Why are Europe's night trains hitting the buffers?

Night trains are becoming something of an endangered species on the continent. Gavin Haines explains why and rounds up the best of what’s left.

The sleeper train to Venice leaves the Austrian capital at 9.36pm every day. Goodnight Vienna. It then scythes through the Austrian countryside, flirting with the Slovenian border, before crossing into Italy and down to Venice. Passengers step off the train at precisely 8.24am, just in time for a morning cappuccino.

The Vienna-Venice Express represents everything that’s good about night trains. It is cost effective (passengers save money on a hotel room), environmentally friendly (trains produce far less CO2 per passenger than planes) and one of the most romantic ways to travel between two European capitals.

It is also becoming something of an endangered species. Despite their popularity night trains across the continent are quietly hitting the buffers. Last December the Paris-Berlin sleeper made its final journey and the month before all City Night Line sleepers to and from Copenhagen fell under the axe. Other overnight services in Western Europe have suffered similar fates.

There are two reasons for this, says rail anorak Mark Smith, better known as the Man in Seat 61. The first is that high-speed trains have made night trains unnecessary on some routes.

“There used to be one from Paris to Amsterdam, which now only takes 3 hours 20 minutes,” he says. “And there used to be one from Paris to Zurich, but that only takes 4 hours and 3 minutes now.”

However, a bigger burden for European night trains has been the privatisation of the railways.

Privatisation has pushed many night trains over the edgePrivatisation has pushed many night trains over the edge
Digital Vision / Thinkstock

Poor economics

“In the old days a sleeper train was effectively one country’s domestic train to the border where it handed over to the next country,” explains Smith. “Now the infrastructure (track and signals) is separated from train operation and the train has to pay hefty track access fees.”

The push towards privatisation has been driven by the EU and has tipped a number of night services over the edge. More could follow.

“They’ve caused all sorts of problems by separating the two [track and infrastructure] and night trains are bearing the brunt because they have the weakest economics,” explains Mark.

The economics of night trains are weak by virtue of the fact they carry fewer people than their daytime equivalents and run only once a day. Before privatisation this wasn’t a problem – night trains didn’t really need to turn much of a profit – but with hefty track access fees being imposed on operators many night trains are chugging into the red.

“When you suddenly slap a £100 million track access fee on the sleeper train – when in fact we know the track and signalling are there anyway and will be there if the sleeper train doesn’t run – you have just pushed the sleeper train over the edge,” says Mark.

“It’s one thing where there’s a high-speed daytime alternative, but Paris to Berlin is 7 hours 30 minutes by high-speed train and the only way the railways can offer an environmentally sound, time-effective alternative to the planes is a sleeper train where you can leave in the night and arrive in the morning. It was so convenient and it saved a hotel bill.”

Happily, in Central and Eastern Europe sleeper services still exist in healthy numbers – for now, at least. Here are 10 of the best night trains in Europe:

The Caledonian Sleeper speeding through the Scottish HighlandsThe Caledonian Sleeper speeding through the Scottish Highlands
Visit Scotland

1) London to Fort William

One of Britain’s best loved trains, the Caledonian Sleeper secured major investment in 2014 and looks safe for now. Rolling out of London under the cover of darkness, passengers can enjoy dinner and a few drams in the dining cart before retiring to their cabin and waking, 804km (500 miles) later, in Fort William, Scotland. Much of the scenery is veiled by night, but watching sunrise over the Highlands is one of life’s great pleasures. 

2) Moscow to Nice

A journey through the heart of Europe, the Moscow-Nice train first departed the Russian capital in 1864 and was popular with Tsars seeking sun on the Côte d’Azur. The curtain fell on the service during WWI, but the 1,315km (817 miles) train was revived in 2010. Scything through seven countries – Russia, Belarus, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy and France – the service leaves Moscow at Thursday lunchtime and pulls into Nice 47 hours, and a lot of vodka, later.

3) Paris to Venice

Passengers aboard The Thello have the enviable opportunity to fall asleep in Paris and wake up in Venice, two of Europe’s most romantic cities. As you would expect from a train operating between these heavyweight gastro destinations, the service has a dedicated dining cart serving French and Italian fare. There’s also a short but sweet wine list, naturally.

4) Budapest to Prague

An old faithful amongst inter-railers, this classic overnight service whisks passengers between two of Eastern Europe’s prettiest cities, Prague and Budapest. Rolling out of the Hungarian capital in the early evening, the service arrives in Prague bright and early the next morning. Wipe the sleep from your eyes and do a bit of sunrise sightseeing, before the madding crowd arrives.

Fall asleep in Budapest and wake up here, in PragueFall asleep in Budapest and wake up here, in Prague
pavel068 / Thinkstock

5) Trondheim to Oslo

Hop aboard this sleeper service in the dark winter months and Norway’s epic scenery will be completely wasted on you. Jump aboard in summer, however, and the midnight sun will illuminate everything that is great about rural Scandinavia: shimmering lakes, scented pine forests and rugged mountains. The cities bookending this splendid 7-hour train journey are another story. 

6) Madrid to Lisbon

Attempting to send passengers back to the golden age of rail travel, the Madrid-Lisbon overnight service, operated by Trenhotel, nearly succeeds. Passengers booking into its luxury class cabins can enjoy private showers and free meals (with wine) in the dining cart. Over which you can marvel at the fact that it still takes 11 hours to travel from Madrid to Lisbon by train.

7) Berlin to Malmo

Run during the summer by a private rail operator, the Berlin Night Express links the German capital with the city of Malmö in Sweden. But what about that huge body of water between the two countries called the Baltic Sea? Not a problem. Unusually, the train boards a ferry and travels over water before picking up the rails again in Sweden.

The Berlin Night Express crosses the Baltic Sea by ferryThe Berlin Night Express is loaded onto a ferry to cross the Baltic Sea

8) Zagreb to Split

Passengers have plenty of time to wine and dine in the Croatian capital before hotfooting it to the Dalmatian Coast on a late-night sleeper train. Wake up early and catch a glimpse of Croatia’s little-explored countryside at sunrise before pulling into the coastal town. The service, which operates between April and October, will see you arrive in Split just in time for breakfast on the seafront. Alternatively, you could catch an early ferry to the popular islands of Brač, Hvar and Šolta.

9) Prague to Cracow

Connecting two of Europe’s biggest party towns, the nightly train from Prague to Cracow slips silently away from the bars and clubs northwards across the vast Czech countryside. While much needed R&R may be the order of the evening, the cosy 4- or 6-berth cabins encourage sociability so you may find the party atmosphere following you along the tracks.

10) Rome to Palermo

Scenically snaking along the laces of Italy’s shoe-shaped peninsular, the 12-hour night train from Rome to Palermo is perhaps the most romantic way to experience the country’s southern region. Slumbering passengers are woken by a gentle thud as the train boards the ferry to cross the Straights of Messina into Sicily – the perfect backdrop for breakfast as the sun rises lazily over the Mediterranean.

Depart Rome at night and wake up in Palermo, SicilyDepart Rome at night and wake up in Palermo, Sicily
BargotiPhotography / Thinkstock

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