Trains, Not Planes or Automobiles, Are the Ticket to European Treks

Overnight tours are gaining momentum as the Continent aims to cut carbon emissions.

Trains, Not Planes or Automobiles, Are the Ticket to European Treks
A suite on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. (Source: Belmond)

At exactly 8:52 p.m. on May 20, a sleeper train pulled out of the Austerlitz station in Paris, with French Prime Minister Jean Castex on board, to make its inaugural 12-hour, overnight journey to Nice. A flight connecting the cities is normally about 90 minutes, but instead, Castex and about a hundred passengers spent the night on couchette berths before pulling into the French Riviera city in time for a croissant and café crème breakfast the next morning along the Promenade des Anglais.

After the Paris-Nice route went offline more than three years ago, its relaunch is part of an ambitious push to resurrect night trains across Europe, swapping short-haul flights for longer, more environmentally sustainable overnight rail journeys. Despite the recent cutting-edge developments of high-speed bullet trains and hypersonic planes, France is not alone in investing in this slower form of travel.

Also in May, the Austrian sleeper train Nightjet began its Vienna-to-Amsterdam service; by next year the Dutch startup European Sleeper plans new overnight services linking Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, and Prague. And then there’s the long-term collaboration among Western Europe’s many national rail companies to connect major cross-border cities including Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, and Vienna via night trains.

The collective effort is a keystone of the 2019 European Green Deal, which aims to cut transportation emissions across the Continent by 90%, part of a larger goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

According to figures from the European Commission, transportation accounts for 25% of the European Union’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. Of that figure, road travel contributes almost three-quarters, while aviation and marine transportation split the rest. Rail, the least carbon-intensive mode of transportation, accounts for just 0.4% of emissions. That explains why the EC has committed €5.8 billion ($7.1 billion) to rail infrastructure throughout the bloc and designated 2021 the “European Year of Rail.”

For travelers, it’s not just a greener way to see Europe. Rail enthusiast Pascal Dauboin, who’s been advocating since 2016 for the return of night trains in France through his collective Oui au Train de Nuit (Yes to the Night Train), extols the virtues of waking up to fiery sunrises and sunsets. “I love feeling and seeing the landscape go by, going through tunnels knowing I’m crossing through mountains, and feeling the geography in a night train,” Dauboin says.

The Cost of Being Green

Trains, Not Planes or Automobiles, Are the Ticket to European Treks

When the European Commission tagged 2021 with its pro-rail designation, the agency wasn’t expecting it to coincide with a pandemic. The bulk of the campaign is scheduled to kick off in September, with a Connecting Europe Express train that will take a circuitous route from Lisbon to Paris, stopping in 70 cities in 26 countries along the way to tout the benefits of trains for both leisure and business travel.

“Rail at the moment has an unprecedented amount of political goodwill,” says Kevin Smith, editor-in-chief of the U.K. trade publication International Railway Journal. “Politicians are putting their money where their mouth is to try to improve infrastructure, offer better services, and run more trains. … Consumers will also follow.”

But the governments can’t rely only on moral imperatives to juice demand. “Rail travel has to be cost-competitive, and that’s a real challenge right now,” Smith says. Because operational expenses are high—night trains carry fewer passengers and require additional services such as bed-making and laundry—round-trip tickets on the Paris-Nice sleeper can cost upwards of €218, or about $266, whereas flights average $161.

But according to Dauboin, the onus shouldn’t be on rail companies to offer more competitive prices, but on airlines to offer more “comparable fares.”

“When the cost of travel reflects the true environmental cost and prices go up, people will automatically take fewer flights,” he says.

Pandemic Safety Measures

Trains, Not Planes or Automobiles, Are the Ticket to European Treks

In the second quarter of 2020, travelers disengaged from rail travel at dramatic rates: Ridership in France was down 78% from a year earlier, while air passenger loads in all of Europe suffered losses of 51% in the same period. But train travel, it turns out, presents no greater risk than flying when it comes to Covid-19.

A study published last summer in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases showed that Covid transmission risk on trains was statistically insignificant. Hovering around 0.2% to 0.4%, the chance of catching the coronavirus from an infected person on a train was comparable or smaller than on a plane, says lead researcher Shengjie Lai, from the University of Southampton.

In Europe, like the U.S., trains are also promoting air filtration systems capable of exchanging airflow as many as 20 times per hour. Private cabins help, too; on the Paris-Nice overnight it’s possible to book an entire compartment of four to six beds.

The Next Decade 

Trains, Not Planes or Automobiles, Are the Ticket to European Treks

Governments will be pushing consumers toward rail options for far longer than just this year. In April, France approved a law banning short-haul domestic flights, permanently nixing commercial air options between cities that can be connected by rail in 2.5 hours or less—between Paris and Bordeaux or Nantes, for instance.

There are some trade-offs when it comes to amenities. The new Paris-Nice line lacks onboard showers and Wi-Fi. But travelers are given kits that include earplugs, eye masks, and wet wipes whether they’re in basic reclining seats or bunk-bed-like sleeping berths.

The standard will rise by next year, when the next-generation Nightjet trains are set to premiere on Austrian national rail service ÖBB. They’ll have touchscreen controls for regulating the cabin, worktables, ambient lighting, charging stations, and, for deluxe compartments, en suite toilets and showers—almost like business-class air seats.

In the meantime, private companies are bridging the gap for luxury consumers. Hospitality group Belmond Ltd. said 2019 was a record year for its plush overnight rail trips on the five-star Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train. Next year it will add boarding points for its Grand European Tour itineraries to include Amsterdam, Brussels, Florence, and Rome. Also new are three grand suites featuring private marble bathrooms with showers, heated floors, art deco finishes, and lacquered wood walls—all bookable for one-night journeys between cities like Rome and Paris, from £6,200 ($8,780) per person.

“It’s not just about going from A to B anymore, it’s about experiencing the journey and the people you’re traveling with,” says Gary Franklin, vice president for trains and cruises at Belmond. “And I think that’s going to be even more important over the next couple of years as everyone has been in lockdown and isolated.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.