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Why Europe’s sleeper trains are waking up

Europe’s sleeper trains were once declining. Now, an array of new services hopes to solve the problem of high-carbon travel on the continent.

For those who live anywhere but London, taking the Eurostar to continental Europe usually means adding the eye-watering costs and frequent unreliability of British train travel to the journey. Unsurprisingly, most opt for flying instead. 

Yet it was only a few decades ago that the UK came tantalisingly close to a different reality. In the late 1990s, the newly-minted operator of Eurostar was planning sleeper train connections which would take passengers from Glasgow, London, Manchester, Plymouth and Swansea to Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt on overnight services. 

A fleet of sleeper cars decked out with showers, beds and catering services was built and even tested on railway tracks. 

Then came the privatisation of British railways, the introduction of track access charges in Europe and growing competition from low-cost airlines. By 1999, the project was deemed commercially unviable. The plans were abandoned, the carriages sold off, and the idea consigned to history.

The ill-fated story of this UK-Europe sleeper service is far from unique. Between the late 1990s and through the 2010s, sleeper services across Europe shrunk dramatically as airline giants lured in passengers with irresistibly low-cost fares and ultra-speedy travel. 

In the last few years, however, the winds have begun to change. A pandemic boon in “staycations”, concern for the climate and months of chaos at airports have led many to cut down or avoid flying altogether – and train companies have taken note. 

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Sleeper trains are waking up once again, with dozens of new companies and legacy operators planning to revive overnight services to criss-cross the European continent once again. 

As the need to scale down carbon emissions grows ever more urgent, sleepers could hold the key to a revolution in sustainable travel. The only question is whether policymakers are willing to get on board.

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 “There was a time when all the European capitals were linked by a network of sleeper trains that converted to seats in the day. That’s just how you travelled. It was perfectly normal,” Mark Smith, “the man in seat 61”, tells me over the phone.

The Man in Seat 61, so named after Smith’s favourite train seat to travel in, is a website  that offers comprehensive advice to those wishing to travel Europe by train. It was set up by Smith, a former employee of the Department of Transport, out of frustration at the lack of information available to passengers at the time.

In 2001, when the website was first launched, Smith was already witnessing the decline of sleeper lines. 

Airline competition was partly to blame, he says, along with the introduction of high track access charges and a shift in focus and investment towards high speed lines, which are much more cost-effective than sleepers.

While sleeper trains were hit with extra fees, airlines were – and continue to be – quietly subsidised by the absence of any tax on jet fuel. It’s for this reason that ticket prices remain so artificially low. 

As travellers flocked to new budget airlines like Easyjet, train companies began closing once-beloved sleeper routes across the continent. Even the luxurious Trans-European Express, a glamorous symbol of post-war prosperity and inspiration for the title of a Kraftwerk album, was forced to fold, taking 130 city connections with it.

As recently as 2014, it looked as though the end was nigh for the sleeper train in Europe.

Then, in 2018, came Sweden’s “flygskam” (flight shame) movement, popularised globally by young climate activist Greta Thunberg.

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Accounting for around 2.5 per cent of global CO2 emissions and impacting the environment in a multitude of other ways, aviation has increasingly become an uncomfortable prospect for those concerned about the climate crisis unfolding before their eyes. 

Though many European countries continue to subsidise and invest in the aviation industry, some policy moves have also taken things in the right direction, from short-haul flight bans in Austria and France to an EU pledge to  triple high-speed rail traffic on the continent by 2050 to cut transport emissions. 

Rail is the obvious alternative when it comes to avoiding flights in Europe. And while high speed rail is great for shorter distances, sleeper trains have the obvious advantage of disappearing long stretches of travel time.

Sleeper trains appeal for a number of other reasons too. In addition to saving on carbon and airport stress, sleeper trains save money on a night in a hotel, have few baggage restrictions, take passengers straight into city centres and offer a far more scenic experience than travel by plane. 

“When I first set up the site people usually came to it because they were afraid of flying or medically restricted. Or they just liked trains,” Smith says.

“Whereas now they tell me one of two things. They’re fed up with the airport experience or they want to cut their carbon footprint.”

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Seizing on the opportunity, startups like European Sleeper and Midnight Trains along with legacy companies like Deutsche Bahn are now restarting and creating new sleeper routes in Europe, hoping to capture the market keen for longer-distance travel without the carbon emissionsHere’s what anyone can do to reduce their carbon footprint or airport stress.

“When you want to do a national route within the country, up to about 800km, high speed lines are doing a great job as an alternative to flying. But when you look at longer, international routes, at the moment there’s basically no alternative,” Romain Payet, co-founder of Parisian sleeper train company Midnight Trains explains. 

The routes already in operation have seen huge levels of interest, with the Austrian Ö.B.B. NightJet reporting that more than 1.5 million passengers took a sleeper service between the 25 cities on offer in 2019. The company is now ordering 33 new trains to cope with rising demand. 

Yet when I speak to Chris Engelsman, co-founder of new sleeper train company European Sleeper, “complicated” is the word that crops up most often. 

The cooperatively-owned company had hoped to open its first route linking Brussels to Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague in late 2022, but has been forced to hold off until 2023 due to numerous practical and technical issues.

“There’s so many things you have to organise. The trains, the carriages, the track capacity, enough staff, subcontractors, safety licences,” he explains.

Like many other sleeper startups, European Sleeper has struggled to access rolling stock – i.e. train carriages – thanks to a lack of investment making new carriages hard to come by. Tight specification criteria for carriages on certain lines also makes getting the right kind of stock difficult.

Policy, or a lack thereof, also makes things more difficult than they should be. 

While Smith says that the EU Commission is making some effort to standardise rules across the continent and improve take-up of train travel, he says there’s been “a lot of noise, but not a lot of action”.

“It’s almost as if policy wants you to fly instead, because airlines have a massive hidden subsidy. They pay no tax or duty on aviation fuel,” he says.

Things aren’t much easier from the consumer’s perspective either, with a lack of a central booking system meaning travellers often face using different websites and ticketing systems for a single trip.

On top of this, rail travel also suffers from an “information problem”, says Smith. 

“People have forgotten how far you can get by rail. Most travel agents and holiday packages just package you off in a plane,” he says, adding that flights are almost always the first option that appears when people are searching for travel information. 

“There’s no skyscanner for sleeper trains – and creating one would be pretty complicated,” he adds.

Our propensity for flying over taking the train is influenced by this kind of infrastructure and environment, which shapes what we view as “normal”, says Dr Noel Cass, an academic at Leeds University’s Transport Institute. 

“The transport and road systems we have, the cheapness of flights, the lack of tax on fuel, social norms and social expectations, these are what really drive people’s choices,” Cass explains. 

Encouraging the public to opt for sleeper trains, therefore, is about more than just offering a good service and hoping people will use it. Additional costs, along with time constraints, are perhaps the two most significant barriers to change. 

Payet, co-founder of Midnight Trains, believes the cost barrier can be a misnomer, with train prices within Europe low enough, if booked early enough, to compete with airlines – especially when extra costs are factored in.

“Let’s take an example of flying from Paris to Milan. You have to pay for a hotel in Milan, pay for a cab from the city centre to the airport and pay for baggage. Theoretically, this is how travellers should be thinking,” he says.

In the eyes of Anna Hughes, founder of campaign group Flight Free UK, changing people’s mindsets will have to play a part in encouraging travellers to avoid flying – whether through better information on pollution or through making flight-free pledges of the kind Flight Free UK encourages.

Charlie Zajicek, who works in climate communications and wrote his master’s thesis on flight-free travel, says pushing a “convenience” narrative could also help flight-free travel reach a wider audience who aren’t as engaged with the climate.

“If you can use messaging about people being able to take their families on trains, and work from trains, and emphasise that they won’t be stuck in long queues, that’s a good route to go down,” he says.

Yet Hughes, Zajicek, and most other experts agree that wide scale change will be impossible without regulatory changes at the very top, from taxing aviation fuel to lowering the cost of train tickets, investing in train stock, banning short-haul flights, improving infrastructure and removing technical barriers for train operators. 

Without this change, individual action can only go so far, says Dr Cass.

“People are actually willing to do the right thing for the environment. The problem is that they haven’t got the options there at the moment,” he says. 

With the right infrastructure in place, Smith has no doubt that people will flock to sleeper trains. Those who opt to travel this way almost always continue after the first time, he says, once they discover how enjoyable, stress-free and climate-friendly the journey can be.  

“The great thing is, we’re not telling people to suffer to save the planet. They’re actually doing themselves a favour.”

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