Z.To greet the guests there was great brass band music from the Trachtenkapelle: This is how Ruhpolding and other holiday resorts in the Alps once received the first package holidaymakers from the northern parts of the country during the economic miracle years. They had had a night on rails, spartan in six-bed couchette compartments. It’s been a long time. Going on vacation by train has meanwhile gone out of fashion in the age of full motorization. Deutsche Bahn even completely stopped its night trains in 2016.
But now the train is seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to the holiday plane, the CO2 emissions on the Frankfurt – Paris route, for example, are only around 20 by train, and by plane, depending on the class, from around 100 kilograms per person. You don’t get to Malle, the Canary Islands or the Aegean by rail, but you do get to the Alps, the Adriatic Sea and many European cities. It is not only the remaining (and growing) night train connections that are interesting. Day trips with high-speed trains such as the German ICE or the French TGV are increasingly becoming alternatives to short-haul flights within Europe.
Travel times of up to four hours for several hundred kilometers only seem long at first glance. If you take the plane instead of the train, you have to plan a lot of time in addition to the length of the flight: for arrival and departure to and from the airport, in the check-in line, for security checks and not infrequently for waiting at the baggage carousel. The bottom line is often three or four hours.
Fortunately, there are railways in Europe that operate the night train business with more commitment, more investment and even profit, especially the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB). In 2016 they largely took over the sleeping and couchette cars from DB, spiced them up a bit and are now on the European road with the Nightjet. The journey to Ruhpolding has not been as spartan as it used to be: there are also sleeping car compartments with narrow but functional showers and private toilets in double-decker cars that were once on the road as the City Night Line. Night travel is “a success story,” says ÖBB boss Andreas Matthä.
For 2019 alone, ÖBB is expecting ten percent growth to over 1.5 million travelers. The trains starting and finishing at German stations are the backbone of what is on offer in the Alpine Republic. The Austrians have also ordered 13 new Nightjet trains. They are to expand the fleet from 2022 – in “ultra-modern design and with even more comfort”. There is plenty of time to sleep. It is usually around twelve hours from start to finish.
While the Nightjet mainly drives to Europe’s metropolises and is particularly suitable for city tours, two private rail operators still have their sights on classic vacationers with ADVERTISEMENT holiday destinations in the Alps and on the Adriatic. For example, the Nuremberg-based company Bahntouristikexpress continues to operate the Hamburg – Lörrach car train previously offered by DB, recently in cooperation with Flixtrain, departure at 7:50 p.m., arrival at 8:30 a.m. The holiday express of the Cologne-based company Train4you is on other routes, for example from Hamburg to Munich, Innsbruck, Villach and Verona. He also specifically targets customers who want to take their car or motorcycle with them.
The vehicle fleet consists of old wagons, bought together in Europe, with a good four decades on the axles. With the corresponding risk of failure: sometimes it is just a toilet or the washroom, then an entire car or the entire train: the Internet is full of reports of disappointed and disgruntled travelers. But there are also others who are grateful and fully satisfied about the smooth start to their vacation.
The DB is also on the road at night, without sleeper trains. It runs some ICE and IC trains, which only offer seats, but at bargain prices. The railway sees “a clear increase in demand” and registers “young, particularly price-sensitive tourists” who are not afraid to take a night trip on vacation, for example from Cologne to Berlin to Binz on Rügen. A tip when searching the Internet: switch off the “Show fastest connections” function, because these nightly connections – like classic night trains – are not the fastest: Above all, they should depart and arrive at acceptable times.
There are currently considerations at Deutsche Bahn to re-enter the night train business. Federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU) told the German press agency: “In principle, I am open to it.” However, it is unlikely that new sleeping and couchette coaches will be purchased for this because of the high investments required. Various cooperation models are under discussion, above all with the ÖBB. Closer cooperation in ticket sales or the operation of night trains is conceivable.
For holidaymakers, high-speed trains with attractive daily connections can also be a good alternative to short flights and sleeping cars: If you book them in time and avoid peak travel times, you often get to your destination quickly and often at cheaper ticket conditions. A prime example is Berlin – Munich, the fastest trains take four hours to connect. Also of interest are the TGV and ICE connections from Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Cologne / Düsseldorf to Paris and Brussels with short travel times. Even London is only six and a half hours away from Cologne via the channel tunnel, but it takes a lot of time for the British security and passport controls when changing from Thalys or ICE to the Eurostar at Brussels-Midi station. The transfer problem is similar for connecting trips in Paris: If you want to continue on the TGV towards the Atlantic or Brittany, you have to torture yourself by metro or taxi from the north or east train station to Gare Montparnasse.
Overall, there are some good options for going on vacation by train in Europe. Below is an overview, sorted by city.
Holiday connections from Berlin The ÖBB-Nightjet serves two routes: Berlin – Zurich and Berlin – Vienna, each in a good twelve-hour night journey. The former operates via Frankfurt / Main and Freiburg, ideal for holiday destinations from the Black Forest to Switzerland. The second is on an exotic route with a detour via Wroclaw, interesting for city trips. In the summer half of the year, the Swedish train company Snällaget offers the Berlin Night Express, a night train with couchette coaches to Malmö in southern Sweden – another exotic thing that rolls at night in Sassnitz on Rügen on the Baltic Sea ferry to Trelleborg. You can either sleep through the night or go shopping on the ferry and go out to eat. A comfortable Russian night train with good service runs between Moscow and Paris. It can be booked in both directions with boarding in Berlin, but only runs once a week and is sometimes blocked for travel from German train stations. There are fast ICE daily connections to Nuremberg, Munich, Düsseldorf and Cologne as well as Hamburg.
From Hamburg The Hamburg-Altona train station is the starting point for the car trains of the private operators mentioned. In the winter half-year, the ski express in the Austrian Alps is also served by the Holiday Express. The Nightjet also departs from Altona – by car to Vienna or without a car to Innsbruck and Zurich.
From Cologne / Düsseldorf The Nightjet travels to Vienna, a second train serves the Düsseldorf – Innsbruck route by car. The Holiday Express, which runs from Münster across the Ruhr area and the Rhineland, offers a seasonal connection to the ski areas in Austria, the final stop is Sankt Anton am Arlberg in Tyrol. A car train also runs from Düsseldorf to Villach (departure 7.30 p.m., arrival around 9 a.m.). The competitor Bahntouristikexpress offers winter athletes another night train from Cologne to Austria on weekends. During the day the Thalys high-speed train Cologne-Paris runs in 3 hours 22 minutes, also: Thalys and ICE to Brussels, ICE to Amsterdam.
From Leipzig Fast daily connections with ICE trains, each in about three hours to Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich.
From Frankfurt and Stuttgart Fast daily connections with TGV and ICE to Paris and Brussels, with ICE Frankfurt – Munich in just over three hours, Stuttgart – Cologne in just over two hours.
From Munich The Nightjet takes off to Milan (from 8.10 p.m., at 9.12 a.m.), Rome (13 hours) and Venice (from 11.35 p.m., at 8.24 a.m.). There are also Eurocity Night trains with sleeping and couchette coaches from the Croatian and Hungarian State Railways to Zagreb, Rijeka, Budapest. Night train connections to Düsseldorf and Hamburg.