Europe’s night trains are under threat – and campaigners are moving to defend them

The last train from Paris to Port Bou, Spain, 2016. Image: Getty.

As CityMetric readers, you’ll already know that sleeper trains are one of the best ways to travel, whether you want an efficient, environmentally-friendly overnight journey from A to B, or an epic travel adventure involving wine, food and views.

But this most civilised mode of transport is, alas, under threat. Deutsche Bahn stopped running night trains in late 2016 (although Austrian Railways took over several routes), the last Paris-Nice night train ran in December and various services across Europe are under review.

Those who like to lie down and snooze to their destination are not going to lie down and take it any more, however. April saw a week of demonstrations, seminars and campaigning to defend and expand overnight train services. From singing in Malmö Central Station to letters to the Swiss transport minister, Europe’s night train fans aren’t giving up without a fight.

“We tried to keep away from the sad stories,” said Poul Kattler, one of the organisers at Back On Track, a European coalition to support cross-border rail. “I think what is especially important is we are still able... in the very special case to keep up spirits across countries.”

The 19 events across Europe underline the benefits of existing night train services, as well as calling for the reinstatement of iconic routes like Paris-Madrid and Vienna-Prague-Berlin. From Spain to Sweden, there were demonstrations of love for cross-border night trains across Europe. Kudos in particular to the brave souls who took their sleeping bags and lay down on platforms in Vienna, Prague and Berlin to express their displeasure at the lack of an overnight connection.

Indeed, there’s so little joined-up cross-border thinking right now that there isn’t even an official map of all European night train services. Luckily -- and because there’s nothing better than a map – Back On Track support Per Eric Rosén has made one, and it’s a beauty:

 

You can see the whole thing here.

One thing that’s worth noting about the protests is that night train fans’ motivations are as diverse as their dress sense. There’s an efficiency angle, because if you travel overnight you don’t need a hotel and you can travel while you sleep. For some people, like your correspondent, it’s all about the comfort – there’s nothing like a glass of fizz and dinner in the dining car before heading off to bed.

Poul Kattler, meanwhile, is a fan for environmental reasons. “If we’re going to be serious about climate change footprints, the night train is a good answer to that,” he said. “If you take three aeroplanes and put the passengers on one night train, it’s a starting point.”

Like the moonlight flashing on rails as the Orient Express (the EuroNight one, not the VSOE) emerges from a tunnel, there are glimmers of hope. The Caledonian Sleeper, which links London to Scotland is getting fancy new carriages later this year, including double beds and a Club Car which promises to take passengers “on a culinary tour of Scotland” – who doesn’t want to drink single malts on a train?

And ÖBB Austrian railways, which took over 16 routes from DB linking Austria, Germany, Italy and Switzerland had 1.4m night train passengers last year, and “expects a slight increase in 2018,” according to Kurt Bauer, head of long-distance services at ÖBB. “We’re very pleased to have entered into the night train market,” he said in an interview with Swiss Railways. “We made a good name for ourselves in the last year, and want to make Nightjet a synonym for night trains in the future.” Even more excitingly, they plan shiny new trains from 2020.

Kattler is a fan of Swedish new-entrant operator Snälltåget’s "Berlin Night Express", which links Malmö and the German capital. The journey also offers a crazy travel experience where they put the train on a ferry across the Baltic Sea, from Trelleborg to Sassnitz. The crossing takes for hours and you can hop off the train and visit restaurants and shop on the ferry.

 

What does the future hold for night trains? It’s far from clear, but in the meantime, Kattler and his fellow activist visited Brussels in late April to meet the European Commission and parliamentarians to build on their week of action and discuss the future of rail. And for the rest of us, the Man in Seat 61 has a guide to booking pretty much every night train, ever. Goodnight, and happy travelling.


 

 
 
 
 

The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.