The Nightjet: A Big Bet on Train Travelers Who Take It Slow

On a recent morning, as Venice awakened to crisp November sunshine, a group of travelers appeared on the steps of Santa Lucia Station. They stood in awe of the Grand Canal just opposite, rummaging for sunglasses in their bags.

There were couples, like Natalia Goia, 28, and Maximiliano Amestoy, 33, from Uruguay. On a tour of Europe, they had left rainy Vienna the night before, slept in a compartment with reclining seats, and were up and ready to explore Venice before most visitors had even finished their breakfasts.

“We had lots of sleep,” Ms. Goia said, sitting on the steps of the modernist railway terminal, visibly pleased with the 11-hour journey that had led them through the Austrian Alps. They swapped a night in a pricey hotel in Venice for the cheapest fare on the train, she said.

The nighttime link to Venice is among a growing number of destinations offered by ÖBB, Austria’s state-owned federal railway, under the Nightjet brand. In recent years, as operators around Europe wrote off night trains as unprofitable and shuttered services, ÖBB expanded its network, provoking questions about just how the company had managed to do it.

“Sometimes you get lucky,” said Andreas Matthä, the company’s chief executive. In 2016, when Deutsche Bahn of Germany, struggling to cut costs, decided to end night services, he said, Austria was faced with a similar dilemma: whether to invest in costly rolling stock and continue serving a niche market, or to focus on daytime connections.

ÖBB decided to jump on the opportunity, taking over Deutsche Bahn’s most lucrative routes and buying secondhand sleeping cars that, although newer than their own, had suddenly become obsolete.

Passenger numbers have doubled since Nightjet began operating in 2016, and ÖBB said it carried 1.4 million people on the service last year.

Mr. Matthä, 57, is a seasoned railway man, having climbed the ranks of the federal railway in more than three decades. To him, comfortable and unhurried travel is the main selling point of Nightjets. During an interview, his eyes lit up at a mention of the sleeping car breakfast, with two Viennese bread rolls, jam and coffee.

“It’s a common misconception that a night train must travel fast,” Mr. Matthä said. “The most important is to depart and arrive at a convenient time,” he said, adding that if the train to Venice traveled faster it would arrive at 4 in the morning.

The demise of Germany’s night services wasn’t the only factor that helped Austria’s expansion. After the climate activist Greta Thunberg sailed the Atlantic in treacherous waters just to avoid flying to a United Nations summit in New York this summer, many travelers in Europe pledged never to fly again, or at least to drop short-haul flights for trains and buses.

Others have campaigned for a Europe-wide effort to revive the Continent’s night trains as a more sustainable way to travel. Germany will raise its tax on flights to domestic and European Union destinations beginning in April, while the value-added tax on train tickets will be reduced in January. The Swedish government is exploring new nighttime connections to Continental Europe, and has pledged to provide funding for the project.

Among those traveling to Venice on a recent evening, many said their concerns about climate change had motivated them to choose the train for a weekend away. Travelers’ tickets were printed with information about the journey’s reduced carbon footprint compared with cars.

Noemi Trevisan, 22, of Padua, in Italy’s industrial north, was on her way home from Vienna.

“It’s an issue, and you want to do your part,” Ms. Trevisan said of climate change, settling into a tight compartment with four bunk beds unfolded. “In our region there are a lot of cars, a lot of pollution.”

ÖBB said it expected ridership on Nightjet to increase 10 percent by the end of this year, to 1.5 million passengers, a rise fueled by people who want to avoid flying.

Nightjet trains have a variety of accommodations, including seated coaches, youth-hostel-style couchette carriages sleeping four to six passengers at a time, sleeping cars with hotel-style key cards and fluffy bedding, and private cabins with their own miniature bathrooms. On some services, travelers can take their cars in trailers, and sleep instead of driving through the night.

Prices for a seat to Venice start at 29.90 euros ($33) one way, which is still competitive with airfares, but they quickly climb to more than €100 for a sleeper cabin shared with two others.

Lorenz Putz, 28, said he still remembered taking the train on a school trip to Rome as a teenager. The students had smuggled beer on board and didn’t sleep much. But this time he was traveling with his girlfriend, Jessica Morar, 22.

“I wouldn’t go to Bangkok by train — that would be too long,” Mr. Putz said jokingly, as they reclined comfortably in their seats, his feet up on an unoccupied seat. But for a quick trip they decided that the train was the perfect option, he said.

Despite its modern branding, the travel experience on Nightjet harks back to an era when trains with evocative names like Orient Express and Wiener Walzer crisscrossed Europe at night. But today, with stark competition from cheap flights and buses, experts say night trains need more innovation, too.

Marco Bellmann, a professor of transportation and logistics at the Technische Universität in Dresden, Germany, who has surveyed passenger trends, said he thought Nightjet needed to be more innovative.

“The concept of ÖBB is not very different from the concept of DB, which was not successful,” he said. “I think there is a lot to do.”

Mr. Bellmann said his research showed that customers now expected more privacy and comfort. Compared with the traditional bunk-bed compartments, Mr. Bellmann said, sleeping pods, like those found in airports, are a better model, with more individual space and airplane-style entertainment options.

And while small private operators run single routes and bespoke luxury services, all of the national companies, including ÖBB, rely on subsidies to maintain complex networks.

Night trains, research has shown, actually cost more to operate because they are less efficient than daytime services. Dick Dunmore was the lead author of a 2017 study into night trains by Steer Group, a consulting firm, for the European Parliament. He said the main obstacles for night trains were track access charges, low occupancy in sleeping carriages, once-a-day routes and the complexity of staffing at night.

Austria may be at the heart of Europe, but every time its trains cross the borders they run into hurdles. The Continent’s railways still run on vastly different signaling and power supplies and, in some cases, incompatible tracks. ÖBB can’t run the same engine to Italy that it does to Germany, Mr. Matthä said, gesturing toward a scale model of an engine on his desk.

Still, ÖBB is investing heavily in the future of Nightjet. Production started this year on around €375 million worth of rolling stock from Siemens, including 13 night trains with a new design featuring individual sleeping pods for solo travelers. That move will introduce the first new night trains in Europe since Caledonian Sleeper, connecting London with Scotland, rolled out new hotel-style carriages this year.

The company has high ambitions for becoming a crucial Pan-European railway provider. It already runs international passenger trains in 14 countries and cargo trains in more than 18. Beginning on Jan. 19, Nightjet will expand to twice-a-week services to Brussels, and ÖBB has plans to follow that with Amsterdam the year after.

Even if overnight train journeys make up less than 5 percent of long-distance travel, the Nightjet brand has helped the company raise its profile across Europe, Mr. Matthä said.

And in Mr. Matthä, ÖBB has a strong believer in night trains. In his office, he spoke of the joy of savoring Italian coffee straight off the train in Venice.

“Turn left,” he told a reporter at the end of a recent interview, with a hand gesture and a smile. “Espresso ristretto.”