Sleeper trains in Europe are making a comeback due to Covid-19

For all their promise of romance and adventure, Europe’s sleeper trains appeared to have reached the end of the line.

Pressured by high operation costs and forsaken by travelers for budget airlines, a decision by the German rail operator Deutsche Bahn to terminate the service connecting Paris to Berlin six years ago ushered in the closure of routes across the continent. But as Europe continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, there are tentative signs of a new dawn for the sleeper train.

In addition to increasing public concern over the environmental impact of flying, travelers’ desire to avoid crowded airports during the pandemic has prompted government officials in Europe to push for the development of new train routes, as well as resurrect older ones, between major cities across the continent. Particularly, in the last few weeks, there has been a flurry of announcements and inaugural journeys.

Last Thursday, for example, the Swedish government said it would provide funds for two new routes to connect the cities of Stockholm and Malmö with Hamburg and Brussels.

A few days earlier, France’s transport minister, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, said an overnight service would be resurrected between Paris and Nice following Emmanuel Macron’s Bastille Day promise to redevelop night trains for the nation.

Along with government action, there is evidence of renewed enthusiasm among the paying public too, as people reflect more deeply on how they travel amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

A new summer night train linking five EU member states – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia – had barely started setting off from Prague on 30 June when the level of demand from holidaymakers heading to the coast ensured it was upgraded to a daily service.

High demand for sleeper trains has also pushed railway operators to increase the number of running trains, as well as extend their running period beyond the holiday season.

“What I am told by people using my site is two things in the same breath: they are fed up with the airport experience and they want to cut their carbon footprint,” said Mark Smith, who runs the award-winning Man in Seat 61 railway website offering information on pan-European services.

“Certainly, in the short term, I am getting people commenting that they don’t want to fly [because of the pandemic]. I think climate change will be the bigger one in the long term because hopefully this pandemic will [be] over at some point,” he added.

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