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More and more people want to respect the climate when traveling. Now, European overnight trains are making an unexpected comeback as a more sustainable long-distance option.
Berlin's main railway station, Hauptbahnhof, just before 6:30 pm: a long train with midnight-blue carriages stands at Platform 11. Several people roll their suitcases past a carriage on which "Nightjet" is written in large letters under the windows. In a few minutes the train will depart for Vienna. The trip takes more than 12 hours, but the passengers won't notice much of that. They'll glide slowly from one world into another – while they sleep. And when they wake up in the morning, they'll already be at their destination.
Only since the last weeks of May has that been possible again, because the coronavirus pandemic meant that, for months, overnight trains couldn't run in Europe. Yolotzin Cruz Cedillo, a musician from Mexico, is glad the service is again on offer. For rehearsals she commutes between Berlin and Vienna, and until she's vaccinated, she prefers to avoid the close quarters of an airplane. "I feel safer in my own compartment in a sleeping car," she says. And she finds it good to be more environmentally friendly when traveling.
Paula, a 20-year-old university student, who is standing a few meters away and regularly takes the Nightjet to her hometown of Vienna, agrees. She admits she finds flying slightly more convenient because of the short duration of the trip. But for her the ecological aspect is crucial: "It's very important to me to travel sustainably. That's why I take the night train." It's an argument other travelers here also cite when asked why they are opting for an overnight train.
Demand has actually increased substantially, says Bernhard Rieder, spokesman for Austrian Railways (ÖBB), which runs the Nightjet and offers the most night train connections EU-wide, such as those from Munich to Rome and Hamburg to Zurich. "Since 2017-2018 there's really been a boom in night trains." Other railway companies that had already given up on the segment suddenly became interested in cooperating on night trains with the ÖBB, he says, leading to new night train connections including from Vienna to Berlin, and very recently, to Amsterdam.
Arrival in Amsterdam – after more than four years without it, the Netherlands have again connected to the European night train network
The comeback of night trains was unexpected: until just a few years ago, they were considered ready to be phased out in Europe. The competition from cheap flights was too strong, and many routes scarcely viable. That was why Deutsche Bahn (DB) scrapped its "City Night Line," which provided service on a number of popular routes including Cologne to Prague and Munich to Rome, for instance. A spokeswoman for DB said that in 2015, the last year it was running, it made a loss of €31 million ($38 million) on those routes. A year later it was defunct.
The ÖBB then took over the German night fleet in 2016 and modernized it gradually, a move spokesman Bernhard Rieder cites as another reason for its success. It is also why he does not care to hear people talking about nostalgic charm in connection with night trains or referring to them as an antiquated form of travel, because they are only getting more comfortable. In the 33 trains the company has ordered, which will be in operation starting in December 2022, every sleeping compartment will be equipped with its own shower stall and private toilet facilities.
Some sleeping compartments already have them. Travelers can book a trip from €189, or €139 without shower and private toilet, depending on ticket availability. Those who want to travel more cheaply can spend the night in a couchette or in a comfort-class seating carriage from €59 and €29, respectively. The range of passengers who travel overnight is accordingly broad. Rieder say all sorts of people take advantage of the service, from price-conscious passengers to youth groups and families, to international business travelers.
In addition, new connections will soon be opened. Starting in December 2021, the route from Vienna and Munich to Paris, and from Zurich to Amsterdam. In the coming years more are set to follow, because the intention is to enlarge cross-border night train service on Europe's rails. That's what the heads of Austria's ÖBB, Germany's Deutsche Bahn, France's SNCF and Switzerland's SBB agreed this past December on the sidelines of the European transport ministers' conference.
So do night trains have a secure future? Trend researchers think the chances are good – but they do point out that the conditions for them have to be further improved, for example, by expanding rail networks and making tickets affordable. In France the competitive conditions for night trains seem to be improving slightly, as Paris wants to ban short-haul domestic flights. In Germany the Green party, which is likely to be part of the next federal government, is promoting the same goal. Both the Greens and the Social Democrats, currently one of two ruling parties in Germany's federal government, want to curtail cheap flights. Airlines pay no fuel tax in Europe and in Germany they are exempt from value-added tax on international tickets – so they enjoy tax advantages over the railway. As long as that financial setup does not change, the competition from the aviation industry will continue to exist.
But not all travelers are so ashamed of flying that they would swap a cheap flight for an expensive sleeping compartment. 31-year-old nurse Ivana Viskovic would have flown to Vienna if the changing travel restrictions caused by COVID-19 had not made a complete mess of her travel plans. That's why she, too, is now standing on Platform 11 in Berlin's Hauptbahnhof. "I'm taking the night train for the first time," she says before boarding. Is this a model for the future? "If I sleep well tonight, then it might be."