As travel strives to be more environmentally friendly, sleeper trains could be on their way to becoming one of the most popular ways to travel around Europe.
A plethora of new overnight itineraries have been launched across the continent in recent years.
In the future, there are plans for network expansions of existing services and a new night train company offering routes from 2025.
But sleeper train operators also say infrastructural and bureaucratic hurdles must be overcome before rail travel can really flourish.
Here’s what to expect for the future of overnight train travel.
Why do travelers choose train travel over flying?
Movements like ‘flight shaming’ or the ‘no-jetsetters’ have encouraged travelers to opt for the railway over the runway.
A survey conducted last year by Global Railway Review found that two-thirds of respondents prefer rail travel to air travel, with 66 per cent saying they would choose rail travel in Europe for business and 77 per cent for leisure.
The Austrian national railway company ÖBB is currently leading the European sleeper train revival with its Nightjet service.
“In recent months, we have again seen a significant increase in demand: in fact, we are often fully booked,” says Bernhard Rieder, ÖBB’s media spokesman.
The push for greener travel has also been taken up by some governments. Last year, France banned short-haul flights between destinations connected by a train journey of less than 2.5 hours.
Europe’s new night trains
As the railway tries to replace escape routes, companies have expanded their range of sleeper trains.
In 2021, the Austrian ÖBB launched a new Nightjet sleep route between Vienna and Paris via Salzburg and Munich.
It also extended its route between Vienna/Munich and Milan to reach Genoa and La Spezia in Italy.
Back on tracka European network that promotes cross-border passenger transport by train has conveniently collected all routes on a sleeper train map.
It includes current services and those planned for 2023.
European sleeper trains will start in 2023
In a few months the long-awaited European sleeper, a Belgian-Dutch social cooperative, launches its first trajectory. The service will run from Brussels to Berlin via Amsterdam and will start on 25 May 2023.
From 2024, it also plans to extend the route to Dresden and Prague.
This summer, the Nightjet trains will also be taken to the next level. The company says the new cars will have wireless charging stations, free Wi-Fi, storage for bikes and snowsports equipment, and private compartments with private showers and restrooms.
Many more new sleepers are planned and you can view the full list here.
Hotel on rails: a new night train company
A new one in 2025 sleeping train company appears on the spot. Midnight Trains plans to open one route per year from its hub in Paris. The services will connect the French capital with Venice, Barcelona, Florence and Madrid.
According to Midnight Trains, their innovation lies in putting comfort first. “We have a different vision of a night train: a hotel on rails,” says co-founder Romain Payet.
“We focus on intimacy (only private accommodations, real bed sets, good sound insulation), conviviality (decent bar and restaurant selection as well as events and happenings) and a digital experience from start to finish.”
Why aren’t there more night trains in Europe?
Despite the expansions and launches, rail carriers still say their sleeper train the offer could be more extensive if certain obstacles were overcome.
“Probably the most complicated is the fact that infrastructure managers don’t coordinate infrastructure works,” says Payet.
“[They] have different processes and timing with railway companies, [and] not talking to each other which makes access to the track very challenging.
Rieder from ÖBB also says that sleeping services are not often economically viable at the moment. “The costs of ‘hotel operation’ and travel in one product are significantly higher than the cost structure of daytime rail connections.”
However, he says they can be economically successful if the framework conditions change.
“The disadvantages of rail compared to other modes of transport – such as air or bus – must be compensated for.”
Action group Trains for Europe is asking the EU to purchase a new fleet of night trains to “rapidly scale cross-border services.”
They say finding a manufacturer for the trains isn’t a problem, but the question is, “Who besides ÖBB in Europe is committed enough to night trains and strong enough to place an order?”