The Renaissance of Long-Distance Rail

Picture of Julian Munsey
Julian Munsey
Last Updated: 21 February 2022

Some might dismiss it as Interrailing for grown-ups, but in theory, overnight and long-distance trains should really be considered by any carbon-conscious traveller.

In the age of flight shaming and net-zero carbon ambitions, rail operators are making a big deal of train travel’s sustainability, with Spanish train operator Renfe on message here, having 80% of trains running on renewable electricity, with ambitions to convert the remainder to Liquified Natural Gas.

It’s not just about sustainability; any business traveller will tell you it is easier to work on a train than on a cramped short-haul flight. Moreover, boarding a train at the end of the working day, sleeping, and then waking up in the destination the following morning is a very efficient use of time.

Some new players are emerging to persuade us to ditch flying, particularly for intra-Europe travel.

This summer, a new venture, European Sleeper, begins operating overnight between Brussels and Prague. Services depart Brussels at 19.22, initially three times a week, usefully arriving in Berlin at 05.52 and Prague at 10.24. It’s a small beginning, but the cooperative boasts of raising €500,000 in seed capital in 15 minutes in May 2021.

It says: “We plan to introduce a new night train from Belgium and the Netherlands every year. In 2023 to Warsaw and in 2024 to a yet unknown destination.”

In 2024, another start-up, Midnight Trains, plans to launch its first route from its Paris hub, aiming to offer around 10 destinations of 800-1,500km from Paris. Initial plans did include Edinburgh, but communications director Herve Marro said: “The line to the UK has been postponed after a deep analysis of feasibility.”

Nevertheless, he adds: “We are convinced people are willing to change their transport habits and shift to more sustainable alternatives. But they face a lack of rail offering on long distance international journeys not covered by high-speed trains and will not wait for 2050 – or most probably the end of the century – to have sustainable air transport at a fair price.

“We do not want to create a luxury service, we just believe that to convince travellers to stop flying we have to set a new benchmark of night trains with 100% private cabins, a bar and restaurant, a digital experience end-to-end and a new modern design.”

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Midnight Trains is not the first to envisage a seamless connection from the UK regions to central Europe by rail. When Eurostar launched in 1994, it ran Nightstar sleeper trains from several UK cities to destinations including Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Cologne. They unfortunately coincided with the birth of budget airlines when airports were uncongested and there were no qualms about emissions. There was also, if you can imagine, no wi-fi on trains.

The ‘ghost trains’ were soon pulled from schedules and rolling stock sold – much of it now operates in Canada. Eurostar says it currently has “no plans” to restart a sleeper service.

However, today’s landscape is different. In its Get On Track report, Greenpeace argues a ban on flights where a train journey is less than six hours “would be a good start”. It says this would apply to 34% of the 150 busiest flight routes on mainland Europe. It adds only 41 of the 150 busiest EU flights had direct train alternatives in 2021.

Greenpeace believes it’s time for a train renaissance. “There used to be direct night trains on key routes serving as corridors for European passenger traffic, but night trains connecting Copenhagen to Amsterdam, Basel and Prague, as well as night trains between Paris and Berlin, and Paris to Barcelona and Madrid were cancelled in the 2010s,” it says.

Current long-distance overnight train services are a mixed bag.

Austria’s OBB NightJet makes a concerted pitch for business travellers, offering single cabins and discounts for corporates ranging from 20-25%. In December, it began a Paris-Vienna route three times a week via Strasbourg.

In contrast, France’s SNCF Connect is probably not the overnight choice for the business traveller, as even 1st Class means sharing with three others of either sex, lying in bunk beds fully-clothed. However, compartments can be reserved for a single traveller at a premium and women travelling alone can opt for a dedicated compartment free of charge.

Back in the UK, even Caledonian Sleeper’s new rolling stock offers only a choice of twin bunks or a double bed, so again this may not be the choice for lone business travellers.

This is one barrier, along with the increased travelling time, that train operators will need to overcome before corporates are convinced to switch to them; even given the sustainability argument, it may be a hard sell.

If you would like to find out more about the possible rail options when travelling further afield please speak to a member of your travel team here at Meon.

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