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.


 

 
 
 
 

How US planners experimented with “the iron hand of power” over colonial Manila

Manila in ruins, 1945. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, Manila must have appeared to its new overlords a despairing prospect. Racked with poverty and disease, it was still recovering from years of war, epidemic and a fire that had left 8,000 homeless.

For architect Daniel Burnham, it was an opportunity to put to work the radical ideas he had dreamed of in America.

He was among those asking how America’s unprecedented wealth at the turn of the century could be reconciled with the lives of the country’s poorest. Like many, he admired the ideas of harmonised city-planning articulated in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling science-fiction Looking Backward (1888).

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham constructed the “White City”. Built across 686 acres of parkland, boulevards, gardens and neoclassical structures rendered a spray-painted plaster vision of the future – all laid out to one comprehensive plan.

It was impressive – but implementing grand designs where people actually lived meant laborious negotiations with citizens, businessmen and politicians.

Instead, opportunity lay in America’s new overseas territories. As Daniel Immerwahr describes in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States, “They functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”

An architect’s dream

The US had gone to war with Spain in 1898, taking advantage of an empire-wide insurrection. It ended up controlling the entire Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico.

As a “territory”, the Philippines existed outside the protections of the constitution. Congress could impose any law, proclaimed the attorney general in 1901, “without asking the consent of the inhabitants, even against their consent and against their protest, as it has frequently done.”

Which is how Burnham, upon invitation by the Philippine’s new rulers, came to wield what the Architectural Record called “the iron hand of power” over Manila.

 Burnham’s plan for Manila. Click to expand.

Where Burnham’s Chicago plan was complex, took years and entailed collaboration with hundreds of citizens, Burnham spent six months on the Manila plan, and just six weeks in the Philippines. And with no voters to persuade, there seemed little reason to register Filipino input in his designs.

In 1905 Burnham submitted his Report on Improvement of Manila. It described filling the toxic moat of the Spanish fortress Intramuros and developing a rectangular street system modelled on Washington D.C., with diagonal arteries which even Chicago lacked.


Central to his plan was the city’s beautification through monumental buildings, waterfront improvements, and parks – “wholesome resorts” to “give proper means of recreation to every quarter of the city”

Burnham charged William E. Parsons as the omnipotent “Consultant Architect” to interpret his plan, who relished its authority over all public building as an “architect’s dream”. When concerned with the extent of his purview, he also chose to standardise a number of public buildings.

“I doubt if this method would bear fruit in our own city improvement plans, in which everything depends on slow moving legislative bodies,” reported the Architectural Record’s correspondent.

Despite Burnham’s colonial sentiments his biographer concluded his plan was “remarkable in its simplicity and its cognizance of Philippine conditions and traditions.”

His plans did not shy from asserting the colonial government’s authority, however. The Luneta, a favourite park, was to become the nuclei of government. The city’s avenues would converge there, for “every section of the Capitol City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power.”

Unusual monumental possibilities

Burnham also worked on a summer palace for US administrators at Baguio, 150 miles north in the mountains. On land inhabited by Igorot people, Burnham saw an opening “to formulate my plans untrammelled by any but natural conditions”.

Baguio’s “unusual monumental possibilities” were facilitated by a road whose construction employed thousands, risking death from disease and falling off cliffs. Civic buildings would “dominate everything in sight” and a golf course would rival those of Scotland.

“Stingy towards the people and lavish towards itself,” griped La Vanguardia, the government “has no scruples nor remorse about wasting money which is not its own.”

As enthusiasm for US empire soured in the States, local power was relinquished to Filipinos. Parsons resigned in protest in 1914. He was replaced by Manila-born Juan Arellano, whose rebuke to imperialists was the mighty, neoclassical Legislative Building which hosted the elected Philippine Legislature. Arellano upheld Burnham’s plan, producing a beautified city bearing resemblance to Burnham’s White City.

But the Legislative Building, along with Burnham’s great edifices and almost everything else in Manila, was levelled as US troops recaptured it in 1945, this time ousting the Japanese in a brutal battle. “Block after bloody block was slowly mashed into an unrecognizable pulp”, recorded the 37th Infantry Division as they exercised their own “iron hand” over Manila.

American artillery had transformed Manila into ruins. “It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on US soil,” writes Immerwahr, even if few soldiers realised they were liberating US nationals at the time. Burnham’s expansive vision was lost in the debris, and though some buildings were rebuilt a majority were replaced. Today, Manila’s pre-war architecture is remembered with fondness and nostalgia.