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Europe’s sleeper train awakens

Europe’s sleeper train awakens

by host

The night train revival is pulling into the heart of the European Union. 

The much-anticipated European Sleeper route linking Berlin and Brussels kicked off Thursday night. Its ambition: to be the harbinger of a revival of the overnight rail lines that once linked the Continent’s cities before the age of discount airlines.

Now, a boom in demand for transport with a lower carbon footprint than flying, and the attractions of slower travel, is sparking a resurgence.

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Shortly before 9 p.m. on Thursday, European Sleeper’s aged carriages rumbled out, not from the bowels of the futuristic concrete, steel and glass tomb that encases the crossed platforms of Berlin’s giant Hauptbahnhof, but instead from a suburban terminal usually used for services running to Poland.

The station choice was out of his team’s control — but it’s just one part of the challenge in running a regular and reliable service, Engelsman said.

Berlin’s main station, from which European Sleeper will usually depart at nearly 11 p.m. on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, opened in 2006 — just as international rail was falling out of fashion.

Sleepers used to depart Berlin from the nearby east-west Zoologischer Garten station, or Zoo Station. Even a few years ago, the German capital still hosted the odd departure to Novosibirsk, days away and deep beyond the Ural Mountains in Siberia.

But today, European Sleeper is an oddity on Berlin’s rails.

Ironically, it’s Germany that is as guilty as the low-cost airlines of hastening the decline of Europe’s night train network.

Despite being at the core of Europe and bordering nine countries, Deutsche Bahn decided in 2015 to ditch its overnight network and sell off the remaining routes to Austria’s ÖBB, arguing they were unprofitable to run and inconvenient to manage. This selloff marked the nadir of cross-Continent rail travel.

Even though Thursday’s inaugural run followed a popular route for both businesspeople and tourists, it’s striking that it’s operated by a startup, not an established railway.

Listen to a traveler making her way back to Brussels

Hannover was the first major city on the trip out of Berlin, the hometown of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

While the service won’t be stopping in Lower Saxony’s state capital — Engelsman said there wasn’t demand for a late-night halt here — its passage through von der Leyen’s city is significant, given that prospects for an overnight rail renaissance depend on how her Commission supports such initiatives.

The EU executive has already marked out 10 pilot night-train projects it deems worth backing, including European Sleeper’s planned route out of Amsterdam to Barcelona. Meanwhile, a law to make ticketing more consumer-friendly by obliging companies to share their data is due later this year.

“To solve the real problem of European night trains you would need an investment of something between €400 million and €500 million,” said Jon Worth, a German Green party member and longtime campaigner for cross-border rail.

Worth, on board for the early stage of European Sleeper’s departure, has said that would pay for about 200 carriages to replace the creaking rolling stock being used today, and is enough to make all of the Commission’s favored projects workable.

The EU and its European Investment Bank lending arm have regularly spent far more on road and aviation projects, including helping airlines upgrade their fleets.

European Sleeper has managed to find about 10 old carriages — with a couple of spares on standby just outside Berlin — but its threadbare stock means any faults will likely mean cancellations.

“We know there is a major stepping up of night trains, but European Sleeper can’t solve this by themselves,” said Worth. “This is a heroic undertaking; the fact they got this far is incredible. I’m in awe of it, but also a bit worried because of the weight of expectation.”

Still, Engelsman has a plan, and is confident he’ll have financing over the next few months to modernize up to 35 carriages at a cost of between €40 million and €60 million, which would be enough to run three 10-carriage trains.

The target, he said, was to find old seating carriages that can be converted into sleeping pods and capsules. Ramping up the comfort level is a priority to attract business travelers, with creature comforts such as free Wi-Fi and showers that are missing from the leased sleeper car, which Engelsman said dated back to 1955.

“We’re making good progress,” the European Sleeper co-founder said on the modernization drive. “This is one of the areas where the European Commission can help.”

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By the time the train rolled through Amersfoort, a major interchange on the Dutch network, sometime after 5 a.m., the class of travel was taking its toll.

There are different ways to cross the Continent by rail, from sitting in a cramped, barely reclining seat to bedding down solo in a first-class sleeping cabin. European Sleeper’s long-term business case relies on securing carriages with acceptable standards for luxury-loving travelers keen for some perks. This focus on higher-end amenities is as important as offering cheap deals to scruffy Interrailers.

Engelsman said the plan was to start accepting pan-Europe Interrail travel passes soon, but he was also concerned about meeting the expectations of business travelers.

“They would love to have a bit more comfort than the average leisure travelers,” he said. “At the moment, we only have one or sometimes two of the luxury sleeper coaches, [and] they tend to sell out first.”

In total, each European Sleeper service has about 500 berths, Engelsman said. It needs to sell 60 percent to 65 percent of the tickets to turn a profit.

With the exception of the increasingly rare sleeper dining cars — now all but extinct, except on services through parts of Central and Eastern Europe — night trains, including European Sleeper, are typically split into three classes.

First, there are conventional seating carriages, a favorite for those on a serious budget or a short intercity hop.

Then there’s the couchette class, the go-to option for those willing to pay slightly more to lie down. European Sleeper runs these as carriages of six fold-down bunks per compartment, packing passengers into a sardine tin-style cabin when it’s full.

Then there are the top-end sleeper cars, usually with a maximum of three stacked beds, with crisp linen, a sink and a desk area.

Engelsman said his team has already mocked up designs for the renovated carriages they hope to order soon. But following years of practically no investment by major state railways, there’s a shortage of rolling stock.

But if night trains are to gain any traction, then modern, comfortable cabins will be needed so guests can be reasonably certain they’ll sleep right through the early hours, including the non-stop rumble past the Amersfoort rail junction.

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Threading a rail route through Amsterdam in the early hours of a Friday morning isn’t simple.

While the Dutch government is firmly in favor of night trains, even agreeing to help subsidize them, finding a slot alongside the hundreds of commuter services on a weekday morning isn’t easy.

That’s very much true of Amsterdam Centraal, an imposing station perched at the center of the city’s concentric canal network with a view out from the raised platforms toward the Ij River.

The station is already essentially at full capacity across its 15 platforms, with plans underway to divert traffic to local stations near the Zuid business district.

The same is true of Brussels farther down the line, where the tunnel connecting the north and south stations via the Belgian capital’s cozy Victor Horta-designed Central Station, just a few minutes walk from the iconic Grand Place, is rammed with traffic.

If a capacity crunch pushes sleepers from central stops to regional terminals, that undercuts one of the crucial arguments in favor of night trains. While planes are obviously much faster than trains, rail gains an edge by picking up and dropping off passengers in city cores.

That’s why those in favor of more sleepers argue the few now running should get priority when managers make track allocations.

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The European Union is rushing to modernize its freight and passenger railways — part of its Green Deal effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions from transport.

Antwerp’s glorious fin de siècle-era railway cathedral is a good example of the scale of the work that needs to be done.

The European Sleeper docked at the through-platform in the basement of the station at 9:33 a.m., some 50 minutes behind schedule.

A decision in the late 1990s to excavate Antwerp’s south-facing station and build layers of tunnels underneath allows the European Sleeper train to ease through the city.

Improvements to infrastructure like this are happening across Europe, aimed at speeding long-distance trips.

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The train’s ultimate arrival, some 45 minutes late — largely down to the diversion out of Berlin — was met with excitement in the EU’s capital.

Hours before the Berlin night train rolled into Brussels’ Midi station, Belgium’s national parliament voted to cover the energy and rail-track costs of night trains — a European first, according to Deputy Prime Minister and Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet.

Gilkinet was at Midi station to see off the next night’s return leg to Berlin, and said he wants other EU countries to emulate Belgium. The minister — a member of Belgium’s French-speaking green party Ecolo — plans to press for night trains when Belgium takes the presidency of the Council of the EU next year.

“I’ve handed my colleagues the bill saying, ‘Do the same!’” he said. The trains “deserve more help from the European Commission.”

“The night train … crosses the whole of Europe. It’s a beautiful way of building Europe, allowing citizens to discover landscapes and cultures — far better than when you’re in a plane at great heights,” he said.

Listen to Deputy Prime Minister and Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet

His personal dream is to bring back a direct line to Milan, a route he once used. “I used to stop at Namur, which was the first stop in Belgium after Brussels. … It continued on to Milan, so in my head, I was on holidays. It was canceled a few years ago, and it’s much harder to get something that’s been canceled back on track than to maintain it.”

Gilkinet hopes the Brussels-Berlin overnight train signals a revival of that way of travel.

“As soon as I’m no longer a minister — as late as possible, I hope — my little reward, my golden parachute, will be being able to take a night train,” he said.

Listen to the passengers’ first impression of the sleeper train

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