High-end private suites with their own bathrooms, a seasonal menu with cocktails available à la carte or as room service: is this a renaissance for Europe's overnight sleeper trains?
Startup Midnight Trains hopes so, with its ambitious plan for a network of luxury sleeper trains radiating from Paris to the UK, Spain, Italy, Germany and Denmark beginning in 2024.
Passengers will find sleeper suites and dining cars which take their design cues from boutique hotels and chic restaurants, with Midnight Trains "redesigning the night train experience" to become "a hotel on rails."
"The experience imposed by commercial airlines is full of stress and discomfort," says the company, founded by two French entrepreneurs with advisors drawn from the ranks of Eurostar, Accor and European rail operators SNCF and Thalys.
"The speed they sell is an illusion, and a 1-hour flight is actually 4 hours long from door to door. Finally and more importantly, air travel produces high carbon emissions."
Midnight Trains is a counterpoint promising "a more comfortable, seamless and sustainable alternative."
There'll be no shared compartments: each suite can be booked as a solo or duo, or as a group for family and friends, with on-demand movies and high-quality bedding, while meals taken in the restaurant car or delivered to your room.
Midnight Trains has mapped out a proposed network embracing a dozen premium destinations between 800km and 1500km distant.
Mark Smith, from UK-based train travel website The Man in Seat 61, suggests there's ample demand on those routes, and the firm's plans "fit with the French government's aspiration to revive sleeper trains."
"I have high hopes for routes from Paris to Italy to Spain in particular, where there's now a big gap and high demand, but Paris-Edinburgh would be very difficult to make work commercially because of all the extra costs associated with the Tunnel."
Midnight Trains intends to tap into a new wave of night-time rail services spreading out across Europe and linking the continent’s major cities, in a bid to curb rising carbon emissions.
The Trans-Europe Express 2.0 initiative will allow travelers to journey across multiple national borders without changing trains, in a direct challenge to aviation.
The revival of Europe’s night-train network comes 25 years after the collapse of the original Trans-European Express that linked 130 cities across the continent.
The boom in short-haul flying eroded its appeal, but campaigns by environmental activists such as Greta Thunberg are making people more aware of their carbon footprint.
There is “growing demand for young people for other modes of transport other than aeroplanes,” said Marc Papinutti,” an official at France’s environment ministry.
Expansion of night-train services comes at an awkward time for Europe’s airlines as they struggle to cope with the fallout from the coronavirus, which punctured a decades-long boom in air travel.
Sleeping in style
Showcasing the possibilities for overnight travellers are new night trains being built by Siemens for Austria’s OeBB.
Costing €200 million, the 13 specialised trains feature cabins designed by London-based industrial studio PriestmanGoode and inspired by the first-and-business class compartments of airlines and minimalist hotels.
“We’ve tried to bring a more domestic feeling to the experience; thought about what environment people are experiencing at home, in hotels, bars, or restaurants,” said Kirsty Dias, a designer at the studio.
The new coaches, due to roll from 2022, will have more sleeper wagons, “pods” for more privacy for budget travelers, deluxe cabins with longer beds and wheelchair-accessible compartments.
However, rail’s impact may be limited by the difference in traveling times. A direct journey from Amsterdam to Rome would take over 13 hours under the TEE 2.0 plans, compared to just over 2 hours flying.
That’s unlikely to attract time-short business travelers, although could appeal to climate-conscious holidaymakers.
German state rail operator Deutsche Bahn said it expects to see a “golden age” for train travel after the coronavirus passes, while Austria’s equivalent is adding night-train capacity in expectation of rising demand, buoying manufacturing-order books.
“European rail traffic is a game changer for a climate-friendly and economically successful future,” said Michael Peter, chief executive officer of Siemens' mobility division, one of Europe’s largest train manufacturers. “Night trains will enjoy a renaissance."
Additional reporting by Bloomberg.