Harry Stopes

On a Thursday night a couple of months ago, just after 9 p.m., my wife and I stood on a platform at Berlin-Gesundbrunnen, waiting for the first European Sleeper, a new service running three times a week between Berlin and Brussels, the first leg of a three-train journey to Manchester. The crowd looked to be mostly aged between thirty and fifty, and – highly scientific observation incoming – employed in the political sector. I saw one tote bag with the logo of the centre-right European People’s Party and another from the European Trade Union Confederation.

An extremely drunk man wandered the platform, enjoying the buzz. As far as I know he didn’t have a ticket. The train arrived about quarter past, pulled by a non-descript locomotive from the freight operator Lineas. A man with a ‘Trans Europe Express’ T-shirt took lots of pictures and we all piled on board. In the excitement the drunk man got on too, but luckily for him he left again before the train set off.

One of the other people in our six-bunk compartment, a young Indian man living in Berlin, watched Manchester United v. Chelsea on his phone. We crossed the Elbe at about 10:45 and headed on towards Hanover over the empty expanse of northern Europe. Not for the first time I was reminded that if a bird flew from my flat in Berlin to my mother’s house in South Manchester, it wouldn’t cross high ground until it reached Kinder Scout.

Night train services in Europe, especially the west, have declined sharply in the last two decades. As short-haul flights boomed, sleeper carriages were allowed to age out of use without being replaced. All connections between Germany and France, Denmark and the Netherlands were cut in 2014, and in 2016 Deutsche Bahn quit the industry all together, selling its remaining sleeper carriages to the Austrian state railway company ÖBB.

Since then, though, there has been something of a comeback: a ‘Nachtzugboom’, as a recent Die Zeit podcast put it. ÖBB has ordered 33 new trains from Siemens, some of which will enter service at the end of the summer. It also recently announced that the Paris-Vienna sleeper, currently running three times a week, will run daily from December, in combination with a new Paris-Berlin route – the trains will split at Mannheim. The SNCF opened two new routes in 2021 – Paris-Nice and Paris-Tarbes-Lourdes – and the French government has said that as many as ten new domestic routes could be operating by 2030. Agreements between SNCF, DB, ÖBB and the Swiss CFF should see trains running Zurich-Milan-Rome, Brussels-Berlin and Barcelona-Zurich in the next eighteen months. The European Commission has said that it sees international night trains as a key component of ‘green mobility’.

The European Sleeper, which is currently looking to raise an additional €3 million from small investors (minimum investment, €250), isn’t the only new entrant to the market. The French company Midnight Train is seeking €25 million from an institutional investor. They are planning luxury night trains from Paris, beginning next year with Paris-Milan-Venice, and hope to run twelve routes by 2035. Their marketing copy says: ‘It’s a train, a hotel, a restaurant and an app.’

If the aim is to replace flights with rail journeys, night trains have a number of advantages over daytime high-speed trains. They don’t require the construction of new lines and they travel when the tracks are less busy. They don’t even need to be that fast: a report published last September by the association Back on Track argues that since the sleeping hours feel like they ‘don’t count’ towards journey time, a night train running at 125 kmph is as fast as a plane journey over distances up to about 1500 km.

Using flight data from 2019, Back on Track found that around a third of Europe’s 1.1 billion annual air passengers could be persuaded to switch to night trains if travel times were competitive and prices reasonable. This would reduce overall European greenhouse gas emissions by about 3 per cent: as with everything climate-related, no single policy change is a silver bullet.

A major bottleneck is the lack of sleeper carriages. Orders will take years to fulfil, and there’s no sign of the market speeding things up. In the opinion of the Berlin-based British journalist and rail campaigner Jon Worth, the EU should step in. Other changes are needed too. Timetabling thousands of trains on hundreds of routes at multiple speeds is fiendishly complicated. Night trains don’t always get equal priority for track access, or the guarantees they need for reliable timetabling over the long term. Harmonising ticket systems would help, too.

Ultimately, though, passengers won’t switch over en masse until trains are more affordable. Back on Track recommends exempting night train routes from VAT, and reducing the fees that rail networks charge to train operators for track access, though this feels inadequate given the summer we’ve been having.

I woke up at about 6 a.m. and checked my phone. Google’s glowing blue dot told me were in the Netherlands, chugging towards Amsterdam. I woke again as we crossed Hollands Diep, south of Rotterdam. We made it to Brussels with a slight delay, shortly before ten on a sunny Friday morning.


  • 5 August 2023 at 2:48pm
    Claude says:
    To paraphrase Senator Everett Dirksen, “3% here, 3% there, pretty soon you’re talking real percentages”.

  • 8 August 2023 at 9:07pm
    adamppatch says:
    My personal experience of night trains has been that the sleeper carriages are too expensive, so I opt for standard seating and then spend a miserable night regretting being a skinflint.

    The authors non-scientific survey is interesting, as it seems to suggest that many were travelling for business, which counters my unfounded assumption that it would be difficult to get business travellers "on board" for overnight travel instead of air travel. I suspect this is where the big gains for the climate would come from chainging the habits of business travellers.

  • 13 August 2023 at 11:36am
    Richard Thomas says:
    I'm glad these trains are returning. For nostalgic reasons I travelled on one of the last Berlin to Paris sleepers in what must have been about 2016. Travellers included a contra bass player from an orchestra (it's too large to take on an aeroplane) amongst others. Though the thing I really miss is the luxury of car trains - Calais to South of France, Netherlands to Bologna (as I recollect), London to Penzance or Stirling. A really great way to get around.