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Night Vision: Sleeping through Europe

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Passengers disembarking from night trains at Lviv station in Ukraine (photo © Jerome Cid / dreamstime.com).


Changing attitudes towards travel, prompted in part by a fuller appreciation of how air travel is causing climate change, are helping fuel a renaissance in rail travel across Europe. That’s as true of overnight services as it is of day trains. But new night sleeper services require dedicated carriages that will take time to build. And there are some major regulatory issues to be addressed if we are to see Europe’s night trains reaching their full potential.

Night trains are back in vogue. That, at least, was the prevailing view of the media before Coronavirus brought most of Europe’s night trains juddering to a halt in March.

Last December, the UK political weekly New Statesman exuberantly reported the happy return of international overnight trains. The author applauded the ingenuity of Austrian rail operator ÖBB for “buying dozens of sleeper carriages from less farsighted operators.” He reported that “the soporifically soft ba-dum-ba-dum of wheels on rails lulled me to sleep.” As it should! That’s part of the appeal of overnight trains.

Some of the transatlantic perspectives on the supposed renaissance of Europe’s night trains have been fascinating. The American tech monthly Wired reported in November 2019 that travel on Swiss night trains was up 25% since the start of the year, which raised a few eyebrows at Swiss national rail operator SBB as the company isn’t actually running any night trains at the moment — though it is considering options for the future.

Wired’s writer speculated on how wonderful it would be if one could sleep one’s way from Paris to Berlin, clearly unaware that there already is a very comfortable night sleeper train linking the two cities — although, being only a weekly service and one operated by RZD Russian Railways, it perhaps doesn’t count as a real train in the eyes of American writers and editors.

Real night trains — and imposters

The New York Times was quick to climb on the night-train bandwagon, just before Christmas 2019 extolling the merits of ÖBB’s Vienna to Venice Nightjet service. The article was illustrated by a frightening picture, evoking memories of young Interrail pass holders sleeping their way through Europe in the 1970s. Sprawled over seats designed for daytime journeys, two young travellers are shown enduring what must surely have been a fairly sleepless night.

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