Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The Swedish government sees this low-cost, environmentally friendly travel option as key to “becoming the world’s fossil-free welfare country.”
In the quest to reduce the massive carbon footprint from global transportation, Sweden plans to revive a staple of 20th century travel: the overnight train.
The Swedish government announced Sunday that it will fund the creation of overnight train services from Sweden to the European mainland. According to a statement from the Social Democrat-Green coalition government, the state will pump 50 million Kronor ($5.3 million) into creating night links by train to major European destinations, as part of a drive to give Swedes more low-carbon ways to travel long distances.
This isn’t just promising news for people who want to see carbon emissions reduced—it’s also a major shot in the arm for Europe’s night trains overall, which have been struggling to the point of risking extinction in recent years. In the 20th century, such services were standard across the continent. Since around the millennium, however, a boom in low-cost airlines has bitten hard into their business, while high-speed trains have made overnight travel less necessary on many routes.
“We do this in order to cope with the climate, build a strong society and to achieve the goal of becoming the world’s fossil-free welfare country,” said Deputy Finance Minister and Green Party representative Per Bolund in a press release. “More and more people want to be able to travel climate-smart, both on holiday and for work. Now it is up to us politicians to contribute to the train becoming an obvious alternative for getting to [the rest of] Europe.”
The new funding will be used to research which routes would be most in demand, and to find companies able to run the service. This could possibly mean side-stepping the national rail company SJ (Statens Järnvägar), which currently runs one international night service (from Stockholm to Narvik, Norway) but recently said it would wait a decade before introducing night services to the European mainland. That delay would be in order to wait for the construction of an 11-mile-long rail tunnel between Denmark and Germany called the Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link, which would reduce the journey time by train from Copenhagen to Hamburg from five hours to just two.
There’s no denying that this link would make travel in the region far faster, but with construction not due to begin until 2020, the tunnel’s inauguration is too far in the distance for Sweden’s Greens. It remains to be seen whether SJ will change its mind to win the night train contract, or whether the government will choose another carrier—such as, for example, Snälltåget, a company that currently runs Sweden’s only other international night service, from Malmö to Berlin.
While changes in the travel industry have tended to pressure night trains off the market, it’s clear that there is still some appetite for them among travelers. When Germany’s Deutsche Bahn halted its night services in 2017, Austrian Federal Railways took over some of the key routes. The takeover has proved to be a success, with passenger numbers on the services (whose conditions are outlined here) rising from 1.4 million to 1.6 million between 2017 and 2018, a rise in profits, and talk of expansion. Meanwhile, well-established leisure services such as the London-to-Scotland Caledonian Sleeper continue to thrive.
The overnight train services remain popular because many people actually like them. The duration of travel, of course, is usually far longer than by plane, even when layovers and security are factored in, but there are other compensations. Generally scheduled to leave late evening and arrive before the working day begins, night trains offer the possibility of sleep and more leisurely travel compared to an early-morning rush to the airport. They can also be reasonably priced: On the Vienna-to-Berlin night service, for example, a one-way ticket with a reclining sleeper seat starts at €29 ($32.50), a couchette (a four- or six-person compartment whose bunks fold down into comfortable seating during the day) at €49 ($55), and a single-berth sleeper with private toilet and shower at €139 ($159). If the trip saves you the cost of a hotel room, many people seem to be noting, that’s not a bad deal.
So while the outlook seemed bleak just a few years ago, Sweden’s plan arrives at a time when the sector’s fortunes seem to be brightening once more. It’s difficult to say how well the plan will fare, however, without knowing the routes. The most likely candidates for an overnight service to Sweden would be major Northern European cities such as Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt and Amsterdam, although other cities somewhat further afield, such as, Brussels and even Prague might be possible options too.
Even a successful Swedish night-train service is likely to remain a niche alternative to flying, rather than a threatening competitor. But getting more people on the rails can only have a positive effect in reducing the carbon footprint of international mobility. The idea of trains full of passengers lying asleep as their train rattles over the points may strike most of us as an image on the past. Maybe—just maybe—it could also be a vision of the future.