Concerns about climate change and air travel chaos are reviving Europe's overnight trains. This Is How It Feels On Board


Klaydy Buchsbaum boarded a train bound for Vienna at Paris' Gare de l'Est on a sweltering Sunday evening in late July, slid open the door to compartment 412, tossed her hat onto the upper bunk for her overnight journey, and got down to the serious business of maneuvering her oversized lavender suitcase into place. "Flights were so expensive, and with all the chaos in the air right now, I didn't want to be stuck somewhere in an airport." "I also didn't want my bag to get lost," she explained. She wedged the behemoth beneath her seat with one last push. "I'm not the type of person who travels with just a small carry-on," my husband says.



This summer's air travel chaos has provided yet another reason why an increasing number of European travelers are choosing to travel by train. Concerns about climate change are a driving force behind a number of public and private initiatives to bring back overnight trains. Rail travel emits one-fifth the greenhouse gases as flights, which is why railway companies, national governments, and European Union bodies are re-establishing a network of overnight medium-distance rail lines that once connected the continent. Despite the high demand and effort, those initiatives have a long way to go.



In the 1990s, Europe's night train network began to deteriorate. Demand for overnight trains decreased as low-cost airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair emerged. By 2019, both Germany and Switzerland had sold or completely shut down their night connections, and the total number of passenger night trains in Europe had fallen from around 1,200 per week in 2001 to around 450. Even the most determined passenger would now have to piece together their own ticket by navigating a bewildering thicket of national timetables and websites, and then change trains anywhere from three to eight times over the two-day journey.


In recent years, one national company has begun to take steps to resurrect overnight trains. In 2016, Austria's state-owned railway BB purchased some of the old international lines and began launching overnight journeys at a rate of about one per year, citing growing concern about climate change. The Paris-Vienna Nightjet will begin operations in December 2021.


Flygskam, the Swedish word for "flight shame," exploded into the public consciousness around the world in 2019, thanks to activist Greta Thunberg. And they grew again this summer, when widespread staff shortages caused a turbulent season of canceled flights and misplaced luggage. "Before Corona, we were always full during the summer months and on weekends," says Bernhard Rieder, BB's director of media relations. "We've been completely full on all lines every day since Easter this year." We get a lot of complaints from people saying, 'we barely have a chance to get a seat or a bed.'"


Some new businesses have been paying attention. Growing criticism of carbon-emitting flights, combined with a lack of convenient cross-border rail options, prompted businessmen Adrien Aumont and Romain Payet to establish Midnight Trains in 2019. It is a private company that, once operational, promises to connect ten European cities from its hub in Paris using transportation that is more akin to a hotel on rails than a traditional night train. "This is a product that hasn't been reinvented in 20 to 30 years," Payet says. "As a result, we began collaborating on how to reinvent the night train in order to make it the most sustainable and comfortable way to travel across Europe."


When Midnight Trains launches its first line in 2024, there will be easy online booking and refunds, a dining car serving Michelin-starred chef recipes, and a variety of accommodations—all private and outfitted with real beds and linens.


Both public and private night train initiatives face challenges. One example: in late July, a one-way Paris-Vienna Nightjet ticket for a berth in a four- or six-person couchette cost around 154 euros (exact costs vary depending on date and amenities), which was slightly more than plane tickets at the time. Part of the difference is due to a disadvantage built into the European pricing structure: airline tickets are VAT-free, but rail tickets are not.


A train journey, of course, takes much longer. Passengers who board the Nightjet avoid the hassles of airports and long security lines. However, the flight from Paris to Vienna takes 14 hours rather than 2.5. Some of this is due to rail traffic, which causes trains to sit idle on the tracks for up to 45 minutes. "People have this misconception that the tracks are empty, but that is not the case," says Rieder of BB. The tracks are clogged with slow freight trains at night, making competition for a spot on the tracks fierce.


The frequent delays are also due to technical and legal reasons. Engine car specifications continue to differ from country to country, necessitating frequent changes at border crossings due to different power supplies and safety regulations. When the trains come to a halt, authorities frequently use the opportunity to board and inspect passengers' passports—even within the borderless Schengen zone, which includes 26 European countries. "We're trying to buy locomotives that will be interoperable between countries so we don't have to stop at the border," says Payet of Midnight Trains. "But the manufacturers are saying they won't be ready until 2026 or '27." Meanwhile, the company is developing a system that will allow passengers to upload identity documents prior to travel, similar to how airlines do.


The lack of new carriages also explains why the Nightjet lacks amenities that could make overnight trains more appealing to travelers, such as WiFi and plenty of electrical outlets. The majority of the vehicles are now 25 or 30 years old.


However, Buchsmann, who enjoyed the simple breakfast served to each passenger and the opportunity to socialize over wine with the other women in her all-female compartment aboard, says she would gladly take the Paris-Vienna Nightjet again. Still, she admits that she didn't get much sleep. "The beds were a little firm," she complains.


Jean-Baptiste Fouvry, who was a few compartments away on the Nightjet, had a similarly sleepless journey. The 32-year-old had chosen a seat over a berth on his way to a professional conference in Vienna, and had spent the night upright with five others in a crowded compartment. He didn't regret his decision to travel by train as an environmentally conscious scientist at Paris' Institute of Astrophysics. "If you care about climate change," he says of the journey, "it's not horrifying enough not to do."