Travel A new sleeper train from Berlin to Paris puts...

A new sleeper train from Berlin to Paris puts Britain's service to shame

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Still, that doesn’t mean that the European operators have had it easy. Most night trains consist of sleeper cabins, couchettes (folding-out bunks), and carriages designed only with plain, cheap, seats. They are expensive to run, require international collaboration, and are often scuppered early on in their conception.

As Mark Smith, founder of the Man in Seat 61 website, says: negotiating all this is no easy feat. For the traveller, though, the rewards can be exceptional.

“People have discovered that a night train leaving in the evening is a damn sight easier to fit into your life than seven hours of high speed travel during the day,” he says. And that means the stubborn European sleeper revolution will continue to roll on. These are just some of the main operators making it happen.

European Sleeper is the new kid on the block. Unlike many legacy night train companies, it is a start-up rather than a national operator.

“It was started by two young entrepreneurs who, like me, like travelling by train, and worked in the rail industry, and they could see a gap in the market,” says Mark. “It’s a massive amount of bureaucracy, and they’ve done it. It’s a massive achievement.”

The co-operative launched in 2021 – a punchy year to start a travel business – using funds raised through a crowdfunding campaign. It was a complicated birth. The Belgium-based European Sleeper launched at the same time as “Moonlight Express”, a different night train that was intended to connect Berlin and Brussels. The two entities paired up, taking the name of the first (it is, inarguably, a very clear brand), and by May of this year the inaugural service began, taking passengers on that original route.

“You can’t just lease a sleeping car like you can lease an aeroplane if you want to start an airline. There is a leasing market, a very limited one, for rolling stock, but all the night train rolling stock has basically been leased,” says Mark. That, plus high track-access fees, plus staffing costs, security infrastructure and journey times make sleeper trains a difficult project to make profitable.

Regardless, European Sleeper’s owners are evidently ambitious. At the launch, they promised that some €6 million worth of tickets would be sold by the year’s end. Now, they have announced an extension of the route to Prague, too.

Rumours abound of a “winter night train”, taking skiers between Amsterdam and the French Alps – something that snow-lovers have long requested. And the Iberian peninsula, which is currently without any sleeper trains,might be added to the route thanks to an EU-backed scheme in 2025.

As for the customer experience? Each has one sleeping car, designed in the American, stainless steel style – originally built in the 1950s, a limited number were updated by European operators some 40 years later. There are also five couchette cars, plus standard seat carriages for those on a tight budget. And for those used to the, ahem, minimal level of service on the British railways, complimentary slippers and breakfast feel like luxury.

ÖBB is a national operator in Austria, which makes its rise to prominence another tale of a gamble coming to fruition. Throughout the early 2000s, sleeper trains were run out of Vienna under the EuroNight brand, proving relatively popular. It was in 2015 that ÖBB got really serious, though.

Deutsche Bahn, up until this date, had run a rival “City Night Line” network, which linked Austria to its home country. Evidently, the German operator decided this wasn’t profitable, and threatened to end its nighttime routes. Undeterred, ÖBB took a risk: buying all 42 of its sleeping cars, plus most of its couchettes, and swallowed up the City Night Line routes – rebranding the whole operation ÖBB Nightjet.

It’s now the largest operator in central Europe, linking the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy –quite the coup. Travellers can now book onto Berlin trains heading to Paris, and ÖBB are promising Zurich-Barcelona in 2024.

“They are almost a victim of their own success,” says Mark. “They are often fully booked on some of these night trains, so you can’t get a berth.”

As with European Sleeper, guests are offered more than just a bed for the night. Breakfast is served in the carriages, along with free refills of tea and coffee. And for those wanting to toast the journey, a complimentary glass of sparkling wine is also included, which somewhat beats the British Rail sandwiches of old.

Another national operator, this time running the length of Italy (including the island of Sicily). The nation has a whole host of train types – the high-speed Frecciarossas, the tilting Frecciargento, the privately run Italoroutes. But the Incity Notte trains rival the best of them, taking travellers from Venice to Rome, Milan to Brindisi, Turin to Bari and more. The routes from major northern cities, plus Naples and Bologna, to Palermo, Catania and Syracuse are particularly popular.

Their design is particularly useful for families. Sleeper cabins can be connected via shared sliding doors, meaning larger groups can essentially make their own, jumbo-sized sleeping area.

As with the other operators, a light breakfast, coffee, juice and snacks are included in the fare.

While there are now numerous options for sleeper trains across Europe, there is little variation when it comes to naming convention, hence SJ EuroNight. Sweden’s answer to its continental cousins, this offering takes travellers between major cities in a matter of hours. Trains run from Gothenburg and Stockholm to Östersun and Umeå domestically, plus operate longer routes to Narvik in the very north of Norway and across the Continent to Hamburg and Berlin.

The Stockholm to Hamburg route, in particular, proved so popular with travellers upon its launch in September 2022. This summer they introduced the German capital, too. In a particular Scandinavian touch, bikes are not allowed on board, but skis, stowed in a case, very much are.

There are more: France has its Intercitiés de Nuit, taking its travellers from Paris to the Alps, the Riviera and the Pyrenees. And Britain, of course, offers two routes: the Caledonian Sleeper, taking passengers from London to Scotland, and the Night Riviera, from the capital to Penzance.

While there has been a sleeper service running along the West Coast Main Line since 1873, the latest iteration operates six days a week (excluding Saturdays). But it seems as if travelling via sleeper in Europe is now being folded into the way people travel to the continent – something these operators are keen to encourage.

“I don’t know what proportion of people do it for climate reasons, or because they love trains, or because of the hassle of flying,” says Mark Smith. “I do know that there is huge demand, and that demand is growing.”


Have you travelled on any of Europe’s overnight sleeper trains? Share your experiences in the comments section below

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