To put things in perspective, journeys by train produce 70-90% less carbon than flying and research indicates that when released higher in the atmosphere the contribution to global warming at least doubles.
Environmental impact aside, for many of us time is of the essence and there is no denying that flying can be quicker. But what about taking the night train and sleeping those transport hours away? I decided to test out the experience of night trains on two trips with City Nightline: Copenhagen-Amsterdam and Amsterdam-Zurich.
The benefit of train travel starts before departure. Not having to go through the whole airport experience, something that induces stress in a significant amount of people before even leaving the house. Going to the station is a completely different experience: No-one searches you and your baggage allowance is only limited to what you can feasibly carry.
The train from Copenhagen was made up of carriages destined for Prague, Basel and Amsterdam. As it pulled into the station, this pan-European aspect became obvious from the diversity of carriages, some colourful, others streamlined and a few showing their age a little.
Once on board, finding the cabin was easy. Making the most of no restrictions on luggage, I had more than most and working out how to organise myself took a few minutes. Once I was settled in, the space was quite reasonable however. Definitely a lot more spacious than a regular aeroplane seat and with the table set up there was around three times as much surface space. A handy power socket means that you can use electronic devices to your hearts content and there are various lights that you can adjust to create the right ambience.
Not long after departure the train manager came along to welcome me, demonstrate the various functions of the cabin and ask what time I would like my breakfast served. Turns out there is a train manager per carriage on these trains so getting their attention is easy. You can also call them from a little button in the cabin.
One of my favourite things about train travel is that it allows you to get a more acute feel for the distance you travel. Following the change in landscape and the style of buildings on longer journeys all adds to the excitement and feeling of adventure. One minute there were green fields as far as my eye could see, the next I would be plunged into darkness going through a tunnel, only to emerge in the bright yellow of rapeseed fields. There is no doubt that you are more connected with your journey on a train. Compared, planes can feel a little impersonal and sterile.
Intrigued about the dining car, I went off to explore. The walk through the train was a multi-cultural experience with passengers bound for many different locations. I also came across plenty of space for bicycles, an added benefit if going off on that sort of holiday. That there was no chance of being sent back to my seat due to turbulence was also an advantage.
Dining cars on trains have something slightly cinematic about them, at least to me. The dining cars on City Nightline were no different and there was a good selection of food and drinks on offer to be enjoyed on real plates with real cutlery – something reserved for first class passengers on planes these days.
Hans Dorf, a 56-year-old Danish Educational Consultant was travelling from Copenhagen to Poland with his wife to see friends. He summed up his reason for choosing the train: “It surprises me that more people don’t make the connection between the way they travel and the problems we have climate wise. Through my work I can see how the time-space continuum and distance means less and less to the younger generation.” He continued: “It is also a question of how you define luxury. To me luxury is sitting here in the dining car, having a glass of wine, moving my chair around and getting up if I want to. And to experience the landscape change intimately, having breakfast in one country, lunch in the next is a treat.”
Finishing my own glass of wine I went happily back to my cabin determined to do some writing before bedtime. Most City Nightline routes don’t offer internet access which for some may be a welcome relief, yet for others it could be a hindrance to their work. Personally it meant a couple of very productive hours without distractions. It is just something to be aware of in advance.
Standard single cabins don’t have a private toilet but there are communal ones at each end of the carriages and one shower. These were kept clean throughout both journeys, a relief as we all know what train toilets can be like. Inside the cabin there was a sink, a mirror, towels and drinking water for brushing your teeth.
The bed itself was conjured out of the wall by the train manager at a time of my choosing on one journey and one the other, shorter trip, the bed was made from the beginning. It was relatively narrow and a little hard, but for one night it was fine. You also get a real duvet and pillow. Getting used to the rocking of the train whilst lying in bed took a little while but eventually it became comforting.
A downside of being on a train bound for multiple destinations is that eventually the time will come for splitting up the carriages. On both my journeys this happened around 3am in the morning, accompanied by a few jolts. Unless you are a very heavy sleeper this will probably wake you but the train soon carries on, hopefully letting you go back to sleep.
Customs is another wild card with officers boarding the train at 6am to ask questions as we entered Switzerland. Asking the train manager what time the train splits and if customs are likely to wake you up is a good idea to minimise the scope for surprise.
Breakfast served in my cabin was basic, but did the job and as we rolled into our final destinations a it was great to know that I was already in the center of town and didn’t have to go through passport control, retrieve my luggage and catch onwards transport.
All in all I would definitely recommend trying night trains as an alternative to flying. Who knows, you might just like it!