You’ve doubtless heard about the Great Rail Revival. Spurred by environmental doom and gloom, some of us have grown more mindful of flying short distances. We’re prioritizing the process of travel over instant gratification. We’re grumbling over the slow development of high-speed rail.
Transport companies, aided by governments, are also getting on board. Last August, Amtrak starting rolling out new sleeper cars for its Superliner routes across the Midwest. And despite rumblings that VIA Rail might decommission its lightly used sleeper routes, business resumed to prepandemic schedules this summer – though, in my experience, most recently in 2019, long-distance travel on VIA is a series of rolling disappointments, rife with cancellations and prone to congestion when passenger trains pull over to allow freight to pass on the shared track.
Over in Europe, sleeper trains are seeing a resurgence among boomers nostalgic for the romance of long-past Eurail adventures, before the era of budget airlines and moral panic about carbon footprints. Young eco-warrriors, meanwhile, are discovering them with fresh eyes. Companies in the Netherlands, Austria and France are reviving routes around Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. British shuttles between London and Scotland have invested in quality food and guest loungers with showering facilities.
Fuelling demand on the continent, last month the European Commission approved France’s decision to ban domestic flights linking cities less than 2.5 hours apart by train. Surely similar bans will be coming soon for more distant cities near the borders and beyond.
This makes sense, not only in terms of sustainable travel but for our sanity. Much like France, I am over short-haul flights run by airlines that treat paying customers like nuisances. Airport fatigue is real. Threatened by the pandemic, industrial action and the Great Resignation, flight schedules have spiralled out of control. Calculate the soul-sapping hours you spend between home and hotel – often you might as well sit on a train watching the geography gradually transform. Funnel the cost of a night at your destination into an evening in a velvet-padded dining car, whizzing through the Black Forest. And wake up in Vienna, or Vancouver, steps from a café serving obscure pastries.
Except, of course, the reality isn’t even close, likely never was. The overnight journeys of my youth were sleepless affairs, not that I minded. Today I do mind. After being bombarded with some mighty convincing marketing heralding a new, exciting era in rail travel – exotic pyjama parties attended by men in uniform! Martinis, mahogany and views of the Alps! – I recently decided to join the fun. A year of COVID-related deferments later, I arrived at Paris’s Gare de l’Est last fall more than ready to board the overnight service to Salzburg offered by Nightjet, Austria’s new sleeper service.
But was it ready for me? Nightjet got a lot of press last year for its prescience, its growing network – it connects 27 European cities and counting, from Amsterdam to Budapest – and its perceived success where lesser systems in France and Germany have folded. Britain abandoned its proposed sleeper to the Continent a decade ago. But Nightjet pulled through, with a glossy website and a price list (starting at $150 for a 14-hour journey) that almost makes financial sense.
What I didn’t know when I booked was that Nightjet, an offshoot of the state-run OBB rail network, uses second-hand trains from Germany on its overnight routes. I discovered this an hour after my intended boarding time, slightly stressed and sweatier than I hoped to be heading into a redeye. The train was late into Paris, and the typically blasé station staff hadn’t felt compelled to post it on the departures board.
I squeezed onto my assigned carriage, its corridor barely wider than a standard carry-on. My single sleeper cabin, second highest on the price ladder, wasn’t yet made up for sleeping, so I scootched into the armchair and tried to wedge my bag into the only remaining space, under the dining plank. In a compartment resembling a bathroom cabinet, I found a sink but couldn’t trigger the sensor-enabled water.
The toilet was down the hall. I walked there in my complimentary slippers, offered in a bag containing a water bottle, eye mask and (lightly stained) washcloth, and just about managed my business in a space so awkwardly compact, the toilet had to be mounted on an angle. Again, I failed to trigger the water sensor, yet the floor was mysteriously wet.
Ready for bed, I spotted my attendant in the cabin next door, taking a shine to a party of German-speaking, Prosecco-swilling seniors (no guitar-strumming hippies on this throwback journey; they couldn’t afford it). When he knocked at my door I had to transport myself and all my possessions into the hallway so he could turn down my bed. The sheets and pillows were clean, I think.
For the next nine hours I struggled to sleep through the jiggling of the bed and my maverick wheelie case, rolling like we were at sea. After we screeched into Mannheim station, I got up for the bathroom again and managed to lock myself out of my room. The attendant was neither impressed nor surprised. Maybe I’d have overlooked these minor discomforts if I’d brought my partner. Maybe I should have gone for that Prosecco. Or maybe the company overpromised.
Inexplicably, we pulled into Salzburg on time. Which was great! But it didn’t solve my next problem: As with all sleepers, I arrived in town so early, I still had eight hours until check-in.
Other sleeper trains to try around Europe
Hands down the best tour of the Scandinavian north starts on the Arctic Circle Train from Stockholm. The scenic railway ploughs through the reindeer pastures of Swedish Lapland, with viewing cars for spotting the Northern Lights. At Abisko it heads west to the Norwegian fjords before doubling back. Prices start at $55 for a seat or $136 for a bunk.
Save a night’s hotel and hours on the road by boarding the Caledonian Sleeper in London and waking up in deepest Scotland. The company took delivery of new rolling stock earlier this year and now offers more practical modular setups, WiFi and coveted charging points. The hot-breakfast option is a rarity on sleeper trains. One-way fares start at around $220.
France’s national rail system SNCF offers Europe’s best budget option. With its Connect service you can travel between Paris and the Alps, or Nice, or Barcelona (with a quick connection at the border) from about $40 one way. Rooms are as basic as Nightjet’s but, like I said, you’re getting a bargain.
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