As people become more uncertain about flying, sleeper train services are enjoying a resurgence in some parts of Europe. In others they are being withdrawn
Overnight sleeper trains seemed condemned to the past, a relic of a bygone age.
Despite the services retaining a higher degree of popularity and patronage on the mainland continent compared to the decline in fortunes in the UK, as the COVID era emerged sleeper trains were becoming an expensive and awkward anachronism. Various rail carriers were following the British lead and gradually pruning back the network of services on offer, citing the popularity of budget airlines a powerful competitor.
The first hammer to fall was the withdrawal of the Deutsche Bahn service between Paris and Berlin. This saw sleeper services cut across the continent with astonishing speed.
Yet, from the clutches of history, the night train is making a vigorous comeback.
People suddenly are hesitant about travelling by airplane in the COVID era and European rail operators have jumped into the breach with some interesting announcements.
The Swedish government have announced funding for nightly services between Stockholm and Malmö to Hamburg and Brussels to be underway by mid 2022.
French Ministers also resurrected a service between Paris and Nice for overnight travellers.
Austria has been well ahead of the trend, having purchased 42 sleeper cars from German railways in 2016 they have reintroduced half of the night services of earlier timetables, connecting Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and Düsseldorf to various locations in Austria, Switzerland and Italy.
The veritable renaissance does not stop there, Belgium will recommence a service to Vienna from September with one way fares as low as €29.90 and a sleeper connecting the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia proved so popular upon launch this June that it is already running to a 7 night a week timetable.
Swedish services are being quadrupled on the services through to Berlin and a service running from Germany to Salzburg in Austria for the ski season has already been extended through to November due to demand.
It may well be pandemic fears have made people rethink their travel plans or desires to reduce their carbon footprint, regardless, this is not a sure thing, with the costs of running sleeper services remaining prohibitive. A normal train can hold 80 people in one coach and stop at multiple stations on a route, making multiple repeat journeys. A sleeper train may hold only 20 or 30 beds to a carriage with very little traffic being picked up or dropped off en route. Furthermore, the stock only makes one journey over a 24 hour timetable. Cross border service also incur access charges and many services run only in the summer months or rely on government hand outs to maintain the timetable.
Such financial realities weigh heavy on the Spanish service providers RENFE. The Spanish operator has long been famed for the well appointed sleeping berths and quality of service. Their sleeper trains, known as Trenhotels, ran routes including Madrid or Barcelona to the north or south coast, some services into France and the famous Trenhotel Lusitania between Madrid and Lisbon.
RENFE has been experiencing financial difficulties prior to the COVID crisis and it seems the foreseeable delayed return to normality will make the Trenhotel service a load too heavy to bear. RENFE registered a €25million annual loss on the services even after drastic cuts to the routes on offer. Barcelona or Madrid to the north coast and Madrid with Lisbon were all that remained. The cuts in the French sleeper network mean the Paris connection was lost in 2013. In May 2020 RENFE quietly announced that the Trenhotel services would not be returning after the State of Alarm was rescinded. True to their word, the services are not running. The operator intends to mitigate losses by improving passenger numbers on high speed, high-frequency services.
Beyond the COVID headlines, a battle is raging over the fate of these much beloved services. It seems RENFE has scored a bit of an own goal as railway workers often use the Trenhotel to be in position for the start of their shift. Now, Spanish train drivers are calling upon the government to impose a minimum service requirement.
The disappointment of discovering the services were cancelled, by trying to navigate the ever unhelpful RENFE website for a frustrating afternoon was further compounded by the fact the same website proudly boasts about the amenities of their sleeper stock and the routes it no longer operates.
It is curious that the COVID panic has simultaneously managed to provoke a welcome return of night trains in some quarters while ushering in their axe in others. It may well prove to be short sighted of RENFE to have enthusiastically slashed the Trenhotel services rather than seeing the curious and unusual summer tourism trade of 2020 as a huge opportunity for people to rediscover the wonder of the night train.
A journey by sleeper would have brought an air of sophistication and peace of mind. No need to cram the family into the car for a long and miserable drive, we could have started our holiday with a meal in the restaurant car, taken a night cap in the bar before retiring for the night to alight a few yards from our beach haven, fresh and ready to enjoy the day.
There is an unmistakable romance about the sleeper train. The Caledonian in Britain can whisk you from the grey heart of London to the unrepentant beauty of the West Highlands, where you can cradle your coffee and watch the deer scatter from the window by your bed. Once refreshed and journey complete, it can disgorge you on to the platform of Fort William the next morning ready to cross the platform and board the Hogwarts Express (Alright it is called "The Jacobite" but it is the train they use in the Potter films, and Glenfinnan viaduct will look very familiar to Potter fans).
For many years the Sleeper has been affectionately known as the Deer Stalker, and a home from home for Scottish MPs returning to their constituencies after the Parliamentary week. They must have accumulated many public expenses receipts on the fine whiskeys the bar has to offer. In fact the pivotal role of the Scottish Sleeper in hatching political deals was used to great effect in the British Political documentary, ahem....satire, "Yes Minister"
The service was frequently under threat of withdrawal and the new owners SERCO invested substantial amounts in new rolling stock, manufactured in Spain by CAF. The new service has not been without problems which has caused some difficulty because after all, the service has been marketed as a luxury experience with the price to match.
As previously mentioned, the UK has witnessed the destruction of a widespread network of overnight sleeper services, including an impressive range of Motorail services, dwindled to just three services, London to the Far North or West Highlands of Scotland via Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively and one other to the westerly depths of Cornwall. It was all destined to be so very different. As the Channel Tunnel was being completed in the last years of the previous century and exciting Night Star service was eagerly promoted. European wide sleeper services, with a reinvigorated network seeing services from the far-flung edges of the UK to the capitals of mainland Europe. Services from Plymouth, Swansea, Glasgow Central and London to Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne, Dortmund and Frankfurt. Tantalising talk of trains to run as far afield as Rome or utilising the new Spanish network being built to standard rail gauge. The stock and locomotives were commissioned and built, but never pressed into service. The coaches were ignominiously sold to Canadian railways and the cutting edge multiple power systems electric locomotives have been quietly stored in obscured sidings. Oh to what might have been! We could have drifted to sleep racing through Cataluña to be woken with a full English on the outskirts of London.
If there is some foresight, and some imagination, the divisive HS2 project could yet become a vital spine in a new and exciting return to a golden age of travel. If low cost flying becomes a thing of the past, maybe, just maybe, a Europe wide night train network could become a viable, economical and environmentally friendly way for us to get around. Current evidence suggests that Spain and the UK do not see the potential that our European cousins are warmly embracing.
It remains to be seen whether the COVID era has finally put to bed something that was waiting for this opportunity to return to our hearts. The joy of the journey rather than the desire for the destination.