The ambitious new European sleeper train network to connect London to Barcelona

europe sleeper train network – Getty

Rail anoraks were aquiver last week as the German Greens announced plans for a network of night trains in Europe. Under the proposals, some 40 sleeper services would dart between dozens of cities and holiday resorts, providing a low-carbon alternative to flying on a Continent struggling to drive down emissions.

Looking at the brightly coloured lines on the Greens’ map, it’s hard not to romanticise about nodding off in Edinburgh and waking in Paris – just one of the (admittedly fairly Germany-centric) routes proposed by the party. Berlin-Rome and Oslo-Prague are among the others that fired up the imagination.

The plans add to the sense that a new golden epoch for sleeper trains beckons. Pushed towards extinction by low-cost carriers, sleeper services are showing signs of a comeback in Europe amid rising demand for low-emissions travel.

“People are willing to travel increasingly long distances by train because they realise that climate change is a very real thing now,” said Mark Smith, who runs the Man in Seat 61 rail travel website. “People tell me that they want to cut their carbon footprint, but also that they want to get away from the airport and airline experience.”

The market has responded. OBB – Austria’s state run operator – has been buying brand new sleeper stock to serve its growing nocturnal network, something that would have raised eyebrows a decade ago. Its overnight Paris-Vienna service is set to launch in December, with Zurich-Amsterdam following in 2022; Berlin-Brussels and Berlin-Paris are due to get going in 2024.

Then there’s European Sleeper. The Dutch-Belgian railway startup has secured funding to launch a night train between Brussels and Prague, calling at Amsterdam and Berlin. Travellers will be able to hop aboard from 2022.

However, few firms have responded with quite as much pizzazz as Midnight Trains. The French startup has pledged to reboot the night train concept entirely from 2024 with a fleet of “rolling hotels”. It has a sleek website and a sexy weekly newsletter – but no rolling stock. Most startups simply can’t afford the upfront cost of buying new.

Like leaves on the line and the “wrong kind of snow”, there are other obstacles holding night trains back. Namely aviation’s generous tax breaks, which give planes a competitive advantage over night trains.

“Before we draw lines on maps we need to level the playing field between air and rail,” said Smith. “Airlines pay no fuel duty, which is like me filling up my car at 60p a litre. Meanwhile, railways have to pay tax on electricity and diesel. Policies look almost look as if they are designed to encourage emissions.”

The German Greens posit solutions to such problems, including proposals to end aviation’s tax advantages. The party also wants the European Investment Bank to invest in rolling stock and then lease it out to rail firms at a competitive rate.

First, though, the party has to persuade enough people to vote for them in this weekend’s elections to leverage any real power. With some polls putting them at almost 20 per cent of the vote – and given the fragmented nature of German politics – that’s arguably the easy bit. The hard bit could be clearing the tracks for a genuine night train revival.

Five eye-catching routes proposed by the Greens

1. Edinburgh-Frankfurt

Calling at London and Paris, this cross-Channel service is perhaps the most ambitious route proposed by the Greens – and the least likely to succeed. High track access fees for HS1 and the Channel Tunnel, plus friction at the border between the UK and EU, means it is likely to remain just a line on a map for now.

Likelihood of succeeding: 🚂

Estimated time: 14 hours

Where to stay if it succeeds: For uber-swanky lodgings just a short roll of the suitcase from Frankfurt central, check in at Roomers.

edinburgh waverley station – Getty

2. Oslo-Prague

Calling at Copenhagen, Hamburg and Berlin, this is another highly ambitious route that could make use of the Fehmarnbelt Tunnel. One of Europe’s largest infrastructure projects, it is being bored beneath the Baltic Sea to provide a rail link between Denmark and Germany. It’s scheduled to open in 2029.

Likelihood of succeeding: 🚂 🚂

Estimated time: 16 hours

Where to stay if it succeeds: The intimate, upscale Cosmopolitan Hotel has elegant rooms, a destination restaurant and spa. It’s also just a short walk from Prague train station.

3. Berlin-Rome

This route is not as fanciful as you might think, given Europe’s plans for a direct train between Berlin and Palermo. The 1,400-mile service will use the Brenner Base Tunnel, which is being dug beneath the Alps. It’ll be the world’s longest underground rail tunnel when it opens in 2028.

Likelihood of succeeding: 🚂 🚂 🚂

Estimated time: 16 hours

Where to stay if it succeeds: The lavish, Grand Tour-inspired decor at Rome’s Hotel de la Ville is apt for travellers completing one of the longest rail journeys in Europe.

4. Berlin-Split

A shorter version of this route is already up and running thanks to the Czech rail operator Regiojet. Undeterred by the pandemic, it launched a summer sleeper train between Prague and Split last year, calling at Budapest and Zagreb. It’s been a “surprise night train success,” according to Smith.

Likelihood of succeeding: 🚂 🚂 🚂 🚂

Estimated time: 20 hours

Where to stay: For period features and elegant interiors, check in to Heritage Hotel 19; a charming place to unwind after a long train journey.

split, croatia – Getty

5. Paris-Berlin

A sleeper train plied this popular route until 2014, when it was axed to general outcry. In a sign of the times, the route is now being revived as part of OBB’s expansion of its nocturnal network. The first trains are due to depart in 2024.

Likelihood of succeeding: 🚂 🚂 🚂 🚂 🚂

Estimated time: 8 hours

Where to stay if it succeeds: Ideal for onward travel to London, Hôtel Whistler near Gare du Nord goes big on the golden age of travel theme.

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