Overnight Trains: Maybe Good Is Good Enough.
I have a friend who has made a lot of money in the restaurant business. When anyone asks about the secret to his success, he has a ready answer: “Good…fast…cheap.”
We have now heard that yet another overnight train in Europe is being cancelled. This one is Deutsche-Bahn’s Berlin-to-Paris sleeper which has been operating in one form or another since before World War II. Basically, there are two obvious reasons why the company is terminating the service: high-speed trains and cut-rate air fares. OK, so that’s “fast” and “cheap”, but—dammit!—what about “good”?
It’s hard for me to believe there isn’t a sustainable market for the unique pleasure of traveling overnight across Europe in a sleeping car … in this case, leaving Berlin in the early evening, having an interesting conversation with fellow passengers over dinner and a bottle of wine in a dining car, and waking up as you’re approaching Paris.
My advice to Deutsche-Bahn and other rail operators would be to provide better service, spruce up the accommodations a bit, add a restaurant car that prepares good food on board and serves it on real china … and stop trying to be price competitive! People will pay for value.
There has to be a nice niche market out there of people who can’t or don’t want to pay the considerable cost of one of the private, luxury trains, but who are willing and able to pay a fair price for the traditional overnight train experience—nothing more, but also nothing less.
Me, for instance.
I’m back from a short trip to the Ligurian coast, and took two of those no-frills French Intercités de Nuit. It’s not that bad, actually, it’s cheap, you still save on a night in a hotel (even if you are a little scruffy in the end, with no proper washing facilities on board or in the stations), and even if a sleeper can’t be beaten for comfort, the couchettes still allow you to lie down, instead of travelling upright, trying to sleep in this uncomfortable position. No bar, alas, but as these are fairly short trips (you leave after dinner in Paris, and you arrive in your destination between 7 and 9, generally), so you probably have eaten already, and you can have a quick French breakfast with a coffee and a croissant when you arrive in almost every station or in a bar in the vicinity.
So, yes, I think there is a demand for more upmarket travelling, with real sleepers (which the French have cancelled some years ago), but don’t underestimate the demand for a low budget option that is more comfortable than a seat, too.
Excellent report. Thanks!
I am glad I checked Deutsche Bahn today before sending my last comment. I believed bookings were not open until either 60 or 90 days prior but discovered the TGV from Strasbourg to Munich on May 17 is already open, possibly because it originates in Paris. The quote was 99 euros but, after putting in my credit card details, it came up fully booked (??? this far out). Bookings are not yet open on Capitaine but tried SNCF and now have a ticket and seat for 49 euros (over 60). I always believed the Germans were more efficient :-)
I’ve tried to book some of the segments I’m going to need in June — these are for Italian trains — and it does indeed appear that the several possible web sites won’t accept the booking until 90 days from the first leg. Hmmm. I wonder … maybe it will have to be 90 days from the last leg.
Or book each leg separately might be the safest, unless you pay a huge fee on credit card payments. Don’t forget, some bookings open late (especially in France, they don’t sell tickets until they are absolutely sure no engineering will take place), and in June, there is a small schedule adaptation, which may cause some bookings to open late, too.
Only a couple more days, and I head of on a French nighttrain from Paris to Nice ;) for a few days. Only booked them today, but it’s only January, so no problem, even to get a cheap ticket. I’m going to visit the Ligurian coast (they’re busy replacing the coastal line with a line more inland, through lots of tunnels), the line to Cuneo, and maybe some more.
I do not like your chances. I just searched on Deutsche Bahn for June and the only night line is from Venice to Munich. I had planned to travel from Paris to Munich in May but that overnight train is cancelled. I have completely changed and will spend a few nights in Strasbourg then travel by TGV
This is discouraging. As I get to be just a few years from retirement I have visions of riding sleepers across Europe. You are making me realize that it might just remain a dream…
There are still some overnight trains left. I’m taking one from Venice to Paris this summer … assuming it’s still operating, of course. The Brits run one from London to Edinburgh. Best source is http://www.seat61.com. Best advice is probably: Don’t wait. Interesting topic, though. Worth more posts.
Good is plenty good enough. If the United States could get to a “good” transportation system it would be bloody awesome.