Can sleeper trains transform travel in Europe?

Credit: On Assignment

At the turn of the century, the growth of low cost airlines led to two decades of decline for sleeper trains. Orders for new carriages disappeared, bookings dropped off and subsidies were cut.

But night trains are creaking back into life.

Demand from passengers is growing. At least six new routes are launching across Europe this year.

I’m on board one of them: the new Brussels to Prague sleeper train. The journey takes in four countries, four capital cities and lasts just over 15 hours.

ITV News' Harry Horton took a tour around the compact but convenient cabins

What’s interesting about this train is that it’s run by a private company, with private investors, aiming to turn a profit.

“Sleeper trains are the most difficult to make work commercially,” says Mark Smith, who runs the travel website The Man in Seat 61 and is also onboard tonight’s inaugural journey.

“You’ve got 20 or 30 people in beds, whereas in the same coach if it had seats and on a daytime train, you could get 70 people in.”

Demand has always been there, he says, but operators savvy enough to balance the books have not.

Finding the right rolling stock is another challenge.

“There's a huge lack of proper night train coaches at the moment in Europe,” says Chris Engelsman, one of the co-founders of the European Sleeper, the company behind this new service.

“There’s nothing around, I mean the railways haven't been investing in night trains for decades.”

Lots of people are embracing sleeper trains as a more environmentally friendly means of travelling

Capacity challenges have constrained the return of night trains. André Aschwanden from the Swiss Tourism Office says it’s still a small market:

“It's a niche. There is one train per night, and a lot of tourists are still flying in.”

There is definitely a demand for new sleeper services in Europe - driven, in part, by a desire for greener travel.

But with issues around capacity and availability, a travel revolution in Europe doesn’t seem imminent.

You can watch On Assignment on ITV1 at 10.45 pm on Tuesday, April 30 or stream it later on ITVX.

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