Sarah and Sonia get off at Berlin Central Station, surprised both to feel so rested after sleeping on Europe’s newest overnight train and to be more than an hour late, Reuters reports.
“When you see the beds, they don’t look like the most comfortable,” says Sarah, a midwifery student from Belgium. But after packing their backpacks after the trip from Brussels, the two and her friend feel ready for a weekend full of pleasant emotions and sightseeing.
They are traveling with European Sleeper, a Dutch-Belgian start-up whose launch in May is part of the renaissance of overnight train travel on the Old Continent. The company says there is a demand for such services that offer a lower-emissions alternative to planes for travelers, are climate-friendly, while bringing back some of the romance of an older, slower form of travel for enthusiasts.
But reviving this type of transport faces many obstacles, from securing funding and profits in the face of fierce competition from low-cost airlines to providing reliable services on Europe’s overcrowded and aging rail network.
Sarah and Sonia’s train is an example of this. European Sleeper said it had been negotiating with national rail operators for a long time to agree timetables for its Brussels to Berlin service.
“It’s too bureaucratic and complicated,” Chris Engelsman, co-founder of European Sleeper, told the news agency.
The company also spent a year and a half searching for second-hand sleeping cars in Europe to lease. Ultimately, the refurbished whitish and faded red sleepers carried more than 20,000 people in the European Sleeper’s first summer season, with last-minute technical glitches in extreme cases forcing the company to transfer some passengers to other days or cancel their tickets.
“The main investment we’re looking at right now is in rolling stock because it’s an extremely important part of the whole business,” says Engelsman.
The company hopes to raise €40-60m in funding to buy its own carriages, which is ten times the amount it has raised so far from investors and through crowdfunding.
Other similar operators, such as Austria’s OBB, are supported by state funds. The company is expanding its Nightjet network, which carried 1.5 million passengers last year, with sleeper cars often booked weeks in advance. Since December, the operator has launched two new routes connecting Berlin with Paris and Brussels.
OBB is investing EUR 720 million for 33 next-generation night trains developed together with Siemens Mobility.
“There is an increasing demand,” said Alberto Mazzola, executive director of the lobbying organization CER, which represents European rail companies. “But the main challenge is the business plan.”
The years of decline in Europe’s night train network have coincided with the rise of low-cost airlines. As of today, an overnight train from Berlin to Zurich costs around €160 and takes over 12 hours, while an easyJet flight between the two cities is much faster, even taking into account the time spent at the airports themselves, and costs less by half.
The Norwegian government’s calculations highlight the challenge of profitability. Last year, it dashed hopes for a new route from Oslo to Copenhagen, saying it would have to spend up to $4 million a year in subsidies to offer tickets at a price passengers are willing to pay, the news agency recalled.
“It’s not easy, and our goal is not to get rich,” says European Sleeper’s Engelsman.
However, his company plans to expand, starting with the long-delayed extension of its line to Prague from March 2024. It also plans to open a route from Amsterdam to Barcelona.
Backers of night trains are pushing for more government aid to compete with low-cost airlines, such as VAT exemptions for cross-border routes and lower track access fees.
In September, France said it would seek support for a minimum flight price in the European Union to try to reduce airlines’ contribution to climate change, which could also help the rail industry.
As well as pressure to cut costs, night train operators have to navigate an aging European network with inconsistent gauge systems and different languages.