The first night train between Berlin and Paris will depart on Monday evening after a nine-year hiatus, plugging a significant gap in Europe’s increasingly comprehensive overnight rail timetable and giving a boost to travellers looking for a realistic alternative to flying.
Widely viewed as a jewel in the crown of European rail travel, the service was cancelled in 2014 despite angry protests.
Nicky Gardner, the Berlin-based co-author of Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide, said the new Nightjet service was an inspiring and vital contribution to European infrastructure and integration.
“It cements the links between two European capitals which have so much business with each other, and it’s also just a lovely way to travel. You can leave Berlin in the evening and be in Paris by around 10am the next morning, then hop on a mid-morning Eurostar service and be in London by lunchtime,” she said.
The fully booked train, equipped with ordinary to deluxe sleeping compartments with individual or shared spaces, some with dedicated showers and toilets, will leave Berlin at 8.18pm on Monday evening and arrive in Paris at 10.24am, stopping along the way in Halle, Erfurt, Mannheim and Strasbourg.
ÖBB, the Austrian national railway operator, will run the service three times a week to begin with. From autumn next year, the service is expected to run daily.
Gardner said the time saved by travelling overnight was one factor that made the rail journey attractive, but in addition, night trains, which have revived in recent years, would also have the effect of opening up mainland Europe.
“It kind of reshapes the geography of Europe because time on the night train is effectively time saved. You can use the train and benefit from the time you’re sleeping, making it really worthwhile to travel across Europe.”
But she said that despite the comeback, the night train would come into its own only in the next two to three years, once orders placed for new rolling stock were fulfilled, allowing operators to obtain a sufficient number of carriages.
“ÖBB has created a very imaginative network of new night trains, with the position of Vienna cleverly exploited at the heart of it, and subject to the supply constraints I really do think that the future of the night train is very bright indeed,” she said.
Demand for tickets is high, with many on the most popular routes selling out minutes after they had gone online.
Gardner said the buzz and the demand was so considerable, that “it’s now as hard to get a place in the compartment of a deluxe sleeping car on the night train from Paris to Berlin as it is to reserve a table at Paris’s best restaurants”.
Under the new service, the western German city of Mannheim will become an ÖBB hub for night rail, with the company’s Brussels-Vienna and Paris-Vienna trains also due to make stops there.
Passengers travelling from Brussels and Paris to Berlin and Vienna will board separate carriages on the same train, which will be reorganised in Mannheim, before continuing to their destinations.
The service is the result of cooperation between Austrian, French and German rail companies made public three years ago, but ÖBB is very much seen as the driving force behind the resurrection.
Cat Jones, the founder of Byway, a flight-free holiday company with a focus on “the joy of the journey”, which combines hi-tech and human knowledge to find optimal routes, said it would give an “amazing boost” to European rail travellers.
France’s expanding night train network offers bargain basement prices with reclining seats starting at €19 and couchettes at €29 one way. Snooze your way from Paris to the Riviera or the Pyrenees. New overnight destinations from Paris starting this month include Aurillac, Béziers and Montpellier.
For marathon night train journeys, look east to Turkey. Closer to home, the longest regular year-round night train in a single country is the 12.58pm from Palermo to Milan. The journey of 21hrs 12mins includes the oddity of the entire train being shunted onto a ferry across the Strait of Messina.
Try the excellent Caledonian Sleeper trains from London to destinations across Scotland, where there’s the treat of double beds with en-suite facilities. Take advantage of priority access to the club car for supper and late-night drinks. Another foodie favourite is the Euronight service from Prague to Basel and Zürich, where dinner is served in the Czech dining car as you cruise down the Elbe valley towards Dresden.
It’s hard to beat the sheer joy of arriving in Venice by train and stepping out from Santa Lucia station to see the Grand Canal. Arrival is all the more magic after the overnight journey on the Nightjet which leaves Stuttgart at 20.29 each evening for the 12-hour trip. For some wintry romance, leave the commuter crowds in Stockholm and hop on the 18.08 to Riksgränsen for arrival at 11.49 next morning in Sweden’s northernmost ski resort. Dress warmly, as snow lingers to midsummer.
One for the future
There’s pent-up demand for a quality overnight train from France to Italy, so I am delighted to see that the start-up Midnight Trains have opted for Paris to Venice as their debut route. But you’ll have to wait to 2025 for that one.
“It’s created an enormous buzz, having such critical routes and really key connection points that make it so quick and easy to go to sleep in Paris and wake up in Berlin. In addition and in particular if you’re planning a family trip, you can now more easily expand it to other places and have a rich and enjoyable multistop overland journey,” she said.
“The sleeper trains are new, romantic and exciting to many people, in particular those who want to behave more sustainably: they’re a way of drawing people in who had maybe never thought of going overland but are suddenly in awe of the idea and rediscovering the richness of the journey as we used to experience it. Once they tell their friends, the idea spreads.”
As the trend expands the hope is that it will become more affordable. Right now train travel still struggles to compete price-wise with budget airlines, Jones said, adding that Byway was involved in the political lobbying for that to change.
“There is a very strong push for rail reform, ticketing reform, accessibility and for moving subsidies out of air into rail, and we hope that over time this will increasingly make rail journeys more accessible to the budget traveller,” she said.