Thursday, 11 September 2014

Save the sleepers!?

Sleepers are a valuable and time efficient way to travel by train across long distances. In the UK we have just two sleeper services remaining, while in Europe there is still a vast network connecting many different important cities each night. The network however always seems to be under threat- are the sleeper trains really safe? As high speed lines spring up and daytime journeys over vast distances become viable the European sleeper network seems to become ever smaller. 

What role do our sleepers play in rail connectivity? Can they ever viable? Should they be saved?
The discontinued 'Elipsos Trenhotel' having arrived at Barcelona after an overnight journey from Paris.
It is almost a year now since the last 'Elipsos Trenhotel' ran overnight between Paris in France and Barcelona/Madrid in Spain. This was a quality train enabling the traveller to journey time efficiently from one country to the next and be ready for a full day the following morning. It was a popular train too with both tourists and business passengers- but it was withdrawn when through high-speed TGV's began to ran between Paris and Barcelona. The journey is now far quicker- but far less time efficient. The earliest arrival in Barcelona from Paris is now after 2pm- certainly no good for a days business. Over six hours is also a very long train journey by any standard- of course if you are asleep overnight the previous 12 hour train journey is not a cause for concern. 
The story for Madrid is even worse- it does not even benefit from a direct high-speed connection to Paris- yet has still lost it's overnight sleeper. 
The removal of these trains has vastly reduced options for onward travel also- many journeys which could once be accomplished in a day and a night now take two days- plus a hotel bill. I do not know how popular the new TGV's have been- but I suspect many a time conscious traveller, particularly those on business, has simply switched to taking the plane. Not something the rail industry should be encouraging. 

A comfortable bed in a 4-berth compartment on
board the Trenhotel to Spain.
The latest overnight network to come under threat are the international legs of Germany's excellent 'City Night Line'. From December German Railways is set to discontinue all overnight services from Copenhagen and Paris together with the longest distance trains from Amsterdam to Prague and Warsaw (the latter two will be cut back to begin in Cologne). Deutsche Bahn cite the reason as ageing stock and little opportunity for growth in traffic. The deletion of these trains will allow a cascade of better quality stock to keep the domestic sleepers running- but this will be of little condolence to the passengers of France, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Removal of overnight trains is a compound problem- the more that are removed from service, the less able the remainder are to run as these trains share locomotives, and various portions run together for parts of their journeys. Removing one part of a train suddenly unbalances the economics of running a network altogether. 
An online petition against the removal of the Paris-Berlin (and consequently also Paris-Hamburg and Paris-Munich) can be signed here should you choose.

An SNCF 'Lunea' sleeper car at Strasbourg having traveled
overnight from Nice.
For sleepers to continue to run they must not only provide convenience but also turn a profit. One of the often mentioned problems for sleeper trains is the low number of passengers they carry relative to their size- the requirement to provide a bed means a lot more space is required than for a seat- though passengers do pay a premium for this space. By using 6 bed couchettes a similar number of people can be housed within a coach as a standard 1st class seating layout- though at a compromise in comfort. Some German City Night Line services even use double-deck sleeping compartments. 
For sleepers to survive they either need to pack in a large number of passengers paying lower fares, or a smaller number paying large premiums. In reality there is probably a market for both.

Super high density sleeping- Russian 'Platzkart' sleeper car
with open bunks arranged both along and across the carriage.
The two remaining sleeper services in the UK run from London to Scotland and from London to the West Country. While these are threatened with extinction from time to time both are currently receiving investment and seem safe for the medium term. The 'Night Rivera Sleeper' is being extensively refurbished but it is the 'Caledonian Sleeper' where the really exciting investment is to take place. A new contract let and part funded by the Scottish government will see a complete re-branding of the Scottish sleeper service- together with brand new rolling stock- replacing the Mk3 coaches dating from 1981-2. These will be the first new loco-hauled coaches in the UK for over 25 years and will support the Scottish sleeper trains well into the future. The new carriages are to offer 'significant improvements including en-suite berths, Pod Flatbeds used for the first time in rail and a brasserie-style Club Car'. The balance of accommodation however must support all users of the train. I fear some regular passengers could be priced off the service which is aiming to cash in on the lucrative Scottish tourist market- the space to provide en-suite facilities will, of course, come at a huge premium. The idea of using 'pod flatbeds' as seen on airlines in recent years is certainly innovative and welcome- but will this really be able to compete on price with the current option of a seat? I personally think something in between should be offered to passengers- why doesn't the UK set a coach on the train aside for couchettes? Even within the British loading gauge it should be possible to stack three bunks on top of each-other giving a compartment of six beds. If these were sold individually, as they are across most of Europe, this would surely provide the most space efficient and cost effective method of transporting passengers in comfort overnight to Scotland.


Morning on the West Highland line aboard ScotRail's 'Caledonian Sleeper' a service which has now been safeguarded for the next fifteen years.

Update- another online petition has emerged to attempt to save the threatened City Night Line sleepers.
Please click here and sign it if you care about international rail travel in Europe.