed rail corridors is also heavily contributing to their progressive phase-out.
With the liberalisation of intra-EU air services in 1993, the cost of air travel has plummeted, and cheap air fares are now within reach for many budget travellers.
Even for those who prefer rail travel, some journeys formerly served by night trains can now be made by day trains with journey times as short as two to three hours. Equally, there is also a vast choice of coach services, some of which directly threaten even Austria’s night services in the long run.
In addition, financial factors such as high unit manufacturing costs for cars of couchettes, beds and toilet facilities, longer and antisocial staff working hours and more fuel, energy and emissions per passenger space, all contribute to higher operational costs than normal daytime services.
On the emissions side, the report found that even though “there is scope for both night and day trains to become largely emission-free over time”, until that happens “day trains may always have lower emissions and embedded carbon per passenger space than night trains”.
In the future, prospects look even more discouraging. Current infrastructure projects at European level, such as the TEN-T core networks, may further marginalise night trains.
In the UK, HS2 will have a knock-on effect on the night route night trains between London, Edinburgh and Glasgow. In Denmark, the Fehmarn Belt crossing planned to open in 2029 will take a share of the ridership from the current Berlin Night Express night train and from 2035, a Swedish high-speed line between Stockholm and Malmo would reduce the demand for night trains between those two cities.
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
In this changing transport climate, EU Member States could still take several steps to prevent the complete extinction of sleeper trains.
Taking Austria’s example, the rail operator focused on offering its night rail services along a core network radiating from Vienna but also operating long distances within Germany. Similarly, the report found “considerable scope” for night train operators to follow this path and focus on dense markets where demand is still strong.
Another measure for the private sector would be to act as a travel agency or travel planner and ‘package’ night trains with other activities, such as a tour.
A more drastic solution would be to move downmarket, following in the footsteps of other transport operators who offer cheap, overnight trips in their daytime vehicles, with only seated accommodation. The report does, however, acknowledge that this approach would require the withdrawal and replacement of night trains as they are known now, with simpler carriages and only basic seating, much like a daytime train.
At an international level, it would be up to Member States to co-operate and agree on a set of measures, such as setting infrastructure charges at a lower level and including night train services under a PSO, which would bind the operator by law to provide the service, based on economic, social and environmental benefits.
The report further recommends that the EU could formally monitor the night train sector and develop a policy for it, and even single it out as a distinct market segment in infrastructure charging, which would offer a financial lifeline to this vanishing sector.
For die-hard fans of the sleeper train, the future is not looking too bright. Unless more EU governments unexpectedly decide to move away from their high-speed investments and fund the resurrection of the night train instead, it might soon be the end of the line for this loved but antiquated means of transport.