Everything is on track for a European train revolution.
At exactly 20.52 on 20 May, a sleeper train pulled out of the Austerlitz station in Paris, with French Prime Minister Jean Castex on board, to make its inaugural 12 hour, overnight journey to Nice. A flight connecting the cities is normally about 90 minutes, but instead, Castex and about a hundred passengers spent the night on couchette berths before pulling into the French Riviera city in time for a croissant and café crème breakfast the next morning along the Promenade des Anglais.
After the Paris-Nice route went offline more than three years ago, its relaunch is part of an ambitious push to resurrect night trains across Europe, swapping short-haul flights for longer, more environmentally sustainable overnight rail journeys. Despite the recent cutting-edge developments of high-speed bullet trains and hypersonic planes, France is not alone in investing in this slower form of travel. Indeed, it has recently banned internal flights where an alternative train journey is available on a trip of 2h 30min or less.
Also in May, the Austrian sleeper train Nightjet began its Vienna-to-Amsterdam service; by next year the Dutch startup European Sleeper plans new overnight services linking Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, and Prague. And then there’s the long-term collaboration among Western Europe’s many national rail companies to connect major cross-border cities including Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, and Vienna via night trains.
The collective effort is a keystone of the 2019 European Green Deal, which aims to cut transportation emissions across the Continent by 90 percent, part of a larger goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.
Transportation accounts for 25 percent of the European Union’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. Of that figure, road travel contributes almost three-quarters, while aviation and marine transportation split the rest. Rail, the least carbon-intensive mode of transportation, accounts for just 0.4 percent of emissions. That explains why the EC has committed €5.8 billion ($7.1 billion) to rail infrastructure throughout the bloc and designated 2021 the “European Year of Rail.”
When the European Commission tagged 2021 with its pro-rail designation, the agency wasn’t expecting it to coincide with a pandemic. The bulk of the campaign is scheduled to kick off in September, with a Connecting Europe Express train that will take a circuitous route from Lisbon to Paris, stopping in 70 cities in 26 countries along the way to tout the benefits of trains for both leisure and business travel.
“Rail at the moment has an unprecedented amount of political goodwill,” says Kevin Smith, editor-in-chief of the U.K. trade publication International Railway Journal. “Politicians are putting their money where their mouth is to try to improve infrastructure, offer better services, and run more trains. … Consumers will also follow.”