In Europe, once-popular 'night trains' fight off extinction

Special to the Washington Post

The clock tower perched above Hamburg's main train station was tolling midnight when I boarded the Borealis sleeper train in the autumn of 2014.

During daylight hours, I had made the trip from Copenhagen - part ferry, part train - across the Baltic Sea, and now I was bound for Amsterdam. Had I known that, I would be among the last passengers to make this nocturnal journey across the peat bogs and swamp forests of the eastern Netherlands, I might have splurged on a bottle of champagne in the bar car. The route was cut before Christmas. 

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A couple of days later, after sipping a sparkling water in the sleek first-class lounge (free with my ticket) at Amsterdam Central Station, I boarded the Pollux sleeper train bound for Innsbruck, Austria. My compact compartment was tidy and comfortable with a respectably fluffy pillow and gleaming chrome sink. As I looked forward to unwinding with a Swedish crime novel and a mini bottle of Riesling in the bar car, I heard a knock at my compartment door. This was, in itself, marginally thrilling: having grown up romanticizing the old-fashioned glamour of European train travel, the knock held the promise of Agatha Christie-esque intrigue. A slight young man in a conductor's uniform explained in flawless English that a mix-up had occurred: I would unfortunately have to move cabins. He offered me two small, complimentary bottles of red wine - the second an extra one to thank me for my patience. 

"Do you have white?" I asked, hoping I didn't sound ungrateful.

He shook his head. "They cut the restaurant car in March."

But less than an hour later, as we sped toward the famed spires of Cologne, he knocked on the door of my new compartment proffering a sheepish smile and a small bottle of champagne.

"Take it," he said, "What are they going to do to me? They've already given me the sack."

His name was Marc, he was 23 years old, and his favorite route was the Lupus from Munich to Rome - among a slew of City Night Line routes slated to be cut, he lamented. According to Marc, the impending layoffs explained why his colleagues had, among other more indelicate acts of rebellion, placed stickers around the train that read "Der Nachtzug darf nicht sterben!" ("The night train must not die!")

This news surprised me. In the preceding few years, I'd crisscrossed the continent on the Pegasus from Amsterdam to Zurich, the Metropol from Prague to Budapest and the Lusitania from Lisbon to Madrid. Carriages were usually packed, a fact confirmed by Marc. "People love taking the night train," he sighed.

Since that mostly nocturnal adventure from Copenhagen to Verona, Italy, Internet searches for "night trains" have read like obituary pages. The Perseus, a City Night Line sleeper from Paris to Berlin, made its final voyage in December 2014. The Kopernikus from Amsterdam to Prague? After the Amsterdam-Cologne section was slashed that same month, the route met its final demise two years later. Other night train services have been reduced or shortened: Since December, passengers who bunk down on the Balkan Express, launched in 1971 to run overnight from Istanbul to Belgrade, Serbia, must disembark in Sofia, Bulgaria. In late 2015, when Deutsche Bahn announced that it would terminate remaining City Night Line routes by the end of the following year, the endangered night train seemed to be on the verge of extinction.

These cuts have not gone unnoticed by the public. The slow death of the night train has sparked dissent on social media and in cities across Europe, with protesters holding pajama party-style protests at train stations. Led by the Berlin-based coalition Back on Track, night-train loyalists contend that service cuts contradict agreements forged at the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris, where delegates made a well-publicized journey on the "Train to Paris" to promote sustainable transport. Because the German government owns Deutsche Bahn, online petitions target not only the train company but also Federal Minister of Transport Alexander Dobrindt.

According to an emailed statement from Deutsche Bahn spokeswoman Susanne Schulz, "Ridership figures are not the main problem." Yet the approximately 1.3 million nighttime riders per year represent only about 1 percent of daytime riders, meaning that DB considers the "niche business" of night train services a money pit, with high operating costs, a 40-year-old fleet of sleeping cars and annual double-digit losses that translate into tens of millions of euros. That's despite "numerous attempts," Schulz explained, "to reform the night-train services in order to save them."

In October, OBB-Austrian Railways offered solace to train enthusiasts by announcing that it would refurbish the City Night Line fleet and relaunch six of its discontinued routes, including Hamburg to Zurich and Munich to Venice. Nightjet kicked off in December, with 15 routes, eight of which allow vehicles and motorbikes on the train.

OBB's rebranding effort, according to spokesman Michael Braun, includes new beds, redesigned bathrooms, state-of-the-art technology and an extensive breakfast menu for sleeping-car passengers. (In the budget-friendly couchette cars, you'll wake up to coffee and Vienna rolls with butter.) The Nightjet's carbon footprint will be admirably light. "OBB trains run with 93 percent renewable energy, mostly produced by our own reservoir power stations in the Alps," Braun said in an email.

Despite industry-wide financial pressures that Deutsche Bahn's Schulz partly attributes to increasing competition from budget airlines, the Nightjet offers evidence that the irresistible allure of the night train endures. Perhaps we can blame the cinema: Picture the sultry rendezvous in "Casino Royale" between James Bond and Vesper Lynd, sipping red wine in the dining car of the Pendolino sleeper as the passing countryside plunges into darkness. ("How was your lamb?" she asks. "Skewered," Bond says.) How would those smoldering glances play out against bright orange Easyjet seats, as flight attendants upsold perfume and Cadbury gift boxes? And if Easyjet offered lamb, would even James Bond dare to order it?

Last year, I found myself in Spanish Basque country, needing to get to Paris. I booked a couchette on an SNCF Intercité de Nuit train, hopping on at Hendaye near the French border. My compartment felt aged and worn, as if it had last been updated around the time Edith Piaf made her final recording. But the linens were fresh, I had a decent night's sleep and it was cheaper and easier than hustling to Bordeaux to catch a budget flight.

At dawn, the conductor brought me a brioche and a café au lait in a paper cup, which I sipped as the Loire Valley flew by. Among widespread cuts to night train services this year, SNCF, France's state-owned railway, will run its last sleeper on the Paris-to-Hendaye route in July. Yet as we pulled into the 19th-century Gare d'Austerlitz, smack on the Left Bank of the Seine, I remained blissfully unaware that this could be my last chance to wake up on a train slowly rolling into Paris.

Chandler is a Minneapolis-based freelancer.

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