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Not exactly the 'Orient Express', but Europe's sleepers are back

Unlike opulent trains, these are for regular people with a climate conscience

Boris Groendahl & Catherine Bosley | Bloomberg 

Photo: Reuters
In the last century, nocturnal trains with their wood-panelled cabins and plush lounges were the stuff of adventure, chugging along through the night. Photo: Reuters

Romanticised by movies like Murder on the Orient Express and From Russia With Love, sleeper had all but disappeared in Europe. Now, some of their magic is being revived — with a modern twist.

In the last century, nocturnal with their wood-panelled cabins and plush lounges were the stuff of adventure, chugging along through the night from Paris to Istanbul or London to Venice. But as high-speed rail connections shrank distances, low-budget airlines emerged and European Union regulations made night economically untenable, sleepers lost their allure. One by one, Europe’s great rail lines terminated or dramatically cut international night-train services.

Now, with environmental activist Greta Thunberg’s “flight shaming” making people more aware of their carbon footprint, the night-train industry is seeing a renaissance. It’s luring a new class of traveller — not the small but wealthy group of people of leisure who travelled on opulent trains like the Orient Express, but ordinary business people and tourists with a climate conscience.

That’s heartening for Siemens engineer Paul Winkler, who’s been building trains for 27 years and believed he’d never again make another sleeper train car for western Europe. “We were at a point where I thought, it’s over,” he said. “People were switching to planes and high-speed day trains. Popular connections were shut down.”

The service between Zurich and Madrid ended in 2013. Connections between Germany and Amsterdam, Denmark and Paris were halted in 2014. Italy’s Trenitalia stopped its Rome-Paris service in 2015. In 2016, Deutsche Bahn ended its sleeper service, while France’s SNCF terminated a dozen night trains. That’s left Europe with a rolling stock of sleeper carriages well over 30 years old, used mostly for domestic routes.

Now, breathing new life into the business for Siemens is a 200 million-euro ($221 million) order from Austria’s Oesterreichische Bundesbahnen-Holding. OeBB, as it’s known, is western Europe’s only rail service to not just buck the trend but to take sleeper trains up a notch.

On December 16, Siemens will start making 13 new night trains for OeBB at its factory in Vienna’s Simmering district, where trains have been made since the Habsburg Empire’s 19th century railway boom. Carriages that’ll give sleeper cars their first major design overhaul in six decades will be ready for testing by late 2020. The Austrian state rail company’s order is Siemens’s first and only such contract from a western European rail company in the past 15 years.

The new cabins designed by London-based industrial studio PriestmanGoode are inspired not by the Orient Express but by the first- and business-class compartments of airlines and minimalist hotels like Premier Inn’s ZIP or Starwood Capital’s Yotel. “We’ve tried to bring a more domestic feeling to the experience; thought about what environment people are experiencing at home, in hotels, bars, or restaurants,” said Kirsty Dias, a designer at the studio.

Austria, located at the continent’s centre and cursed with second-tier airports, never gave up on night trains. OeBB bought coaches Deutsche Bahn was retiring and took over routes such as Hamburg-Zurich and Zurich-Berlin.

Its night-train passenger numbers are set for a 10 per cent gain this year. Some links like Vienna-Zurich have grown more than 20 per cent. The company has revived its Vienna-Venice link. In January, it’s starting a Vienna-Brussels connection for travellers to the EU’s de-facto capital, a move Social Democrat lawmaker Andreas Schieder welcomed in a tweet. Four German lawmakers are now clamouring for a Berlin-Brussels link, which OeBB could serve in cooperation with Deutsche Bahn.

© Bloomberg 2019

First Published: Fri, December 06 2019. 22:45 IST