European Union

Fall asleep in Vienna, wake up in Paris – Europe’s night trains make a comeback

Lorenz Putz and Jessica Morar slept during their trip to Venice on the Nightjet, a service offered by the Austrian railway.

The revival has been put in place to try and meet lower emission targets. Image: Maxim Babenko/ The New York Times

Alex Thornton
Senior Writer, Formative Content
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European Union

  • Germany, France, Switzerland and Austria bring back routes for night trains.
  • Traveling by rail emits much less carbon per kilometre than going by air or road.
  • 2021 is set to be designated European Year of Rail.

There’s something about long-distance train travel that stirs the soul. It conjures up the romance of a bygone era, full of opportunities for adventure, mystery, and even love. But in Europe, waking up as your train pulls into a foreign capital isn’t a relic of the past, but a sign of the future.

National rail operators in four countries – Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland – have announced plans to revive the continent’s network of night trains. Routes from Vienna to Munich and on to Paris, and Zurich to Amsterdam via Cologne will be re-established in 2021. Further routes – linking Berlin, Brussels, Rome and even Barcelona – are planned within the next few years, reviving services that were declining in recent decades.

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Planned routes on the Nightjet rail network.
Planned routes on the Nightjet rail network. Image: Aviation 24

The revival in transcontinental sleeper trains has been prompted by a change of heart by Germany’s rail operator Deutsche Bahn, which had decided overnight services weren’t popular enough, and cost too much money. Now cross-border cooperation is seen as the key to making routes economically viable.

“Europe’s leading railways are pooling their forces for the night train,” said Deutsche Bahn’s CEO Richard Lutz. “The night train is a business between partners. If every railway were to do ‘a little night train’, nobody would be of any help. The solution is a clear division of labour, embedded in real team play.”

Boosting rail travel is increasingly being seen as essential to bring down carbon emissions from the transport sector, as the chart below demonstrates.

Carbon footprint of travel per kilometer, 2018.
Domestic flights were the largest contributor per kilometer in 2018. Image: Our World in Data

Long distance trains have lower carbon footprints than most other forms of transport, and emit tiny amounts of carbon per kilometre compared to air travel.

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The boom in fast, cheap and convenient short-haul air routes was the main reason behind the precipitous drop in long-distance rail. But growing environmental awareness has changed the equation. This has resulted in the phenomenon of “flight-shaming”, which gained global attention when climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg chose to take the train to the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in 2019, rather than fly.

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Many European railways have seen something of a renaissance, with passenger numbers going up and rail-friendly policies being adopted by the EU. This year is being designated the “European Year of Rail” as part of a push to promote rail travel as an environmentally friendly alternative not just for would-be airline passengers, but to hauliers who transport most of their freight by road.

“Rail is the answer to many critical issues in the area of mobility, such as climate neutrality, energy efficiency, crisis resilience and safety,” says Germany’s transport minister Andreas Scheuer. “The Year of Rail aims to give a boost to the sector and to encourage more tourists, business people and manufacturers to choose the train.”

As international travel recovers from the devastating restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, passengers will demand ever greater choice. For many, the hard-hit airline industry, which is working towards its own ambitious goals to reduce its carbon footprint, will still offer the fastest and most convenient option. But to the delight of those who feel a thrill hearing the whistle coming down the tracks, more night trains will be pulling into the platform.

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European UnionTravel and Tourism
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