An el­egy for Europe’s dis­ap­pear­ing night-train routes.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY SARAH CHAN­DLER travel@wash­ Chan­dler is a Min­neapo­lis-based free­lancer. Her web­site is sarahchan­; find her on Twit­ter at @chan­dler_sarah.

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.

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 old­fash­ioned 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 night­train ser­vices in or­der to save them.”

In Oc­to­ber, ÖBB-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.

ÖBB’s re­brand­ing ef­fort, ac­cord­ing to spokesman Michael Braun, in­cludes new beds, re­designed bath­rooms, state-of-theart 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. “ÖBB 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.


ÖBB Aus­trian Rail­ways’ Night­jet, top, launched in De­cem­ber with 15 routes and re­fur­bished train cars from the de­funct City Night Line. They have new beds and seats, as seen be­low, as well as re­designed bath­rooms, im­proved tech­nol­ogy and an ex­ten­sive break­fast menu for sleep­ing-car pas­sen­gers. Eight of the routes al­low ve­hi­cles and mo­tor­bikes on the train.

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