Are night trains the best way to travel low-carbon, responsibly and economically?

Analysis on a means of transport that has risen from the ashes

Photo Credit: Museum of History new south Wales

A new trend for sustainable travel

It was thought to be a thing of the past, at least in France with the suppression of numerous lines a few years ago. In 2017, there were only 2 routes left in France: Paris-Briançon and Paris-Rodez-Toulouse-Cerbère.

But since 2018, it seems to be gradually making a comeback in France: with the reopening of the Paris-Nice and Paris-Tarbes lines in 2021. The return is even greater in Europe, with the development of new connections by specialized players.
Surely you haven’t missed the growing number of announcements about lines reopening or new players entering the night train market.

But why this revival and craze?

Night trains, an eco-responsible choice

There are many reasons why people decide to travel by night train: the originality or nostalgia that this type of journey can bring; optimizing their time by traveling while sleeping….but one reason that is increasingly important for many travelers is, above all,the ecological objective..

Travelling by train is one of the most environmentally-friendly modes of transport. It emits very little CO2 compared with airplanes and cars. The night train has the advantage of covering long distances and is an interesting alternative to air travel.

Infography Comparison of CO2 emissions by train, combustion-powered car and airplane

Travelling by train is the ideal choice for a low-carbon journey and to minimize your carbon footprint. This means significantly reducing the impact of transport on your trip: for a 1000 km journey, for example, a TGV journey will emit 75 times less CO2 than a flight.

So if you want to explore Europe in a low-impact way, and prefer eco-responsibility to speed, the night train quickly becomes an interesting solution. The good news is that its (re)development is now well underway!

The journey of the future will be…by night

In France

A wide review is currently underway in France, as part of the Plan France Relance and the Mobility Orientation Act, to improve night train services in the country. The result is the opportunity to launch new night train lines in France, to better serve tourist areas or high-traffic routes.

No fewer than 10 night train lines have been identified. They could become concrete projects by 2030…. fingers crossedthat many of them see the light of day!

“France Relance” Video – Night train comeback in France

In Europe

The movement is just as active in Europe, if not more, driven by two phenomena: partnerships between European operators and the arrival of new private players in the night train segment.

European partnerships

The Paris-Vienna route, for example, was launched in 2021 thanks to collaboration between several operators. It is the result of the collaboration between ÖBB (Austria) – Deutsche Bahn (Germany) – SNCF (France) and CFF (Switzerland). The line departs from Paris and passes through Strasbourg, Munich, Rosenheim, Salzburg, Linz and St. Pölten before arriving in Vienna. It runs 3 days a week in each direction, and the journey takes around 15 hours.

Prices start from €29.90 for a seat and €89.90 for a cabin. It’s an affordable and attractive rate when you consider that you also avoid a night in a hotel.

Nightjet train - OBB night train

Photo Credit: Simon Tartarotti

This collaboration will also enable the launch of four additional lines:

– Paris-Berlin and Brussels-Berlin in December 2023

– Zurich-Rome in 2024

– Barcelone – Zurich in December 2024

The launch of the Paris-Vienna line is just one example of the many routes that exist in Europe. There are already over 100 night train lines throughout Europe. You can find a comprehensive map on the ” Back on track “which promotes night trains in Europe.

Bear in mind that the further east and north you travel in Europe, the more likely you are to find night train connections. One of the major operators is ÖBB. The Austrian operator has maintained its network and its development, whereas others may have chosen to turn away from these more complex and difficult-to-monetize train routes.

But now the tide seems to have turned. With its Nightjet, ÖBB offers connections to Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland. It’s an interesting player to watch as a priority for your research.

New players

Alongside the historic rail operators, new players are pushing the development of night trains in Europe. Private operators are entering this niche to develop the offer and level of service of night trains.

European sleeper logo - new company operating night trains in Europe

European Sleeper has just launched its first route in July 2023 with the Brussels-Berlin connection, which should be extended to Prague in 2024.

We made this trip this summer in a sleeper cabin. When you take this line, you immediately notice that the trains have gone through a bit of life (in fact, the carriages are quite different from one to the next). There’s still room for improvement (particularly in terms of access to on-board toilets and services), but the route is already proving very popular. The company has announced a plan to renew and improve these trains….so this early experience can only get better!

Midgnight train logo - new night train company in France

Midnight Trains, a company founded by French entrepreneurs, aims to revive night trains in France with an improved level of service. The project is ambitious and exciting, with the concept of a hotel on tracks. They’ve fallen a little behind schedule with the launch now announced for 2025, but their offer should be the talk of the town, especially given their ambitious service levels. Their aim is to link Paris to major European cities. Planned routes include Paris-Edinburgh, Paris-Rome and Paris-Porto.

What is night train travel like?

Travelling by night train means exploring Europe in a low-impact way. But it’s also generally a good value for money, as you travel while sleeping. In concrete terms, for a train ticket, you combine transport and accommodation, so depending on your journey, you could potentially save a night in a hotel.

But the experience varies greatly depending on the type of bed you choose. There are generally three possible options.

Standard seating / seats

These are the traditional seats found on daytime trains. The seats can be a little more comfortable, but it’s still a seat…. This is the most economical option, but also the least comfortable for an overnight journey. You’re likely to spend more than ten hours on this train, and putting in a little more to get a real bed (and some sleep!) is usually the best option.

Sleeping compartments

Sleeper cabin in a train - Night train Stockholm Hamburg

Here you have your own bed in sleeper compartments, usually for 4 or 6 people. Bed linen and pillows are provided, as are toilet and washroom facilities in the car. Breakfast can also be included in the ticket price on arrival. There are compartments reserved for women. If you’re traveling alone or with 2 or 3 passengers, you’ll share a compartment with other travelers. It’s also a great way to meet new people while traveling.

Single, double or triple cabins

This is the type of bedding being promoted by the new players or the most recent connections of the historic players. It’s the most comfortable option but it’s also more expensive than the other two. These are cabins that can be privatized if you are alone or in pairs, and have their own washbasin, or in some cases even showers and toilets. Breakfast is provided on arrival, as is on-board service, including a drink on departure.

In any case, travelling by night train means spending a night on the move. So expect more noise, and possibly border controls. Your night will be more restless than if you’d spent it in your own bed, but you’ll probably be fresher than after a night on a medium- or long-haul flight in economy class (!).

And above all, you’ll have the satisfaction of making a responsible choice for your trip . This will put you in a positive frame of mind to make the most of your vacation.

At Detour Odysseyit’s this concept of travel that we’d like to share with you. Our itineraries will also include the most suitable night train connections with all the associated advice to ensure you get the most out of the experience.
Don’t hesitate to discover the concept or contact us for more information.