The charm of an overnight train journey is unparalleled. Imagine hopping on a train in Vienna, dreaming a few hours under the train’s rhythmic clatter and then arriving in Paris the next morning. For a long time, this was not an option, but now overnight service is set to resume as railway companies of France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland are teaming up to launch four international night train lines over the next few years that would connect thirteen major European cities. The reinvented night-train service could be an alternative for budget airlines allowing travellers to opt for more environmentally-friendly mobility.
The Paris-Munich-Vienna line should launch in December 2021. Trains will join the existing Brussels-Vienna service in Mannheim, Germany and cover the distance between the French and Austrian capitals in around 15 hours. The Zurich-Cologne-Amsterdam night train line is also planned to begin operations in 2021. By 2023, connections from Vienna and Berlin to Brussels and Paris will follow and by the end of 2024, it should be possible to travel overnight from Zurich to Barcelona.
The project that goes under the name Trans-Europe Express 2.0 foresees a rejuvenation of the trans-continental network first elaborated between the 1950s and the 1980s. However, this time the cooperation is also guided by environmental concerns, under the motto train before plane.
The declaration of the four railway companies marks the beginning of the European Year of the Rail. On 1 December, the MEPs of the Transport Committee agreed to dedicate the coming year to strengthening rail transport, which is essential to reach the EU’s climate targets. This also includes a strong night train network, which is the key to sustainable and environmentally friendly mobility.
Upon the signing a memorandum of understanding, chief executives of the four rail companies highlighted the potential of rail system development to reduce carbon dioxide emissions contributing this way to the greening of the transport sector which produced 27 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU.
According to the European Environment Agency on a measure of CO2 emitted each kilometre travelled by a passenger, air travel ranks top at 285 grams per passenger kilometre, road transportation follows at 158 and rail travel at 14 grams per passenger kilometre.
The EcoPassenger calculator – initiated by the International Railways Union in cooperation with the European Environment Agency – is a useful tool to travellers who wish to become more aware of the impact of their journey by comparing the emissions of taking a flight, a train or a car trip to the given destination. Train basically always performs better than flights in terms of emissions, although the margin varies, depending on several factors.
Apart from being environmentally conscious and sustainable, there are also other factors which travellers consider before deciding on how to get to their destination. First of all the price, rail companies certainly struggle to compete with low-budget airlines which offer trips between all major European cities for the price of a ticket to the movies.
Secondly, time. Taking a train is slower then flying especially on long distances, which is not necessarily an issue if passengers can embrace the fact that “the journey is also part of the experience”. In the case of overnight-trains, it is much easier of course as passengers can have their goodnight sleep while rolling down the tracks.
The planned cooperation between the four railway companies is a good start to provide better-connected railway infrastructure in Europe, however, it will take time to actually make it happen. Passengers can already opt for night trains to reach certain destinations in Europe, Central and Eastern Europe included. For instance, overnight trains connect Prague and other Czech cities with Krakow and Warsaw in Poland. But passengers can hop on a night run in Berlin to get to Budapest, Hungary in just over 14 hours.
The planned project of the expanded night train service is should bring to 1.4 million the number of night passengers the four operators carry each year. This will largely depend on the evolution of the coronavirus situation next year. Currently, there is a lack of individual sleeper carriages providing COVID-friendly space, instead of communal six-bed sleeping spaces, which is an issue rail companies must figure out if they want to attract the 1.4 million passengers.