A train ride from Paris to Rome can take 13 hours, while a direct flight is just a little over two hours. But if you could make the journey overnight in a private sleeper car with a private bathroom—and easy access to a cozy bar if you don’t feel like sleeping—you might choose the experience over flying.
At least that’s the bet made by Midnight Trains, a French startup that is one of a growing number of night train services in Europe. The company argues that since trains have a much smaller carbon footprint than planes, it’s important to improve them so that a train ride can better compete with air travel. “We want to have a real impact and to convince others to stop flying,” says Romain Payet, cofounder of Midnight Trains. “In order to do so we have to reinvent night train experience and services.”
The basic concept of a night train is far from new: Comfortable sleeping cars on trains first became popular in the 1860s in the United States, eventually leading to the launch of the Orient Express in Europe in the late 1800s. But even in Europe, where it’s easier to travel between cities on trains than it is in the U.S., night trains have been dropping in popularity until recently. In 2015, the German rail company Deutsche Bahn ditched “City Night Line,” a service that was losing money as discount airlines offered ultracheap tickets. (The national railway in Austria has since taken it over and is modernizing the trains.)
Then came Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who refuses to fly and who inspired the concepts of flygskam (“flight shame”) and tågskryt (“train brag”). More people started to switch to trains from airplanes; in Sweden, train trips grew 11% in 2019, the same year that Thunberg crossed the Atlantic on a sailboat instead of a jet. Last year, the French government voted to ban domestic flights that take less than two and half hours when it’s possible to make the same trip by train. In Austria, pandemic bailout money for Austrian Airlines included the requirement to eliminate short flights that could be replaced by train trips. Sweden is investing in night trains throughout Europe as part of a broader plan to shrink transportation emissions. The European Commission is also calling for a big shift to rail transportation. Right now, 17 of the 20 most popular flight routes in Europe are between cities that are less than 500 miles apart, and could be replaced by train trips.
High-speed trains can make some short trips faster than flying, since it’s more convenient to get to a train station that’s centrally located in a city than to an airport often on the outskirts, and you don’t have to arrive two hours early or deal with security lines. For longer journeys of several hundred miles, a train can’t compete on time, but if someone can sleep for most of the trip, it might not matter. On older night trains, a cheap ticket means sleeping in an upright seat or sharing a room of bunks with strangers; Midnight Trains wants to make a ticket for a private bed competitive with a plane ticket between the same cities.
“We do not want to create a luxury service, we just believe that if we want to convince travelers to stop flying we have to set up a new benchmark of night trains,” Payet says. That includes fully private cabins, a good bar and restaurant, a sleek app, and modern design. The cheapest offerings will be individual capsules with no private bathroom, ranging up to suites with a double bed and bathroom.
The startup plans to launch in 2024, connecting Paris with at least a dozen other cities hundreds of miles away, running on routes that can use electric trains. Other new night train routes are launching earlier, including Nightjet, the revamped version of City Night Line. A bigger network called the Trans Europe Express is also in the works. Though airlines are working on lower-emission planes, and some tiny electric planes have already been tested, it could be decades before larger jets can eliminate emissions. In the meantime, a trip from Paris to Rome could be 23 times less polluting on a train than a plane.