Europe’s next-generation night trains aim to draw passengers away from planes

Austrian national railway unveils design for NightJet trains due to come into service from next summer

From cosy sleeping pods to sliding doors, ambient lighting to curvaceous seating, a new generation of night trains designed to maximise passengers’ comfort and privacy are expected to be whizzing across Europe from next year.

NightJet, the sleeper division of Austria’s national railway, ÖBB – considered one of the world’s trailblazers in night rail travel – unveiled the interior of its new wagons this week.

Travel writers and railway buffs invited to Vienna to inspect them said they had the potential to give a fresh boost to the industry at a time of huge challenges such as the energy crisis and the climate emergency.

The carriages’ design focuses on passengers’ wishes for more privacy and safety, including cocoon-like cabins with lockable doors for individual travellers, and sliding shutters between pods at head level to allow for inter-cabin conversation when desired. Other modern conveniences include free wireless connection, power points, dimmable lighting and soft seating areas.

The routes the NightJets are expected to travel on span cities including Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, Milan, Rome and Zurich.

The first of 33 NightJet trains, in which ÖBB has invested €700m, will be launched next summer and the fleet will be rolled out fully by 2025.

Each has seven carriages including two seating cars, two sleeping cars with two-person compartments, and three sleeper cars with four-person suites as well as mini cabins for individual travellers.

Each train is capable of carrying 254 passengers, bigger than the capacity of most short-haul planes, and will be able to travel at up to 230kmh (143mph).

NightJet has promised its prices will be competitive with those of airlines, with sleeping car tickets available for between €50 and €100. It has said the carriages will provide wheelchair accessibility.

The trains’ launch has been delayed owing to supply chain issues and pandemic-related personnel challenges.

“A journey with a NightJet is 50 times more climate-friendly than making the same journey by plane,” Austria’s environment minister, Leonore Gewessler, who has championed the effort to boost night train travel, said at the launch.

But train buffs and lobbyists have warned the promise of night train travel and the expectation that it could increasingly replace aviation is in danger of losing its romantic appeal unless politicians on the national and European level give it their explicit support.

They cite a range of issues such as high prices due to rising energy costs, a chronic lack of personnel and a summer full of abysmal delays on the railways. The potential for problems that could threaten the movement’s development is only expected to grow as passenger travel, especially at night, is increasingly forced to give way by law to goods trains carrying coal in the midst of the energy crisis and military equipment to support the war in Ukraine.

“Compared with daytime trains, night trains remain a niche product,” Philipp Kosok, an expert for public transport at the German thinktank Agora, told the Austrian daily Der Standard. “If the will is there, there is quite a potential to expand them.” But he said night trains were at a disadvantage, “facing higher taxes than air travel and often hampered by ageing infrastructure and not enough capacity”.

Germany’s Greens, in government since the end of last year, have tried to front a plan for a joined-up European night train network, combining about 40 destinations such as Warsaw, Amsterdam, Vienna, Bordeaux, Munich, Barcelona and even London.


Kate Connolly in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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