Overnight train travel has been booming. The renewed popularity of this atavistic form of transportation might seem puzzling, until you consider travelers’ growing appetite for all things slow and immersive—and their increased awareness of their own environmental impact. Take France, which recently banned short-haul flights in response to the European Green Deal, an ambitious plan to reduce transport emissions by 90 percent by 2050. That leaves sleeper trains as an easy alternative—especially after 2021’s “Year of Rail” initiative, designed to harmonize connections across the Continent.
Several European state-owned or subsidized railways are leading the charge with new clean-energy trains and expanded service. France’s Ministry of Transport invested over 100 million euros in SNCF, the state-run railroad, to modernize sleeper cabins. The result: comfortable seats and beds, reliable Wi-Fi, and novel routes, including Paris to Nice, Berlin, and Tarbes, a gateway to the Pyrenees in the south of France. Austria’s state-run ÖBB currently operates 20 night routes, including new links from Vienna to Amsterdam and Paris. The agency just ordered 33 sleeper trains that will hit the rails in 2023.
Privacy is paramount with this fresh generation of overnighters. Most cars are designed for couples, families, or friends. All will have en suite toilets and showers. Privately owned trains are getting in on the night-train game too. The Alpen-Sylt Nachtexpress launched recently with routes from Salzburg and Lake Constance to the upmarket North Sea island of Sylt. Ditto for Sweden’s privately operated Snällåget, which runs nocturnal routes from Stockholm to Malmö and to Jämtland, 340 miles northwest of the capital. Paris-based Midnight Trains, which describes itself as a “hotel on rails,” plans to launch in 2024 with routes that will eventually include Paris connections to Edinburgh and Lisbon.
Italy has historically maintained many overnight routes, mostly those connecting major cities. Next year, in an effort to promote slow travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations, it will launch Treno della Dolce Vita, 10 new options that will access lesser-visited regions. Each will have its own theme, like Piedmont Truffles and Wine and Sicilian Baroque, and suites with retro 1960s designs by Gio Ponti as well as lounges with live entertainment. This creation, a partnership between state-run Trenitalia and luxury-hospitality company Arsenale Spa, promises to sweeten the night-train experience in a way only Italians could do.
This article appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.