For many, sleeper trains remain associated with luxury travel: sublime vistas, opulent settings and a mystery or two — even a decade after the last descendant of the original Orient Express ceased running. But a Vienna to Brussels night service unveiled this month gives hope that Europe’s sleepers could mount a comeback in the age of flygskam: flight shame.
While many European rail operators cut their sleeper services over the past decade, Austria’s OBD has expanded its Nightjet service, linking cities including Hamburg, Basel and Innsbruck. In Sweden, the government is considering running trains from Malmo to London. And in the UK, the Anglo-Scottish Caledonian Sleeper put £150m into new stock which was unveiled last year — albeit not without hiccups.
The expansion of cheap air travel from the 1980s onwards has been blamed for the pressure on night trains. As environmental concerns have grown, the consumer calculus appears to have shifted. Commercial aviation was responsible for about 2 per cent of man-made carbon dioxide emissions last year, according to the International Air Transport Association. In response, activists such as Greta Thunberg have called on travellers to shun the airways. The Malmo-London proposal is one such effort to reduce emissions.
For business travellers, these services have an appeal beyond ESG concerns. With a sleeper, they can attend late-night meetings, hop into a berth and arrive refreshed in a new city — a welcome break from early morning flights, long security queues and tedious baggage carousels. Sleeper trains also have advantages over daytime trains, offering a chance to rest without forking out for a hotel.
The return of the sleeper is not necessarily a smooth ride. For intercontinental journeys, complex combinations of trains are unlikely to convince travellers to ditch the convenience of aircraft. Loyalty schemes and cut-price sales are strong incentives to keep flying within Europe, particularly if train tickets are costly. The solution to this problem could lie in pricing aircraft emissions more fairly, rather than throwing subsidies at operators. At the same time, the quality of rest that sleeper trains afford business travellers will have to rise to match the best airlines’ business class.
Regardless of these challenges, the expansion of night train routes is a reminder that those designing the future of transport do not need to reinvent the wheel. Prototypes of mobility in 2050 often stray into the costly realms of science fiction — from Tesla chief executive Elon Musk’s Hyperloop vacuum tube train, to Samsung’s imagined underwater highways. A carbon-neutral world will require radical changes in how we move around. In the meantime, the tracks are laid for the new golden age of the sleeper.