Silver linings have become familiar commodities in this strangest of years – straws that we are all happy to clutch as normality falls apart around us. They have appeared in the middle of clouds of various sizes – as the fall in air pollution that (initially) accompanied lockdown; in the enforced extra time with families and children as Covid raged; in the commuting-free hours suddenly available for Netflix binges. True, the rainy skies are still above us, but when life gives you lemons – as the cliche goes – you construct an elaborate metaphor about owning a citrus garden in Tuscany, and spend the afternoon daydreaming.
Or something like that. But the idea of unexpected lights in the otherwise impenetrable gloom of 2020 may yet take a more useful form than the chance to catch up with all five seasons of Breaking Bad – in real changes to the way we travel long distances. Might the new concerns about the safety of plane journeys, and being cooped up in a sealed cabin for three hours in the era of an easily-transmitted virus – coupled with the ongoing need to lower carbon emissions – mutate into a new love of the train as a way to cross continents?
It might, if you listen to this week’s whispers (and, for now, they are just whispers) about the pandemic being an opportunity for a revival of sleeper trains – the doughty rail services, both romanticised in 20th-century films and maligned as relics of a lost age, that were once the first choice of travellers wanting to slip easily from one country to another.
Earlier this month, a body called the High Speed Rail Group (rail-leaders.com) released a report titled “Decarbonising Transport: Setting The Challenge”. It is a weighty document, running to 24 pages, but it makes a number of interesting observations. Two of them bear closer inspection. The first, that Britain is overly reliant on air travel, is controversial. The second – that the Channel Tunnel is a significant resource, but is vastly underused – is not.
“According to figures from IATA [International Air Transport Association],” the report runs, “UK nationals make the most international flights in the world, making up 8.6 per cent of all international passengers. With domestic and international aviation contributing to eight per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions in 2018, and having an even greater impact once non-CO2 emissions are considered, modal shift will be important for those international journeys where it is practical [if Britain wants to cut its carbon footprint].”
One option, the report goes on, is to send more traffic through the Channel Tunnel; perhaps via the introduction of 21st-century sleeper services which provide a reliable connection to European cities – and a viable, attractive alternative to both the short-haul flight and the indirect odyssey by rail that needs a change of platform or terminal in Paris or Brussels. “In 2018, there were approximately 15 million air trips between London and destinations within a five-hour rail journey time of London,” the text continues. “Cheap aviation damaged the dream of achieving the full potential from the Channel Tunnel, but disruption to aviation markets and the need to cut emissions could bring it back.”
Speaking to The Times, Ralph Smyth, who wrote the report, argued that reborn sleeper trains would help serve this purpose. “As we fly more internationally than any other nation, far more ambition is required to dent our emissions from aviation,” he said. “If our ministers had the same appetite for rail as those in nearby countries, we could soon be going to bed on a sleeper train in London – and breakfasting on bocadillos in Barcelona.”
Inevitably, the High Speed Rail Group has a vested interest in this coming to pass. It is a body which, according to its own website, “is committed to supporting the successful delivery of a world-class high speed rail network in Britain –representing “companies with relevant experience and an interest in high-speed rail.” Among these is HS1, the fast link-line between London’s St Pancras International terminal and the mouth of the Channel Tunnel, in Kent. Of course it would like extra services on this 67 miles of track.
But there is a kernel of a point here too. Few would claim that Eurostar – the most feted presence in the Channel Tunnel – has not been a success, delivering increasingly speedy journeys between London and France since it began operations in 1994. But you can also argue that so much more could have been achieved in the 26 years that have drifted by since the first service pulled out of Waterloo. The idea of reaching Paris in little more than two hours has become etched on the British psyche (at least, if you live in the south or the south-east) – but, aside from the connection to Brussels, which also began in 1994, the expansion of the network has been frustratingly slow. Although Eurostar added trains to Disneyland Paris in 1996, and ski services to French Alpine resorts in 1997, it took until 2015 for Lyon and Marseille to be slotted onto the roster, and 2018 for Amsterdam to appear as a direct destination (and even then, only on outbound services from the UK, with the return leg requiring a change of platform and immigration clearance in Brussels). Spain, Germany, Italy or anywhere else over the Alps, remain the preserve of the airlines.
This lack of expansion is even more obvious by its absence within the UK. The original proposals for Eurostar envisaged the network spreading tentacles across the country, with direct services to Paris and Brussels from main-line stations including Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh. However, this came to nothing, the potential demand being eaten away by the low-cost airline boom and the sudden promise of easyJet flights to Prague, Palma and Porto for £50 each way. While understandable, this was also unfortunate – as, with the mass dash to the airport, all talk of what would have been something genuinely different also faded into nothing. As its name gives away, the Nightstar would have been an alter-ego to the core product, taking passengers to the continent from the same range of cities (with Cardiff also on the map), but through the small hours. Rolling stock – enough for 15 would-be sleeper trains – was even built, only for the project to be cancelled in 1997. The carriages sat idle for three years, before being sold, with minimal noise, to Canadian operator Via Rail in 2000. In this context, the accusation that Eurostar is predominantly a conduit for metropolitan Londoners to sashay under the Channel – which so irks fans of the service – holds water.
Are conditions more suited to night trains 20 years on? Perhaps. Although the air industry has continued to grow (the pandemic notwithstanding), the popularity of rail travel has risen steadily for the last decade. European Union figures show that, since the economic slump of 2008-09, there has been a year-on-year increase in the use of train services - with a particular surge between the beginning of 2013 (425 billion passenger-kilometres travelled within the EU) and the closing days of 2018 (472 billion passenger-kilometres).
Britain, of course – as events over the last four years have starkly demonstrated – is not the EU. But even here (where grumbles that the network is over-priced, under-funded and primarily for commuters who have no choice but to use it, are common), there are signs of renewed interest in the train as an option for longer-distance travel. April 2019 saw the relaunch of the Caledonian Sleeper. What had become dismissed as a desperately tired throwback, all smeared windows and dirty carpets, reemerged as a sophisticated experience, linking London to Edinburgh and Glasgow (“The Lowlander”). Extended connections to Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William (“The Highlander”) followed in the June. This came on the back of £150 million in Scottish government investment to construct 75 new coaches – and wholly reposition the brand. Out went the shared cabins; in came private sleeping compartments, double beds and a gourmet dinner service. “Once travellers set foot on the train, they are going to experience Scotland’s best, from luxury toiletries to good food and drink,” the company’s managing director Ryan Flaherty declared at the time. “We are aiming to create a luxury hotel experience.”
Is there scope for something similar, heading not north up the torso of the UK, but under the Channel and on to the European capitals? If there is, the first hurdle – as the High Speed Rail Group has already said – is the Channel Tunnel, which remains tightly wrapped in the regulations which framed its birth in the mid-Nineties. “International operators have considered offering new services to London, but [have] been put off by the Channel Tunnel’s safety regulations,” the Decarbonising Transport report argues. The 30th anniversary of the Tunnel’s opening in 2024 should be taken as an opportunity to modernise the regulations to ensure they are no longer based on an era of smoking on trains and electrical fires. Multiple European countries are considering subsidies to kickstart new international services such as sleepers, [and] the UK should do so too.”
While this sounds like a plea for deregulation and a slashing of red-tape that will alarm plenty of passengers who think safety measures are there for a reason when a train is zipping beneath the world’s busiest shipping lane, there is surely a middle ground where the Tunnel becomes more than a portal for short business trips and weekend city-breaks.
The chance of this coming to fruition in the immediate future is probably slim – the wan likelihood audible in the non-committal response to the idea offered to The Times last weekend. “We are committed to supporting the growth of international rail travel, including potential sleeper services, to deliver more flexible and environmentally friendly connections,” a Department for Transport (DfT) spokesperson commented. “We stand ready to work with any potential operators who have a commercially viable proposition.”
In other words, the ball is in someone else’s court. Breakfast in Barcelona – or, for that matter, tapas in Toledo, cava in Cadiz, or vino tinto in Valencia – is always an excellent thought. But enjoying it at the end of a direct train ride may have to wait a while longer.